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2012 Fantasy Football Face-Off: Hakeem Nicks vs. Victor Cruz

Fantasy football owners all over are finalizing their cheat sheets and trying to pick out players to target and avoid in preparation for draft day. Trying to uncover that sleeper or breakout candidate no one knows about is a challenge, but sometimes choosing between players ranked similarly in the upper echelon at their position can inspire a lot of debate. Two players that fit that bill are wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, who both obviously play for the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

Both guys are ranked in the top 10 fantasy wide receivers virtually everywhere, though a right foot injury Nicks suffered in May that required surgery may have his stock dropping in the eyes of many fantasy owners. So which one is the better option on draft day? I’ll analyze both, follow that with my final analysis and make my choice.

Victor Cruz

Cruz was at the top of any list of surprise players across the NFL last season, and fantasy owners that added him early via the waiver wire reaped the benefits as he had 82 receptions for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns despite seeing little action in the first two games of the season (two catches for 17 yards combined). Among wide receivers with over 100 targets in 2011 (131), Cruz was first in yards per catch (18.7) and yards per target (11.7), and he could have an even bigger role in 2012 with the departure of Mario Manningham via free agency this offseason. It’s worth mentioning his yardage total last season, and thus his yards per catch average, was skewed some by five of his touchdown receptions going for 68 or more yards.

Cruz will definitely be motivated to prove last season was not a fluke and earn a new contract, as he is slated to make just $450,000 this season and will be a restricted free agent next offseason. Opposing defenses will certainly pay more attention to him this year, but the fact he looks likely to still play extensively in the slot may help him avoid the opponent’s top cornerback and still find ways to get open. It would not be surprising to see Cruz get more red zone targets this year as well, as he was only targeted eight times in that area of the field in 2011, so double-digit touchdowns could be within reach along with similar catch and yardage totals to last season.

Hakeem Nicks

Cruz’s emergence overshadowed another solid season from Nicks in 2011, as he had 76 catches for a career-high 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns despite fighting multiple nagging injuries. He was also a force in the playoffs, totaling 28 receptions for 444 yards and four touchdowns during the Giants’ run to another Super Bowl ring.

The previously mentioned foot injury created some questions about Nicks’ status for the start of training camp and Week 1, but he has recently been taken of the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and returned to full practice on Monday. Injuries as a whole are a bit of a concern with Nicks, as he has yet to play all 16 games in three NFL seasons. So there is risk of a missed game or two and occasional weekly status concerns for any fantasy owner that drafts him, but otherwise there’s little reason to expect a significant drop in Nicks’ production in 2012.

Final Analysis

Cruz and Nicks are both virtually certain to be among the top 10-12 receivers drafted in all fantasy leagues, and Cruz has slightly more appeal in PPR formats due to his overall role and quarterback Eli Manning’s propensity for relying on his slot receiver extensively (see Steve Smith, 2009). Still, these are the top two options in a productive passing game and as such are both good choices as a WR1 to target after the elite options are gone.

All things considered, I choose Nicks here. I think his foot injury, despite the fact he looks healthy and on track to be fine for Week 1 at this point, may lead to him falling in drafts and lead to owners being hesitant to bid on him at auction. Nicks has a better chance to outperform his draft day price, while Cruz will most certainly have to at least come close to last season’s numbers to justify his.