The New York Giants were dealt a significant offseason blow yesterday when wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, per the team's website, fractured the fifth metatarsal of his right foot during the team's morning practice.
While the Giants are optimistic that Nicks will be back in time for the opener against the Dallas Cowboys, according to Jene Bramel over at the New York Times' Fifth Down blog, Nicks' particular injury is notoriously inconsistent when it comes to a healing timetable.
Simply put, there's more than a decent chance Nicks will miss the opener.
Last year, Nicks terrorized the Cowboys secondary to the tune of eight catches for 163 yards in their first meeting down in Dallas, followed by five catches for 76 yards and a touchdown in the season-ending rematch. The Cowboys just did not have anyone on the roster to match up with Nicks and Giants quarterback Eli Manning did an excellent job of exploiting those mismatches all over the field.
The Cowboys spent this offseason overhauling their secondary, getting rid of the well-past-his-prime Terence Newman and bringing in Brandon Carr in free agency—a major upgrade at the cornerback position.
Then, the Cowboys traded their first- and second-round picks to the St. Louis Rams to move up eight spots and draft LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, arguably the best defensive prospect in last month's draft. Claiborne, of course, is dealing with his own injury issues, having recently had pins removed from his left wrist, but the rookie seems ahead of schedule and is eyeing a June return to the football field, according to Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.
The addition of Carr and Claiborne and Nicks' possible absence makes the September 5th opener all the more intriguing.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was forced to play a lot more zone coverage than he would normally prefer last year, mostly due to the fact that his secondary was less than up to the task of sticking with receivers in man coverage. With Carr and Claiborne presumably lining up outside, look for Ryan to leave them in isolated man coverage more in general and against the Giants in particular.
Now, we've seen Carr's ability to win in man but have yet to see Claiborne do so at the NFL level. In fact, LSU tended to use a liberal amount of Cover 2 and 4 during Claiborne's time there. But, as my colleague Alen Dumonjic points out, Claiborne certainly showed some elite man cover ability when the Tigers occasionally went to their Cover 1, or "Man-Free."
As Dumonjic writes:
Claiborne will be playing in a lot of deep zone coverage, serving as a deep third defender in the Cover 3 concept that Ryan uses behind his zone blitzes while also playing in a lot of man coverage in Cover 1 (Man-Free). Both coverage concepts play to the strength of Claiborne as he is able to attack the ball downhill aggressively in Cover 3 while being physical and utilizing quality technique in Cover 1 (Man-Free).
I tend to think Ryan will be utilizing much more man than zone behind his blitzes this year due to the talent on hand, but that's complete guess work on my part. What does seem apparent is that the presence of Carr and Claiborne should help him dictate things in a way he was unable to last year when these two teams met.
Who will win the season opener?
Now, the Giants are obviously not about to sputter on offense just because of the potential loss of Nicks. They have a promising rookie talent in Rueben Randle, not to mention Ramses Barden and Domenik Hixon at the position, all of whom could step up and help fill the void.
But Nicks in particular was a big problem for the Cowboys last year. His absence, coupled with what looks like big improvements in the Dallas secondary, could quite possibly tilt the opening game in the Cowboys' favor.