Dillard will compete for Pierce's job

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Finally, on the third day, the Giants took a linebacker. In fact, they took two.

After passing over linebackers in the first three rounds -- and for two days -- the Giants at long last addressed their biggest need by drafting Nebraska middle linebacker Phillip Dillard in the fourth round with the 115th selection.

And after selecting their first and only offensive player of the draft -- Arkansas guard Mitch Petrus in the fifth round -- general manager Jerry Reese drafted William & Mary's Adrian Tracy, a defensive end who will play outside linebacker, in the sixth round. The Giants completed their draft with another need pick, taking East Carolina punter Matt Dodge with starter Jeff Feagles considering retirement as early as this coming week.

The biggest catch, though, in Day 3 was Dillard, a candidate to replace Antonio Pierce at middle linebacker.

"He's rangy, he is smart, he can play in coverage," Reese said of Dillard, a 6-foot fifth-year senior out of Nebraska. "He is 245 pounds. We are going to put him in there and give him a chance with the rest of those guys. He is going to have to earn the job.

"We have some unproven guys, so we are going to throw them in there and see who gives us the best shot to win games. I think he can really be a smart, tough inside linebacker that we have been looking for. We'll see."

In going with South Florida defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, East Carolina defensive tackle Linval Joseph and LSU safety Chad Jones in the first three rounds, the Giants went for value over need. However, the Giants had a strong debate on whether to take Dillard over Jones in the third round on Friday. Ultimately, they thought Jones would not be there in the fourth, whereas Dillard would be -- and they were relieved when he was there on Saturday.

The Giants passed on other middle linebackers rated higher by draft pundits. They also watched the Jaguars acquire middle linebacker Kirk Morrison, the tackling machine from the Raiders, for a fourth-round pick that was eight slots before they took Dillard.

Dillard, 23, has been described as an instinctive, tough linebacker who persevered through injuries and the loss of his mother. Dillard tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the 2006 season opener and was a medical redshirt that year. He also sat out the last four games of the 2008 season with an ankle injury.
The following January, his mother, Martha, died after a long bout with heart problems. Dillard clashed with the coaching staff under Bo Pelini and fell to fourth on the depth chart at middle linebacker in the spring practice during his fifth year.

"I told her I was going to do something that would honor the family, that I'd stay out of trouble and do the right thing," Dillard said of a promise to his mother. "All I had to do was work, not complain and not moan, knock the attitude, show great character, be happy and not be a cancer in the locker room. But I had to work through it and I had to be a man. I had to 'man up.'"

Dillard sat out the team's first two games but earned his way back into the lineup. He started nine games, including the final eight at weakside outside linebacker, although the Giants say he played mostly at middle linebacker and made the defensive calls for the Cornhuskers. He recorded 83 tackles playing alongside Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh, the defensive tackle who was taken second overall on Thursday night.

Now Dillard is hoping to start behind a defensive line featuring Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka.

"I know that [Pierce] left and I know the Giants are a good fit for me," Dillard said.

The Giants believe the 6-3, 307-pound Petrus will fit in well. He is strong and versatile and was often described by the Giants as being nasty. Petrus, who tied the combine record for most bench presses with 45, walked on at Arkansas and has played tight end, fullback and special teams. He helped block for a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in 2006 but was ruled academically ineligible in 2008. Last year, he was an All-SEC selection and allowed no sacks on 439 pass plays.

"We think that the guard can go in and compete right away because he has a vicious nature about him," Reese said.

The 6-2, 248-pound Tracy recorded 22 sacks in his last two seasons as a defensive end. Tracy, who walked on at William & Mary, is considered an intelligent player who proved he can play at outside linebacker in all-star games and workouts.

But the guy who the Giants may really need to pan out is Dillard, who could not contain his enthusiasm for becoming a Giant and having a shot to replace Pierce.

"The Giants organization is great," Dillard said. "All you hear is good things about how they take care of their players and they respect the players. I'm stuttering right now [due to excitement] and I never stutter."

Ohm Youngmisuk covers the Giants for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.