FOXBORO As an undrafted rookie in 2010 with the New York Giants, Victor Cruz was an absolute stud in the preseason, leading all receivers in just about every meaningful category in an otherwise non-meaningful portion of the season.
That success didn't immediately translate into playing time or big numbers for Cruz.
But it proved that he had the potential to make a major impact.
And that time is now.
The former UMass standout has been one of the NFL's unexpected surprises this season for a New York Giants team looking to do what no NFC team has been able to do since 2002 -- defeat the Patriots in Gillette Stadium.
The self-proclaimed elite quarterback for Giants, Eli Manning, will impact the game. Ditto for a Giants pass rush that has an NFL-best 26 sacks this season.
But the play of Cruz will certainly have a say in the game's outcome as well.
"He's an explosive guy, inside, outside," said Patriots cornerback Antwaun Molden. "He's gifted."
Safety Josh Barrett echoed similar sentiments about the 6-foot, 204-pound Cruz.
"He's a go-to target," Barrett said. "He's been steady, ever since the preseason. He's got good strength, able to get through tackles. And those big plays, they really stand out."
For Cruz, like most young players, consistency remains an issue.
One minute he's dazzling you with his athleticism and circus-like catches. The next, he's fumbling the ball away in a close game in the fourth quarter, as was the case in New York's Week 5 loss to Seattle.
But considering that he still has much to learn, and plenty of room to improve, the Giants are more than happy with what they've seen thus far.
He has 28 catches for 497 yards this season, which includes four touchdowns. His 17.8 yards per catch average ranks fourth among NFL players with 25 or more catches this season.
"Victor Cruz has made some big plays," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. "He's been a young man who has tried to learn the game. I'd like to say he's a sponge."
That involves video study, to some degree.
For receivers preparing for the Patriots secondary, well here's what Cruz had to say about what he has seen thus far.
"They're going through a phase right now where they're having some trouble (defending the pass)," Cruz told reporters. "You know, looking at film we see some opportunity where we can take advantage of that and we're definitely excited to go out there and play."
Playing well is one thing.
But the one thing Cruz has done that typically flies under the radar in terms of a young receiver's development, is to gain the trust of the franchise quarterback.
The more you watch the Giants play, the more clear it becomes that Manning has no hesitation when it comes to looking for Cruz in a critical passing situation.
"He's made a lot of plays," Manning said. "He's a young guy who each week is learning the ins-and-outs of this offense and he has a natural playmaking ability. He's stepped up to make big plays in key situations."
And to think, not a single NFL team felt strongly enough about his play to draft him.
Rather than sulk, Cruz simply focused on maximizing whatever opportunity he would get in the NFL. And for most young players, that means treating preseason games and practices as if they're the biggest event ever.
To his credit, Cruz did just that.
And the results have him easily among the biggest surprises in the NFL as it nears the halfway point of the season.
As far as him not being drafted and overlooked, none of that matters now.
"He's been putting it on film all season," Barrett said. "You have to take it for what it is. He's been a playmaker, regardless of where he came from or his past. He's definitely a player we have to keep an eye on and try to limit as much as we can."