Nicks' injury yields more opportunity

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- With Hakeem Nicks' surgically repaired broken toe elevated and resting in a walking boot, Domenik Hixon moved up to the first team and got some valuable reps with Eli Manning.

Hixon, attempting his second comeback from a torn ACL injury in as many years, caught some nice passes in the Giants' voluntary organized team activities on Wednesday. And so began life without Nicks for the next couple of months.

If there is one positive to come from Nicks' injury, it is that the Giants will get a closer look at the receivers behind him and Victor Cruz. By the time Nicks returns, perhaps in mid-August, the Giants will have a better idea about what they may have in Hixon, Ramses Barden, Jerrel Jernigan and second-round pick Rueben Randle.

"Losing Hakeem is obviously terrible but as long as he is ready to go by the season, that is what is important," wide receivers coach Kevin M. Gilbride said. "Moving forward, it is not a bad situation to have. We know what type of player Hakeem is. We need to find out about some other guys."

"The book is still open on all of these guys."

As the younger Gilbride points out, the Giants know exactly what they have with Nicks. And the hope is that Nicks should be ready by the season opener.

"I don't think so," Manning said, when asked if the team should be concerned about losing Nicks for the next few months. "We will have time. He knows what he is doing. It won't take long for us to get back on the same page."

Getting on the same page with a new third receiver is going to be more difficult.

Last year, Manning had to find someone to replace Steve Smith in a matter of weeks before the season started. Cruz emerged in Week 3 against Philadelphia.

This year, he has an entire offseason to find Mario Manningham's replacement.

Hixon is making his way back from two knee surgeries and understands the expectations surrounding him are low. But Giants coach Tom Coughlin raved about Hixon for being one of his most dependable players.

"I don't think people are looking at me at all, to be honest with you," Hixon said. "Just kind of flying under the radar, which is fine with me."

Coughlin, though, is going to be cautious with Hixon's knee. While the Giants know what the consistency Hixon brings to the table when healthy, they are less certain about Barden and Jernigan.

The 6-foot-6 Barden has tantalizing size and solid hands but has been slowed by injuries throughout his career. The 2009 third-round pick understands this is his chance to show the Giants what he can do.

Barden has displayed glimpses of what he can do, but only has 15 receptions for 174 yards in a total of 17 games. The Giants have been waiting for Barden to emerge.

"That would be great if he did," Coughlin said when asked about Barden. "It has been a little bit of inconsistency. Some days are very, very good and others are not as good. Hopefully it will all catch up with Ramses this spring and this fall."

Barden knows this is a make-or-break season for him in all likelihood.

"Contract-wise and where I have been in my career kind of dealing with injuries and some obstacles, it is definitely a big year," Barden said. "Play like I have nothing to lose."

Jernigan, last year's third-round pick, is trying to get a grasp of the offense and the playbook with the benefit of finally having an offseason training program with the team. Last year, the rookies were deprived of valuable coaching and practice time due to the lockout.

"Right now he has a ways to go to get himself back in," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "I am waiting. … You see it, it is there. There is some quickness and some speed and an ability level that you want to see show up on the field in a consistent way."

"I know, within the next few days, we got to get it out of him because he is one of the guys that has to play for us," Gilbride added. "He has got to come through. Last year Victor had to come through. JJ has to be one of those guys for us this year."

If not Jernigan, perhaps it could be Randle, the second-round pick out of LSU. The learning curve is greater for Randle than the others as he adjusts to the pro game. But already, Coughlin sees the talent in Randle.

"Naturally, he has got some things to learn about intensity, studying and preparing, and you can't come out here and make an error," Coughlin said. "He has only had a few days out here on the field. But all you have to do really is watch him catch punts and you know he is talented."

The most talented receiver on the field on Wednesday also assumed a bit of a leadership role with Nicks out. Cruz was seen providing guidance for many of the younger undrafted receivers on the roster. Just a year ago, he was in their shoes, fighting to prove himself.

Now, he's the shining example of all that is possible for the receivers on the roster hoping to become Manning's newest weapon. With Nicks recovering, the Giants will get a closer look at what they have on the roster.

"We have got a lot of talented guys, it is time to get them going," Coughlin said. "Perhaps there is another Victor Cruz in here."