Is this the year Hakeem Nicks develops into a top-20 receiver?
Perhaps a better question: Might he have already?
But now we're getting into small sample sizes, and while the NFL season is, to a degree, a small sample size (at least in comparison to the other three majors), picking and choosing your samples can mislead as much as it can help. That's true even for Nicks, with whom it might seem fair to be selective about samples because Week 4 was his first game back from a foot sprain.
Fortunately, a promising final 13 games of his 2009 season isn't the only thing Nicks has going for him in his 2010 breakout attempt.
The talent's there
Most who followed Nicks' rookie-year progress were well aware of his considerable potential. He set 14 school records while at North Carolina, then was selected 29th overall in the 2009 NFL draft, instantly being hailed as the answer to the Giants' need for a big-play receiver, created when Plaxico Burress was deactivated for the final four games of the 2008 regular season plus the postseason, then released weeks before Nicks' selection.
Though Nicks didn't draw direct comparisons to Burress -- a frequently mentioned comparable was Anquan Boldin -- his size, strength and toughness made him an obvious choice to quickly inherit Burress' role of Giants No. 1 receiver, if not as a rookie then certainly within a couple years. Nicks has earned scouts' raves for his hands; in drawing up his top-five breakout receiver list for 2010, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter said of Nicks, "He often plays as if his hands have Velcro on them."
Nicks' ability became evident quickly once he took the field, from as early as that Week 4 contest, in which he hauled in an Eli Manning screen pass and took it 54 yards for his first career touchdown, showing the kind of elusiveness that helped him amass six scores as a rookie, four of which were of 37 yards or greater.
Speaking of his rookie-year statistics, Nicks' raw contributions were obvious, albeit unspectacular. Though he placed 27th in fantasy scoring, he failed to finish even that high in any of the primary receiving departments: He ranked 74th in receptions (47), 39th in receiving yards (790) and 28th in receiving touchdowns (6).
It was his underlying numbers, however, that told the greater tale. As Christopher Harris notes in his column about advanced football metrics, Nicks finished third in the NFL in yards per target (10.8). And, speaking again to his elusiveness, he topped all wide receivers who had a minimum of 30 catches in terms of both his average yards after catch per reception (9.0) and yards after catch per target (5.8).
Harris' column also reveals a possible downside with Nicks; the rookie receiver finished second-worst in terms of air yards percentage (46.5), a surprising result if you consider that his quarterback, Manning, was seemingly willing to aim deep, as evidenced by his No. 3 ranking in average yards at the point of the catch (7.1) and No. 9 ranking in yards per pass attempt (7.9). If Nicks was intended as a deep threat in the Burress mold, the numbers certainly don't support it. Whether that's a knock on his route-running skills -- typically touted one of his strengths -- remains to be seen, and his progress in that area should be tracked during the preseason.
Ah, the caveat.
As the preseason dawned, Nicks wasn't promised even a starting job, as ESPNNewYork.com reported in mid-July that he'll engage in a battle with Mario Manningham for the starting split end job. Certainly the Giants would prefer Nicks be the victor, but that the sophomore is in a similar situation to the one he faced in his rookie campaign could hint that the team prefers to be cautious with him coming off toe surgery, not to mention minor wrist surgery. All told, Nicks' rookie year wasn't the healthiest; though he missed only two games, he battled foot and hamstring injuries for much of the season.
In fact, Nicks admitted in April that his toe surgery was meant to address a fracture that he had played with his entire rookie campaign, making the points that his durability could be called into question and that he might have been even more productive had he been entirely healthy equally valid. Banking on a breakout campaign from Nicks first requires preseason assurance that he's 100 percent, and one way to determine that is whether he unseats Manningham, because a fully healthy Nicks isn't about to lose that battle. After all, Manningham has his own issues running routes, not to mention he tied for the league lead in dropped passes.
So let's assume for a second that Nicks indeed starts in Week 1. He'll probably be asked to take on more of the receiving chores a season after Steve Smith set a franchise record with 107 receptions, as opponents catch on to Smith's presence and focus more defensive attention his way. Not to suggest Nicks' target total is bound to rise into the top 10 in the game, not a season after he had 73, but even a boost into the 100 range would be a help. That'd be 27 more opportunities to break off long plays for scores, and at the rate he performed as a rookie, that'd mean more than 150 additional receiving yards.
History is somewhat on Nicks' side, too, as while the prevailing thought was once that it takes a receiver two full seasons to get acclimated to life in the NFL, these days it's not uncommon for a receiver to reach full speed after only one year. To that point, 55 players in history recorded their first career 1,000-yard receiving campaign as sophomores; that's more than the number that did so as juniors (49).
Perhaps Nicks' greatest chance at a top-20 wide receiver campaign would be if the Giants struggle as much defensively as they did in 2009, forcing Manning to throw, throw, throw. Manning averaged 34.0 pass attempts per game after Week 4. More throws, naturally, mean more opportunities.
Still, Nicks' case for top-20 status is as much driven by talent as circumstances. His performance is trending upward, he's a year more experienced and he's an ideal fit for an offense that sorely needs a pass-catcher like him. All he needs to do is put it all together in the preseason and he'll surely shine in 2010.
Not to say that you'll need to pick Nicks among the top 20 at his position, mind you. He'll routinely be selected outside that group, primarily because of the questions surrounding him, not to mention the fact that he hasn't yet proved he can elevate his performance to that level. But once you get outside the obvious, veteran choices, it's a matter of playing the upside game.
How can you not put Nicks' upside up against anyone's of that lower tier?