Justin K. Aller
Similar size, similar upbringing, similar paths into the NFL, Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown and New York's Victor Cruz are on a playmaking collision course Sunday.
Two receivers diverged in the NFL wood, and sorry they could not travel both, and be one receiver, on draft day they stood. Teams looked down one as far as they could, to where he bent in the Combine undergrowth.
Central Michigan's Antonio Brown, a 2009 sixth-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, tore up a small school en route to his selection to play on Sundays. He left a year of collegiate eligibility on the table.
One's a bit bigger (Cruz's 6-foot-even to Brown's 5-foot-10), and the other had a higher pedigree. One has the distinction of being the first player in NFL history to gain 1,000 yards receiving and returning, one holds his team's record for receiving yards (1,536 for the Giants in 2011).
One signed a contract this past offseason (Brown, six years, $43.04 million deal that included the 2012 season). One has a tentative deal in place.
No doubt, Brown's contract was considered a comp in his negotiation, and the fact Cruz has 16 receiving touchdowns to Brown's three strongly suggests his deal will be worth a bit more than Brown's.
Playmaking ability exists for both players, and both players will be on display when the Steelers take on the Giants at 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
The fact both the Giants and the Steelers have young receivers leading their teams in catches after finding them seemingly out of nowhere speaks largely to why both of these teams have had the success they've had over the last five years. Four Super Bowl appearances between them since 2007, three championships (two for the Giants) and the envy of the rest of the league. Not too bad.
Some teams may be intimidated by the aura of success both these teams have, particularly when armed with their high-pedigree quarterbacks. It's low-priority draft picks and undrafted free agents like Brown and Cruz, though, that give these teams the explosion they possess.
There's a reason for that. They're both explosive playmakers. Not to take anything away from Wallace or Nicks (both with large contracts in store for them at a later time), but either Cruz or Brown in the short open field horrifies opposing defenses.
While the Ben vs. Eli hype is understandable, don't be surprised if this game is decided by the gems of the 2009 and 2010 drafts, respectively. Which one of these guys will come up with bigger plays, particularly down the stretch, could be the deciding factor.