Bark & bite: Nicks dogging competition

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.-- Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant were talking one day about wide receivers and what makes a top wideout.

The two New York Giants' veteran safeties have spent their football lives trying to shut down wide receivers so they practically know the DNA of star receivers. Some love to talk. The really good ones, though, have a bark and bite to them, according to Rolle.

"We call them dogs," Rolle said of how he and Grant describe the best in the game. "What I mean by dogs is guys who just have that relentless, hard -- mentality attitude. Who just don't care about nothing but just get me the ball and let me show you what I can do."

And as Rolle will tell anyone listening, the Giants have a "dog" in Hakeem Nicks. Lately, he has been terrorizing defenses.

Nicks is emerging to become not only the Giants' top wide receiver, but one of the best in the NFL. In only his second season, Nicks has 33 receptions for 409 yards and six touchdowns through five games.

He opened his sophomore campaign with three touchdowns against the Panthers. The following week in Indianapolis, an ankle injury limited him to two catches, which included one touchdown. But he has been on an absolute tear since.

In his past three games, Nicks has seven or more catches in each game, hauling in a robust total of 27 receptions for 296 yards and two touchdowns.

On Sunday, he shredded the Texans' defense for a career-high 12 catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns. And he could have had two more touchdowns if he hadn't dropped one on his way into the end zone and been knocked out at the 1-yard line on another catch. He finished one reception shy of the franchise record for most catches in a game, set by Tiki Barber in 2000.

"He is, what I consider, a dog," Rolle said.

The Detroit Lions, the Giants' opponent this week, might want to bring in the Dog Whisperer to figure out a way to slow Nicks.

"I feel like it is just the beginning," Nicks said. "I still feel like I have a lot more to improve on. It can't go anywhere but up from here."

That is perhaps the scariest part for defenses to digest. The 6-foot, 200-pound Nicks is only scratching the surface of what he can do.

Not only is he starting to learn what QB Eli Manning wants, how to run routes and how to deal with opposing defenses, but he has yet to even bust one of his signature long catch-and-runs.

Last season, Nicks had 47 receptions for 790 yards and six touchdowns. Three of his touchdowns came on 68, 62 and 54-yard gains. Had he not been slowed by a foot injury, Nicks might've been even better as a rookie.

The team's 2009 first-round pick is itching to explode for a touchdown of 50 yards or longer this year.

"That is what I am waiting on," Nicks said. "It's coming, it will be back."

Nicks is like a quiet storm. He is extremely humble yet very confident. Off the field, he is laid back and almost too nonchalant. Rolle calls the receiver by the nickname "Smooth."

"He's definitely Mr. Smooth," said running back Brandon Jacobs, who is close with Nicks.

As Jacobs says this, Nicks walks into the locker room, smiling and almost strutting since he walks with a confident stride.

"Look at him," Jacobs said, pointing toward Nicks. "Tell me what you think when you watch him. See that? You see how he is?"

On the field, Nicks is still smooth, catching balls in stride and making plays. But his entire demeanor changes.

"He is a monster on the field," Jacobs said. "He is a smooth, slick guy. But when he comes on the football field, he turns green and goes after it. He will go on the field and transform into this big green [monster]."

Lately, Nicks has been smashing opposing defenses. And he's done it despite dropping several balls. Earlier in the season, he had passes glance off his hands for interceptions and head coach Tom Coughlin was critical of Nicks' drops.

Nicks said he was trying to make a move before securing the ball. On a recent plane ride, Nicks told Rolle that he had to stop playing "timid" and that he needed to "let it all hang out" and stop worrying about coaches getting on him about drops or anything else.

"That was my whole mentality, don't worry about mental errors, don't worry about nothing. If I have a drop, forget about it, just play," Nicks said.

The drops never stopped Manning from throwing to Nicks, who has been targeted a team-high 50 times.

By comparison, Steve Smith has been thrown to 46 times. Smith, a Pro Bowler last season, has 28 catches for 300 yards and a touchdown this year. While Smith is still steady and will continue to get a ton of catches, it is Nicks who is emerging as the big playmaking threat the team desperately needed after Plaxico Burress' departure.

"Teams have to account for him," said Manning, who spent some time working with Nicks during the offseason. "He is making plays. He is getting better in his route running, more confident. I would assume we are going to get more two [safeties] high, more double, a safety over the top of him, should open things up for Steve."

"You never know who is going to have the hot day."

Few have been as hot as Nicks, who is tied for third in the NFL in receptions.

"I have been around the best of the best receivers," said Rolle, who was teammates with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in Arizona and played with Houston's Andre Johnson in college. "And right now, the way [Nicks] is playing, he is definitely amongst the elite."

"I think Eli is seeing that also," Rolle continued. "He understands that Hakeem is a dog and if you need a big play, we have a lot of great receivers, but right now Nicks has been the guy."

Ohm Youngmisuk covers the Giants for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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