By Jason Keidel
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Valentine’s Day isn’t the time to talk about breaking up with someone you’ve loved for 14 years, but …
Should the Giants consider saying goodbye to Eli Manning? We all saw the P.R. mud flung at Big Blue for benching Manning after the season was lost — especially when Geno Smith was the alternative. But there’s a big difference between benching and trading someone. The former is embarrassing and emasculating, just poor form on every level. The latter at least says you have value.
New Giants general manager Dave Gettleman says he’s still sold on Manning and that he will play at least one more year at the Meadowlands. Is that his true sentiment, or just a way to spike his trade value? The positives are the Jacksonville Jaguars, the subject of Manning trade rumors in October, are ready to win now, having reached the AFC title game last month. And, of course, Jaguars personnel czar Tom Coughlin knows Manning better than anyone.
The problem is the Giants won’t have much leverage because the Jaguars know the only other place tailor-made for Manning’s age, skills and salary is Jacksonville. Other than maybe Minnesota, where else would Eli take his talents? But the Vikings came within one game of the Super Bowl with Case Keenum, who is way younger and likely cheaper. Then they have to decide what to do with their healing backups, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford, before even looking outside the organization.
Another possible problem is there’s another younger option on the market who will cost clubs nothing more than money. If the Vikings, Jaguars or any contender want someone under center well beyond 2018, they may court Kirk Cousins rather than Manning. Of course, Cousins doesn’t have Manning’s resume or reputation as a big-game quarterback. But surely there are more teams interested in Cousins, who’s seven years younger than Manning. (Denver seems to be the top contender for Cousins’s services.) Still, Manning is the better fit for one year, for one team, looking to make one big run.
Or the Giants can roll the dice with new coach Pat Shurmur, newly minted offensive coordinator and QB coach Mike Shula and see how far Manning, can take them this year. Trading or cutting the two-time Super Bowl MVP would result in $12.4 million in dead money toward the salary cap but also free up nearly $10 million to spend.
Meanwhile, at least six quarterbacks — Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson and Mason Rudolph — will be gone after the first two rounds. The Giants, who own the second overall pick, can bag Rosen or Darnold (or just whomever the Browns don’t select) and let them learn at the altar of Eli.
Even if the Giants pass on Rosen and Darnold and take an offensive lineman such as Oklahoma’s Orlando Brown or Notre Dame’s Quentin Nelson, or bag Penn State’s star running back, Saquon Barkley, or select arguably the best defensive player in the draft, Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith, they can still double back in the second round, or move back into the late first round and grab Manning’s future replacement. Indeed, the Giants could shoot for Oklahoma State’s Rudolph or last year’s Heisman winner, Jackson. Depending on the site, paper or pundit, mock drafts have Rudolph and Jackson melting off draft boards anywhere between picks No. 20 and No. 35.
Before the 2017 season, we souped up the G-Men into something they weren’t. Since they made the 2016 playoffs and added Brandon Marshall, we figured an 11-5 redux was reasonable. Instead, we saw implosion, chaos and ineptitude not seen since the 1970s. Like a football parade float, they were huge in our eyes before deflating and falling into nothingness.
But the Giants look sound, solid and smart, starting with Gettleman and then Shurmur, the offensive brains behind a Vikings team that went 13-3 with its third-string quarterback, and sans star rookie running back Dalvin Cook, who snapped his ACL and was lost for the season by Oct. 1.
There’s also something to be said for the Giants looking not only competent but also classy. Keep Manning for another year, see how he does, then decide whether he can milk more years out of his indestructible body or provide a pillow-soft landing into retirement. We obsess over the quarterback because you can’t win without a really good one. Nick Foles aside, at least 40 of the NFL’s 52 Super Bowls have been won by franchise quarterbacks. Lord knows Foles played like one when it mattered, beating the quintessential franchise QB, Tom Brady, in his eighth Super Bowl.
Now the Giants have to decide what to to with the only other quarterback to beat Brady in a Super Bowl. That diagnosis will go a long way in deciding whether 11-5 in 2016 or 3-13 in 2017 was the aberration. It’s time to decide who the real Giants are, and whether Eli Manning is still the man in the Meadowlands.
Please follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel