Hakeem Nicks remains a mystery

New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks was supposed to be great this year. He used to be great, and with free agency looming at the end of the season, his hope is to be paid like a great wide receiver. He didn't negotiate a new deal with the Giants in the offseason because he was injured and not great last year, and he and they thought he could go out this year, be great again and then they could talk about what he meant by No. 1 wide receiver money.

Thing is, though, Nicks has not been great. He's been healthy enough to play every game, and he's Eli Manning's second-most targeted receiver behind Victor Cruz (and not that far behind), but he hasn't been productive. He's on pace for a 62-catch, 1,074-yard season, which is fine but certainly not great, and he has yet to catch a touchdown pass. Should have caught one Monday night, but he dropped it, as he did two other passes. The Giants are scratching their collective organizational head.

"I'm sure Hakeem would be the first one to tell you that there were a couple of those balls he should have caught," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Tuesday.

He would, of course. Nicks is accountable and responsible and believes he can and will play better than he has. But with the Giants sitting at 1-6, the trade deadline six days away, Rueben Randle making the plays Nicks isn't making and everyone aware that Nicks is a free agent at the end of the year, there's been more talk lately about whether the Giants will trade him away for a draft pick than whether he can turn around his season in New York.

I don't see it. Nicks' reputation is one thing, and it's well earned. But right now he doesn't look like the player he used to be. The drops are one thing, but the bigger concern is that he can't get any separation at all from defenders, and it appears to be because his legs are shot from all of the injuries of the past couple of years. Do the legs come back? Hard to say. He's only 25 years old, so he's not done by any means. But the way he's playing right now makes it difficult to have success or to make big plays. He has to out-fight defenders constantly if he's to succeed, because he's not able to get open. He's strong enough and a good enough technician to win those fights, but that's no way to make a living. And it's certainly no way to convince your team to give you a big contract or some other team to trade a high draft pick for you.

The Giants haven't closed the door on trading Nicks, but they're not eager or likely to do it because they haven't given up on either their season or the idea of keeping Nicks long term. Manning loves him. The coaching staff loves him. Cruz loves him. He's been a champion and a star and a hard worker, and he's the kind of guy the Giants would like to have in their long-term plans. The problem is, the production isn't matching everyone's opinion of him, and that leaves Nicks in a gray area. The Giants aren't going to trade him just to trade him -- they'd have to get something of value, an early-round pick. Otherwise it makes sense just to keep him and see what the contract demands look like at the end of the year, when losing him might even net them a compensatory 2015 pick. If he keeps playing like this -- okay-but-not-great -- they might be able to get a decent free-agent deal on him next offseason and hope the legs look better next year and net them a bargain.

What we know is that Manning keeps throwing him the ball -- 10 targets in Monday night's game, more than anyone on the team -- but that for some reason those throws aren't resulting in the kind of production of which Nicks and the Giants consider him capable. You could look at that and assume it will change, since these things seem to seek their own level. You could look at it and believe Nicks' best days are behind him and the Giants should move on. But whatever conclusion you reach about Nicks now will come with a significant helping of doubt. Watching him and examining his situation, it's hard to feel as if you know anything for sure.