When the Giants started plucking defensive linemen from the free-agent market this winter, signing Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard to fortify their inside presence, Alford couldn't make sense of the moves. The team had two players returning to that position in Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins - although both were coming off knee surgeries - and they had been grooming Alford for a spot on the line since drafting him in the third round in 2007.
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"I was like, 'Man, what are they doing? Are they trying to move things around? Are they trying to get rid of me?' " he said Sunday.
The Giants didn't dump Alford. Instead, they kept him to become a member of what will be (when healthy) the deepest defensive line rotation in the NFL. And the one who has stood out the most in training camp is the one who seemed to be the odd man out in March: Alford.
"I took it as motivation for me," he said. "If they signed them, then I'm going to show that I'm a good football player and I can play this game."
He's done that, playing with the starters in every practice and slipping past the Giants' starting offensive line with pleasing (or alarming) regularity. With Bernard on the non-football injury list with a sore hamstring, Cofield practicing once a day as part of his post-surgical recovery, and Canty suddenly nursing a sore hamstring, Alford has been the cornerstone of the interior defense.
"I thought they were just going to use me in nickel situations and passing situations," Alford said. "But you know, you just have to roll with the punches, and it's working out so far."
Alford spent the offseason not only working out with Osi Umenyiora, but also picking his brain about being a better football player and sticking around in the league. He also picked up a few moves from Umenyiora and is translating those defensive end maneuvers to his tackle position.
"I think I'm better at playing the run and then transferring that to pass," Alford said. "Because of play-action pass, I feel as though I can get my pass-rushing move on and get to the quarterback as soon as I can."
People are noticing.
"I feel like I had my biggest jump between year two and three and I'm seeing the same thing out of Jay," Cofield said. "He's learning how to play, he's getting a chance to play against an All-Pro type guy like [guard Chris] Snee. He's getting in some good work and is getting better every day."
Tuck agreed. "Jay has probably made the biggest improvement on our D-line," he said. "You can tell he's really focused and developed his skills to a T this offseason. It's paying off for him right now. He's had an awesome camp."
Awesome enough to keep him on the field when Canty, Robbins and Bernard return to action? Who knows. But Alford certainly is no longer the overlooked lineman, the seventh guy you can never think of when people talk about the Giants' seven starting-caliber players up there.
"I do think that I'm performing to a level where I think I can get a lot more playing time," Alford said.
All the Giants had to do for him to get there was sign a few other guys to take his job.
Notes & quotes: The Giants had 10 players on the sideline at one point in Sunday's practice: CB Corey Webster (hip flexor); CB Aaron Ross (right leg); WR Steve Smith (knee); WR Hakeem Nicks (hamstring); Canty (hamstring); C Shaun O'Hara (triceps); OL Kevin Boothe (pectoral); OL Cliff Louis (ankle); QB David Carr (triceps) and S Sha'reff Rashad (hamstring). That doesn't include LB Michael Boley (PUP, hip) and Bernard (NFI, hamstring). Robbins (knee) did come off the PUP list and did individual drills and could participate in team drills today. WR David Tyree (groin) and G Rich Seubert (shoulder) also returned to practice.