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Dynasty Debate: Hakeem Nicks vs. Victor Cruz

Nicks_CruzDespite the fact that football is the gold standard for team sports, there seems to be a never ending number of one-on-one player debates over the past several years.  For example, the battle for the title of “best quarterback in the known universe” has been disputed amongst proponents of both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning since the early 2000’s.  Randy Moss has (according to Randy Moss) achieved the title of “best wide receiver ever” over Jerry Rice, while AJ Green and Julio Jones (and apparently Titus Young) fight to determine the heir-apparent to the best receiver in the game right now, Calvin Johnson.

However, few debates have stirred up more emotion in the DLF community than one between two players on the same team:  Hakeem Nicks or Victor Cruz?  Advocates of Nicks believe he’s the more talented receiver, better fits the classical definition of a true WR1, and opens up the field for Cruz.   Supporters of Cruz often believe he’s still underrated despite posting gaudy statistics in back-to-back years, and also take pride in unearthing the former undrafted free agent.  Adding even more intrigue is the fact that, behind the scenes, Giants’ management is currently having the same dilemma, but in regards to which player should get a new contract first.

What follows is an unbiased breakdown that will attempt to discern which player is currently the better dynasty asset.  This point-by-point synopsis will cover several categories, awarding a “winner” for each one.

Let’s get started with the numbers!

Statistics

The tables below represent pertinent career statistics for both Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz:

Hakeem Nicks

Year

Games

Targets

TPG

Receptions

Catch %

Yards

YPG

YPC

TD’s

PPR Rank

2009

14

75

5.4

47

62.7

790

56.4

16.8

6

WR33

2010

13

128

9.8

79

61.7

1052

80.9

13.3

11

WR8

2011

15

133

8.9

76

57.1

1192

79.5

15.7

7

WR12

2012

13

100

7.7

53

53.0

692

53.2

13.1

3

WR53

 

Victor Cruz

Year

Games

Targets

TPG

Receptions

Catch %

Yards

YPG

YPC

TD’s

PPR Rank

2011

16

131

8.2

82

62.6

1536

96.0

18.7

9

WR3

2012

16

143

8.9

86

60.1

1092

68.3

12.7

10

WR14

 

Nicks’ first three years in the league show the kind of career trajectory the Giants were hoping for when they made him a first round pick in 2009.  His rookie season saw him finish as the #33 fantasy WR (PPR scoring), which compares favorably to other rookies receivers in the past three years.  He improved upon those numbers in 2010 and 2011, finishing as a WR1 in twelve-team leagues both times, despite not playing a full slate of games either year.  2012, unfortunately, saw the bottom fall out, as Nicks was virtually un-startable due to injury woes which plagued him all year long.

Despite playing for two fewer seasons, Cruz has validated himself statistically nearly as much as his counterpart.  He set a Giants’ record for receiving with 1,536 yards in 2011, when he finished as the WR3 in standard-scoring PPR leagues.  Though he tailed off a bit in 2012, Cruz still finished as a high-end WR2, scoring ten touchdowns on the season.

In general, the numbers show Nicks and Cruz are virtually identical in terms of targets per game, catch % and yards per game.  Nicks has a slightly more reliable yards-per-catch rate, but Cruz earns decisive victories in terms of receptions, total yards and touchdowns.  The scope of the data would appear to favor Cruz.

However, there’s one more factor to take into account:  each player’s 2011 Super Bowl playoff run.  This is shown in the table below.

Name

Games

Targets

Receptions

Yards

TD’s

H. Nicks

4

43

28

444

4

V. Cruz

4

31

21

269

1

In the biggest games of the season, Hakeem Nicks was clearly quarterback Eli Manning’s go-to guy.  He had the better playoff numbers across the board, and actually led all playoff wideouts in receiving yards (147 more than the next closest player).  Though these numbers help bridge the gap, Victor Cruz still has the marginally better statistical resumé.

Slight Advantage – Cruz

Positional Breakdown

Nicks, at 6’1” and 208 pounds, has the prototypical build for a boundary receiver, and unsurprisingly receives the vast majority of his snaps on the outside.  Cruz, though not significantly smaller at 6’0” and 204 pounds, lines up in the slot position on nearly half of his snaps.  Conventional wisdom suggests that Nicks’ position is the tougher of the two, generally drawing the defense’s top coverage cornerbacks and also more often seeing help defense over the top from a safety.  Though running routes in the middle of the field has its challenges, slot receivers are usually covered by nickel cornerbacks or linebackers.  Moreover, as the Patriots’ Wes Welker has shown, even uber-productive slot receivers aren’t a lock to get paid big money.

