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Giants could use first draft pick on big receiver

Giants general manager Jerry Reese stands alongside team

Giants general manager Jerry Reese stands alongside team owner John Mara during training camp on July 27, 2013. Credit: James Escher

INDIANAPOLIS - Eli Manning never has gone into an NFL season without a wide receiver who was a first-round draft pick. He came into the league in 2004 with Ike Hilliard already on the Giants' roster. He added Plaxico Burress to his stable in his second year, and since Burress' notorious departure after the 2008 season, Manning has thrown more completions to Hakeem Nicks than he has to any other Giants teammate.

As the Giants formulate a blueprint for what appears to be Life After Nicks -- he's due to become a free agent next month -- they find themselves in a position in which several highly touted players could be available to them with the 12th selection on May 8. And an opportunity to extend their streak.

Marqise Lee (USC), Mike Evans (Texas A&M) and Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State) are projected to be first-round picks at the position, and all were on the field at the NFL Scouting Combine Sunday, where Tom Coughlin and Jerry Reese were keeping close watch. So too, undoubtedly, was new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.

A year ago, Reese made it seem as if the Giants already had the heir apparent to Nicks, even though Rueben Randle wasn't a first-round pick. The general manager said the 2012 second-rounder had the potential to be a "No. 1'' receiver. But this weekend, Reese backed off of that analysis.

"The jury is still out on that,'' Reese said Saturday when asked if Randle will replace Nicks as the top target. "He's a good player. I'm not sure if he's a one, if he's a two, if he's a three. But I think he can contribute to our receiver corps.''

So could any of the possible first-round picks. Evans and Benjamin in particular have the size the Giants have coveted in the past. Evans is 6-5, 231 pounds; Benjamin is 6-5, 240. Lee, who is 5-11, 195 pounds, might be too similar to Victor Cruz for the Giants to take him.

They also have speed. Evans posted a 4.46 in the 40-yard dash, and Benjamin said he grew up chasing rabbits and catching them with his bare hands. Former Giants first-round pick David Wilson also did that.

Beyond the numbers, both seem to have a swagger. Evans talked about his ability to outmuscle defensive backs for jump balls, something the Giants have not been very adept at in recent years. "Take the air out of them,'' Evans said. "Make them stop talking a little bit.''

His speed and size would be helpful for a new Giants offense that Coughlin said will not be a true West Coast system and will look to take vertical chances.

Bringing in a rookie this year could be less of an ordeal than in years past, when young players struggled to find roles in the complex offense. Because everyone will be learning the new ways of McAdoo, the Giants could plop either Evans or Benjamin opposite Cruz. Or opposite Randle with Cruz in the slot, given that the Giants have not exactly given up on Randle.

"We expect him to make a significant jump,'' Reese said of Randle. "He led our team in touchdowns for our receivers and we expect him to continue to grow and be a more mature player and be a strong contributor for us.''

For sure, the Giants have other more pressing needs on offense. They need to rebuild their line and find a tight end. They are optimistic about but not counting on a fully healthy return of Wilson off neck surgery.

But those areas can be addressed in free agency, and in later rounds of the draft in which the positions tend to run deep. The Giants have made it clear that the one part of their offense that isn't "broken,'' to use the word of co-owner John Mara, is Manning. A big target with first-round talent could be the best choice to keep it that way.


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