By Ernie Palladino
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Victor Cruz belongs to the Giants’ past now, his present ridden out by the future.
In the end, $7.5 million was just too much for general manager Jerry Reese to spend on a third wide receiver, even an immensely popular one whose name should ultimately end up in the team’s Ring of Honor. Even one whose star rose in such improbable fashion and burned bright enough to make the salsa the coolest end zone dance in the NFL.
For all those who might criticize Reese for turning the chant of “C-R-U-U-U-U-Z” into a memory with one stroke of pen to ledger Monday, let them be reminded that the salary cap era leaves little room for sentimentality.
For a team that would love to re-sign defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, take a run at free agent defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins, and acquire at least one, if not two, offensive lineman, the $10 million of cap space they cleared by cutting Cruz and the equally classy but obsolete running back Rashad Jennings will come in awfully handy.
It is the Cruz cut that stings, though. He earned his popularity, not through the me-first bragadoccio of so many modern athletes, but through good, hard work. His rise from undrafted, small-school longshot in 2010 to the Giants’ main receiver from the Super Bowl year of 2011 to 2012 made him a household name in East Rutherford. His return from a devastating patellar tendon injury in 2014 and subsequent calf problems that kept him sidelined in 2015 inspired more than one young athlete to power through the curveballs life serves up.
None of that could save him from the future, however. Odell Beckham, still far from 30 and twice as quick as Cruz ever was, has grabbed the receiving spotlight with both hands, and has no intention of letting it go anytime soon.
Sterling Shepard, a healthy route-runner extraordinaire heading into his second year, has Cruz’s old slot position locked down. If the crowd liked his work last year, they’ll love him this year as Eli Manning’s trust in him grows.
Those two are the future. There was simply no room for a high-pay receiver who, at least in the mind of head coach Ben McAdoo, no longer merited more than a couple looks per game.
Cruz might have been happy with a pay cut, but Reese actually did him a favor. For one who came so far at the beginning and worked so hard to get back at the end, it might have been downright cruel to bring him to camp as a cut-rate vet taking the practice scraps younger third and fourth options like Roger Lewis and Tavarres King leave him.
At least now he can try to find work elsewhere. Buffalo could use a leader like Cruz. Wouldn’t it be something if Bill Belichick, collector of the old and unwanted, picked him up for a run at a sixth Lombardi Trophy?
His career should not end with this. He still gets downfield, though not with the regularity of the old Victor. For a team searching for a good slot receiver who fears nothing but inactivity, Cruz still has value.
His departure from the Giants was simple salary cap-era finances. His money is needed elsewhere. Since he was not going to overtake Beckham or Shepard, Cruz became expendable.
It happens like that all over the league these days.
But it doesn’t mean the MetLife Stadium crowd will miss him any less.
Or ever forget him.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino