While Victor Cruz remains confident that his bruised left heel won't keep him out of the regular season opener against the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Giants might be smart to start chalking up a backup plan in case their star receiver can't go in Week 1.
According to Brian Lewis of the New York Post, an MRI of Cruz's heel showed blood in the bruised area but no structural damage. His primary hurdle to returning is now reducing the swelling in the heel by employing a walking boot and crutches.
Once the swelling subsides, Cruz is certain he'll be ready to play come Sept. 8.
“Hopefully, I can be back before then," he said. “But I do see myself, envision myself out here on the practice field, getting ready for that Cowboys game, getting ready to go down to Texas to play those guys. That’s what I do envision.’’
In the event that Cruz misses the opener, New York would almost certainly start Rueben Randle—last season's impressive second-round pick—on the outside opposite Hakeem Nicks.
Jerrel Jernigan would then have a chance to take over Cruz's snaps in the slot. Louis Murphy, a veteran with 115 career catches, might also receive an increase in opportunities.
However, replacing Cruz would be much easier in theory than in practice.
Over the last two seasons, Cruz has led the Giants in catches (168), targets (274), receiving yards (2,628), receiving touchdowns (19) and first-down receptions (111).
While Randle has had an impressive camp, he also enters the 2013 season with just 19 catches over 16 career games. He's also not a great situational replacement for Cruz, who is one of the game's most accomplished slot receivers.
Randle's true value comes as an outside receiver in much of the same mold as Nicks. In fact, Randle is currently listed as Nicks' primary backup on the Giants' depth chart. Murphy is behind Cruz.
The shifty Jernigan is clearly a much better slot option, but he has just three catches over two seasons. A former third-round pick in 2011, Jernigan replaced Cruz in the slot for much of the offseason and would likely be expected to do the same in Week 1.
Of course, that's assuming Jernigan makes the team.
Earlier this offseason, Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride told Ralph Vacchiano of the Daily News that it was time for Jernigan to take the next step.
I’m looking forward to seeing Jerrel Jernigan and what he can do inside. I think it’s about time that he steps up. And I think we feel he has enough ability and he’s been here now long enough. Until Victor gets back, he’ll be the main guy inside at the slot position. It’s a chance for him to shine and step forward and do the things that we believe he can do.
Jernigan has also been dealing with a hamstring issue, but returned to practice Tuesday. He's squarely on the roster bubble.
If Cruz really does miss Week 1, the onus will likely fall on quarterback Eli Manning to compensate.
Luckily for the Giants, his career at the new Cowboys Stadium (now renamed AT&T Stadium) might provide the most obvious pathway for New York to overcome Cruz's potential absence.
Over four games in the new venue, Manning has averaged over 300 yards passing with eight total passing touchdowns. As a team in that building, the Giants have averaged 35 points a game and are 4-0 since 2009.
Source: Pro Football Reference
Manning's worst performance over the last four years in Dallas came last season, when he threw for just 192 yards without a touchdown. But the Giants still scored 29 points, including 23 in the first half, to sneak out of Dallas with a win.
Without Cruz, Manning would have to get more creative with his targets outside of receivers.
Running back David Wilson can be a dangerous player in space and Andre Brown hauled in 12 passes out of the backfield over 10 games last year.
However, a new addition at tight end might have something to say about helping in the slot.
At times, he was dominant inside.
He caught 31 passes on 39 slot targets, which equated to the second-highest catch rate among tight ends last season (Tony Gonzalez was first). Also, his yards per route run from the slot was the NFL's best at 2.59—over 0.4 yards more than Jimmy Graham.
Myers obviously isn't the elite athlete that Cruz is inside, but the Giants could alter personnel and still get top production from the slot without Cruz available.
Meanwhile, the Giants will hold out hope that Cruz is able to play come Sept. 8 when New York travels to Dallas for the regular season opener.
In the event that the swelling doesn't subside or the heel is still too painful for Cruz to play, though, the Giants will have a number of options to replace his production in the short term.