EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When Eli Manning invited three of his New York Giants teammates to join him for quarterback/receiver drills in early April at Duke University, he figured the group -- which included Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Louis Murphy -- was merely setting the stage for more work this spring.
"The thought of that was like a little pre-OTA practice," Manning said. "Just kind of work out some of the kinks and work on some fundamentals. Get used to catching the ball and throwing to each other in hopes of kind of having everybody there to give us a little jump-start into our preparations of our offseason program."
Well, Manning hasn't seen Cruz on a football field since. Cruz has not signed his tender and wants a long-term contract. And while Nicks was present for team conditioning beginning April 15, he hasn't attended any of the Giants' first four voluntary OTAs, including Thursday's.
Cruz's continued absence, as long as he has no contract, is expected. Nicks' decision to not attend initially surprised Coughlin a week ago, and now has left the coach "certainly" disappointed.
"At one point, Hakeem told me that he was going to be here, and then he was not here," Coughlin said. "Now the strictest interpretation, as everybody knows, is it's a voluntary program."
We wondered -- so we asked -- how Coughlin strikes a balance as a coach who wants his players on the field but also knows the workouts are defined as voluntary under the collective bargaining agreement.
"How do I balance it?" Coughlin said. "Not very well."
Yet Coughlin knows it's still May -- at least for a few more hours -- and his players are running around in shorts and competing in non-contact drills.
"It would be great to have all of our guys working and feeling good about the progress we're making and that type of thing," he said. "That's just from a coach's perspective. You deal with some of this pretty much on a yearly basis, and it's a product of our system and that's the way it is. I can complain all I want, but, nevertheless, it is our system."
Nicks' motivation to stay away remains a mystery. His camp has not commented, and the Giants are tight-lipped on the subject. Nicks has one year remaining on his contract, but said on April 18 that he would not negotiate through the media; there is no indication that is his intention.
It's also worth noting that a year ago, Nicks broke his right foot during OTAs, an injury that set him back through training camp and foretold a pain-plagued season compounded by a Week 2 knee injury. He underwent a surgical procedure on his left knee this offseason.
The Giants already were being cautious with Nicks this spring. It's not the worst thing in the world for him to not be running routes these days. And several teammates do believe Nicks -- whose toughness has earned universal respect in the locker room -- will attend mandatory minicamp, which begins June 11.
As for Cruz, his contract talks with the Giants have inched along at an incredibly deliberate pace -- Cruz misspoke in October, saying the "structure" of the deal was agreed upon -- and as of Thursday, there was no change. The Giants can reduce the amount of his tender on June 17. There does remain a strong feeling that Cruz, the local Paterson, N.J. kid who's made good after going undrafted out of UMass, will remain with the Giants.
A question, for another day, is whether or not the Giants can keep both Cruz and Nicks long term, as they'd like to do.
For now, Manning is throwing passes -- and doing some coaching of his own -- with receivers like Murphy, Rueben Randle, Jerrel Jernigan and Ramses Barden. Murphy is a fast, deep threat who has found that Manning tosses an "awesome" deep ball.
Following a spring practice on a day when temperatures spiked into the 90s, Manning stood at his locker and answered questions about his receivers -- the ones present and the ones who were not.
"I think if we weren't looking really sharp and not getting open or not being as effective offensively, I would be frustrated with the circumstances," he said. "But the fact that we're doing well, I've been very pleased."
Manning knows the calendar is on the Giants' side. It's not even summer yet. It's too early to sweat.
Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports.