Steve Smith and the New York Giants finally seem to be at least moving closer to a deal to bring the free-agent wide receiver back to the Giants. Even if that happens, though, there appears to be little chance Smith would be ready to start the season as he is still recovering from micro-fracture knee surgery.
One of the the most interesting -- and important -- battles of Giants training campwill be to see who emerges as the third wide receiver. Thus far several wide receivers have shown flashes, but none has clearly emerged as the obvious choice to join Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham when the Giants go with a three wide receiver set.
Let's break down the candidates:
Domenik Hixon: The clear front runner, based on his experience. Hixon caught 43 passes in 2008 and 15 in 2009 before missing last season due to a knee injury suffered in mini-camp. Hixon knows the offense, has had longer to build a rapport with quarterback Eli Manning and has already shown himself to be a capable NFL receiver. The catch is that he is pretty much practicing only every other day as a precaution as he comes back from surgery, leaving room for someone to jump up and take that spot away from him.
Hixon says he is just "just doing what they tell me" by practicing every other day. The 27-year-old said he believes he can win the job even with the limited practice schedule.
"The thing is, you're getting ready for the games and preparing yourself that way. It's not anything that I'm taking off, but if they needed me to practice every day or do anything like that, then I definitely would do that," Hixon said. "Hopefully by Carolina, the start of the preseason games and things like that, I'm starting to show that."
The lack of an offseason program hurts many of the younger receivers and helps Hixon in his bid to win this job.
Victor Cruz: The darling of the 2010 training camp at UAlbany, Cruz is trying to prove that his tremendous preseason a year ago -- which was followed by him spending most of the season on IR with a hamstring injury -- was not a fluke. In 2010, Cruz led the NFL with 297 receiving yards during the preseason. He caught 15 balls, four for touchdowns.
Cruz had the dropisies one night in practice last week, but wide receivers coach Sean Ryan was recently complimentary toward Cruz:
"He's a year now advanced in understanding the offense. He doesn't have to think as much. He can rely on his ability and just play," said Ryan. "I think you see that. He looks faster. He looks quicker. I think it's because he has to do less thinking. I've been impressed."
If everyone stays healthy Cruz will have to outplay Hixon during preseason games to move past him on the depth chart. And he could do just that.
Jerrel Jernigan: The third-round pick from Troy has at times flashed the speed that convinced the Giants to draft him last April. He is getting a long look in the slot because he played there extensively in college and says "it's natural to me."
"The slot is really about a decent route. You're in there with the outside backers, the nickel backs. Going through the middle, getting bumped around. Getting hit around," said Jernigan. "Pretty much got to be tough to play in the slot. You take a lot of hits from there and run a lot of crossing routes."
With the Giants protecting Hixon somewhat, Jernigan will seemingly get a shot to convince the Giants he can be trusted with punt and kickoff returns. Without the benefit of an offseason program he may not have enough time to push his way past Hixon and Cruz on the receiver ladder. If he keeps making plays, though, the Giants will find ways to utilize his speed.
Devin Thomas: The 24-year-old 2008 second-round pick of the Washington Redskins was doing some good things early in camp before dislocating his pinky on Friday. He is expected to be out of action for a while, likely taking him out of the mix for a regular role. Unfortunately, if he is out too long it might take him right out of the mix for a roster spot.
Ramses Barden: The 6-foot-6, 230-pound third-year pro might actually be the favorite to win this job. If he would get on the field. He is the PUP list as he tries to recover from surgery to fix the broken ankle he suffered last season. Exasperated coach Tom Coughlin said recently "Barden, get out there for crying out loud."
While Barden sits on the sidelines, he might be watching players pass him by on the depth chart. You can argue right now that Hixon, Cruz and Jernigan may have all done that. Thomas was on his way to doing it before being hurt. If Barden is going to have a real role with this team, he needs to get on the field and earn one.
Others: Among the others in camp the only one making a serious bid for a roster spot right now would appear to be Darius Reynaud. Yes, Reynaud, who failed miserably as a punt and kickoff returner a season ago. Reynaud has been surprisingly effective at receiver thus far, catching the ball consistently and getting open for a handful of big plays. Duke Calhoun and Michael Clayton are among those other receivers in camp. Calhoun still looks like purely a special teams player, and Clayton has barely been noticed in camp.