Twice this week, Tom Coughlin has rejected the notion the Giants need to add a veteran receiver in the wake of Hakeem Nicks suffering a broken foot. The head coach reiterated today that the team has a talented group of receivers on the field.
"Maybe there is perhaps another Victor Cruz," Coughlin said after an organized team activity at the Timex Performance Center.
Last year, Cruz stepped out of the shadows after an abbreviated rookie season in which he had no catches to become one of the NFL's most productive and dynamic receivers.
Ramses Barden believes he can be that player. He's not predicting he's going to catch 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns, as Cruz did in the 2011 regular season for the Super Bowl champion Giants. But after three years marked mostly by injuries, false starts and too few receptions, Barden believes his fourth season with the Giants will easily be his best.
"Every year is a big year," Barden said. "But contract-wise and where I've been in my career – dealing with injuries and some obstacles, I think it's definitely a big year. I'll play like I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. That's how I feel."
Barden is a key character in what has become a tidy storyline since Nicks was injured last Thursday. With Nicks expected to be sidelined for approximately three months, several other receivers – including second-round draft choice Rueben Randle, Jerrel Jernigan and Domenik Hixon – have an opportunity to step up in the spring and in training camp and earn playing time.
But perhaps no one has received more scrutiny than Barden, who at 6-6 and 224 pounds, has become more of a big target of fan frustration for his lack of production than he has for Eli Manning.
In his first three years, Barden played in only 17 games and caught 15 passes for 174 yards (11.6-yard avg.) with a long reception of 26 yards and no touchdowns. A third-round draft choice from Cal-Poly in 2009, Barden played in only three games as a rookie. In 2010, he suffered a severe ankle injury that forced him to miss the final seven games of that season and the first eight games in 2011. He returned to catch nine passes in eight games.
So while Barden is happy to get the extra reps in practice, he knows the real proving ground will be MetLife Stadium and anywhere else the Giants play their games in 2012.
"I've done enough in practice over the years, so I can't imagine it's that much of a concern as what happens on Sundays," Barden said. "I'm sure there will be some great catches and I'll have some boneheaded plays. My mark is going to be made on Sundays, not during the offseason as much as other guys' will."
Opening day is still more than three months way, but Barden is eager to prove he can be a big-time player on game day.
"That's kind of what they're waiting for," Barden said. "They were able to see some of that last year. In practice it's, 'Here we go again, great catch.' They've seen enough of that. I've seen enough of it. I'm confident to do those things in practice and I'm confident to do them in a game. But I have to do them with that consistency, with that professionalism, so it's, 'He made a good play, but we expect him to make those good plays.' I want that expectation. When you have that confidence behind you, it's amazing what you can do."
What does Coughlin think about the possibility of Barden assuming a more prominent role while Nicks is sidelined?
"It would be great if he did," Coughlin said.
Asked what Barden must do, Coughlin said, "Well, it has been a little bit of inconsistency. Some days are very, very good and others are not as good. He knows that and he is working hard on that. Hopefully, it is going to all catch up with Ramses this spring and this fall."
"Ramses is a smart guy," Manning said. "He knows the offense. He knows what to do. Last year, I think he was coming off the injury. He never really got exactly where he wanted to be. He looks like he is running well, coming out of his breaks well. So hopefully he can step up and play a role for us this year."
Despite his late start, Barden thought he was on his way to becoming a productive player last season. He caught two passes in his season debut at New England and three in New Orleans.
But his season essentially ended in a victory over the Jets on Dec. 24. Barden was targeted five times by Manning, but had just one reception, for four yards. He dropped balls he should have caught and had a game he'd prefer to forget.
"I just didn't look comfortable," he said. "I struggled off the line a couple of plays. In and out of my break I wasn't great. There's more there for me. I would like another opportunity to prove myself against those type of quality corners.
"I like how I was doing up until that game. And then I struggled to get into a rhythm. I did a couple of good things during the game. I think about that game every day. That played a major role in my playoff experience. So I'm driven by that."
Barden's playoff experience was that of a spectator. He was inactive for the regular season finale against Dallas and all four postseason games. Starting with the OTAs and continuing with the June minicamp and then training camp, Barden intends to earn a role as a more active participant in the upcoming season.
"There's plenty of pressure, honestly," he said. "But as far as what I feel, I think of it as a relaxed circumstance. I can be a cerebral guy, so I do a lot of thinking – sometimes too much. That can be a hindrance on the field. Right now, it's trying to learn how to relax a little bit more, playing free. That unconscious competence that coach Rich Ellerson instilled in me in college. It would be nice to get back to that feeling.
"Outside of the Jets game I was really feeling I was building toward something nice. I had a bad game at the wrong time. I want to get back to building those positive experiences – those solid catches, the pivotal third down ones, the blocking, the special teams work. I started to do some good things and I want to continue that and convert that into a role that's more dominant on the team."