New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz is taking his scoring, sales appeal and salsa steps into the National Football League playoffs with a possible $45 million payoff in sight.
An undrafted player out of the University of Massachusetts, Cruz has set a record for yards receiving for one of the NFL’s oldest franchises in his second professional season.
His performance helped spur the Giants to a postseason return after a two-year absence, with a first-round game against the Atlanta Falcons on Jan. 8. It also has the 25-year-old Paterson, New Jersey, native poised for a potentially significant pay raise after making $405,000 this season, about 5 percent of the salary of Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
“Anytime you put up those kind of numbers, he’s going to be in for a really good payday,” said Roddy White, a receiver who has a six-year, $48 million contract with the Falcons. “He deserves it.”
The Giants are 3-point favorites at for their 1 p.m. game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, against the Falcons, one of four postseason games this weekend. The Cincinnati Bengals visit the Houston Texans at 4:30 p.m. as 3-point underdogs, and the New Orleans Saints host the Detroit Lions at 8 p.m. as 10-point favorites tomorrow. The Pittsburgh Steelers are at the Denver Broncos and favored by 8 points the following day at 4:30 p.m..
Cruz, who performs a salsa-style dance after touchdowns, said he’s focused on his first playoff appearance and not looking to the future. He has one season and $490,000 remaining on his rookie deal that had no signing bonus and three years of minimum salary.
Cruz has emerged as one of the Giants’ most valuable and popular players. His No. 80 jersey is the team’s second-best seller for the season behind Manning and the 13th-best seller in the league last month, according to NFLShop.com. Cruz is ninth on the ranking of rising sports stars issued today by Irvine, California-based Brand Affinity Technologies, which calculates consumer appeal based on performance, media exposure, popularity and other indicators among more than 45,000 athletes and celebrities.
Andrew Brandt, an NFL analyst for ESPN who was a vice president with the Green Bay Packers from 1999 to 2008, said in a telephone interview that he expected the Giants to approach Cruz about a contract extension by midseason of 2012, if the receiver continues to perform well.
Cruz could expect to make as much as $45 million based on players with similar statistics. Among recent contracts for top NFL receivers, Brandt pointed to Brandon Marshall, who has a five-year, $47.3 million contract with the Miami Dolphins; Santonio Holmes, who got $45 million over five years from the New York Jets, and Miles Austin, who received a seven-year, $57.2 million deal from the Dallas Cowboys. Like Cruz, Austin wasn’t drafted by any of the NFL’s 32 teams.
The Giants declined to comment on potential contract negotiations. Jack Huntington, Cruz’s agent, didn’t return calls or e-mails seeking comment on his client’s deal.
Cruz didn’t catch any passes in three games as a rookie before going on injured reserve. This year, he had 1,536 yards receiving to break Amani Toomer’s team record and finish third in the NFL. He caught 82 passes, tied for second place in team history, and scored nine touchdowns.
Cruz punctuated his most recent scores with his end zone dance as shouts of “Cruuuuuz,” echoed through MetLife Stadium. He had a 99-yard touchdown reception in a victory against the Jets on Dec. 25 and a 74-yard scoring play that sparked the Giants’ win against the Cowboys that put New York in the playoffs as the National Football Conference East division champion.
“When you look at this last part of the season and the number of plays the young man has made which has given us a spark or put us in position to win games, it is truly amazing,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin told reporters this week.
Cruz’s play has already helped him in business, with local retailers lining up orders from his clothing company, Young Whales, which he started with former Giants teammate Nate Collins. Almost all inventory has been distributed or sold, with a portion of the proceeds to be donated to local charities, said operations manager Elaina Watley, who is Cruz’s girlfriend of 10 years.
Cruz grew up in Paterson, a northeastern New Jersey city where the median household income is about $34,000 -- less than half the state average -- and almost 25 percent of residents live in poverty. After high school, Cruz wanted to play at Rutgers University, but the Piscataway, New Jersey-based school’s last football scholarship went to Devin McCourty, who was a 2010 first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots.
Cruz ended up at Massachusetts, which doesn’t play at college football’s top level and competes against schools including Holy Cross and Central Connecticut. He was academically ineligible to play during his second year at UMass and kicked off the team again in 2007 for bad grades. Given another chance, Cruz took advantage and totaled 130 catches for 1,932 yards and 11 touchdowns over his final two seasons.
Cruz scored three touchdowns in a preseason game against the Jets as a rookie, a performance that drew praise from basketball All-Star LeBron James on Twitter. After a hamstring injury ended his first season, Cruz’s role expanded this year when Steve Smith left the team.
Cruz caught two passes in the first two games, broke out with two touchdowns in Week 3 against the Philadelphia Eagles and has become the team’s most explosive offensive player.
“To be able to come in and do some positive things in that game and do some things that were above my expectations, it was amazing for my confidence,” Cruz said. “I kind of carried that over to each week moving forward.”
He had seven 100-yard receiving games, breaking the franchise record of five, and is pro football’s first wide receiver with four touchdown catches of more than 70 yards in a season since Otis Taylor of the 1966 Kansas City Chiefs.
Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson probably will be defending Cruz most of the time in this weekend’s game and said he has great respect for him. He said he also expects Cruz’s performance has set him up for a big payday.
“What he’s doing is amazing,” Robinson said in an interview. “It lets other guys know that you don’t have to be a high draft pick to come out here and make plays. If he keeps playing like that, he’ll get whatever he wants.”