Steve Smith, Wide receiver
SMITH isn't sure when the metamorphosis happened. Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas, who also played with Smith at USC, likes to point to the win over the Cowboys early last season: a 10-catch, 134-yard opus by the 5'11" Smith, highlighted by a double move out of the slot that put defender Orlando Scandrick on his butt and set Smith dancing in the end zone. "Then people were like, O.K., this guy's for real," Thomas recalls. Smith himself mostly remembers what people recently started telling him: "You're the Steve Smith now."
After toiling for several years as the Other Steve Smith—a lesser version of the 31-year-old Panthers star, another sub-six-foot wideout—the Giants' Smith, 25, has made a name for himself. In his second season, 2008, Smith served as the Giants' third-down receiver, but he exploded last year, catching 107 passes for 1,220 yards and earning his first Pro Bowl nod. (The new Other Steve Smith dropped off to 65 for 982.) "Steve works his tail off," says coach Tom Coughlin, who estimates that Smith catches 100 to 125 balls a day in practice. "And what Steve has always done is catch it. No matter the circumstance, not always the best of throws, but he always finds a way."
But Smith is just one in a homegrown, high-ceiling corps. Hakeem Nicks, 22, and Mario Manningham, 24, combined for 11 scores last year, while 6'6" Ramses Barden, 24, and undrafted camp surprise Victor Cruz, 23, were impressive in August. "It happened real fast," Smith says. "Now I'm also one of the old guys."