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That Smith is in a position to become a No. 1 receiver signals a change in his profile. As well as he played at Southern Cal, Smith was overshadowed by bigger, flashier teammates such as Dwayne Jarrett and Mike Williams. "When you see your fellow receivers' jerseys in stores, it pushes you because you want that recognition," says Smith, who in his second NFL season caught 57 passes for 574 yards and made four starts. "I've always been around star players and tall targets, but I've always found my way."
It is one thing to be projected as a No. 1 receiver, but it is another to earn that respect from an opponent. A top wideout makes defensive coordinators think twice before stacking eight men in the box. He runs precise routes, has dependable hands and makes plays over the middle, downfield and anywhere else a quarterback sends him.
"We investigated some veteran receivers for some possible trades, but they weren't a good fit for us," says Giants general manager Jerry Reese. "We love developing our own guys, and we feel like we have quality receivers to get the job done."
In addition to Smith and Tyree, those vying for increased playing time or roster spots are Sinorice Moss (fourth year), Domenik Hixon (third), Mario Manningham (second), Hakeem Nicks (first-round draft pick out of North Carolina), Ramses Barden (third-round choice out of Cal Poly) and Derek Hagan, a fourth-year player who was waived by the Dolphins last season and picked up after Burress was sidelined. The Giants elected not to re-sign 34-year-old Amani Toomer, leaving Hixon as the favorite to start opposite Smith.
Even with his faith in the team's young pass catchers, Reese made it a point to speak with Manning, laying out his expectations for the franchise quarterback. "I challenged him," Reese says. "I said, 'One thing that attracted us to you when you were at Ole Miss was that you made everyone around you better. You had guys like me at receiver, and you were still beating the Floridas and the LSUs. Do we have a true Number 1 [receiver]? We don't know that yet, but we have some good players. I put the onus on you to make those guys better.' And he was like, 'You can count on it.'"
Manning's assessment of the receivers after three weeks of camp: "They work hard, they ask questions, they're trying to do the right thing, and they have a great attitude. That's what you like to see from the guys, all of them fighting for a position, and it's been good."
It's also been intense. After dropping his third pass of a morning practice, Tyree slammed his helmet to the ground and kicked it across the turf. Despite his Super Bowl heroics, he is no lock to make the team after missing the 2008 season with right knee and hamstring injuries. Hixon (seven starts, 43 catches last year) has a tremendous downfield burst but also battles drops. Moss provides a speed threat in the slot. "The roster's never really been an issue for me," says Tyree. "I go out there and I play this game, and I don't make decisions. It makes my life that much more simple."
Last Saturday another audition for New York's receivers took place at Chicago's Soldier Field, where the Bears thoroughly dominated the Giants. In four series Manning was sacked twice and missed Manningham on a potential big gainer. The wideouts struggled to find openings in the defense. An exception was Nicks, who hauled in a 55-yarder from backup Andre Woodson with less than a minute left in a 17--3 Chicago victory.
Another was Smith, who lined up wide and caught Manning's first pass—a five-yarder in the left flat—and then snagged a 25-yard dart in traffic after finding a seam. It was the kind of catch that has Reese bullish on Smith. "He is what I like to call quarterback-friendly," Reese says. "He's always going to be in the right spot, always going to get open, and he's going to make the tough catches. Quarterbacks love those kinds of guys."
But the real test for Smith will come in the regular season, when he will be split wide and go against top corners every play.