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Bar raised for Giants' Ballard, Cruz

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Posted Oct. 20, 2011 @ 2:18 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

The bye week has given the Giants a chance to do what they have needed most recently: get healthy. But it also has given people a chance to fully appreciate just how good — and unexpected — the contributions of WR Victor Cruz and TE Jake Ballard have been.

Considering the duo had combined for zero NFL receptions before this season, expecting them to displace the production of departed WR Steve Smith, a Pro Bowler, and TE Kevin Boss, an Eli Manning red-zone favorite, seemed a bit unrealistic.

The Giants haven't had much of a choice. Injuries might have forced Cruz and Ballard into roles beyond expectations, but the good news is that they have capitalized on the chances and Manning is relying on them in key situations.

In Smith's Pro Bowl season of 2009, he and Boss combined for 149 receptions for 1,787 yards and 12 TDs. Amazingly, Cruz and Ballard are on pace to nearly match — and actually partially exceed — those totals through six games this season with a full-season projection of 96 catches for 1,789 yards and 13 TDs.

Cruz had shown some receiving skill in the 2010 preseason before getting hurt, but Ballard was mostly an unknown as a pass catcher.

"I thought he would be a good blocker," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "You saw a big strong kid (who) could hold his own with the big defensive ends and outside linebackers we were going to face. He has done that. I thought he would catch the ball well, (but) I didn't see a guy that would be as effective as he has been running routes down the field.

"I thought he would be a good, solid point-of-attack blocker, but I didn't think that he would be as versatile as he is right now."

As for Cruz, Gilbride said there's more work to be done, despite his promising start.

"For every two steps forward it's a step-and-a-half back," Gilbride said. "He giveth and he taketh on a lot of things. But you see a guy that can make plays and can play the inside position.

"It's a slow process. And the incremental growth is going to be painfully slow for us as coaches, but the reality is I felt that he was a kid who had some quickness, had some run-after-the-catch ability, obviously he has the capacity to make some terrific catches, almost some spectacular catches.

"As a coach you've got to remind yourself, he's raw. He's as raw as they come. But I just believe in my heart, and I believed early on, he could be a player."

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