Advantage – Nicks

Injuries

Over the years, Nicks has dealt with injuries such as compartment syndrome and a broken foot, as well as other impairments to his knee and ankle.  In fact, in his four year career, Nicks has yet to play a full sixteen games.  Cruz, on the other hand, has been the better bet in terms of sustaining health during the season, not missing a single game over the past two years.  However, many forget that Cruz’ first year in the league was actually 2010, when the then-rookie missed the final eleven games due to a head injury – he didn’t record a single reception all year.  Nevertheless, Cruz has shown the ability to make it through a full slate of games and Nicks hasn’t.

Advantage – Cruz

The “Eli Effect”

Let’s play a game called “Guess That Receiver!”:

Name/Year

Games

Targets

TPG

Receptions

Catch %

Yards

YPG

YPC

TD’s

PPR Rank

??

16

159

9.9

107

67.3

1220

76.3

11.4

7

WR8

If you guessed Steve Smith, (no, not Carolina’s Steve Smith, the other one), give yourself a hearty pat on the back.  In 2009, Smith came out of nowhere to finish the season as the WR8 in PPR leagues, recording over 100 receptions on nearly ten targets per game as the Giants’ slot receiver.  In 2010, he was well on his way to repeating those numbers when he suffered a knee injury that necessitated microfracture surgery.  The Giants neglected to re-sign him and he has since caught a total of 25 passes in the past two seasons combined.

The operative point is Victor Cruz isn’t the first slot receiver to become unexpectedly dynasty relevant with Eli Manning under center.  This is not to say Cruz would be easily replaced if not re-signed, but it has happened before.  Jerrel Jernigan, a 2011 third-round pick who possesses 4.46 forty-yard dash speed and slot-receiver size, could very well be the next man up.

Let’s next consider Manning’s stats over the past two years:

Year

Games

Passing Yards

YPG

Comp. %

YPA

TD’s

INT’s

QB Rating

2011

16

4933

308.3

61

8.38

29

16

92.9

2012

16

3948

246.8

59.9

7.37

26

15

87.2

As a reminder, Nicks played a healthy fifteen games in 2011, but labored through thirteen 2012 games with various ailments.  The difference his health makes is startling.

Manning saw slight decreases to his completion percentage, TD/INT differential and QB rating, but experienced a seismic decrease to his passing yards and yards-per-attempt statistics.  This is despite the fact that the Giants actually ran the ball more efficiently in 2012 than in 2011 (4.6 yards-per-carry versus 3.5 yards-per-carry), which should have rendered the play-action passing game more effective.  The totality of these “Eli Effects” makes a strong case for Nicks’ importance to the Giants offense.

Advantage – Nicks

Miscellaneous

In 2011, Cruz was well known for being a big-play artist, generating receiving touchdowns of 68, 72, 74, 74 and 99 yards.  These five plays, though only 6.1% of his receptions, accounted for a whopping 25% of Cruz’ receiving yards.  Without those same types of plays in 2012, Cruz’ yards-per-catch average dropped by a full six yards.

Much like Manning, Cruz’ numbers also suffered when Nicks wasn’t playing at 100% – this lends credence to the theory that Cruz operates better with a healthy Nicks drawing the top defensive coverage.  Conversely, Nicks was producing as a WR1 in 2010 despite the next-best receiver on the team being a pedestrian talent in Mario Manningham.

Advantage – Nicks

Respective ADP Values

According to Ryan McDowell’s dynasty ADP data, Cruz and Nicks are being drafted back-to-back as the WR9 and WR10, with respective ADP’s over all positions of 27.5 and 31.7.  In other words, both are being regarded as third-round draft picks and WR1’s.  There also doesn’t appear to be much of a “buy-low” option on Nicks due to his injury, though it wasn’t long ago that he was regarded as a top-five dynasty option at receiver.

Advantage – Push

Conclusion

Taking all the above into account, the signs point towards Nicks being the more valuable dynasty asset of the two.  The Giants’ management appears to agree, as recent reports suggest they are looking to extend Nicks’ contract before they make a deal with Cruz, as they view Nicks as more of a number-one guy.  However, with both receivers being viewed as dynasty cornerstones, the only inarguable fact about these two is that their respective values will be constantly argued!

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Cyrus Miller
9 years ago

While the mention of Steve Smith is interesting, I am of the opinion that Nicks may be the better NFL WR, but Cruz is important enough to re-sign and is the better FF WR.

Whether due to consistency, facing lesser CB or health, I like Cruz better. I think that the Giants numbers as a whole were bad this year and think Cruz will be better next year. While that might be due to Nicks, I think his numbers will be higher than Nicks.

Jon Lambrecht
9 years ago

Very courageous article. Some good points but some that seem to not make any sense to me at all.

I don’t agree with your conclusions with the miscellaneous, Eli effect, or Positional parts to your discussion. Also… the size difference between the two is so ridiculously close, (1 inch and 4 lbs) You neglected to mention speed, route running, etc. Also… Eli really struggled on a personal level this past year. He was often pressured, looked rushed, was uncomfortable, and seemed to lose some touch to his throws. I’m sure that hurt him as well as not having Nicks. Anyway, I thought it silly to say this –

Nicks, at 6’1” and 208 pounds, has the prototypical build for a boundary receiver, and unsurprisingly receives the vast majority of his snaps on the outside. Cruz, though not significantly smaller at 6’0” and 204 pounds, lines up in the slot position on nearly half of his snaps.

and then not say something to the effect that the other half of the time Cruz plays on the outside / hence making him more versatile.

