Slot receivers in the NFL get no respect. Outside receivers get the big bucks and all the credit, while slot guys who have monster years are often not described as top wide receivers, even when the numbers suggest they should be.
In many ways the New York Giants‘ contract negotiations with Victor Cruz this offseason illustrated this phenomena. Cruz, a player who had just finished one of the best seasons for a Giants wide receiver, was negotiated down to just $7.5 million a year (not very much for top receivers). The reason? They had to save to pay Hakeem Nicks next year, a player who has had lingering injury issues and has not matched Cruz’s production or consistency. To the Giants, Nicks was still the No. 1 guy.
Cruz accepted his contract and has even publicly admitted that Nicks should be considered the Giants’ No. 1 wide out. This may surprise many fans. Cruz is more famous, with more yards, touchdowns, and a lot more salsa dances.
What it comes down to is the belief that in the NFL slot receivers, like Cruz, are more a product of the offense than of their personal talent. For the Giants Steve Smith is a great example. He was a no-name player, barely making the team. In 2007 Giant fans may have remembered him as the guy who dropped a pass in the end zone, almost costing them the Super Bowl. But by 2009 he led the team in catches. Not much changed about his ability, he simply got more playing time with Eli Manning at quarterback.
It was not only Manning though. That year, 2009, was also the year Hakeem Nicks came into the league. Averaging over 16 yards a catch he would stretch defenses, opening up the middle. Nicks’ presence caused Smith’s success, and many in the Giants front office continue to believe the Nicks will facilitate success at the slot position, no matter who is there.
Cruz has played well without Nicks, but the offense has been much more potent when Nicks has been healthy. Simply looking at when each does not play does solve the question of who matters more.
There is no way to know exactly, but one thing is true: Outside receivers who stretch defenses are hard to find. Big bodies like Hakeem Nicks rarely come out of nowhere. Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, and Larry Fitzgerald were all big prospects. Everyone knew they would be good, so actually getting one is very hard. Steve Smith, Victor Cruz, and Wes Welker were not big prospects. Teams got them on the cheap. So regardless of who matters more, the Giants see Cruz as replaceable. They believe if they scout well and give the right guys chances, a great slot receiver will emerge. To play on the outside requires such size and speed that surprises at that position are rare. Cruz might be a better player, but Nicks is irreplaceable.
Cruz is a great talent, but Nicks will always be the number one guy because he has the big body and plays outside the numbers. Slot receivers, yet again, have to settle for second fiddle.