Nicked Up? Giants Rookies Try To Fill Void at Receiver

Matt RybaltowskiContributor IMay 27, 2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - MAY 09:  Ramses Barden #13 and Hakeem Nicks #18 of the New York Giants works out at rookie camp on May 9, 2009 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

By Matt Rybaltowski 

         As the Giants prepared to make its first pick in this year’s National Football League Draft, a consensus formed between fans, management and draft prognosticators. With the departure of Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, the team’s top receivers for the past four seasons, the selection of a wide out was a necessity. Minutes later, when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced the selection of North Carolina receiver Hakeem Nicks, few were surprised.

            Despite the selection of Nicks and Cal Poly receiver Ramses Barden in the third round, the position still remains as the team’s most glaring weakness. Domenik Hixon and SteveSmith, the Giants two projected starting receivers for the upcoming season, have a combined 12 career starts, three touchdowns and just more than 100 receptions in four NFL seasons. By comparison, Toomer and Burress have 264 starts, 109 touchdowns and more than 1,100 receptions in 23 combined seasons. In losing the services of Toomer, the Giants must fill the void of the team’s career leader in reception yards with 9,497.

            With Burress in the lineup and drawing double teams from opposing defenses last season, the Giants averaged 28.5 points and won ten of their first 11 games. After Burress was placed on the inactive list for the remainder of the season, the Giants averaged only 17.5 points and lost four of their final five contests.

            “Losing Plaxwas huge.  He is a special talent.  It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see what our record was after he left,” Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said in an early-May press conference. “So the difference in the club was discernible to anyone who watched us.  I don’t know if you replace a guy like that.  But hopefully, collectively, we have enough quality young players.”

            Though Gilbride does not expect Nicks to match Burress’ production as a deep-threat, the rookie has demonstrated the ability to stretch the defense in the past. Before the draft, KC Joyner, the author of the book Scientific Football 2009, tracked Nicks’ performance in 11 games with North Carolina. Among deep routes – deep outs, deep ins, corners and slants – Nicks hauled in 17 of 25 (68 percent) passes thrown in his direction. The deep routes intended for Nicks averaged just under 20 yards per attempt, according to Joyner’s calculations.

            “What I find compelling about this is how well Nicks did on vertical routes…” Joyner wrote in the New York Times blog The Fifth Down. “To look at it from the Giants perspective, Nicks won’t mimic what Plaxico did, as Burress could run past defenders when healthy, but he will be able to stretch the field in more ways and could end up being more valuable than Plax was.”

            There are holes present in other positions, as well. The team’s corps of linebackers struggled slightly against the screen pass in 2008. On several occasions, Eagles running back Brian Westbrook exposed the weakness by finding holes in the middle of the Giants’ defense. On the other side of the ball, the Giants will be hurt by the loss of running back Derrick Ward through free agency. Other losses include: safeties James Butler, Sammy Knight and Craig Dahl, defensive tackle Rodney Leisle, defensive end Renaldo Wynn and cornerback Sam Madison.

            Besides the two rookie receivers, the Giants will look to two others, Sinorice Moss and Mario Manningham, to become major contributors to the offense. Each has been hampered with injuries throughout their young careers. Gilbridebelieves this is Moss’ best opportunity to live up to his potential. In 2006, the team drafted the Miami (Fla.) receiver early in the second round.  

            “When I say ‘young guys’ I’m not just referring to the two draft choices, I’m definitely referring to what Mario can do and Sinorice – this will be kind of his big chance.  He (Sinorice) will start off in the three wide (set),” Gilbride said. “He will be the starter.  So now you just hope – I know he will hope, for sure – that he flourishes and does well.”

            Without Burress and Toomer, the Giants plan to start Hixon at the “X receiver” or split end and Smith at the “Z receiver” or flanker, Gilbride said during the early-May press conference. In each of the past two seasons, Smith has hauled in a majority of his catches from the slot. Now the Giants are considering moving him to the outside.

            “I don’t think he can be that guy (to play on the outside) because that’s what he played at USC (the slot) and he’s best as a slot receiver,” said Greg Cosell, a senior producer at NFL Films in a mid-May phone interview. “By necessity they may have to put him out there, but I think they’ll reach the point of diminishing returns. I don’t think he’s that kind of guy.”

            The Giants hope the draft and free agency will help them fill the holes that remain in its lineup. While running back Ahmad Bradshaw figures to fill the void left by Ward, rookie back Andre Brown from North Carolina Statecould provide additional depth. At linebacker, the Giants added Michael Boley from the Atlanta Falcons via free agency and selected pass-rushing specialist Clint Sintim from Virginiain the second round. At tight end, Kevin Boss caught only 33 passes last season. In the third round, the Giants selected H-back Travis Beckum from Wisconsin, who caught 75 passes two years ago with the Badgers. Head coach Tom Coughlin believes Giants scouts have spent an inordinate amount of time evaluating potential rookies and feels several can contribute right away.

            “You have a lot of trained, very good trained eyes that are on all of these people – I’m talking about our scouting department and staff as well, coaches working individual positions,” Coughlin said in an early May press conference. “We will put that all together.” #####