Just when you think you've drawn a bead on the New York Giants receivers, they tend to throw you a curveball.
Former North Carolina Tar Heel Hakeem Nicks was undoubtedly acquired by the Giants with full intentions of him becoming Manning's top target, as the franchise impetuously spent a first-round draft pick in 2009 (29th overall) to tie up the freakishly large-handed receiver with Big Blue. Since 2010, his second season as a professional, Nicks has easily been the Giants' biggest game-changing receiver.
All that Nicks has accomplished thus far in his NFL career he has done, quite remarkably, without prototypical "X-receiver" size. It's hardly noticeable, though; even teammate Victor Cruz is easily fooled by Nicks' deceptive stature.
"I was like, 'You're not that tall, are you?' [Nicks] said, 'No, man, I just play big,'" Cruz told Mike Garafolo of the Star-Ledger in November of 2011, explaining how Nicks has a tendency to inexplicably grow a few inches on the field. "It's crazy, when I see him on the field, he looks 6-4. But outside, I'm telling him, 'You're only about 6-2, aren't you?'"
The Giants roster officially lists Nicks as 6'1".
But, with Nicks, there's always been a caveat: his unreliable health. When at full strength—like during the 2011 playoffs, when he averaged seven catches, 111 yards and a touchdown over four games—Nicks appears to be capable of anything and everything.
However, the prolific receiver has yet to complete a full 16-game season through four years in the NFL, as injuries have consistently cut his campaigns short or robbed him of a few midseason appearances.
Now, while Nicks is attempting to rebound from his most injury-riddled year as a pro, early reports haven't been dazzling for the receiver whose 2012 season saw a steep drop-off in production.
Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News writes that a setback in Nicks' previously injured knee could be a possibility later this summer, also noting that the top-flight receiver "still hasn't flashed his full speed." This comes after Nicks skipped out on the team's organized team activities (OTAs) in May for reasons that remain a mystery.
Meanwhile, second-year receiver Rueben Randle, a former Louisiana State Tiger and second-round pick (2012 draft; 63rd overall), is progressing by leaps and bounds. Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has spent much of the summer priding Randle on his development, which seemed suspect at this time a year ago.
"[Randle] looked like a guy that has been here for five or six years," Gilbride told Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News. "His whole demeanor, his whole professionalism, was outstanding. . . . He certainly stepped into a leadership role.That was not what we saw last year—not by a long shot."
Gilbride's praise of Randle is strikingly atypical for a player seemingly in the midst of a competition for the third wide receiver job. In fact, with both Nicks and Cruz missing during OTAs, Gilbride went as far as to call Randle the "bell cow" of the receiving corps, while also promising that he will "play a lot" and not just on third down (via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York).
Considering Randle's abrupt emergence, it's likely that the suddenly overshadowed Victor Cruz—just weeks after signing a $43 million contract extension—could have his role tinkered with slightly in 2013. With the lengthier Randle scarfing up outside reps on early downs, the shiftier Cruz will be forced inside to a more traditional "slot" receiver role.
Who will be the Giants' most productive receiver in 2013?
Its no secret that Cruz feels shortchanged by the organization to which he's provided 168 receptions, 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns in the past two seasons. Cruz's deal will be justified, however, if Randle's role expands the way Gilbride anticipates it will. The 26-year-old will be one of the highest-paid slot receivers in the game, and his function will slowly drift away from that of a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver.
Cruz has plenty of time to rediscover his new place in the Giants offense—six years, in fact, if he's able to play out the entirety of his contract. Randle has some time, too; his rookie contract doesn't have him reaching free agency until the spring of 2016.
It is Nicks, the injury-prone yet inimitable receiver, that has the most to prove in 2013. In a contract year, all eyes, both within the franchise and across the league, will be on him. After all, a very large paycheck could potentially be on the line.