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Nicks not worried about filling Plax's shoes

5/14/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Even though the New York Giants finally cut ties with wide receiver Plaxico Burress, he still casts a pretty large shadow. His accidental shooting and subsequent suspension coincided with the team's late-season slide, which bordered on an all-out collapse.

And that's why we spent a large part of our offseason tracking every report/rumor that had the Giants acquiring either Anquan Boldin or Braylon Edwards in a trade. At one point, the Edwards trade seemed like a foregone conclusion. But in the end, general manager Jerry Reese and coach Tom Coughlin refused to let Burress' absence hold them hostage. The Cardinals and Browns were asking too much, and that's why the Giants kept their draft picks and selected North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks late in the first round.

 Nicks  Burress
Nicks was a superstar at Charlotte (N.C.) Independent High School before becoming the Tar Heels' all-time leading receiver. He always seemed to save his best performances for the biggest games, which sort of reminded the Giants of a receiver who'd made the game-winning catch in Super Bowl XLII.

And no matter how much you hear from the Giants about their talented -- if not raw -- group of receivers, Nicks is supposed to eventually replace Burress as the team's big-play receiver. Don't get distracted by all those Ramses Barden features you're reading. He may be built more like Burress, but it's not fair to mention them in the same sentence.

Nicks, though, drew comparisons to Cowboys Hall of Famer Michael Irvin while playing for one of Irvin's old coaches at North Carolina. Butch Davis was on Jimmy Johnson's University of Miami staff in the late '80s and then followed him to the Cowboys, where Irvin was waiting. Davis told Nicks that his fearless style reminded him of Irvin.

Several scouts have told me, though, that Nicks reminds them most of Boldin, a player the Giants have coveted for years. You would think all the expectations might wear on Nicks, but he doesn't seem fazed.

"I really don't feel any pressure," Nicks told me via phone Tuesday. "I just have to keep doing what I did all through college. Actually, it's a lot of the same stuff. We had the same style of offense at North Carolina, so it doesn't feel like a big leap."

And that's where the Giants think Nicks has a built-in advantage. In addition to having excellent speed and freakishly large hands (4XL gloves), Nicks spent hours watching film of Eli Manning and his receivers during college. Apparently offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach John Shoop was a big fan of the Giants' offense, which might explain why everything seemed easy for Nicks at the Giants' rookie minicamp last weekend.

As we discussed earlier, Davis knows a thing or two about explosive receivers. In 2000, he had future NFL stars Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson and Santana Moss on the same team at Miami. He felt like the combination of Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster at North Carolina was at least in the same neighborhood as his Hurricanes' group. And he agrees that Nicks may have a head start on other rookie receivers in the league.

"We run what everybody in the NFL runs," Davis told Dallas Morning News draft expert Rick Gosselin in March. "So every kid here has run every route, every route adjustment you can run. Every kid here knows how to move a defender and change the leverage of the corner or safety because of his release. They're going to come out of here and be a lot more polished than most college receivers."

Publicly, the Giants will talk about how Domenik Hixon and Steve Smith are projected to start in '09. But in reality, they're hoping Nicks forces his way into the starting lineup during training camp. Everyone always talks about how it takes awhile for receivers to make an impact in this league. Well, the Giants watched Eagles rookie DeSean Jackson make a large impact in '08 and they remember what Boldin did his first couple of seasons with the Cardinals. At some positions, the Giants can afford to have three-year plans. Receiver is not one of those.

For his part, Nicks doesn't run from the Burress comparison. He lists his favorite receivers in the league as the Panthers' Steve Smith and Burress -- in that order. Growing up in Charlotte, Nicks had a bird's-eye-view of Smith's prolific career.

"He used to come up to my high school," Nicks said of Smith. "But we didn't meet until I was playing in a bowl game my last year at UNC. He called me about two weeks after that game, and said he'd been watching me and that he wanted me to keep working hard. That meant the world to me."

But what does he think about Burress?

"He was the rare athlete," Nicks said. "His height. His eyes. The speed. He was just a really interesting guy to watch, and that's the biggest reason I always watched Giants games. I loved watching Eli throw him the deep post down the middle and the speed routes were great to watch. He'll always make something happen, and that's sort of my approach."

The Giants will continue to insist that Nicks doesn't need to become Plaxico Burress. At least not until December.