With training camp on the horizon, the Giants are taking stock of their depth at each position. In 2010, perhaps no positional group on the roster is as intriguing as the wide receiver corps.
Steve Smith has proven to be a solid target who will likely continue to improve. Mario Manningham showed the entire league that he was certainly not a draft day bust, racking up 57 receptions for 822 yards and 5 TDs in his sophomore campaign. Hakeem Nicks avoided the dreaded Giant rookie receiver curse by hauling in nearly 50 receptions and providing an explosive open field option for Eli to target.
Ramses Barden will be vying for playing time. His 6’6” frame and his dominance at Cal Poly are what attracted the front office’s attention, but he failed to produce more than a single 16 yard catch during his rookie season. If he can show that he has truly progressed into a productive second year player, he could make noise on the field. From the outside looking in, the receiver rotation is between Sinorice Moss and Derek Hagan.
Hagan’s work ethic and ability have made him a favorite among the coaching staff, and it has been made clear that the Giants enjoy having a backup of his caliber. With significantly limited playing time in ’09, Hagan managed to nab 8 catches for over 100 yards and 1 TD.
Moss, who brought in a TD on his only catch of the season, has proven to be a perennial head-scratcher for fans and analysts alike. While he has shown flashes of talent (usually against lower tier teams), he has been underused since his rookie season in 2006. Most felt that he would no longer be a Giant after last year’s training camp, and perhaps his spot would be given to Super Bowl hero David Tyree. One year later, Moss will have yet another shot to earn playing time in New York.
But where does that leave Domenik Hixon? Heading into last year, Hixon was embedded in the fight for a starting receiver position. Now the young player finds himself stuck in the middle of a depth chart on a team that uses few four/five receiver sets.
Hixon has enjoyed overall success as a Giant and has been a positive addition to the team since joining the roster towards the end of the 2007 championship year. His big play ability on special teams, coupled with an impressive preseason showing against the Browns in ’08, earned him the opportunity to replace Plaxico Burress during a one game suspension. Hixon made the most of the opportunity, hauling in a TD and three other catches before leaving with a mild concussion.
He continued to impress during the rest of the ’08 campaign, both as a special teamer and as a receiver. He notched 43 catches for nearly 600 yards and started 7 games. Despite his impressive overall showing, he committed a disastrous blunder down the stretch that would set him back in his quest to become a permanent fixture in the Giants starting lineup.
His infamous drop against Philadelphia began the Giant’s slide from dominance to a Wild Card weekend exit. Despite easily clearing his only defender deep down field, Hixon let a perfectly thrown pass and touchdown slip through his fingers.
The Giants' offense never recovered. They struggled to make big plays in the passing attack over the season’s final few games. With less defenders dedicated to stop a formidable passing attack, the running game suffered as well.
Despite his athleticism and ability, Hixon found himself losing the training camp battle for a starting spot in 2009. Nicks was making big plays when called upon; Manningham was showing promise, and Smith was maintaining his spot on top of the lineup.
Hixon’s promising numbers from the previous year plummeted to a mere 15 receptions for 187 yards in only 2 games started.
Starting this year, he will find himself at fourth on the depth chart at best. While the order may not be set, the first three receiving spots are currently held by Nicks, Smith, and Manningham. The Giants also seem to be confident that Barden has made the progress needed to contribute significantly to the team. If Barden is truly ready, Hixon will likely find his playing time cut down even further.
But unlike bubble players Hagan and Moss, Hixon will certainly be a member of the Giants this season (barring a trade) . This is perhaps what makes his depth chart limbo all the more interesting. Hixon has obvious talent and even during his disappointing ’09 season managed to display it: cashing in on a 79 yard punt return for a touchdown against Dallas and scampering over 60 yards against the Eagles for a score in a critical showdown.
Hixon's kick/punt return prowess is what will make claiming a roster spot hard for the nifty Moss. Bubble players often depend on special teams contribution in order to make a roster. Moss does not have the size to be a threatening tackler or blocker but does have the skills to be a decent return man. Hixon, however, is clearly a better option, and running back D.J. Ware provides insurance if he can’t fill those duties.
It is important to remember that the Giants do not often employ a West Coast style of offense and prefer to have more tight ends/running backs in play than reserve receivers. Being the 4th receiver for New York usually means significantly less playing time than it means for Arizona Cardinal reserve receivers.
The final two spots could very well go to both Hagan and Moss. They too will face challenges from unsung rookie players such as Rutgers alum Tim Brown. If impressed by the diminutive Brown, Moss may find himself replaced by a younger version of himself.
Hixon will have a chance to do more than simply make the team. It could be argued that he is the best 4th receiver in the league. On another team he could very well be a starter. If he does remain a Giant, an impressive training camp could earn him extra in-game snaps and perhaps a shot to challenge for the third receiver spot.
Injuries of course could open doors for the talented receiver. If the injury bug does bite the top of the receiving rotation, the Giants will have a very good insurance policy in Hixon.