Hakeem Nicks is the New York Giants' top receiver, but for now he'll be following the lead of Victor Cruz on the path to a new contract.
Cruz, who signed a six-year, $45.879 million contract Monday, became the 18th-highest-paid wide receiver in the league Monday. He's the Giants' No. 2 receiver, behind the 25-year-old Nicks, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2013 season.
Lead receivers have been earning between $12 million and $15 million per season. If Nicks stays healthy -- that hasn't been a given in his career -- the Giants will be in advanced number-crunching mode as they were this offseason.
"I'm concerned as a teammate and as a friend because I want to see Hakeem around in Giants blue as long as we're together in the National Football League," Cruz said. "But there's ways to do things. There's ways that you can create space.
"So I think that's a road the Giants have to cross when they get there. But it's going to be tough. It's going to take some decision-making. It's going to take whether Hakeem wants to be here or not. And it's about him taking care of his family at this point. We'll see how it goes, but it's definitely going to be a long road ahead."
Nicks played in just 13 games last season and minor foot and knee injuries have limited him in previous years.
The Minnesota Vikings faced a similar -- though multi-faceted -- decision with Percy Harvin in February. Rather than invest in the injury-prone, yet explosive, playmaker, the Vikings dealt Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks for a collection of draft picks. Harvin's case had more layers, including a rift with the coaching staff, past history of migraine headaches and foot and leg injuries and reported clashes with other coaches dating to his high school days.
Nicks isn't a character concern for disciplinarian coach Tom Coughlin. But the salary cap adds a level of trepidation for GM Jerry Reese to the decision to invest in Nicks when all factors -- injuries, Eli Manning's steady performance when Nicks has been idle, other options on the roster -- are considered. The Cruz deal includes a team-friendly bookkeeping maneuver -- a $9.5 million signing bonus and NFL-minimum $630,000 to retain salary-cap compliance -- and a like structure might be necessary to lock up Nicks.
Cruz made just $1.23 million in his first three seasons combined before cashing in on his performance this week. He said he'll suggest to Nicks to go about his business until the contract, eventually, takes care of itself.
"Take my approach and don't say anything," Cruz said. "You don't need to say anything. There's nothing to say that's going to help your cause, at least publicly. Just stay with your family, stay grounded, stay in communication with your agent and let him know exactly what you want and what you're looking for. That's all you need. And then everything will unfold from there."
Offseason negotiations quickly reached a dead end with Nicks. He's watched Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson reel in $120 million deals to stay with the team's that drafted them in the first round. He's also taken notice of the unrestricted free agent deals that lured Mike Wallace (Dolphins) and Vincent Jackson (Buccaneers) away from their original teams at a price tag of about $11 million per season. He also might be reminded that the NFL's leading receiver over the past five seasons, Wes Welker, was allowed to walk by the New England Patriots.
Nicks is in the final year of his rookie deal signed as the 29th overall pick in the 2009 draft. He's scheduled to earn $2.7 million and is a strong candidate to be designated the Giants' franchise player in February.
"I'm definitely going to put the pressure on him to come back and see if he wants to play with me for the long haul,'' Cruz said. "We'll see how it goes, but Hakeem's his own man, he's going to make his own decision. But I'm definitely going to see if I can get him to stay with me for a couple years."