By Ernie Palladino
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No one can make a career out of a Giants-Jets preseason game. But they can start one, or even continue one.
This is why Friday’s annual grudge match looms so important for people like Giants wide receiver Corey Washington and the Jets wide receiver Stephen Hill. Hill, rapidly approaching bust status after an inconsistent training camp, needs to have some decent first-team snaps, if only to ease coach Rex Ryan’s mind that he can become a reliable target for Geno Smith. Washington, the surprise of Giants camp, likely will see most of his time with the second unit. If he does get in with Eli Manning’s “ones” at some point in the first three quarters, a good showing would certainly clinch a roster spot.
If there is heat on anybody, however, it is Hill. Washington has little to lose, having come in as a free-agent longshot. Even if, for some reason, Tom Coughlin passes him over as one of his six receivers, Washington has compiled enough good tape for other teams to take notice. That includes his 4-yard game-winning catch against the Colts from Ryan Nassib last week. He’ll find a job elsewhere.
Hill is the real question mark in this game, not because of his immediate future, but because of his long-range outlook. He’s a roster lock, but this is his last year as such. The Jets have just about lost patience with their second-round pick of 2012. They expected him to come out of training camp gate and tear his way into the No. 2 receiver spot. But he has been nothing if not erratic, a mirror of his first two seasons.
Hill’s numbers are terrible, despite ample opportunities. He’s been in on 70 snaps, but has only one reception for 17 yards. You can count the times he’s been targeted on your index and middle finger, which means he’s either playing too slow for Smith or Michael Vick to zero in on him, or he is simply not getting open.
It’s not as if he’s gobbled up everything in drills, either. Going into this one, his reputation as an inconsistent pass-catcher remains firmly intact.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Hill will lose a roster spot if his performance remains status quo. Outside of Eric Decker, David Nelson and Jeremy Kerley, there aren’t a lot of targets out there for Smith. Hill will probably stick because of the financial investment and lack of depth, not exactly the way a player wants to go into a season.
But the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Georgia Tech product can change all that around with a solid performance. The trappings will be there, as this is traditionally the most intense preseason game on the calendar. There’s always a little blood-letting when the Giants and Jets get together, so the added juice could make for sharper individual performances. If Hill doesn’t ramp it up for this one, the Jets might want to start worrying that 2014 will be no different from the past two inconsistent seasons. If that becomes the case, he might just find himself out of a job after the season.
On the flip side, the 6-foot-4, 214-pound Washington could be on the same path a fellow named Victor Cruz trod in 2010. Like the then-unknown free-agent Cruz, the athletic leaper has excelled during drills and played consistently well with the second unit.
The current receiver situation also works in his favor. First-rounder Odell Beckham Jr.’s hamstring injury has kept him off the field save for six practices and cast a haze over his future usefulness this year. Jerrel Jernigan hasn’t looked great. Fellow young receivers Marcus Harris and Preston Parker have looked solid, but have not been as effective as Washington.
Clearly, Washington is the star of the younger group. He’s in a position not just to sneak into the roster along with the locked-up Cruz, Rueben Randle and Beckham, but to bust right through the door.
This is the game to do it in. It was in this preseason rivalry that Cruz put the exclamation point on his improbable preseason with touchdown catches of 64, 34 and five yards, as well as a reception total of six for 145. After that, keeping him on the roster became a no-brainer for Coughlin.
It would please Ryan to no end if Hill turned in the type of performance that made him a no-brainer for the No. 2 receiver spot opposite Decker.
Washington would serve himself greatly with a Cruz-like performance that would turn him from glittery surprise to a no-brainer keeper for Coughlin.
Things like that have happened before.
Washington and Hill need to make it happen again, for themselves as well as their teams.
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