Victor Cruz was one of the biggest breakout players in recent history last season. He joins Brandon Marshall (2007), Miles Austin (2009), Sidney Rice (2009), and Brandon Lloyd (2010) as the only players in the past five seasons with over 1,300 receiving yards and at least 1,000 more receiving yards than he produced the prior season. As a rookie, Cruz didn't record a single catch with the Giants in 2010. His 1,536 yards last season represent the largest single-season jump in receiving yards in NFL history; in fact, Cruz' season was the 24th-most receiving yards in league history. Going from nothing to historically great is going to make it difficult to find historical comparisons.
Cruz' season was about as shocking as Randy Moss in 1998 or Anquan Boldin in 2003 during their breakout rookie performances. Isaac Bruce had previously held the record for the largest increase in receiving yards over a single season, going from 272 yards as a rookie to 1,781 yards as a second-year player in 1995. On the other hand, there are examples like Chicago's Marcus Robinson, who had 44 receiving yards his first season before exploding with 1,400 yards in 1999. Robinson's career high after that season was just 738 yards in 2000.
So what will the future hold for Cruz? As of early June, he is being drafted, on average, as the 10th receiver off the board. That means the fantasy community expects considerable regression from the once-proven Giants star, who ranked fourth in 2011. Is that appropriate*?
Let's put aside Cruz for a minute and focus on the Giants. Due to the incredible passing marks set last year, New York's 4,734 passing yards ranked only fifth in the league. The Giants ranked sixth in pass attempts and 22nd in rush attempts, a decidedly pass-heavy team. Cruz himself accounted for 31% of the Giants' receiving yards last season -- good for sixth-highest rate in the league. His teammate, Hakeem Nicks - who had an average draft position of WR3 prior to breaking a bone in his foot - accounted for 24% of New York's receiving yards in 2011. Of course, in the postseason, Nicks gained 444 yards and scored four touchdowns, while Cruz only accounted for 269 yards and one score.
So Cruz played on a pass-happy offense, but not an extremely pass happy offense that's incapable of repeating. He gained a high percentage of his team's receiving yards, but, again, not an extraordinarily high amount. If Cruz was an established player, I don't think anyone would view his production in 2011 as fluky.
Of course, Cruz did stand out in one way. The vast majority of his production came out of the slot, playing inside during the Giants' three-receiver sets. In fact, he led the NFL in receiving yards gained out of the slot. Cruz and Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski were the only two players to gain over 400 yards on short passes in the middle of the field. Cruz trailed only Wes Welker in yards gained after the catch. All those numbers help to paint the picture of a receiver who the Giants depended on consistently to move the chains, despite the big-play highlights Cruz often created.
The fact that Cruz was relied on by the Giants on the shorter and intermediate throws should help him retain his value. No, he may not again score five touchdowns of 65 yards or more, but he's going to consistently get looks from one of the best quarterbacks in the game. He has a high yards-per-carry average, but he's not a deep threat in the boom-or-bust sense. No one is drafting Cruz expecting him to repeat his numbers from 2011 - natural regression is to be expected - but don't shy away from Cruz thinking he's a one-year wonder. The Giants offense was very productive with him playing a central role, and I expect he'll be a very valuable player especially in points per reception leagues.
*Of course, Jordy Nelson, who ranked second last season, has an ADP of WR15. That's the subject for another post.
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