Quick, name the NFL's best wide receivers ...
OK, now name the league's top slot receivers ...
It's a lot tougher challenge, and a much shallower pool from which to choose. There's Percy Harvin, who missed seven games to injury last season; an aging Wes Welker; Randall Cobb, off his lone season as a full-time threat in Green Bay's offense; maybe Danny Amendola, Welker's replacement in New England.
And Victor Cruz.
In a nutshell, this is why the Giants opted to fork over a reported five-year, $43 million extension to Cruz, their dynamic slot receiver, while Hakeem Nicks sits waiting with a contract set to expire after 2013.
That is not to say that Nicks, with 255 receptions in four seasons, would be an easily replaceable commodity for the Giants should they choose to let him walk away as a free agent in the near future. He very well might, however, be a more replaceable player than Cruz, simply based on position alone.
As passing numbers continue to rise around the league, teams are looking high and low for that coveted slot receiver -- a mismatch-creating, shifty weapon who doesn't mind going across the middle but who also can catch and run for big yards. There are serviceable options or multi-dimensional players such as Miles Austin, who can slide into the slot position. There are very few game-changing, weapons there on the whole, though.
The Rams were so desperate for such a player, in fact, that they traded up in Round 1 this year to nab West Virginia's Tavon Austin at No. 8 overall. New England, as mentioned above, wooed Amendola to the tune of $28.5 million, despite Amendola having missed 20 combined games over the past two seasons.
Cruz's contract extension does not guarantee that he will repeat his successes from 2011 and '12 (a combined 168 catches), nor does it ensure he will stay healthy. What it does do, however, is keep the Giants' most productive receiver -- and Eli Manning's favorite target -- from moping through the upcoming year. It also prevents the Giants from a contract/franchise tag standoff with Cruz next summer.
That drama may now be reserved for Nicks, who managed a career-low 692 receiving yards and three touchdowns last season. Simply bidding Nicks adieu after 2013 cannot be the Giants' preference, but he's a clear second in the pecking order to Cruz.
Part of that may be his diminished production during an injury-riddled 2012. Another factor may be a more prevalent list of options out wide at Nicks' "X" position, including one on the Giants current roster in Rueben Randle. The Giants used a second-round pick on Randle in the 2012 draft, and he delivered three TDs (matching Nicks' total) plus nearly 300 yards last season. All indications are that Randle will see an expanded role this coming year. If he bumps those numbers up and impresses the Giants' staff, the franchise will have even more leverage in discussions with Nicks.
There is no question that the pressure is on Nicks to prove that it is in the Giants' best interest to hand out another lucrative contract to a wide receiver. New York decided it could not afford to lose Cruz, mainly because replacing him would be nearly impossible. Can the same be said about Nicks?