After exceptional rookie seasons and high expectations for their sophomore campaigns, it is time to begin the debate: which wide receiver is better, Hakeem Nicks or Michael Crabtree? Considering the storied traditions of the New York Football Giants and the San Francisco 49ers and the rivalry that they have enjoyed, it is fitting that Nicks and Crabtree have sparked this debate.
Crabtree was drafted with the 10th overall pick in last year's draft by the 49ers, while Nicks was grabbed with the 29th pick in the first round by the Giants. Crabtree, a redshirt sophomore out of Texas Tech and Nicks, a junior out of North Carolina, were both considered the most pro-ready wide receivers going into their rookie years. Neither disappointed.
Despite Crabtree’s lengthy and ultimately pointless holdout, which cost him all of training camp and the first five games of the season, he posted good numbers. With 48 catches, 625 yards, and a 13-yard per catch average and two touchdowns in 11 games, Crabtree flashed enough elite potential that some people began to think he was right to want more money.
Nicks experienced draft stock and was hurt by a hamstring injury and subsequent weight gain he endured training for the Combine. But by midseason, Nicks had general managers who passed on him, slapping their heads in disbelief and yelling at their ACC scouts. With 47 catches, 790 yards, a 16.8-yard per catch average, and six touchdowns in 14 games, Nicks displayed moments of sheer dominance despite being somewhat raw.
When comparing the two receivers. I will be focusing on seven categories: Hands, Ball Skills, Big Play Ability, Durability, Route Running, Athleticism, and Football Instincts. Each category will include a brief rundown of how each player stacks up in said category, and a conclusion determining which of the two is better.
Hands—The Ability To Catch the Ball
Crabtree: Crabtree rarely allows the ball to reach his body; he almost always catches the ball with his hands. When the ball reaches his hands more often than not, Crabtree will come down with it. That being said, I have noticed Crabtree display alligator-arms in traffic by the sideline on deep routes. He needs to cut that out.
Nicks: There are youtube videos dedicated to the sheer size of Hakeem Nicks’ hands. His hands are monstrously sized, almost too big to believe. When the ball hits Nicks’s hands they stick like Velcro. However, Nicks needs to improve catching deep balls, as he has shown a noticeable tendency to butterfinger them. By next year, I would not be surprised if Crabtree and Nicks were regarded as having the two best sets of hands in the NFL.
Ball Skills—The Ability To Adjust and Locate the Ball
Crabtree: The moment Crabtree stepped onto a pro field, he was one of the five best receivers in the NFL in terms of ball skills. His ability to manipulate his body to locate the ball at its highest point is incredible. He also shows a fantastic ability to shield defenders while catching the ball, effectively boxing them out.
Nicks: Nicks has exceptional focus, allowing him to catch difficult passes with relative ease. However, he is not in Crabtree’s class in this regard, and last season he was good, but not great, in this department. He can and should improve in this regard.
Big Play Ability—The Ability To Stretch the Field
Crabtree: Crabtree’s top speed is something of a debate. Crabtree thinks he has 4.3 speed, but people who watch him play, not so much. He does have effective deep speed, and his huge frame, long arms and vertical jump make him effective down the field. However, last season he left much to be desired in his ability to gain yards after the catch and his ability to be a consistent deep threat. I do expect that to improve.
Nicks: Nicks is a threat to score any time he has the ball, regardless of situation or where he is on the field. He can take a short pass, juke two defenders, run through a third, and then score from 60 yards out. Or he can just run a fly route, get behind the secondary, and catch a 60-yard bomb for a touchdown. A true pick-your-poison big play threat.
Durability—The Ability To Stay on the Field
Crabtree: One of the positive aspects of Crabtree’s holdout is that he had plenty of time to stay off his bum foot, which needed a surgically inserted screw to fix. He has shown little to no lingering effects, but he has missed some training camp practices and preseason games, but at this point that is just nitpicking.
Nicks: Nicks already has a bad history of injuries. He has already battled several instances of hamstring injuries and has had surgeries to fix injuries to his wrist and toe. He has been treated with kid gloves during Giants’ training camp this year and even so, has missed time. For all of Nicks’ potential, his durability is his scariest negative.
Route Running—The Ability To Run Precise Routes on Multiple Levels
Crabtree: Crabtree has perhaps the most natural balance of any receiver in the NFL. This is what allows him to get and out of his breaks very quickly while losing little to no speed. Those hips also give him good open field ability, making him effective on screens. However, Crabtree’s route tree has limitations due to his lack of long speed.
Nicks: Head Coach Butch Davis of UNC taught Nicks well in the art of route running. There, Nicks learned how to run effective routes on all levels; short, medium, and deep. While Nicks botched too many deep balls for my tastes, he was still open and behind the coverage, he just couldn’t complete the equation. I expect that problem to not be as prevalent this season. Nicks is the rare receiver whose combination of size and speed allows him the ability to run an unlimited route tree.
Athleticism—Size, Speed, Lateral Agility, Balance, Quickness, Strength, and Acceleration, etc.
Crabtree: Crabtree is one of the unique athletes in the NFL. While his speed isn’t elite, the story doesn’t start and stop there. Crabtree has truly outstanding balance, great acceleration, good strength, and rare quickness. He can out-muscle defenders and get open against faster opponents, because they can’t stay with him in and out of his breaks. While his deep ball ability isn’t perfect due to his lack of speed, Crabtree has the chance to be dominant from the line of scrimmage to 30 yards out.
Nicks: Nicks is easily above average in all athletic categories, but is not truly elite in any one category. It is the combination of all those things that makes Nicks an elite athlete. Nicks’ speed is especially undervalued, because while he timed 4.4 in shorts at the combine, he strikes me as the rare player who runs faster with pads on during game day. The one thing about Nicks that seems somewhat average is his lateral agility, but that could have been a result of his bum toe last season.
Advantage: Crabtree (by a hair)
Football Instincts—The Inherent Understanding of the Game of Football
Crabtree: Crabtree is a football savant, a genius who just seems to understand the game. That is why he was able to come into the league with no training camp and still be a legitimate No. 1 option his rookie year. Crabtree has an almost Randy Moss like ability to know exactly what his teammates and opponents are trying to do, where they are, and where they are going to be. The more complicated a team’s defense is, the easier it is for Crabtree to exploit it.
Nicks: Nicks’ understanding of the game has more to do with getting the ball and moving with the ball in his hands. He has a fantastic and natural ability to maneuver through the defense for big plays. He also has a natural ability at route running, as he picks up complicated packages and double moves with relative ease. However, while his instincts are impressive, he still sometimes is not on the same page as quarterback Eli Manning when it comes to hot routes in relation to blitz recognition.
Conclusion—Crabtree Wins 4-3
By the hair of his chin, Crabtree appears to be a better player than Nicks. However, the difference between the two is very slim, and the only real category that differentiates the two is durability. Nicks has proven that he has issues staying healthy, with multiple muscle injuries and surgeries, and he isn’t even 23 yet.
Hopefully, though, Nicks’ injuries won’t keep him off the field or give him a short career, as the idea of Nicks and Crabtree dueling to see who is the better player over the next decade sounds like a lot of fun for not only Giants’ fans, but 49er’s fans as well.