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Searching For Hakeem Nicks

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What's wrong with Hakeem Nicks? Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.
What's wrong with Hakeem Nicks? Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.

The sound of over 65,000 people simultaneously letting out a prolonged groan of disgust followed by an even longer exasperated sigh is an awfully specific sound, and also one that's hard to forget. It's the sound that erupted from MetLife Stadium on Monday night as a perfectly (or almost perfectly) placed ball fell through the outstretched hands of Hakeem Nicks in the end zone on the Giants' opening drive of the game. It was the 16th play of a 17-play drive, and had Nicks come down with the pass (as he should have), the Giants would have taken a 7-0 lead.

A few short years ago, there's no doubt that Nicks would have come up with that catch. In fact, it was catches like that one that were his bread-and-butter during his first few years in the league. At only 25, Nicks is still young by just about anyone's standards. However, in his fifth year in the league, his career is following a trajectory that is troubling to Giants fans, especially since it was only 18 months ago that Nicks was considered by many to be one of the league's brightest young stars and best receivers.

In 2010 and 2011, Nicks was the Giants undisputed No. 1 wide receiver. His 18 touchdown receptions over those two seasons established him as a consistent threat not only in the red zone, where he was one of Eli Manning's most reliable targets, but also as a threat to break a big play at any moment. His numbers in the 2011 playoffs alone were astounding, and his 28 catches for 444 yards and four touchdowns were a major reason why the Giants were able to win their second Super Bowl title in four years. It was a postseason performance similar to Carlos Beltran's 2004 postseason tear with the Houston Astros, and although it's a completely different sport, the comparison is apt when you remember how many game-changing plays Nicks was responsible for in those four games. Had he become a free-agent following the 2011 season, there's no question that he would have fetched top dollar on the open market.

Fast forward to Week 7 of the 2013 season. With the Giants floundering in last place at 1-6, Nicks' name has been floating around the rumor mill in recent weeks with talk that the Giants may trade him to a contender with a gaping hole at the wide receiver position — teams like the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts or even the New York Jets. Nicks will become a free agent after this season, and many people figure the Giants might as well get something in return for him now before he walks.

That logic, in and of itself, makes some sense. It would have made more sense last year, though, when Nicks' value was at its peak. Now, Nicks has struggled through the first half of this season, and there's no question that his value has also taken a hit. With 27 catches for 470 yards and no touchdowns through seven games, it seems as if Nicks has fallen behind teammate Victor Cruz, who has emerged as the team's clear No. 1 receiver, and is even threatening to fall behind up-and-coming talent Rueben Randle, who has been impressive so far this year.

Cruz, who signed a new contract during the offseason, is earning every penny so far, while Nicks continues to drop passes and leave Giants fans scratching their heads wondering what went wrong. Last season, Nicks struggled with nagging injuries all year and was never fully 100 percent despite playing in 13 games. He seemed to be a shell of himself all season, and his numbers — 53 catches, 692 yards and three touchdowns — were a career low. So far this season, despite claiming that he entered training camp this summer fully healthy, he has still seemed a step or two behind where he once was.

Have the trade rumors been getting to his head and negatively affecting his performance? It's certainly possible, but there's no way anyone could know for sure besides Nicks himself. But it's been apparent that Nicks doesn't seem to be the same player he was only a few seasons ago, and even Tom Coughlin remarked to the media after his poor performance against the Vikings that Nicks hasn't been his old reliable self so far this year.

Whether it's the pressure to perform well in a contract year, the trade rumors or the Giants' poor start that has him struggling, the truth is that Nicks' future with the Giants is suddenly less certain than it was a year ago. The Giants front office seems to like Nicks and have expressed interest in the past in re-signing him when his contract is up, but all of that will depend on how the rest of his season goes.