Even with Jon Gruden's nickname of "JetBlue" being arguably the most unoriginal and sad nickname in years, the New York Giants' receiving corps had it all going early in 2010.
Then, it all fell apart.
After week nine, Hakeem Nicks was leading the team with nine touchdowns. Eight games and one bout with Compartment Syndrome later, he finished the season with just 11.
At that same point, Steve Smith had 517 yards. He finished the season on injured reserve with just 529.
Mario Manningham, the man who came into the season with No. 3 expectations, surprised everyone by posting nine TDs and 944 yards. He also ended the season with three 100-plus yard games when he played as a No. 1 option.
Michael Clayton and Derek Hagan—neither of whom were on the roster to start the season—both saw significant time down the stretch as the Giants missed the playoffs for the second straight year.
With the departure of the injured Steve Smith to the divisional rival Philadelphia Eagles, every receiver is going to move up a spot. The question now becomes, who will be the Manningham of this year?
There are certainly a few good options, let's look through them.
The second year player out of UMass, Victor Cruz, is being dubbed the heir apparent slot receiver for the Giants. Looking back on what he did to the Jets last preseason in the accompanying video will give a good indication why.
The speedster has shown great hands and an inherent ability to get open in his minimal opportunities. The issue: those minimal opportunities have never come in a regular season game. He led all receivers with 297 yards and four touchdowns in the 2010 preseason, but was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury after week three last seasons.
Cruz had a decent showing against the Bears in the Giants' second preseason contest. He made one very nice catch converting a fourth-and-four play for a 21-yard gain. Unfortunately, he also had a couple route miscues that causes one to wonder if he is mentally ready for a starting role.
Only time will tell, but don't expect much out of Cruz this season.
Ramses Barden was a third-round pick in the 2009 draft but he has yet to show anything for the G-Men so far in his young career.
The 6'6" 235-pound behemoth has the perfect build to be a reliable third down and red-zone target. Unfortunately, he has been marred by an inability to stay healthy.
Last season the Giants were all but begging a receiver to stay on the field. Barden was only able to register five catches for 64 yards before succumbing to a leg injury. This year has been much of the same.
Tom Coughlin has shown his frustration publicly with the NBA-sized receiver, being quoted as saying "Barden, get out there for crying out loud."
Even if Barden is able to find the field, his size will actually prohibit him from filling the vacated slot position effectively. The slot is built more for compact, speedy receivers who can dart across the middle and absorb contact. The Giants have other receivers better suited to fill this role.
If Hakeem Nicks or Mario Manningham find ways to miss time, Barden will get his chance in those spots. Don't hold your breath on a Giant slot option for the big man.
The most underrated receiver on the Giants roster by far is the one who will ultimately win the No. 3 WR position for the 2011 season.
After a season-ending injury induced by the field turf at New Meadowlands stadium, Domenik Hixon seemingly fell off the face of the earth. The man who had a breakout 2008 season, nabbing 43 catches for 596 yards, had become the fourth option. With a healthy "JetBlue" (horrible), he was the odd-man-out come 2009.
He contributed in the return game, collecting 1,291 yards in 57 opportunities, but that wasn't enough to keep him in the minds of Giants fans.
This year Hixon will have his chance, and I am going to be bold in my prediction that he will be the surprise of the NFC East. Hixon only managed two grabs for 13 yards in the Giants preseason matchup with the Bears, but his first-half touchdown catch (1:21 into clip) on a lob from David Carr was one of the highlights of the game.
If you need any more indication that everyone has forgotten about Hixon just listen to the narration of the video. They say it was Michael Clayton who made the catch. This is likely because the announcers in the game thought it was Clayton, and did not give Hixon credit until they realized it was him close to a full minute after.
What will set Hixon apart is his game experience and versatility. He will do anything and everything to get onto the field and even more importantly, he can do anything and everything asked of him. He is that type of player; it is only a matter of how long it takes everyone else to realize it.
I expect the Giants and Eli Manning to have a very successful season throwing the ball, but not because of Victor Cruz or Ramses Barden. Both will have career years, but to expect much more than meager success is to be delusional.
Here are my predictions:
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