For the second straight year, Eli Manning will have to find a new third wide receiver.
Last year, Steve Smith left a void in the offense that many wondered if the Giants would be able to fill. Then Victor Cruz emerged and the Giants had perhaps the best trio of receivers in the league. Now Mario Manningham is gone after signing with the San Francisco 49ers late Saturday night. (Here is the updated list of Giants free agents).
Manningham finished last season with 39 receptions for 523 yards and four touchdowns in 12 regular-season games. He could frustrate by dropping balls or at times lacking awareness near the sidelines or out of bounds lines. But he also was capable of making very difficult catches like his sensational 38-yard fourth-quarter catch that set up the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots. He also had three touchdowns -- including one against the Niners -- in the postseason and gave Manning a big threat when defenses try to take away Hakeem Nicks and Cruz.
So, what will the Giants do now? They could wait and see what emerges as free agency progresses. Perhaps they can get a veteran on the cheap. ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter reported that Smith, the former Giant, underwent a physical for the Rams last week. But there hasn't been any word yet on a signing.
If the Giants don't sign a veteran receiver, there's a chance they could draft a receiver. I still think the Giants will go best player available with their early picks in the draft but ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper did offer up one receiver that could be a best player available candidate if he drops to 32 when the Giants draft -- Baylor wide receiver Kendall Wright.
But the Giants could very well go the same route they did last year when GM Jerry Reese said Smith's departure would create opportunity to develop one of their own receivers. They went into training camp giving their third receiver reps to Domenik Hixon and Cruz and they started the season using Hixon but he tore his ACL for a second straight season in the second game of the year. They signed Brandon Stokley but he got hurt. Cruz took over and the rest is history.
In February, Reese and head coach Tom Coughlin talked about how last year's third-round pick, Jerrel Jernigan, will potentially be asked to step up this season. There's also the 2009 third-round pick, Ramses Barden. The 6-6 Barden has tantalizing potential and has shown a few glimpses but hasn't gotten an opportunity yet due to injuries or the receivers ahead of him. And the Giants re-signed Hixon, who made that spectacular touchdown catch against the Rams but also tore his ACL on that play as well. He's easily the most experienced receiver of the three but the Giants may bring him along slowly again in camp to be cautious with his knee.
One thing that benefits the Giants is that they will have a full offseason to develop a third receiver. Remember, last year due to the lockout, Manning only had training camp to develop a chemistry with a third receiver. Fortunately, he and Cruz did workout together at Hoboken High School during the lockout on their own with a handful of other players.
Here's a look at the stats for Jernigan, Barden and Hixon for their careers and tell us who you want to see as the Giants' third receiver next season below.
JERREL JERNIGAN: Played in eight games his rookie season in 2011 but had no catches. Saw playing time as a returner on special teams. Excelled as a slot receiver at Troy, where he 71 or more receptions in each of his last three seasons there.
RAMSES BARDEN: Has 15 receptions for 174 yards in 17 games over his three-year career. Had a career-high nine receptions for 94 yards last season in eight games, including three catches for 38 yards against the Saints last season. He's a big target and has shown in small flashes that he has capable hands.
DOMENIK HIXON: He has 63 receptions for 838 yards and four touchdowns in four years as a Giant. In 2008, he had 43 catches for 596 yards and two touchdowns while starting seven games. Hixon had four catches for 50 yards and a touchdown in his first two games last season before suffering his season-ending knee injury.