On rare occasion, a rookie class will take off in its initial season in the NFL to set a foundation for its team. Some of them highly touted prospects; others late round gems.
The New York Giants were the beneficiaries of such an occurrence in 2007. They selected eight players, seven of which being key contributors were in an exciting and equally unlikely Super Bowl run.
This draft class was Jerry Reese’s first as a General Manager, so he set the bar for himself at an unthinkable height. It’s unreasonable to expect him and the Giants scouting department to duplicate the success of the 2007 draft, but since that group was Reese’s first, expectations for rookies within the Giants system have increased to soaring levels.
The 2009 group had the ability to reach a very high level of production, but did not make much of a difference in their first season. However, the Giants remain very high on their selections. After generally an uninspiring season, what can we expect from the 2009 draft class in 2010?
In the coming weeks, I’ll take a look at the selections the Giants originally believed would help the team down the road. Today, the microscope will be focused on Hakeem Nicks’s performance in 2009, and what to expect from the talented receiver in 2010.
1st round—29th overall: Hakeem Nicks WR University of North Carolina
When Hakeem Nicks was drafted, he was supposed to stabilize a wide receiver group that had more question marks then the uniform number Nicks wore. It turns out these questions were baseless, and that the receiving corps was in fact a strength of the team, not a weakness.
But of all the pleasant surprises in the receiving corps—Steve Smith’s 107 catches, Mario Manningham’s ability to accumulate yards after the catch—Hakeem Nicks’ performance is what the Giants should be the giddiest about.
The numbers won’t turn heads. In 14 games, the first round pick hauled in 47 balls for 790 yards, and reached the end zone a mere six times. But his performance should not be judged by his numbers.
His rookie campaign got off to a slow start when he injured his hamstring in a training camp practice. This reduced the uber-important reps a rookie receiver requires when he is trying to wet his feet in a brand new system. The injury caused him to miss a couple of weeks of practice, in addition to a preseason game.
The hamstring healed, but the injury problems ceased to go away. On opening day, Nicks grabbed a pair of catches but suffered a foot injury that kept him out a month. However, with the emergence of Steve Smith and Mario Manningham, his injury received little coverage.
But a case of the dropsies and a shoulder injury thwarted Manningham’s ability to maintain the success he had in September. This opened the gate for the young Nicks to become the player that he was touted to be coming out of North Carolina.
Given a chance to prove himself, Nicks did not disappoint. He scored a touchdown in four straight weeks in October, earning himself Offensive Rookie of the Month honors.
From that point on, he was quietly a productive player for the Giants. Odd, considering that he averaged nine yards after the catch per reception, a mark that surpassed any other player by a yard and a half (Patrick Crayton-7.5). Generally, a player with that type of ability to run after the ball in his hands will take the headlines with him.
But Steve Smith’s stellar season, as well as the pitiful defensive performance, reduced Nicks’s accolades. Nonetheless, further evaluation proves that despite limited reps in training camp, in addition to a toe injury that he dealt with all season and a surgery during the offseason, Nicks was practically a given when the ball was thrown his way.
Manning went in Nicks’s direction 71 times in 2009, completing 47 of them, a 66.2 completion percentage. This mark is higher than some of the best receivers in the league, including Larry Fitzgerald and Greg Jennings, and is only .2 percentage points behind Andre Johnson.
Nicks’s gigantic hands provided Manning a target that became more enticing as the season progressed. Watching him catch the ball is like watching a fellow student stick a piece of chewed up gum under his desk in the middle of class, he brings in the ball so naturally. This exact skill is what Giants Director of College Scouting Marc Ross said after he was drafted.
“He is always going up making plays over people. That is the most intriguing thing...a lot of guys can catch without people around them. This guy catches with people, with bodies, around him in traffic, goes over people. He is a strong, physical guy who has a big catching radius; big hands. And in my opinion these kinds of guys are the successful receivers in the NFL.”
The only memorable instance in which Nicks dropped a crucial pass was on a Sunday night shootout against the Eagles at Giants Stadium. On back-to-back plays, Nicks dropped two perfect passes from Manning, one of which that would have gone for a touchdown.
In a prime-time game that would shift the power one way or the other in a tight divisional race, a rookie receiver could easily shrivel after a couple of errors. Nicks didn’t. On the same possession, he took a crucial third down pass from Manning and went 68 yards for a score that would cut the Giants deficit to 14-10.
The play on its own was incredible enough, but coming mere minutes after a pair of devastating drops made it even more impressive.
It was hard to identify the positives after the disheartening loss to the Eagles, but months later; Nicks’s resiliency is something the Giants have to be pleased with.
In 2010, Nicks should be the featured receiver in the offense. Smith’s outstanding season should not be discounted at all, but he does not present the opportunities to the Giants offense that Nicks does.
He’s strong yet elusive. He goes over the middle well, and is just as capable of blowing by a defensive back. His long wingspan and gargantuan hands make him a potential fade target too, a play the Giants have been enamored with since Burress first signed.
There is little Nicks can’t do, and he is ready to take a huge step forward in 2010. If he stays healthy, he has to potential to become a premier NFL receiver.
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