Commentary

It pays to be an outside threat

Although Giants' Cruz got a sizable deal, he'll soon be trumped by teammate Nicks

Originally Published: July 9, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Victor Cruz may not be doing a salsa dance over his new six-year contract, but at least he got paid and paid well.

He entered the league as an undrafted wide receiver and didn't collect a signing bonus. He played three years at a minimum salary and was at risk of being cut at any time. Through hard work and a great scheme, Cruz became one of the most dangerous slot receivers in football.

Although he tried to make a case that he was worth $9 million to $11 million a year, he wisely came to the New York Giants' value for the position (six years, $46 million). With only one exception -- Percy Harvin -- receivers in the slot take a backseat on the NFL money train. It is harder to find great outside threats than it is to find receivers who succeed in the slot.

The other day I got a mailbag question from C.C. in Baltimore, and he hit it. The top five receivers for yardage last year were outside receivers who are big. Raiders owner/exec Al Davis used to draft and sign players with great speed, believing you can't coach speed. Well, you can't coach size either. If a receiver has the combination of size, speed and the ability to play the outside, his value skyrockets.

Thus, the big winner in the Cruz negotiation will likely be Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks. Nicks isn't enormous, but he has decent size at 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds. He also has big hands and great outside skills. Injuries held him back last year, but he showed in 2010 and 2011 that he can catch between 75 and 80 passes per year and post close to 1,200 receiving yards.

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
Elsa/Getty ImagesBarring major injury, Hakeem Nicks is in line for a big payday next offseason.

Nicks basically becomes next year's Mike Wallace, who signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Miami Dolphins in March. Last year at this time, the Steelers were trying to talk Wallace into a deal for about $10 million a year. Wallace rolled the dice. He watched teammate Antonio Brown sign for $8.39 million a year, knowing that was either going to make Wallace a franchise player in 2013 or the top free-agent receiver.

When the Steelers didn't franchise Wallace, it was easy to figure he was going to Miami. The Dolphins needed an outside threat and handed Wallace a five-year, $60 million deal with $30 million guaranteed.

In some circles, it made sense for the Dolphins to go after Greg Jennings. Jennings knows Dolphins coach Joe Philbin from their days together in Green Bay. It can be argued that Jennings is a better receiver based on his long résumé of success with the Packers.

As Jennings ages, though, he is evolving more into slot a role. To the Dolphins, Wallace had more value because of his speed and skills on the outside. Apparently, the Minnesota Vikings felt the same. They pursued Wallace just as hard as the Dolphins.

When the Vikings didn't get Wallace and then traded Harvin, they signed Jennings.

Nicks is in a can't-lose situation as long as he stays healthy. He can accept a deal from the Giants that will be bigger than Cruz's. He can be franchised for $10.6 million. Or he can hit the market and make more than $11 million per year.

Entering this offseason, Wes Welker and Anquan Boldin were the highest-paid slot receivers. Welker was coming off a $9.5 million franchise tag. Boldin had an average of $8.333 million per year . Look what happened to them. Welker couldn't get the Patriots to offer him more than $5 million a year, so he scrambled to get $6 million a year from the Broncos. Boldin was traded from Baltimore to San Francisco despite being one of the biggest reasons the Ravens won the Super Bowl.

Cruz can sell his deal as more than $8 million per year because he signed a five-year extension (for about $43 million) to his existing one-year contract, but the Giants look at it as a six-year deal for about $7.5 million a year. Previously, they gave him a $2.8 million restricted free agency tender to hurt his chances of leaving. So they were able to get him for top slot dollars.

The next interesting slot negotiation will be the Packers' Randall Cobb, who is signed through 2014.

There has been one exception to the slotting of the slots. Harvin was still under contract in Minnesota at the beginning of the offseason and most of his work is from the slot.

But Harvin is rare. He has frightening speed and elusiveness. With the trade to Seattle, Harvin ended up getting six years for $61 million, a deal as staggering as the four-year, $56 million deal his agent, Joel Segal, grabbed for halfback Chris Johnson in Tennessee in 2011.

From Cruz's standpoint, he is a slot receiver who has no complaints. Because more teams are using three- and four-receiver sets, the slot creates plenty of rags-to-riches stories. Cruz, Welker and Danny Amendola are among the great stories of undrafted receivers who went from unwanted to well-paid.

Still, they aren't the richest at the position. The bigger money is on the outside.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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