For unrestricted free agent middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, one big season has turned into one big payday.
The four-year veteran, who has played his entire career with the Washington Redskins and who wasn't a full-time starter until 2004, has reached a contract agreement in principle with the New York Giants. Pierce is expected to be at Giants headquarters on Thursday to sign a six-year contract that is worth $26 million and includes $6.5 million in bonus money.
It is a dramatic financial transformation for Pierce, who has been a minimum salary player throughout his NFL career, but who drew plenty of attention after his '04 breakout season.
Expected to once again be a backup and to contribute on special teams, Pierce took over the starting spot when high-profile free agent acquisition Michael Barrow suffered an injury in the preseason. Pierce never relinquished the No. 1 job, starting all 16 games and registering 110 tackles tackles, one sack, two interceptions, a pair of forced fumbles and two recoveries.
Pierce, 26, had started only 10 games in the first three seasons of his career.
The former University of Arizona star was signed by Washington as an undrafted free agent in 2001. Even before he was elevated to starter's status last fall, first-year defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had remarked to colleagues about Pierce's football awareness and intelligence. So he didn't hesitate, once Pierce moved into the lineup, to have him call the defensive schemes.
Even though he has only enjoyed one big season, league personnel men agree that Pierce is an emerging young player with a nice upside. Not particularly flashy, he makes the plays he is supposed to make between the tackles, and he has good range.
Landing Pierce, of course, is of double benefit to the Giants. Not only are they acquiring a solid player, one who should address a suspect area, but it also takes a starter away from a divisional rival.
The addition of Pierce completes a total overhaul of the New York linebacker corps in the past two years. Last spring in free agency, the Giants acquired Carlos Emmons and Barrett Green, both outside linebackers. They opened the season with Nick Greisen at middle linebacker and then subsequently went to Kevin Lewis.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.