Victor Cruz underpaid but not underappreciated

Victor Cruz acknowledges the fans before the game

Victor Cruz acknowledges the fans before the game against the Chicago Bears during a preseason game at MetLife Stadium. (Aug. 24, 2012) (Credit: Getty)

The answer to this trivia question is a no-brainer: Who's the most underpaid player in the NFL this year?

Victor Cruz. And it's not even close for second.

The Giants' third-year receiver, coming off a breakout season with 82 catches for a team-record 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns, is due to earn $540,000 in this, the last year of his three-year rookie contract. At a time when the league's top receivers make upward of $10 million per season, Cruz is now a bargain basement special.

But as the Giants prepare for tonight's season opener against the Cowboys, money is the last thing on Cruz's mind. Which is a good thing for both him and the Giants, because we've seen way too many examples of players obsessing over money and letting it interfere with their preparation and performance.

Cruz is determined not to let that happen.

"I'm not thinking about the contract," he told me in a recent interview. "I know that will be taken care of down the line. The Giants take care of their players, so I'm not worried about that."

He's right. Rarely is there a case when the Giants don't reward their best players with lucrative contracts. But Cruz is a slightly different case, if for no other reason than timing. He's entering just his third NFL season, and even after last year's spectacular performance, the team is not inclined to tear up his existing deal. At least not now.

But general manager Jerry Reese's track record is consistent; he almost always extends the deals of his quality young players and usually before the deals are up. So don't be surprised to see the Giants approach Cruz later this season about a new contract.

"My main job right now is to concentrate on football, and that's what I'm going to do," Cruz said. "I'm not letting that [contract] stuff get in the way of anything."

And by all measures, Cruz appears ready to build on last year. He produced some of the team's most important plays, including that 99-yard touchdown against the Jets on Christmas Eve, a moment that turned the Giants' season around. The following week, he had a 74-yard touchdown catch against the Cowboys in the NFC East-title clincher.

Cruz is planning on more of that, starting tonight. From himself. From his team.

"We have to come out and be sharp and like coach [Tom Coughlin] said, build the bridge," Cruz said. "Extend our play, the way we were playing at the end of the season last year, and continue that on through this season."

Cruz broke out his trademark salsa dance celebration on touchdowns last year, and he plans on doing the same, mostly as a tribute to his grandmother, who urged him to honor his Hispanic roots.

"I have to keep it going," he said. "I can't have [my grandmother] on my bad side."

Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr, who joined the team as a free agent in the offseason, promised there will be no dancing in the end zone for Cruz on Wednesday night. "All that salsa dancing is fine, but you've got to come through me," Carr said this week. "I don't plan on seeing no dancing."

Said Cruz: "I could [not] care less."

Cruz might be an especially important part of the Giants' receiving game against Dallas because of Hakeem Nicks' uncertain situation. He's listed as questionable with a foot problem, although he insists he's playing. Even so, Nicks might not be at full strength, making Cruz an indispensable part of the offense. That's fine by the former walk-on free agent, who is getting used to overcoming the odds.

"I just go to work as if I'm a rookie trying to make the team," Cruz said. "Every time I'm on the field, I work as hard as I possibly can."

It has certainly paid off for the Giants, who used Cruz's breakout season as part of their march to the Super Bowl. And it's about to pay off for Cruz himself.

It won't be long before the NFL's biggest bargain enjoys the financial rewards that are about to come his way.