I made a comment during the Sunday night Bears-Giants in-game chat that Hakeem Nicks is fast on his way to becoming the best wide receiver in the NFL.
That observation drew a lot of inquiry from Giants fans wanting to know specifically why I said this. Many fans also indicated that while Nicks is good, he might not be in the class of, to quote Creston in Louisville, "Andre Johnson, Vincent Jackson, Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings, Reggie Wayne, Steve Smith (CAR), Steve Smith (NYG), Miles Austin,Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco, Randy Moss, Wes Welker or Brandon Marshall".
Let's start with the case for why Nicks is a great wide receiver. What started this train of thought rolling was when Nicks posted double-digit yards per attempt (YPA) totals in eight of the 11 main metric categories I tracked in 2009. A double-digit showing in any category is a sign of superb play and that Nicks did this at multiple route depths and against varying levels of competition showed he was capable of top-level performance in pretty much any environment.
Another feather in his cap is how well he runs his routes. One of things I track during my tape breakdowns is the route the pass-catcher ran on the play. There are nearly 200 route types that can be run (if the routes for running backs and tight ends are included) and Nicks can run a very wide variety of them.
It isn't just the volume of routes that is impressive. Nicks is also very precise in his routes. For example, one of the most common route types is the hook route. This is supposed to be a nine-yard route but I cannot begin to tell you how many receivers will either go eight or 10 yards on a hook because they aren't precise enough in their route running.
This isn't the case with Nicks. His hook routes are almost always run at nine yards except in the case where coverage dictates he has to run the route shorter. This is but one case of his running textbook routes and that ability is rare and valuable.
Lastly, many of the wide receivers named above have certain limitations that would prevent them from ever vying for the No. 1 WR spot in the NFL. Welker and Marshall are primarily short pass route runners. Ochocinco and Owens both struggle against top-level competition. Steve Smith south hasn't been an elite wideout for a couple of years now and Steve Smith north is also more of a possession receiver than an all around threat. That leaves only a few top-name wideouts on the board and Nicks is fast closing in on that group. It might not happen this season, but if he keeps playing like he has the past year and change, he'll be a Pro Bowl and All-Pro candidate before long.