EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- All eyes were on Victor Cruz as the New York Giants went through the early part of their Monday morning practice. The star wide receiver, who was the focus of so much of the Giants' offseason due to his contract issues, was back on the field after missing two weeks of practice and two preseason games with a bruised heel. He looked spry and normal as he ran routes and even took part in a return drill. We all watched closely, looking for any sign of a problem, saw none, and came away thinking he had a pretty good chance of playing Sunday night in the opener in Dallas.
But while Cruz and the other returners were going through that drill, and each of the other position groups had broken down for some early-practice work, my eyes wandered in between the two practice fields, where the Giants' other starting wide receiver was lying on his back, getting stretched out by a trainer. Hakeem Nicks looked as though he were Humpty Dumpty being reassembled, as the trainer spent about 10 minutes carefully and extensively working on his legs. While others jogged and paced their way through pre-practice details under the direction of coaches, Nicks needed extra time just to get his legs in shape to practice at all.
Cause for concern? Probably not at this point. This is just part of Nicks' life at this point, and may well be all year. He has said more than once that this offseason was about being careful and making sure he was healthy for the regular season. No point in looking great in August if it might mean you can't play your best from September through December. Nicks is entering the final year of his contract and coming off a season in which he missed three games due to leg injuries. Even when he played last year, he was rarely at full strength, and quarterback Eli Manning said in training camp that Nicks' missed practice time during the season hurt the flow of the offense.
Nicks is the critical piece of the wide receiving corps. When he's not at full strength, defenses can devote more resources to disrupting Cruz. Cruz can't replace Nicks as the passing game's big, do-it-all receiving (and blocking) threat on the outside, and to this point second-year man Rueben Randle hasn't shown that he can, either. Nicks must be on the field and fully healthy in order for the Giants' passing game to function at its best.
So with that in mind, and fully aware that he has yet to play all 16 games of an NFL season, Nicks has become the most careful dude in the room. If he didn't look to be going all-out in the preseason games you watched, it's likely because he was determined not to go all-out in the preseason games. He won't admit this, but the clues are all there if you've been watching and listening to him for the past month. His goal is to be healthy this regular season, and if that means taking it slow in games that don't count, or spending 10 extra minutes getting his legs stretched out before it's time to start running routes in practice, so be it.
You did see flashes from Nicks in those preseason games, after all. In the Jets game, he helped seal the edge with a key block on David Wilson's 84-yard touchdown run and later hauled in a one-handed sideline catch with Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson interfering. His touchdown catch in the Patriots game was classic Manning-to-Nicks on a quick slant in the end zone. You know what he can do, and he gave you a little taste of it. If he left you wanting more, then you're just going to have to wait for the games that matter to find out if indeed he was keeping it in reserve.
Now that the regular season is here, it's time for Hakeem Nicks to be Hakeem Nicks. He has taken -- and will continue to take -- a great deal of care to make sure he can pull that off.