EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – As the Giants again begin the process of sorting out a dilemma among the wide receivers, Victor Cruz and Domenik Hixon will have to provide much-needed stability.
For Cruz, picking up the offseason slack for Mario Manningham's free-agent defection to San Francisco and key playmaker Hakeem Nicks' fractured fifth metatarsal, won't be as hard as the task that faces Hixon. Cruz's 82 catches and a team-record 1,536 yards gave him that credibility.
But Hixon has to prove that his recovery from right ACL tears the last two years is complete, and that his old speed and reliability has returned.
That process has already started, as Hixon and Cruz lined up opposite each other Wednesday in their second organized team activity session as first-unit wideouts for the Giants.
"I feel great," Hixon said. "To be honest, it's been a long two years."
Hixon, working in Nicks' spot, made one outstanding catch off a throw by Eli Manning, and appeared to show no lingering signs from the surgery that ended his 2011 season after Week 2 when he re-tore the ligament on a 22-yard touchdown catch against the Rams.
Coach Tom Coughlin said he talked with Nicks after last Friday's operation in Charlotte, N.C., during which specialist Dr. Robert Anderson implanted a screw in his right foot. Coughlin said the wide receiver claimed he'd be ready for the start of training camp, though more conservative estimates of a three-month recovery might be more accurate. That would have him up to speed by mid-August.
Until then, Hixon will likely get the bulk of the first-team work, having started 10 games in his career. Behind Hixon and Cruz is Ramses Barden, a 2009 third-round pick, second-year player Jerrel Jernigan, and this year's second-round draft pick, Rueben Randle of LSU.
Former practice squad player Dan DePalma is also in the mix, though hip surgery will keep him out until training camp.
But the real weight is on Hixon. Especially after Coughlin described him as "a tough guy" who "doesn't back down from anything."
Hixon said he'd let others make that assessment. But he also said that he feels he has returned to 100 percent.
"They say that after knee surgery, you're supposed to be slower," Hixon said. "I'd like to put that to the test anytime. Go get the clock, run a 40-yard dash, do all that."
He actually did, in February, at the Andrews Institute in Florida.
"I'll leave (the time) between Andrews and me, but I felt good," Hixon said. "It's all a big myth. Maybe back in the day that's how it was, but not now."
Said offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, "He'd be the last guy to use two serious injuries as a crutch. But we're not asking too much of him right now."
Missing Nicks for the offseason and potentially a large chunk of training camp still comes as a blow, however. But the Giants have dealt with finding suitable replacements for missing pieces before.
They changed five positions on offense last year, and won a Super Bowl despite that. The wide receivers were involved in that as the loss of Steve Smith to Philadelphia and injuries to Manningham, Hixon, and Barden left the depth chart perilously short.
And yet, Cruz returned from his own lost rookie season in 2010 to produce a standout performance.
Yesterday, he was forced to move from his natural slot position to outside. But he said his year of experience will help him as he is called upon to lead and play multiple positions in Nicks' absence.
"Once you get a full season under your belt, you get a good idea of the offense," Cruz said. "It's really easy now to be the older guy and teach the younger guys."
Coughlin's hope is for a quick recovery for Nicks, and for Hixon to continue to show a dependability that will spur production in the short term, and depth in the long term.
And, who knows, perhaps he will find the next gamebreaker, along the way.
"Maybe," Coughlin said, "there's another Victor Cruz in here."
NOTES: First-year cornerback Brandon Bing of Rutgers injured his right knee in position drills and stayed on the ground for several minutes as trainers tended to him. But he eventually got to his feet and returned for team drills. ... Last year's fourth-round pick, James Brewer, took snaps at left tackle in place of the injured Will Beatty (back). Normally a right tackle in place of the departed Kareem McKenzie, the 6-foot-6, 330-pound Brewer said he's been flip-flopping sides. Beatty curtailed his 2011 season because of a detached retina.