I want to be careful about making too much of a thing of the lingering foot and knee injuries that will keep New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks out of a third straight game Sunday. I expect Nicks to recover and play excellent football for the Giants at some point this year, and I believe the Giants have proven that they can cover for injuries as well as any team in the league. I do not think he nor they are doomed.
However, Nicks' stubborn inability to get healthy has raised questions from my regular readers and Twitter followers about what the Giants are or should be thinking about their future at wide receiver. Nicks' contract runs through 2013, at which time he would be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. The Giants' other star wide receiver, Victor Cruz, is eligible for restricted free agency at the end of this season. The Giants could control Cruz with a franchise tag if they chose to, but that's insanely expensive and doesn't address the long-term issue at hand.
And that issue is this: Can the Giants realistically expect to keep both Nicks and Cruz long-term? And if not, which should they pick?
If you read me regularly, you know I believe Nicks is the better player. He has the size, the hands, the skills, the makeup and the work ethic to be one of the best all-around wideouts in the game, and there have been games and stretches during his career in which he has played as such. The last time he played, in Week 2's victory over Tampa Bay, he had 199 receiving yards on 10 catches and was NFC Offensive Player of the Week. He's a craftsman who's constantly, obsessively working to get better at every aspect of the position, and he's exactly the kind of player in whom you'd feel comfortable investing long-term.
Except, of course, for this little matter of the injuries. Nicks is no stranger to leg problems. He missed two games in his rookie season, three in his second season and one last year, and this year's count is already up to three. He also missed training camp this season due to the foot bone he broke in spring practice. No matter how highly you think of him (and I do think quite highly of him), this is his fourth year and he's had injuries in all four that have cost him games. That stuff matters when assessing a player's value.
Cruz had to miss the bulk of the 2010 season with a hamstring injury. But he has been healthy since then, and had the Giants known at the time what they had in him, they might have tried to keep him out only a couple of weeks rather than putting him on injured reserve that October. Cruz was third in the NFL in receiving yards last season, and so far this year he's tied for the league lead in receptions and sixth in receiving yards. He is an excellent player who connects with quarterback Eli Manning, fits the Giants' system perfectly and is, like his friend and teammate Nicks, a hard worker with a strong makeup in whom a team would have no qualms about investing long-term.
In an ideal, salary-cap-free world, the Giants would surely like to keep both of them. Manning has spoken about how great it is to have two star wide receivers who are unselfish and team-oriented, and if they broke up this duo there's no guarantee they'd find a replacement who'd fit as perfectly. But there is a cap, and that means teams must make tough choices. And the Giants may find themselves having to choose between their star wideouts.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, a star in his third season, is the player whose contract gets most commonly mentioned when Cruz's situation is brought up. The Steelers gave Brown a five-year, $42.5 million extension (with an $8.5 million signing bonus) this offseason. The Steelers have a similar situation, as they have another star wideout in Mike Wallace who held out this offseason and wants a long-term deal. Remains to be seen whether they'll give it to him or if the Brown deal indicates they've already made a different choice.
If the Giants were to lock up Cruz this season or this coming offseason, it likely would take a deal similar to Brown's. And that might price them out of the Nicks market at the end of the 2013 season. But if Nicks is going to continue missing games with injuries every season, his price might go down, or the Giants might decide the injury questions are enough to warrant making the tough decision in Cruz's favor. If they had to make the call this week (which they obviously don't), my guess is they'd probably pick Cruz, whose health seems more reliable. That may not be fair, and it's more than possible that Nicks will be the better player and long-term investment. But as his injuries linger, the effect they're sure to have on the way the team perceives him and his future in New York cannot be ignored.