What's Wrong with Hakeem Nicks?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 21, 2013

USA Today

For the second year in a row, something's wrong with New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. In 2012, it was injury-related. In 2013, Nicks has no excuse for his shockingly ineffective play. 

Nicks has caught just 57.5 percent of the balls thrown his way this season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and he has yet to find the end zone in 10 starts. He's the only offensive skill position player in the NFL who has started all of his team's games but hasn't scored a touchdown. 

In fact, after averaging eight touchdowns per season during the first three years of his career, Nicks has scored just three times in 23 games since the start of the 2012 campaign. 

During his first three years in the league, Nicks caught 62.3 percent of the passes he saw, but that number has dropped to 56.2 the last two years. He was targeted on 14.2 percent of his snaps between 2010 and 2012, but that rate has dropped to 12.1 this year. 

He was targeted deep (beyond 20 yards) on 3.1 percent of his snaps those first three seasons, catching 38 percent of those deep balls. Since, he's been targeted deep only 2.1 percent of the time and has secured just 26 percent of those passes.

The 25-year-old former first-round pick has dropped six of the 48 catchable passes thrown his way in 2013, which gives him the seventh-highest drop rate in the league (12.5) among receivers who have played at least 50 percent of their teams' snaps, per PFF. He dropped only 18 passes on 273 catchable targets (a drop rate of 6.6) during the first four seasons of his career.

What has happened to Hakeem Nicks?
Rec %Drop %Yards/routeTD/game
First 3 seasons62.
Pro Football Reference/Focus

So why is Nicks suddenly dropping twice as many passes and becoming significantly less open? 

It would be easy to point to the emergence of Victor Cruz, and that has certainly contributed to his decrease in targets, but Nicks was still quite effective down the stretch after Cruz broke out in 2011. They're very different players, with Cruz a slot sensation and Nicks posted out wide. 

Quarterback Eli Manning's play has definitely dropped off as well, but Cruz has still been performing at a Pro Bowl level, and that doesn't explain why Nicks is pulling in fewer catchable passes. 

The majority of the blame should lie squarely on Nicks himself, who has fallen flat on his face in a contract year that's smack dab in the middle of what's supposed to be his prime. 

Instead, you have to wonder if Nicks has simply lost a step, which can separate a star from a schmo in this league. 

Exhibit A: In the second quarter against Philly in Week 8, Nicks has single coverage as Manning's first read on the left sideline. Manning recognizes that and puts one out ahead of Nicks as soon as he sees that he and the Eagles corner Cary Williams aren't even within 10 yards...

NFL Game Pass

Unfortunately, Nicks never gains the necessary separation, and the pass falls incomplete about three yards ahead of both players...

NFL Game Pass

Nicks couldn't beat Williams in a 25-yard dash. That's become all too common the last couple years, and it seems to be why Manning is throwing Nicks' way less often in those situations.

He was able to get that crucial step on Dunta Robinson in Week 4 in Kansas City...

NFL Game Pass

But he dropped the pass...

NFL Game Pass

Nicks has caught two passes of 20-plus yards in the last two weeks, but in the first case he didn't have to beat anyone, per se, instead finding a soft spot in Oakland's zone defense...

NFL Game Pass

And on a 35-yard third-quarter catch against Green Bay, the Packers sort of failed to cover him...

NFL Game Pass

All in all, though, watching Giants all-22 tape, we just see a season-and-a-half full of routes that lack explosion. He isn't winning one-on-one battles on the sideline anymore, and so Manning is going his way less often. 

Nicks has been bruised and battered during his first half-decade as an NFL player, and a wide array of knee and foot problems had a severe impact on his 2012 season. He's been relatively healthy this year, at least based on the team's weekly injury reports, but that might have changed when he banged knees with Tramon Williams Sunday against Green Bay. He was out of practice to start this week, but that was due to a groin injury, not a knee. So it looks like he's once again less than 100 percent.

The sheer numbers indicate that Manning has lost some confidence in Nicks, and it's not a good sign that he sat out three passing plays Sunday against Green Bay, regardless of whether his knee/groin factored in (he claims he chose to leave the game). On one of those plays, a pass intended for Nicks' replacement, Louis Murphy, was intercepted. 

"That’s not something I’m going to discuss," head coach Tom Coughlin said Monday, according to ESPN.com. "What I did see was the play that resulted in an interception that everybody saw and the play before that, but those things will stay inside and we’ll make the corrections and we’ll do a better job of trying to get everybody on the same page and we’ll move forward." 

The Giants have won four straight now, though, so maybe they're realizing that they don't necessarily need Nicks to make this thing work. No. 3 wide receiver Rueben Randle possesses more upside and has scored six times this season. The second-year LSU product might be a more sensible option for 2014, which would mean that Nicks and the team are only six weeks away from a divorce. 

At this point, it'd be surprising if that didn't happen.