Slotted In? The Steve Smith Dilemma

Max WillensCorrespondent IMay 27, 2009

According to Amani Toomer, the Giants have a secret wide receiver agenda.

During an eyebrow-raising, bridge-burning Q&A session he had with the media back in January, Toomer complained that his former team began phasing him out of game plans in the final quarter of the regular season.

The Giants, Toomer claimed, had their eyes down the road: with their jobs secure and a playoff berth all but locked up, Coach Tom Coughlin and company were less concerned with immediate success in the 2009 playoffs than with figuring out just how good their wide receiver depth was.

Unfortunately, if we're judging by the offseason moves made by general manager Jerry Reese, it seems that the answer is not that great.

Over the past four months, Reese spent a good portion of the off-season looking into acquiring Braylon Edwards, then used three of his first four picks in the draft on receivers (Travis Beckum, though technically a tight end, is likely to be used primarily as a receiver). Heading into OTAs, training camp, and beyond, the Giants' wide receivers problem has gotten much more complicated.

It is unquestionably the biggest question facing an otherwise strong team, and Steve Smith is its biggest and most important variable.

When the Giants drafted Smith in 2007, it was hard not to see him as Toomer's eventual successor, a precise, sure-handed possession receiver that Eli Manning could rely on for the rest of his career. And in just his second season, Smith looked the part, leading the team in receptions despite starting only four games.

Given Smith's success, as well as the release of Burress and Toomer, it stands to reason that the starting spot at flanker is Smith's to lose.

But offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride ought to consider keeping Smith in the slot for one more year, and here's why: keeping Smith where he is gives the Giants the opportunity to maximize on their talent and keep an eye on the future.

Aside from this year's first round draft choice, Hakeem Nicks, the Giants do not have any significant financial investment in any of their wideouts.

This means an open competition, and with all due respect to practice squad guys Taye Biddle, Micah Rucker, Shaun Bodiford and Derek Hagan, utility guys David Tyree (set to reprise his role as special teams ace) and Ramses Barden (a project who is unlikely to get much playing time outside the red zone), the competition ultimately boils down to five players jockeying for three slots.

Conveniently for the Giants' coaches, the battles for these spots are mostly one-on-one: Mario Manningham versus Domenik Hixon for split end, Hakeem Nicks versus Steve Smith for flanker, and Steve Smith versus Sinorice Moss for the slot.

Unless he shows himself to be totally overmatched, Hakeem Nicks should be given the starting job at flanker. Nicks is the only wide out the Giants have made any significant investment in, and his learning curve will be relatively shallow; many scouts described him as the most "NFL-ready" prospect in this year's draft.

Those same scouts feel Nicks is better suited to be a possession receiver than a pure vertical threat. That role, for better or worse, is more likely to be filled by either Mario Manningham or Domenik Hixon.

This leaves the slot, a battle that appears to have been won already. Smith and Sinorice Moss have been "competing" for this job since Smith's rookie season, but injuries and other factors have made the fight pretty one-sided. Moss is too small to line up on the line of scrimmage, and he's been unable to play his way onto the field, even though last year afforded him a golden opportunity.

The Giants' wide receiver depth chart is far from settled; anything can happen for anybody at training camp, and Smith's supporters can make a good case for him starting in 2009. But by keeping him out of the starting lineup for one more season, the Giants should be able to bring some clarity to their team's most pressing agenda.