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Giants QB Manning has new deal but needs go-to receivers

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Eli Manning knows who will pay him to throw the football through 2015. Now he needs to find out who will catch it.

On the verge of signing a six-year, $97 million contract extension -- one that will make him the NFL's highest-paid player at an average annual salary of $15.3 million per year -- Manning is locked in as a New York Giant.

It's his go-to guys who are gone.

Plaxico Burress was released in April, about four months after he accidentally shot himself in the thigh at a Manhattan nightclub. Amani Toomer wasn't re-signed after 13 seasons and is with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Since 2005, Manning's first full season as the Giants' starting quarterback, Burress and Toomer have combined for 443 catches and 50 touchdowns.

Manning isn't without targets, as veteran Steve Smith, who led the Giants with 57 catches last season, likely will claim one of the starting spots. Smith's emergence last season boosted the Giants' confidence in the third-year pro, though he isn't nearly as accomplished as Burress or Toomer.

The competition for the other spot is wide open -- and crowded. Vying for the job are youngsters Domenik Hixon, Sinorice Moss and Mario Manningham; veteran David Tyree; and rookies Hakeem Nicks, a first-round draft pick, and Ramses Barden, a big third-round choice who reminds people of Burress.

"I feel like we have as much talent as we have ever had," said Tyree, who is best remembered for his remarkable helmet catch during the game-winning drive over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, which Burress capped with the winning touchdown reception. "The issue is the inexperience at the position."

The five veterans have made a total of 19 career starts. Hixon leads the group with eight, including seven a year ago.

It's no wonder that many question whether the Giants have anyone who can provide the deep threat that Burress brought or the consistency that Toomer showed. But for the receivers, the doubters are their rallying point.

"We all have something to prove, so as a group, it helps a lot because every time you get the opportunity, you are trying to take it to the next level," Moss said. "So whatever chance you get, short pass, deep pass, you are trying to do something with it. It is putting the edge on us to go over the top in whatever you do."

Moss has done little in his four seasons with the Giants. Since training camp opened at the University at Albany, he has been the one receiver to show an ability to go deep.

Smith has emerged as the most sure-handed guy, although he dropped what would have been a touchdown pass from Manning earlier this week in practice.

"I came in with two vets here, and now they're gone, so I think it's my time to step in," Smith said. "I need to make plays and go out there and try to minimize mistakes and make a lot of plays and get on the same page as Eli."

Hixon caught 43 passes for a team-high 596 yards last season, with two going for touchdowns. However, he also had a memorable drop on a long pass against the Philadelphia Eagles late in the season.

Since camp opened, Hixon has been penciled in as the Giants' No. 2 receiver.

"It's great to start out there, but it's more important to end up there," Hixon said. "This is an opportunity you dream of as a kid, to be a starter in the NFL. I still take it the same way, though. You have to go out and do your job."

Manningham, Nicks and Barden have the longest way to go.

A second-round pick a year ago, Manningham suffered a quadriceps injury in training camp and was limited to eight regular-season games and four receptions.

Nicks and Barden have shown an ability to catch the ball in training camp, but their biggest job now is learning a new offense.

"Until you learn the playbook, it's not football," Barden said. "You are thinking a lot and you're cautious on going full speed all the time. As soon as you can get comfortable and know what you are doing, the sooner you can react and play with the instincts you have learned over the last how many years you have played the game."

Watching Manning, it's easy to see his unfamiliarity with some of the receivers. He'll throw a pass in practice and then seemingly look at the receiver, pointing this way and that with his arms, clearly indicating the player ran a route that wasn't in the playbook.

Manning admits that getting on the same page with the receivers will take time, especially considering they hadn't worked out for the last six weeks.

"We have some playmakers. We have some talented guys," Manning said. "There is a bunch of us. It's kind of weeding through and seeing who is going to step up for us day in and day out and make some plays for us."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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