New York Giant Mathias Kiwanuka Stares Down a Once-in-a-Career Opportunity
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When a first-round pick lasts eight seasons with the team that originally drafted him, normally that player is widely regarded as one of that franchise's most valuable talents.
That hasn't exactly been the case for New York Giant Mathias Kiwanuka, who was drafted out of Boston College as a defensive end in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft (31st overall pick). His unequaled versatility, a trait that most likely led to him being drafted by New York, has been the main factor inhibiting him from reaching stardom as a professional.
Over his career, Kiwanuka has accumulated a journeyman's experience, despite the fact that he's always called New York home.
Kiwanuka recorded four sacks as a rookie, more than recent sack-masters Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck had in each of their rookie seasons combined; and just a half-sack less than recent prodigy Jason Pierre-Paul collected during his rookie campaign. He also added two forced fumbles, two interceptions and four pass defenses, rounding out a stellar first season as a defensive end.
Still, Kiwanuka's rookie year was marred by embarrassment more than anything else. Of the 16 games he played in that season, he was best remembered for a single play against the Tennessee Titans in Week 12, when he set free first-year quarterback Vince Young just a moment too soon. Kiwanuka's naïve mishap opened the door for Young to complete a fourth-quarter comeback victory en-route to a Rookie of the Year honor. Although productive, Kiwanuka wasn't in consideration for any such distinction in 2006.
The following season was the first in which the Giants began to experiment with Kiwanuka's versatility. He played linebacker almost exclusively, displaying a selflessness to fill in wherever the team needed him most. At times Kiwanuka was a fish out of water at his new position, but his stout run defense helped guide the 2007 Giants to a single-season NFL-record 11 straight victories on the road, including an unlikely Super Bowl XLII victory over the New England Patriots in Glendale, Arizona.
"Yeah, I like [playing linebacker]," Kiwanuka told Ralph Vacchiano of the Daily News in 2010. "Just put me on the field. I'll make a play. That's how I look at it. I've said from the beginning, whatever this defense needs me to do, I'm willing to do it."
When Umenyiora, the starting right defensive end on the Super Bowl squad, was lost for the entire 2008 season, fans called for Strahan to come back from retirement. Few anticipated Kiwanuka's second positional shift in as many years, and no one expected the 25-year-old to replicate the pass-rushing prowess that earned Umenyiora a trip to the Pro Bowl the year before.
But Kiwanuka came to the rescue, starting every game that season at right defensive end and logging eight sacks as the 12-win Giants featured the league's fifth-best defense.
Kiwanuka earned the right to stay at defensive end for the 2009 season, as he swapped his old No. 97 jersey for a newer No. 94 one, the jersey number he wore as a true defensive end in college. It looked like a fresh start was on the horizon for Kiwanuka, known simply as "Kiwi" among Giants fans.
Although he saw time in all 16 games of the '09 season, the defensive end had a relatively quiet year, recording just three sacks while a healthy Umenyiora reasserted himself into the starting role. Kiwanuka found out that becoming a reserve can be just as difficult as transitioning to a new position (h/t Newsday):
It's tough...I'm not going to lie about it. It's not the position I want to be in. But you just have to roll with the punches and be able to go out there and perform and do your best and know that something good is going to come out of it.
Determined to spend more time on the field than the bench, Kiwanuka returned with a vengeance to start the 2010 season. In just three games, he recorded four sacks and a forced fumble; Kiwanuka was on pace to have his best season as a professional. The success was short lived, however, as the former first-rounder was forced to sit out the remainder of the season after suffering a herniated disc in his neck against the Titans in Week 3.
Poor luck seemed to follow Kiwanuka whenever he suited up against that AFC South squad from Nashville, Tennessee.
With his future uncertain, Kiwanuka was happy to re-sign with the Giants the following offseason, a two-year deal to the tune of $8.6 million. Eager to prove himself yet again, Kiwanuka reassumed the strong-side linebacker role. With an added dose of confidence during his second go-around at the position, Kiwanuka started every game but one, amassing a career-high in tackles as the Giants claimed yet another league title.
For his heroic efforts, Kiwi was rewarded with a three-year contract extension that was to earn him an additional $16.5 million through the 2015 season. The selflessness that Kiwanuka demonstrated throughout his career was now paying off for him in the form of cold, hard cash. Even Umenyiora, who was in search of a new contract of his own at the time, praised the organization's decision to lock up his teammate.
"Well, I can say I'm happy for Kiwi, that's for sure," Umenyiora wrote in an email (h/t The Star-Ledger). "He deserves it, after all he has been through. It's a good move by [the Giants]."
Much like the drop-off in production he experienced in 2009, Kiwanuka had another lackluster season in 2012, this time as a linebacker. While the Giants fielded one of the league's worst defenses in terms of yards allowed last season, Kiwanuka saw his role begin to diminish. He started just five games, rarely making an impact when he wasn't playing on the line. His team won only nine games and missed the playoffs, capping off a disappointing run as defending champs.
Will Mathias Kiwanuka have his best season as a Giant in 2013?
Yet nothing had changed about Kiwanuka's team-first attitude. Less than a month after the 2012 season had come to a close, the Giants restructured Kiwanuka's contract, saving the team about $1 million in salary cap space.
"What other guy in the league does what he does?" long snapper Zak DeOssie rhetorically asked in 2011 (h/t The Star-Ledger). "To go from D-line in his rookie year, to linebacker, back to D-line, overcoming an injury, coming back and signing a deal not knowing what he's going to do, and to come back and play linebacker is amazing. His knowledge of the game must be phenomenal. It's just impressive what he can do."
Over the past seven seasons, Kiwanuka has given the Giants franchise everything he has got, contributing in a usually thankless role.
For Kiwi, 2013 will be the season that the Giants finally start to give back.
With Umenyiora now in Atlanta and Pierre-Paul recovering from back surgery, Kiwanuka will be the team's starting right defensive end throughout training camp. It's an opportunity for the 30-year-old to show that he still has what it takes to make an impact at his natural position.
After countless camps in which the 6-5, 267-pound Kiwanuka appeared to be on the verge of a breakout season, the seven-year vet could finally be on the cusp of capturing that elusive all-star-caliber campaign in 2013.
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