Whether it’s this offseason or next, the New York Giants will soon have to decide whether or not wide receiver Victor Cruz is worth the kind of money he’s asking for. The truth is, he isn’t.
After Cruz, 26, switched to CAA Sports last month, talks between him and the Giants have been fairly quiet. Recent reports say Cruz is looking for $10-11 million per year while the Giants are offering around $7 million per year. He’s currently a restricted free agent on a first round tender.
A 10-11 million annual average would put Cruz in the same territory as receivers such as Vincent Jackson and Dwayne Bowe. The Giants’ offer is slightly larger than the 5 year, $31 million contract Danny Amendola signed with the Patriots.
The gap between the two sides reflects more than just money issues. Cruz views himself as a #1 receiver, no doubt buoyed by the 2,2628 receiving yards he’s put up in his first two seasons. The Giants view him as a slot receiver, more in the mold of former Giants receiver Steve Smith. Good but not irreplaceable.
Unless Cruz gets desperate or the Giants cave, it seems unlikely the two sides will come to a compromise. When dealing with Cruz, the Giants will have to worry about the ramifications a deal will have on their salary cap and how it affects their ability to resign other prominent free agents such as defensive end Jason Pierre Paul and their other wide receiver, Hakeem Nicks.
Nicks is reportedly viewed by the team as a #1 receiver and a bigger priority to resign than Cruz. On the surface, this doesn’t make too much sense. Cruz has had significantly more yardage than Nicks the last two years and was able to stay on the field a lot more.
It’s not that simple though. Game tape and advanced statistics tell a lot more.
Advanced NFL Stats had Cruz accounting for 22.6% of the Giants targets in 2011, receiving 132 total while Nicks accounted for 22.5% of the team’s targets, receiving 131. Cruz had 86 catches for 1,538 yards, good for a 18.7 yards per reception, while Nicks had 76 catches for 1192 yards, for a 15.7 YPR.
What those numbers don’t tell you is the kind of routes Nicks and Cruz ran. Cruz, playing mostly in the slot, ran 29.5% of his routes 15 yards or further down the field, 38th amongst receivers. Conversely, Nicks ran 42% of his routes 15 yards or further down the field, eighth most in the NFL.
Somehow though, Cruz had 25 plays of more than 20 yards while Nicks only had 17. The reason for this is elusiveness.
The majority of Cruz’s big plays in 2011 came as a result of missed tackles. Whether it was Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha or New York Jets safety Eric Smith, Cruz routinely caught short passes, made a few defenders whiff on tackles, and ran a long way. Cruz finished sixth in the NFL with 595 yards after the catch.
While it was a great formula of success for the Giants, it didn’t look like something that could be sustained because slot receivers rarely ever average that high a YPR and if they do, it’s not for long.
In 2012, due to a variety of factors, Cruz’s performance dropped significantly. He still had 86 catches and even more targets (143) than in 2011. However, his yardage fell to 1,092 and his YPR fell to 12.7. Additionally, his catch rate fell from 62% in 2011 to 60% in 2012. He only had 12 plays over 20 yards and his production cratered in the second half, as he only caught 36 passes (on 62 targets) for 465 yards in his final seven games. Overall, he only ran 18.2% of his routes 15 yards or more down the field in 2012, 65th in the NFL.
Part of that is due to Nicks’ injury which kept him out for several games and which rendered him ineffective when he did play. There was also quarterback Eli Manning’s “dead arm” which caused him to struggle.
Primarily though, the league adjusted to Cruz and the Giants as a whole. Teams started to play more Cover-2 against the Giants, leaving a deep safety down the field to prevent Cruz and Nicks from exploiting opportunities downfield. Giants backup quarterback David Carr noted in a game after the Eagles that safeties were “going straight at Victor.”
Strangely and yet not all too surprising, Nicks had 12 catches for 20 or more yards in 2012, the same number as Cruz despite missing three games and not recording a catch in two of the games he did play.
This is because Nicks is a more physical and versatile receiver than Cruz despite having just one inch on him. Nicks can beat receivers in man coverage at a level that Cruz is simply not able to. Manning and the Giants offense as a whole suffered without a healthy Nicks and his presence helps open up opportunities for Cruz.
That’s not to say Cruz isn’t valuable. The Giants wouldn’t be able to find a receiver as good as Cruz on the street and some team will pay him.
Cruz’s problem is that he’s not elite in any one area. He doesn’t profile well as an outside receiver and while he has had success in the slot, he doesn’t have elite hands like Wes Welker, who never caught less than 68% of his passes in six seasons with the New England Patriots.
If the NFL did not have a salary cap, paying Cruz would not be a problem. However, the Giants have limited resources to spend every year and they simply cannot and should not pay elite receiver money to a player isn’t substantially better than Smith.
Barring the unforeseen, Cruz will line up for the Giants during the 2013 season. If the Giants are smart, he won’t be in 2014.