If the Giants could get a grip on their offense the way Hakeem Nicks wraps his size 4XL gloved hands around a football, there might not be so many questions swirling around a team that won the Super Bowl just four years ago. The 6'1", 210-pound receiver had a breakout season in 2010, catching 79 passes for 1,052 yards and 11 touchdowns (all team highs), despite missing three games with leg, ankle and toe injuries. Nicks ranked fifth in the NFL with 20 receptions of 20 yards or more and tied for 11th with 55 catches for first downs.
Taken with the 29th overall pick out of North Carolina in '09, Nicks was the fifth receiver drafted—after Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin. He has more career receiving yards (1,842) and touchdowns (17) than any of those players.
"I want to be one of the greatest," he says. "I don't want it to be a secret—that's what I'm shooting for. I expected to have that kind of season last year, and I expect this one to be even better." But as the No. 1 receiver he'll be a marked man, drawing double coverage and getting jammed at the line nearly every play—especially if the rest of the passing game struggles, which is likely. Quarterback Eli Manning threw the most interceptions in the league last season (25), and his receiving corps dropped 32 passes, which tied for seventh worst in the NFL.
"We kind of had a makeshift group of receivers," general manager Jerry Reese says. "We expect them to develop."
They'll need to develop quickly, now that Manning has lost two of his most trusted targets to free agency. Tight end Kevin Boss signed with the Raiders on Aug. 5, and five days later Steve Smith, who set a franchise record with 107 receptions in 2009, joined the rival Eagles.
Mario Manningham could become a solid No. 2—he gave fans a glimmer of hope, with 346 yards and four TDs in the final three games, after Smith suffered a knee injury in Week 14. The trio of Domenik Hixon, Devin Thomas and Michael Clayton combined for two receptions in 2010. Victor Cruz, a second-year wideout who hasn't caught a pass in the regular season, and rookie Jerrel Jernigan were also in the No. 3 receiver mix.
"Shame on us in a sense for not being more aggressive [about signing Smith]," Giants owner John Mara told ESPN 1050 Radio after Smith's departure, a development that also forced Reese to address the media because, he said, "it seems like people are in a little bit of a panic."
Manning has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, and he set career highs in touchdowns (31) and completion percentage (62.9) last year. But it's telling that the Giants went out of their way to restructure Brandon Jacobs's contract in order to re-sign fellow running back Ahmad Bradshaw to a four-year, $18 million deal.
New York was knocked out of the '08 postseason in the first round and hasn't returned to the playoffs since, fading down the stretch in each of the past two years. The Giants won 10 games last season, despite the fact that they spent a lot of time spinning their wheels, leading the league in both takeaways and turnovers.
While the receiving corps tries to overcome its defections, disgruntled defensive end Osi Umenyiora's contract dispute threatens to be an ongoing distraction when he returns from knee surgery in early September. Injuries have affected the secondary as well. Cornerback Prince Amukamara, the longest holdout of this year's first-round picks, broke his left foot in just his second practice and may not return until late September. And Terrell Thomas, who started every game at cornerback the last two seasons, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in his right knee in a preseason game. Plus, the offensive line, which gave up just 16 sacks last season, must replace center Shaun O'Hara and guard Rich Seubert, veteran leaders who were cut.