NFL wide receiver Victor Cruz finds himself at a crossroads in his career. At 30-years-old, the New Jersey-born Puerto Rican is essentially starting over from scratch. Despite heading into his eighth professional season, Cruz is once again having to prove himself to the masses, just as he did as an undrafted rookie back in 2010. He is no longer the veteran stud with a secure roster spot, the huge contract, and all of the perks that come with it. Right now he’s having to prove once again–to himself, to his fans, and to his new employer, the Chicago Bears–that he can still play the game at a professional level.
Cruz has overcome the odds for pretty much his entire life. He grew up on the tough streets of Paterson, New Jersey. He became a football star at Paterson Catholic High School and earned a full scholarship to the University of Massachusetts. He overcame academic issues at UMass (a school better known for its basketball program more than its football program) to be named to the All-CAA team in both 2008 and 2009. He was a member of the 2007 Colonial Athletic Association conference championship team; UMass hasn’t won a championship since.
He salsa danced his way into the hearts of New Yorkers as he ushered in a new era of Giants football.
Despite his success at UMass, Cruz didn’t hear his name called at the 2010 NFL Draft. He’s not the first prospect to go undrafted, and he certainly won’t be the last. But to go undrafted after many years of hard work, dedication, and sacrifice, only to be overlooked due to the school you attended must be disheartening. However, Cruz didn’t stay off a team for too long; the New York Giants signed him as an undrafted free agent not too long afterwards. That didn’t mean he was safe in the NFL; no one ever is, but especially undrafted players, most of whom don’t survive the final preseason roster cuts.
Of course, Cruz would earn his spot on the final 53-man roster after leading the NFL preseason in 2010 with 297 receiving yards and four touchdown catches. His career would take off from there: from 2010 to 2016, Cruz would power the Giants offense with 303 receptions, 4,549 receiving yards, and 25 touchdown catches in 70 regular season games. He also had 24 catches for 299 yards and a touchdown catch in five career playoff games. He salsa danced his way into the hearts of New Yorkers as he ushered in a new era of Giants football and put together quite the list of accomplishments: two playoff appearances (2011, 2016), the 2011 NFC Championship (first for the Giants since 2007), and a Super Bowl XLVI over the New England Patriots in February 2012.
Just to add some more shine on his legacy, Cruz is also one of 13 players to have the longest touchdown catch in league history (99 yards). Some Giants fans believe that he is the greatest wide receiver that Eli Manning has ever had, an argument that continues to this day (somewhere, Odell Beckham Jr. weeps). The tandem he formed with Beckham from 2014 to 2016 (when healthy) was one of the more dangerous receiver pairs in the league, if only for a bried period.
Cruz was given a five-year, $45 million contract extension just before the 2013 season, a contract that wouldn’t be completely fulfilled. Unfortunately, the N.F.L. is sometimes an acronym for “Not For Long” and that would ultimately hold true for Cruz. After injuries limited his 2013 season, and ended his 2014 and 2015 seasons prematurely, followed by a subpar 2016 season (586 yards, 1 touchdown), the Giants chose to release Cruz at the conclusion of the 2016 season. This is where he would find himself in unfamiliar territory.
After enduring injuries to his patellar tendon, hamstring, calf, and heel (most of which required surgery), all while approaching the age of 30, options were limited for Cruz. Many teams won’t take a chance on a player with such a recent injury history, but the Chicago Bears aren’t just any team. They’re a big-market team in need of depth at wide receiver after losing Pro Bowler Alshon Jeffery during the offseason. That’s why, back in May, the Bears signed Cruz to a one-year “prove it” deal; the contract could pay up to $2 million with incentives.
For a franchise starved for a winner, Cruz’s championship pedigree is priceless.
As is tradition for Cruz, however, it’s not going to be easy to stick on Chicago’s roster. For starters, the Bears have a crowded depth chart at the position; Cruz has been competing with nine other players for what will only be five or six roster spots come September. Among the other receivers vying for a roster spot are Kendall Wright and Markus Wheaton, who are in the same situation as Cruz: injuries derailed their upstart careers with other teams, so they’re coming to Chicago for a fresh start. Then there’s the youth factor that Cruz must contend with in the forms of Kevin White, Josh Bellamy, Daniel Braverman, Titus Davis, Tanner Gentry, Alton Howard, and Deonte Thompson. That’s a long list of potential-filled pass-catchers.
Cruz’s chances improved with Cameron Meredith’s recent knee injury, but he’ll still have to prove himself. In the Bears first three preseason games, he’s caught four balls for 19 yards–low numbers, albeit with a touchdown catch. He’ll have one last opportunity in the Bears’ preseason finale on Thursday night, as the starters are expected to sit out of that game. Cruz has faced challenges like this before, and his veteran knowledge could be a deciding factor in Chicago’s choice to keep him around.
Dance moves aside, Cruz can help mentor and mold the younger receivers. He can be an asset to Bears quarterbacks Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky, both of whom are trying to find their way in the league. What Cruz lacks in youth, he makes up for it with experience and a resume that made him one of the most feared receivers in the league. For a franchise starved for a winner, his championship pedigree is priceless.