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Eli Manning Deserves Better

If the majority of mock drafts are to be believed, the New York Giants are poised to draft one of the elite quarterbacks available in next week’s NFL draft despite having Eli Manning, the franchise’s all-time leading passer, still on the roster. The NFL is far from a beacon of benevolence, but even for this league, it seems kinda rude.

Whether it’s purely optics or genuine respect for a player who will one day have his number retired, franchise-leading passers have traditionally been spared the humiliation of watching their replacements earn a nearby locker. When the opportunity to draft a highly touted quarterback prospect presents itself, a team tends to get rid of the veteran — like the Colts did with Eli’s brother after Peyton Manning’s 2011 neck surgery allowed them to reboot with Andrew Luck. Even Jay Cutler, who wasn’t exactly earning the keys to the city of Chicago, was given the courtesy of a release last year by the Bears well before they traded up one spot to take Mitchell Trubisky with the second overall pick.

Eli Manning is the Giants’ all-time leader in passing yards (51,682, sixth in NFL history) and a Super Bowl MVP (twice). New head coach Pat Shurmur says that Manning would understand if the Giants drafted his ultimate replacement. But it’s clear that Manning is still firmly in the Giants’ plans, largely on the strength of a single 434-yard passing day on Dec. 17 against the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles. So if they selected a quarterback with the No. 2 pick, the Giants would essentially have two franchise quarterbacks at the same time — a current and presumed future one.

To see how rare this is, we looked at a select group of quarterbacks who can roughly match Eli’s level of prestige with an NFL team. To make the list, you must have thrown 25,000 yards for one team and also made at least one Super Bowl.1

Of the 31 non-Eli quarterbacks who fit this criteria, eight are still active — and none of those QBs have yet had his team anoint a first-rounder as replacement. Among the 23 franchise quarterbacks who are no longer active, only seven had to watch their teams use a first-round draft pick on a new QB while they were still on the roster.

Wait until he’s gone…

Nonactive QBs with at least 25,000 yards and a Super Bowl appearance with one team who saw their team use a first-round pick on a quarterback while he was still on the roster

Quarterback Team Draft Pick Pick No.
Terry Bradshaw Pittsburgh Mark Malone 28th
John Elway Denver Tommy Maddox 25th
Boomer Esiason Cincinnati David Klingler 6th
Brett Favre Green Bay Aaron Rodgers 24th
Joe Namath New York Richard Todd 6th
Fran Tarkenton Minnesota Tommy Kramer 27th
Steve Young San Francisco Jim Druckenmiller 26th

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Two teams with franchise quarterbacks drafted replacement QBs with top-10 picks. In 1976, the Jets drafted Richard Todd with the sixth pick while keeping Super Bowl III hero Joe Namath on the team. That year stands out as perhaps the worst in franchise history, which is saying a lot when you’re talking about the Jets. First-year coach Lou Holtz didn’t even finish the season, and Namath left New York after the season for the Los Angeles Rams. And in 1992, the Bengals drafted David Klingler at No. 6 to replace Boomer Esiason. But Esiason’s resume was nothing compared to Manning’s: He notched only 27,149 yards in Cincinnati and made just one Super Bowl, a loss to the 49ers.2

Yes, in some cases the future and past co-existed peacefully. (Sort of.) Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers were teammates for three years with the Packers, but Rodgers didn’t take the job until Favre announced his retirement in early 2008 (before unretiring and and being traded to the New York Jets). In other cases, teams have used a higher draft pick on a future quarterback, like the Buffalo Bills did with eventual Jim Kelly replacement Todd Collins (45th overall) or the Denver Broncos did with Brian Griese (91st overall), who eventually replaced John Elway six years after the Broncos’ attempt with first-rounder Tommy Maddox fell flat. Like Rodgers, both Collins and Griese only assumed their full-time jobs when the incumbents were gone.

The Giants have said they believe that Manning can play for “multiple years.” But quarterbacks drafted No. 2 don’t wait around to start like Rodgers did after being selected 24th overall in 2005. During the past decade, 13 quarterbacks have been drafted in the top five, and 10 started their first game with the team. The longest wait to start was nine games by Jared Goff in 2016. So if the Giants take a quarterback second overall, they likely would create an instant quarterback controversy.

Whether the Giants should remain committed to Manning is another question entirely.

To test this, we can compare Manning’s performance last year to the final seasons of our two franchise hero quarterbacks who watched their teams draft their top-10 replacements: Namath and Esiason. We’ll use stats adjusted for league year from Pro-Football-Reference.com, including passer rating, yards per pass attempt and adjusted yards per pass attempt (which assigns a positive yardage value to touchdowns and a negative one to interceptions). On this scale, 100 is viewed as exactly league average. Manning’s average in the three statistics last year was just 84, far worse than our other two lame-duck quarterbacks. Even Namath was much better in 1975 measured this way (average of 94) despite being viewed as a shadow of his former greatness.

Whether he deserves it is another story

How Eli Manning’s 2017 season compares with the final seasons of two quarterbacks before their top-10 replacements were drafted

Year Team QB Age Att Rate+ YPA+ AY/A+ AVG
1991 Bengals Boomer Esiason 30 413 95 101 97 98
1975 Jets Joe Namath 32 326 86 106 90 94
2017 Giants Eli Manning 36 571 89 78 84 84

Each quarterback threw for 25,000 yards and made at least one Super Bowl for his team and was on the roster when his replacement was drafted.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Of course, this is all moot if the Giants decide to skip over Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen or any other quarterback available after the Cleveland Browns pick. And there are signs that new GM Dave Gettleman, who was the Giants’ director of pro personnel when the Giants acquired Manning in 2004, seems increasingly unlikely to make Manning a caretaker. Instead of blaming Manning for the Giants’ offensive woes last year (31st in scoring), they’ve rebuilt his offensive line and now could use their highest draft pick since 1981 on Penn State superback Saquon Barkley, who would instantly improve a running game that’s ranked 26th on average in efficiency the past five seasons. That would open up the offense for the safer and more efficient play-action passes that are the focal point of Shurmur’s offense: Last season in Minnesota, his offense led the league in play-action passes (26.4 percent of pass plays) and had the highest efficiency on these throws (86.6 QBR on a scale where 100 is best).

In other words, the Giants could scrap the plan of rebooting their offense with a new quarterback and instead reboot their quarterback with a new scheme and a new weapon.

Footnotes

  1. This is generous: Eli has thrown more than 51,000 yards with the Giants and won two Super Bowls.

  2. In 1979, the Bengals drafted Jack Thompson — known as “The Throwin’ Samoan” — with the No. 3 pick as a potential replacement for Ken Anderson. But Anderson hadn’t appeared in his Super Bowl yet. Thompson never caught fire and was eventually traded to Tampa Bay.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on Yahoo and the Wall Street Journal.

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