Eli Manning knows he has it pretty good. The New York Giants quarterback won his second Super Bowl title (and MVP award) last year with the help of two star wide receivers who bring none of the diva element often associated with star wide receivers. Manning is aware of this, and said last year in training camp that he considers himself "very fortunate" that Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are as humble and hardworking as they are talented. Undoubtedly, Nicks' health issues were a significant reason for the drop-off in the Giants' passing game in 2012. The Giants are at their best when Nicks and Cruz are both on the field and at full strength. And when the Giants are at their best, they win the Super Bowl.
But trouble looms for this arrangement. Nothing is forever in the NFL's salary-cap era, and the Giants may end up having to decide which of their star wide receivers they keep long-term and which gets sent on his way. Cruz is a restricted free agent this year. Nicks' contract has one year left on it. It's time for the Giants to figure out whether they can legitimately keep both, and if they can't, which one is more important to them.
On Super Bowl Sunday, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the Giants are more focused right now on signing Nicks to a long-term deal than Cruz. This was something of a surprise, since we've been hearing about the Cruz negotiations for months now, and he's the one whose deal is actually up. My first thought was that a story like that could give the Giants ammunition in their negotiations with Cruz, possibly persuading the player to move closer to the team's number out of concern that they'll turn elsewhere. But even if you look only at the face value of the story, it's really not a crazy idea for the Giants to pick Nicks over Cruz.
Yes, Cruz is the one with the flashier numbers over the past couple of years. No one is arguing his accomplishments. He has 168 catches for 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns -- numbers that rank among the very best in the NFL for wide receivers. Over the same time period, Nicks has 129 catches for 1,884 yards and 10 touchdowns and has missed four games due to injury. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Give Cruz what he wants and tell the banged-up Nicks he has to take less until he proves he can stay healthy.
But I'm not so sure the Giants think the same way, and honestly I'm not so sure they should. Owner Jerry Reese loves to cite numbers and tell you they can be replaced, and I'm sure that it has come up in negotiations with Cruz's agent that Steve Smith caught 107 passes for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns in 2009 in the same slot receiver role Cruz plays now, with the same quarterback throwing to him.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Cruz isn't better than Smith. I'm saying that, in the Giants' minds, it may make sense to think that, if Cruz left, Manning could make a star out of whoever they got to replace him. When the Giants tried to play Cruz on the outside more in 2012, it didn't work out too well. When opposing defenses started getting physical with Cruz in midseason, his productivity dipped. He worked to overcome it, but by late in the season the Giants were clearly trying to keep Cruz in the slot as much as possible, to the point where they were using unready rookie Rueben Randle on the outside in some formations. It's entirely possible the Giants could reach the conclusion that the undrafted Cruz, while a tremendous NFL success story, is at his best a great slot receiver and not worthy of No. 1-receiver money.
Nicks, on the other hand, is a first-round draft pick who fits the No. 1-receiver profile perfectly. He's big and physical. He has great hands. He's a technician and a film-room junkie who can master any route. He can outjump and outfight defenders for the ball, over the middle or downfield. He spots the ball in traffic before anyone else does. He has those famously massive hands. It's entirely possible the Giants look at Nicks and see the potential for so much more than Cruz can bring in terms of production in the role of the traditional No. 1 wideout. He's shown it. The only drawback with Nicks is that he hasn't shown an ability to stay healthy. This matters, and should factor into the decision, but the Giants could reasonably decide to bet on his vast potential and the chance that he doesn't remain injury-prone for the rest of his career.
There are other factors at work, of course, and the biggest is money. The Giants might be able to get Nicks right now for less than what No. 1 receivers get on the open market because he's not a free agent and he's coming off an injury season. They have the ability, per the rules, to dawdle with Cruz, since they can tender him as a restricted free agent and put off the long-term decision until next year. In their ideal world, they keep both at their price. But don't be surprised if the price they've picked for Cruz is a lot cheaper than the one to which they're willing to go for Nicks. After the way those two played this year, that might not make the most sense to you as a fan. But it's not crazy to think it makes sense to the Giants.