The New York Giants are expected to have approximately $58,623,872 in available cap space according to Over the Cap, a result of their carrying over $11 million from 2015; the money recouped from having parted with Geoff Schwartz, Will Beatty and Jon Beason; and the contracts that expired and came off the books.
The Giants could easily add another $6.1 million in cap space if they part ways with receiver Victor Cruz, who hasn’t been in a regular-season game since October 12, 2014, when he tore the patellar tendon in his knee and thus began a long and arduous journey to get back to the football field, a journey that was sidetracked last year due to a calf issue.
So what should they do with a receiver who will be 29 years old on his next birthday, who will have been away from the field for more than two seasons and who is due to count for a whopping $9.9 million against the Giants' 2016 salary cap?
They should give him a chance to continue his career.
To be clear, there is no way that Cruz should be allowed to come back on his 2016 cap figure, which includes a $7.9 million base salary. It’s virtually certain he won’t be back on that figure, and he seemed at peace with that notion, according to Jordan Raanan of NJ Advance Media.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding whether Cruz can make it back, his return can provide a boost.
First, the Giants receiving corps as it stands right now is still fairly young and inexperienced, assuming that unrestricted-free-agent-to-be Hakeem Nicks isn’t re-signed.
Given all that Odell Beckham Jr. has accomplished in two years, he has shown that he still has a way to go before he can be viewed as a leader.
That’s where Cruz’s presence in the receivers meeting room comes into play.
Once an undrafted free agent who knows the value and importance of working at his craft, Cruz can serve as a daily reminder to any draft picks and young veterans brought in this offseason.
Cruz can also provide an example of leadership, something that he reached when back in 2014 his teammates elected him one of the team’s offensive co-captains, a role Cruz took very seriously.
“That is the best part, that your peers see it and not just yourself. It’s great,” he told Mike Eisen of Giants.com at the time.
“I just want to be able to lead these guys to victory and lead these guys not just on the field but in their personal lives. Whatever they come to me with, I just want to be there to help.”
In his introductory press conference, new head coach Ben McAdoo spoke of wanting to see tough and smart players who love the game. That defines Cruz, who, because he went undrafted, worked himself into the brand that he is by being tough and by being smart.
It’s a lesson that McAdoo would no doubt welcome being spread in his locker room. Not everyone is going to be a first- or second-round pick. The lower on the totem pole a player is, the more he’s going to have to make the most of his opportunities.
Cruz exemplifies this. He can share his experiences with young players who were the big men on campus but who need to start all over again to earn the trust and confidence of their new teammates.
What About Production?
Cruz’s leadership and perseverance are both well and good as far as sidebars to his story, but the lede on everyone’s mind, including the Giants', is if he can given them enough production on the field to justify keeping him on the books this year.
Unfortunately, that’s a question that no one can really answer. The plan last year was for Cruz to return to full strength, but of course the plan was derailed. That’s not to say that lightning will strike yet again, but there’s always a chance.
The cloudiness of what Cruz can deliver in terms of production is why a salary reduction is in order. There’s little doubt that Beckham has established himself as the team’s No. 1 receiver, a guy who’s not coming off the field if the coaches can help it.
Cruz? He might not be ready to play every single snap, but he could take on a specific role such as slot receiver (a role in which he excelled prior to his injury). If the Giants can then add another solid veteran contributor to complement Beckham, Cruz’s contribution as a slot receiver could have a ripple effect.
Dwayne Harris, who took over for Cruz as the slot receiver, had some of his special teams work taken off his plate, including his gunner work and, toward the end, his kickoff return duties.
Get Cruz back into the mix as the slot receiver, and that potentially allows for Harris to get back to handling more of the special teams role, with an occasional cameo on offense.
Per Pro Football Focus, Harris was targeted from the slot 43 times, catching 30 for 325 yards, with five drops and four touchdowns. That translates to a 14.29 drop rate.
In his last full season (2013, which was the last year of the Kevin Gilbride offense), Cruz caught 43 of 68 passes from the slot for 561 yards, three touchdowns and one dropped ball for a 2.27 drop rate, the lowest of 15 eligible slot receivers who took 75 percent or more of their teams' snaps.
The $9.9 Million Question
The sad truth, at least in recent times with this franchise, is that many of the players who suffer significant injuries are never quite the same again despite all the advanced medical and rehab resources available to them.
This is the question that Cruz and the Giants face, especially considering that Cruz’s 2017 cap number exceeds $9 million.
That’s why 2016 is going to be a make-or-break season for the Giants’ hometown hero who is desperately trying to savor what he has before the magic wears off.
Can he do it? Recent history on this team suggests it’s a long shot.
For example, running back David Wilson suffered a neck injury that led to a diagnosis of spinal stenosis, something he wasn’t able to come back from despite his desire and attempt to do so.
Receiver Hakeem Nicks’ speed was all but lost when he suffered and tried to play through knee and leg injuries. Although still a good clutch receiver, Nicks’ inability to separate once he returned to the Giants was hard not to notice.
Linebacker Jon Beason, once a monster in both run support and in coverage, saw lower-body injuries begin to avalanche and eat away at his athletic abilities in spite of his relentless attention to detail during his training.
Before Beason, linebacker Antonio Pierce suffered what turned out to be a career-ending neck injury that pushed him into an early retirement.
There have been exceptions. Guard Rich Seubert returned to action after a horrific broken leg requiring multiple surgeries, an injury many people thought would end his career.
Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka came back after a season-ending neck injury that he elected to rest rather than have repaired.
Every player and every injury is different, which is why trying to gauge the realistic chances of whether a player can return requires taking a few things into consideration.
First is the player’s age. Oftentimes, the older a player is, the longer it takes to recover from surgery and the more likely it is the player must adjust how he trains.
Second is the part of the body injured. Obviously any lower-body injuries to a receiver, whose living is made on his legs, can take its toll on a guy, regardless of how hard he rehabs (another problem in itself given an athlete’s tendency to push himself beyond the limit before he’s ready) or how much he believes himself capable of defying the odds.
The third factor is when the surgery took place. Cruz had his surgery in November. As of Super Bowl week, Cruz indicated to Raanan that he had not yet started running.
While the start of the season is still a long way off, there is the matter of Cruz getting himself back into football shape, a process that could take a little longer than usual considering he’s been away from the game for almost two seasons.
There are a lot of variables which are sure to have general manager Jerry Reese repeating what he said about Cruz last year, which is that they’re not going to put all their eggs in that one basket.
However, Reese and the Giants should at least give Cruz a chance to show that his basket is still serviceable.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced.
Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.