It was a sudden emergence. After recording 7.5 sacks and just 54 tackles in his first four years combined as a pro, Calvin Pace totaled 6.5 sacks last season and paced the Arizona Cardinals with a career-high 96 tackles.
"What happened to me was a scheme just happened to come along that fit me better and I'm very blessed for that," Pace told the New York Jets media on a conference call this afternoon. "I am where I am today because of that."
After 10 teams inquired about his services, the 6'4", 270-pound Pace narrowed his choices to the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets.
"It came down to the 11th hour. In the long run I felt like the Jets were a better place for me," he said of his first free agency process. "I saw where they were trying to go with things and the class of the organization. I was extremely happy about the signing."
The Jets run a 3-4 defensive front as did the Cardinals during his breakout season. Before 2007, Pace — the No. 18 overall selection in the 2003 draft — had appeared in 51 games and made 22 starts. His 2005 campaign was cut short after five games when he suffered an arm laceration while falling out of a window at home.
"When I was playing in a 4-3 in Arizona, I had to play against Walter Jones, I had to play against Orlando Pace, and at times it's hard," he said when asked if he's a late bloomer. "But it's easier when you try to work some matchups and give them different looks. Definitely your chances are a lot better."
In college Pace was best known for his ability to get to the quarterback. He finished second on Wake Forest's all-time list with 29 sacks.
Pace started all 16 games his NFL rookie campaign, then started only six games over the next three seasons before reclaiming a regular position in the lineup when Chike Okeafor was injured in the '07 preseason. He once again excelled as a rusher and also felt comfortable dropping in coverage.
"I had a lot of experience. Sometimes I was asked to drop off to a No. 2 receiver and sometimes I was asked to guard a tight end like a Kellen Winslow," he said. "Really, what I did last year was game-plan and sometimes it was just dropping over the middle, but they were all things I could do well. They weren't asking me to go out and cover a No. 1 receiver like a Chad Johnson."
Nor will the Jets. They targeted Pace and used an organizational effort to make sure he signed on board.
"I was extremely impressed by the team's passion and conviction for this player and how he could help them win," said Pat Dye Jr., Pace's agent. "They felt like his best football was ahead of him. I was extremely impressed by what I would call the proactivity by Mike Tannenbaum and Coach Mangini. The owner actually called me as well — Woody Johnson — I guess it was on Saturday while Calvin was finishing up his visit with the Dolphins."
Shortly after, Johnson made his helicopter available in the cause, allowing Pace to get a bird's-eye view of the Jets' new training facility being built in New Jersey.
The Cards never became a player in the talks. They liked Pace's progress but have salary cap issues and wouldn't have been able to come close to the number the Jets reportedly offered.
Although Dye said he hasn't had a lot of dealing with Tannenbaum, he credited the Jets for the way they dealt with former Jets DB Jamie Henderson. Months after Henderson suffered a devastating motorcycle accident in 2004, the Green & White signed him to a two-year deal even though he never played another down. Dye said Henderson, a University of Georgia alum, is doing well now and still has dreams about returning to football.
"When Mike Tannenbaum told me about it, that says a lot about the organization and their class," said Pace, who, like Henderson, grew up in Georgia.
Pace has found his niche, lining up as an OLB in the 3-4. And now he's found a new home, inking a multiyear deal with the Jets.
"My goal is go out there and play for this team and do my part," he said. "I am not going to sit here and make any predictions about what I'm going to do and how strong I'm going to make the team. I'm just one guy. I'm not the savior."