Not sure how you determined a winner between the two in that part of your article. Also, to give credit to Nicks for dominating in the playoffs is cool and I do understand it as he was a monster – but to not consider how or why he did that is a bit off. Clearly teams were scheming to take Cruz out of the offense as he just got done breaking the all time Giants receiving record for yds that very season. Something Nicks has had chances to do / hasn’t and will never do. Eli was simply focusing on the wr that wasn’t being “as” focused on by the opposing defense. go back and listen to Belichick in the Superbowl talking / screaming at the def back coaches… He specifically said We cant let “CRUZ” beat us. weird…
Like I said; Very courageous article. You are correct in that this is a heated conversation that has been going on for a year and a half.

On a personal level – I wouldn’t even consider a trade of Nicks for Cruz straight up. Also, if I were a Nicks owner, I’d likely have moved on from him an injury or two ago. I like to be able to depend on my dynasty assets. Nicks is So far from dependable it isn’t funny. That additional 1 inch and 4 lbs of “prototypical wr1 size” is more than made up for by the half a dozen other attributes that Cruz puts on the field each week while Nicks watches. Just my 2 cents.

Enjoyable article and thanks for submitting it. Well done!

Jon Lambrecht
9 years ago

All good points. I agree. Well said. Great choice of topic. I’m sure you’ll get plenty of readers and responses here. For me the durability pushes my hand. I never have been an owner (fantasy) that liked too much of a boom bust. To me the injury history and inability to play at a consistently productive level while knicked up is a big deciding factor. I’m not at all saying that Nicks isn’t valuable or talented. I believe he is. I also see parts of his game where he is better than Cruz. What really gets my goat is how people push the whole size differential between the two. Seriously… 1 inch and 4 lbs. That one gets me going. Particularly so when Cruz is the faster of the two.

But; at the end of the day – I want a guy I can put in my line up that will win me championships. Cruz is one of those players. Nicks isn’t. Or hasn’t shown he is yet imo. Value is value and productivity is productivity. All be it they are close in value. One of them helps you win more often and more consistently than the other.

9 years ago

I think that they both have their points.

Cruz actually fits in better from a measurables standpoint than Nicks does when to comes to comparing them to the top WRs. Both are a little bit shorter than the norm for a top WR, but in terms of BMI, 40 time, cone, shuttle, and just about everything else that can be measured at the combine, Cruz was better.

40 times: 4.47 vs 4.54
Vertical: 41.5 vs 36
Shuttle: 4.17 vs 4.43
Cone: 6.96 vs 6.96

When it comes to items that you can’t measure, I do think that Nicks has better hands and body control than Cruz. That is why I think that Nicks is the better receiver, but Cruz is the better athlete. However, Nicks also has a harder time staying on the field, which is a major concern.

Overall, I think that Cruz is probably the safer option since he is more likely to be startable week in and week out, but Nicks has the higher upside if he can ever play a full season. The Giants have a tough choice to make if they can only keep one. They are both talents.

I think that Eli does favor Nicks though, partially because they have been together longer. That means that when they are both on the field, Nicks is probably going to get the first look more often.

Keith Fortier
9 years ago

Good arguments Ryan. I acquired Cruz for Leshoure this off season despite that I also own Nicks. I’m not sure what the heck to do with them. Keep them both, sell one or dish them both off. It would be maddening trying to figure out which one to start each week (assuming both were healthy).

Von Romig
9 years ago

In my leagues Nicks can be had easily, while none of the Cruz holders will part with him unless you include the kitchen sink. I think not knowing week to week whether Nicks will be able to finish a game is what really drops his desirability. So until Cruz gets hit with the injury bug for four straight seasons I think his stud-level will remain very much higher than Nicks…

Oh, if you take out Nick’s one game against Tampa Bay where he had 10 for 199 yards, and a TD, his numbers look even worse over a 16 game season. I would be pissed if I paid ‘Cruz-value’ for Nicks in a trade and got his 2012 results from him.

But nice article.

Cyrus Miller
9 years ago

In my auction dynasty, where Nicks and Danario Alexander were FA’s who could be extended for a little less than 10% of the cap or become restricted FA (other teams bid on them, you match winning bid if you want to keep them), Nicks was traded for Alexander and Demeco Ryans in January.

In October of 2011, Cruz/3rd was traded for a 2012 first and a lot of cap savings. That is an older value for Cruz and not at all reflective of his current trade value.

I personally am pissed about the Alexander trade, as I would gladly give up more than that for Nicks.

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