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As 'X' factor, Giants WR Hakeem Nicks' unique skills draw extra attention

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It was just the other day Victor Cruz realized Hakeem Nicks doesn’t have the size of a prototypical “X” receiver.


“I was like, ‘You’re not that tall, are you?’ He said, ‘No, man, but I play big,’ ” Cruz recalled with a laugh. “It’s crazy, when I see him on the field, he looks 6-4. But outside, I’m telling him, ‘You’re only about 6-2 aren’t you?’


“When you think ‘X,’ you think Larry Fitzgerald, you think Calvin Johnson, you think all these big guys and then Hakeem flies in. For him to be doing the things he’s doing at 6-2 or whatever he’s listed as, is just amazing.”


In the NFL, players like Fitzgerald, Johnson or Plaxico Burress become No. 1 wide receivers and high draft picks because they combine size with speed and/or athletic ability. They play the “X,” or split end, spot because their big bodies allow them to create space even though they’re on the line of scrimmage, often against a cornerback lined up only a yard away and with help from a safety.


Those players command double-teams because they’re able to get away from that first line of pass defense. Such has been the case with Nicks, who has seen lots of attention from defenses in recent weeks, particularly in the red zone.


“Definitely with this past team we just played. We’ll see how Philly plays it,” Nicks said in reference to the San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles. “They have a nice secondary so they might just stick with what they do. But I think Coach will start moving me around a little bit more so they can’t just double me and take me out of the game.”


Nicks has primarily been the Giants’ “X” receiver since he arrived in 2009. It’s a spot that belonged to Burress until his self-shooting and subsequent release led to the drafting of Nicks — late in the first round, of course, because he’s not the 6-4 receiver that Cruz perceives him to be.


But as Nicks said, he plays big because of a combination of quick moves near the line, very good strength, excellent route running to “stack” on top of defenders he gets behind, and outstanding, big hands that allow him to catch the ball away from his body and away from the defender.


“Yeah, that’s definitely it. You have to catch it away from your body,” he said of being the split end. “I’m a hands catcher anyway, so that’s really not a problem for me.”


All of Nicks’ skills have led defenses to roll coverage his way or put a safety on his side of the field. The increased attention has created space for Cruz, Jake Ballard and Mario Manningham to operate. Manningham’s touchdowns against the Niners and Dolphins on fade routes were against single coverage while Nicks was facing a double-team on the opposite side of the field.


Nicks is as unselfish as they come at his position, so he’s okay with opening things up for others.


“But at the same time, I still want to make plays. I’m a playmaker, so I want the ball in my hands at crucial moments, too,” he said. “We’ll see how (offensive coordinator Kevin) Gilbride moves me around a little bit and utilizes me to make plays.”


Gilbride isn’t completely sold Nicks will continue to see as many double-teams as, say, Burress used to. It might just be a recent run of teams that play two safeties high has Nicks believing that’s the new approach toward him.


Of course, when the Niners tried gambling by blitzing a defensive back on Nicks’ side of the field, he and Eli Manning burned their one-on-one coverage for a 32-yard touchdown.


“There’s a certain respect for him because he’s made some terrific catches and he’s been very efficient when we get down there near the end zone,” Gilbride said. “I think it’s a combination of what people do schematically and also an appreciation for his ability.”

Which is why Nicks is thinking it’s time to “start strategizing, move me around and send me in motion a little bit, just to see how teams approach it.”


The “X” receiver doesn’t usually move around a lot, though the Giants used motion in the NFC Championship Game four years ago to allow Burress to get a better release off the line against Al Harris, so it’s not unprecedented.


“I’m comfortable with whatever. They can move me around,” Nicks said. “Just put me in position to make plays, I want to make plays.”


Expect the Eagles to give Nicks and Manning that chance. Gilbride has noticed a shift toward a more traditional Philly defense recently, meaning more pressure and one-on-one coverage. That means Nicks should see plenty of one-on-one coverage against cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Asante Samuel.


Manning will be watching.


“Eli’s always peeking, peeking, seeing that safety,” Cruz said. “The one time he sees that safety down or you rotate the other way, he and ‘Hak’ will eat you alive.”



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