Without Smith, Giants WRs see opportunity

The talk at Giants camp on Thursday was all about a player who is no longer a member of Big Blue -- Steve Smith, who stunningly spurned the Giants and signed with the Eagles on Wednesday evening.

Smith had a huge season for the Giants in 2009, with 107 catches for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns, becoming Eli Manning's go-to receiver. But he played in only nine games for the G-Men last season, before undergoing microfracture surgery to repair a serious knee injury.

The Giants hoped to re-sign Smith, but the Eagles swooped in with a better offer. And now the Giants are left hoping that a less heralded player from its current roster can step in and fill Smith's rather large shoes.

Coach Tom Coughlin did not want to anoint any particular player as the frontrunner to replace Smith on Thursday, but he sounded optimistic:

"I wouldn't say (anyone) specifically, but certainly we think there's talent here," Coughlin said. "And when given this opportunity, hopefully it will rise to the surface."

Where the Giants really need help is at the slot receiver position, where Smith excelled. Out wide they have a pair of young receivers who really came into their own last season in Hakeem Nicks (79 catches, 1,052 yards, 11 TDs) and Mario Manningham (60 catches, 944 yards, 9 TDs).

Perhaps the most intriguing candidate for the slot position is Victor Cruz, the undrafted second-year wideout out of UMass. Cruz, a Paterson, N.J. native, created quite a buzz in his rookie preseason when he caught six passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns in a Monday night game against the Jets. He made the team and appeared in three games early in the season (without a catch) before missing the rest of the season with a hamstring injury.

"I'm really comfortable (playing) inside," Cruz said on Thursday. "In college I played inside. I'm comfortable there, I understand the reads and stuff like that that comes with the inside slot position. And I think that's where I can excel."

Both general manager Jerry Reese and defensive captain Justin Tuck mentioned Cruz specifically by name on Thursday, when asked about who was having a good camp and could replace Smith.

"I feel like I'm better in a lot of ways," Cruz said. "I feel like I'm more comfortable with the offense, which makes me not think as much while I'm running routes, while I'm lining up, things like that. So it gets me to play a little bit more freely. So I feel like that's good."

Another player you'll likely see more of is Domenik Hixon, the five-year veteran who missed all of last season with a torn ACL in his knee. Hixon has been held out of every other practice so far in camp, just for precautionary reasons, but he says feels good and is ready to go.

He also a much more proven commodity than Cruz -- back in 2009, Hixon appeared in all 16 games for the Giants and started in seven of them, posting totals of 43 receptions for 596 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Hixon said Thursday that he, along with all the other Giants wide receivers, are motivated to open up people's eyes this season.

"There's definitely enough talent," Hixon said. "Each year has been something -- either a guy going down, or Plax(ico Burress) not being here, (Amani) Toomer not being here, and the receiving corps every year being questioned. We take that on as a challenge, and we're gonna step up to that challenge."

There are other candidates as well on the roster -- including this year's third-round draft pick, Jerrel Jernigan, along with team's third-round pick in 2009, Ramses Barden, who is currently on the Physically Unable to Perform list as he continues to try to recover from a serious ankle injury. Eli Manning did not sound overly concerned about Smith's departure when he addressed the media on Friday, and was asked about the team's current crop of wideouts.

"I feel great about them," Manning said. "I think our guys are playing well, they have a good feeling for what's going on. We have a lot of big-play potential with our receivers. It's just a matter of finding out what our guys do well, what's gonna be our identity, and those things can change year in and year out."

Tuck, another team leader, shares the quarterback's enthusiasm.

"Everybody (outside the team) wanted to bring in Plaxico, everybody wanted to bring in another wide receiver," Tuck said. "These guys have a chip on their shoulder. I can tell you personally, these guys, they play well with chips on their shoulders. So I'm excited and confident because of that."