There were a lot of reactions to my blog post last week that said Hakeem Nicks could be on his way to becoming the best wide receiver in the NFL.
Among them, many Big Blue backers argued that Steve Smith, not Nicks, is the Giants' No. 1 wideout.
It is certainly true that Smith is a top-flight workhorse pass-catcher. In 2009, he was easily one of the most targeted wide receivers both on short passes (90 targets, ranked third in the league) and overall (152 targets, tied with Brandon Marshall for fifth in the league). That kind of endurance is rare and makes Smith one of the most valuable receivers in the NFL.
The issue is that, besides pass volume, in the past two seasons Nicks has beaten Smith in pretty much every other statistical category.
Let's start with the 2009 numbers to illustrate this. One of, if not the, most important productivity category for wide receivers is yards per attempt (YPA). What makes this metric important is that it takes the volume of yardage (both receiving and penalty yards) and places it into an attempt-based context. This helps illustrate just how productive a pass-catcher is overall, rather than just in a volume-based statistical context.
Nicks posted a 10.9 YPA last year, which tied him with Sidney Rice for fifth-best in the league. Smith notched an 8.3, which tied him for 37th in the league.
And it wasn't just overall YPA where Nicks was better. Take a look at how the two receivers fared in the route depth submetric categories:
Short pass (aerials thrown 1-10 yards downfield): Nicks 7.6, Smith 6.7.
Medium pass (11-19 yards): Nicks 16.1 (best in the league), Smith 9.2.
Deep pass (20-29 yards): Nicks 12.5, Smith 8.3.
Bomb pass (30+ yards): Nicks 12.8, Smith 19.4.
Vertical passes (medium, deep and bomb combined totals): Nicks 15.1 (fifth-best in the league), Smith 10.6.
Naysayers will point out that Smith posted his numbers with a much larger volume of passes (Nicks had 73 targets last year), but it is also worth noting that Nicks racked up his totals while battling injuries.
Another retort would be that the trend in last year's route depth totals has continued so far this year, despite the relative equality in pass targets (Nicks 47, Smith 43).
Short: Nicks 6.8, Smith 6.1.
Medium: Nicks 7.4, Smith 7.6.
Deep: Nicks 21.5, Smith 16.5.
Bomb: Nicks 14.3, Smith 0.0.
Vertical: Nicks 11.0, Smith 8.9.
All passes: Nicks 8.8, Smith 7.2.
Nicks is also being thrown to vertically more often than Smith this year (23 vertical targets for Nicks, versus 14 for Smith), and that indicates the Giants' braintrust sees him as the more dangerous deep threat.
None of this is meant to knock Smith. He has elite possession-receiver skills and combines them with a fairly strong vertical presence. Those make him one of the best wide receivers around. But, when all the factors are reviewed, he has to take a back seat to Nicks for the No. 1 spot on the Giants' roster.