Heading into last Sunday's contest, New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks had a "good feeling" he would score his first touchdown of the 2013 season, ending a 12-game scoring drought against a Green Bay Packers team against whom he has thrived in the past (via the New York Post).
Instead, it was second-year receiver Rueben Randle who caught Eli Manning's lone touchdown strike against the Pack—a 26-yard reception with 5:34 remaining in the first quarter—while Nicks' most "explosive" play was a rare sideline outburst.
Nicks' 35-yard reception was the longest of the game, but that's trifling compared to his insatiable itch to get into the end zone.
Meanwhile, Randle has six touchdowns in the last six games. He has been on the receiving end of every single Manning touchdown pass since Week 5.
Is it taboo to discuss Randle's superiority as a pass-catcher in comparison to Nicks?
Let's break down the Giants' two targets.
According to the Giants website, both Nicks and Randle weigh in at 208 pounds, but Randle (6'2") is listed an inch taller than Nicks. They are the two largest receivers on the Giants roster. However, to put things in perspective, Detroit's Calvin Johnson would tower over both of them at 6'5" and 236 pounds.
At the NFL Combine, the receivers posted similar numbers, although it's important to remember that Nicks' 2009 showing was three years before Randle's.
In what it is arguably the most scrutinized event, the 40-yard dash, Nicks posted a time of 4.51 seconds (per The Sports Xchange), which was just a shade faster than Randle's 4.55 time. In other speed events, which Nicks performed at his pro day, the two men posted results separated by just fractions of a second.
When it came to leaping ability, Nicks posted a superior 36-inch vertical jump, eclipsing Randle's height by five inches. Nicks also held a significant advantage in hand size with remarkable 10.5-inch mitts, compared to Randle's 9.5-inch hands.
The few advantages Nicks held over Randle surely played a part in his first-round draft status (29th overall in 2009). Although the Giants claim they had a first-round grade on Randle, they selected Virginia Tech running back David Wilson first and happily scooped up Randle one round later (63rd overall in 2012).
Now, after multiple leg and foot injuries, it'd be interesting to see if Nicks could replicate the numbers he produced as a 21-year-old fresh out of North Carolina. Just a few days ago, Bleacher Report's Patricia Traina questioned Nicks' physical state, pointing to his deteriorating ability to create separation from his defender.
In this category Nicks has a clear advantage. In spite of the injuries he's had in his career, Nicks is far from an aging veteran at just 25 years old. He is three years older than the still-green, 22-year-old Randle.
Nicks is now in his fifth season working with Manning, and the rapport he has built with his quarterback transcends the doubt generated from his down 2012 season and current touchdown-less streak. After all, this is the same receiver who absolutely dominated the 2011 postseason, hauling in 28 passes for 444 yards and four touchdowns en route to a Super Bowl XLVI victory.
Randle isn't a Super Bowl champion. He joined the Giants one year after Nicks' explosive run in the playoffs, and New York has only won 12 games since he has been a member of the offense. Now, in his second season, Randle's role has expanded from his rather pedestrian rookie season in which he caught just 19 balls.
Not too long ago, Nicks and Victor Cruz formed one of the league's most dangerous receiving tandems. Taking that into consideration, the respectable niche Randle has carved out as a second-year player in the Giants' complicated passing offense is rather impressive. As the third wide receiver, Randle doesn't get all the snaps Nicks and Cruz receive, but he makes the most of the opportunities he is given.
There have been obvious growing pains, as many of Manning's early mishaps were attributed to errors on Randle's part. However, those mistakes, which once plagued the Giants' offense, have since waned, allowing Randle to make more breathtaking plays and less boneheaded ones.
While Nicks still holds the obvious advantage in terms of experience with nearly 300 career receptions and 4,000-plus yards, Randle is quickly making up ground. Nowhere is this more apparent than Manning's clear preference for the young receiver when the team is in scoring position.
As the team's clear-cut No. 1 outside receiving threat, Nicks holds a comfortable lead on Randle in terms of receptions and yardage. However, when you factor in Randle's limited snaps and targets, the results are startling.
Both Nicks and Randle secure about 55 percent of the passes thrown their way—a rate that both receivers could afford to improve. Cruz is slightly more effective than both of these receivers, securing a little more than 59 percent of his targets. Randle, however, leads the team in yards per reception with a mark of 15.9, which exceeds Nicks' average by more than a yard.
Nicks' longest reception of the season (57) is a full 20 yards longer than Randle's, but Randle (12) has two more receptions of 20 yards or more in 2013. With only 29 receptions total, that means more than 40 percent of Randle's catches have gone for more than 20 yards. On the other hand, less than a quarter of Nicks' receptions have gone for 20-plus yards.
When it comes to first downs, Nicks (28) has six more than Randle. Again, compare it to the total number of receptions, though, and it's a completely different story. An amazing 76 percent of Randle's catches have awarded the offense with a first down, while only two-thirds of Nicks' catches have resulted in a fresh set of downs. Both receivers crush Cruz, who converts on 62 percent of his catches (but leads the team with 36).
Nicks leads the team with 205 yards after the catch—that's 61 more than Randle has accumulated this season. On a per catch basis, however, Randle has been better after the catch by just a hair, averaging 4.96 yards after the catch while Nicks averages 4.88. The Giants receivers, as a whole, have much room to improve when it comes to finding room to run after the catch, according to Paul Schwartz of the New York Post.
The touchdown disparity between these two is already well-documented.
At this point in time, Nicks is still the better receiver.
Who is a better wide receiver?
There is a reason he is the Giants' top receiving threat. Even after signing a mega-deal and leading him in yardage in each of the past two seasons, Cruz did not hesitate to acknowledge Nicks' status as the team's No. 1 wide receiver back in July. Nicks still draws the opposing defense's stiffest coverage, which ultimately plays into his statistical output.
Still, Randle's production—despite being on the field for about half as many snaps as Nicks—can not go ignored. The scoring ability and overall improvement Randle has shown in recent weeks help make his case as a future No. 1 wide receiver. That is particularly interesting, considering Nicks' unquestioned eye on unrestricted free agency in the spring of 2014.
If Randle eventually becomes the Giants' top pass-catcher, will he be able to sustain the success he has experienced as Manning's favorite under-the-radar target?