Eli Manning will soon turn 38 years old and is set to enter the final year of his most recent contract extension with the New York Giants during the 2019 season.
The Giants have Manning under contract for the 2019 season at a salary cap hit of $23.2 million. However, the Giants can save $17 million in salary cap space by releasing Manning. In addition to those facts, Manning is due to receive a roster bonus of $5 million on March 17th, 2019.
The quarterback position is viewed as the most difficult to find at the NFL level and this has led one faction of the Giants fanbase to call for the team to build around Manning in 2019. At the same time, the quarterback position is also viewed as the most important player on the field and Manning has thrown for just 37 touchdown passes over his past 29 games played. Another faction of the Giants fanbase is calling for the team to cut bait on Manning and look to upgrade at the quarterback position via free agency and/or the draft.
This hot-button issue will be the talk of Giants fans, analysts, and maybe even the players for the next three months until the decision is made on Manning’s future. The good news — the March roster bonus will force the Giants to make a decision sooner rather than later.
Where Giants fans have so far met in the middle on Manning is the idea of the veteran quarterback returning as the projected starter in 2019 after taking a major pay cut on his scheduled salary. Most fans can at least now agree that Manning is not playing at the level of a quarterback (or any player) who should account for $23.2 million of a team’s total salary cap number.
However, if Manning was to take pay cut that would drop his cap hit into the range between that of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff, it might be in the best interest of the franchise given what the projected free agent quarterback market and 2019 rookie quarterback class look like at this time. Dalton will have a 2019 salary cap hit of $16.2 million and Goff’s 2019 salary cap hit will be $8.9 million as he is still on his rookie contract.
If Manning is willing to play for a 2019 salary cap hit in the $11-15 million range, the Giants can use the cap space they shed in the pay cut to rebuild the roster around him. In this scenario, the Giants will also have a clearer path to transition in a rookie quarterback (should they select one with their first-round draft pick) if Manning struggles at the beginning of the 2019 regular season or if he gets outplayed in training camp and the preseason.
Some have suggested that Manning has the leverage and his agent Tom Condon will not accept a pay cut and instead call for a contract restructure. If the Giants restructure Manning’s deal, they would likely have to add on another year to his contract which would further kick the overall salary cap hit down the road and possibly into the 2020 season.
It’s certainly possible Manning and Condon will have a higher opinion of their worth than to accept a straight pay cut, but that doesn’t mean the Giants have to subscribe to that style of thinking. The only way Manning and Condon have any leverage is if the veteran 38-year-old could sign with another team who can offer him a starting job and 2019 salary higher than the range we projected after a pay cut. If Manning and Condon can’t guarantee this, they will essentially have lost all of their leverage.
In the past, Manning has made it clear (over and over again) that he is only interested in playing for the Giants. He has built a life for his family in the tri-state area where he and his wife Abbey are very active in charities around the community. Manning and Condon made sure to include a full no-trade clause in their last contract extension with the Giants. Most recently, Manning made this clear during an interview on WFAN Radio back in October surrounding rumors about the Giants looking to trade him before the trade deadline.
“I haven’t thought about a trade scenario,” Manning said on WFAN Radio back in October. “This organization is the only team I’ve ever played for and the only thing I know. I love the New York Giants. It’s hard to imagine being with another organization.”
Even if Manning were to change his mind on playing for another franchise other than the Giants, it’s unclear which of any teams would offer to match or come close to his $23.2 million scheduled cap hit. Reuniting with Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville is one potential avenue for Manning, but it would be difficult for the Jaguars to offer Manning a big contract. The Jaguars already have benched starting quarterback Blake Bortles projects to account for $21 million of their limited 2019 salary cap space, and if/once they release him, it will result in a $16 million salary cap hit. The Jaguars will likely go the way of the draft to save salary cap space while attempting to fix their quarterback position.
The Washington Redskins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins, and Denver Broncos are the only other teams who you can make an even remotely plausible case that they would sign Manning to a big contract. The Redskins and Broncos face a similar issue to the Jaguars with dead salary cap money tied into current starters Alex Smith and Case Keenum, respectively. The Buccaneers, Dolphins, and Bengals could all cut bait with their current starters without taking on much of a dead salary cap hit, but it’s difficult to envision them turning to Manning over their current options or a rookie quarterback.
Manning doesn’t have the leverage that some fans think, but in order for the Giants to get this right, they will have to take a hard-line stance with the quarterback who has won them two of their five Lombardi trophies, including a 2011 season where he was without a doubt the team’s most valuable player. First-year general manager Dave Gettleman earned a reputation for the hard-line stances (often leading to player cuts) that he took with veterans who were in the final years of their contracts and not performing at a high level. Having said that, Gettleman was in the Giants organization when they drafted and won the Super Bowl with Manning. Gettleman also made it clear that he believes in Manning both in his words and actions during his first offseason as general manager.
As for co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch, it’s difficult to envision them taking a hard-line stance with Manning and his contract situation. Mara made it very clear he was not happy with how the Giants organization (himself included) went about benching Manning during the 2017 regular season for Geno Smith. It will not be easy for Mara to essentially tell Manning that the plan is to release him (saving $17 million) if he doesn’t take a pay cut. Ultimately, we are weary Mara will sign off on a plan like this.
If the Giants do not decide to use their leverage in this situation, fans will want to look forward to the potential of Manning taking a leap forward in the second year under head coach Pat Shurmur in his offensive scheme. They will also want to lean on the possibility of Gettleman making further improvements to the Giants offensive line as he did in year one with the acquisitions of Nate Solder, Will Hernandez, Spencer Pulley, and Jamon Brown. If you ask Manning right now, as several Giants reporters did after the team’s Week 15 loss to the Tennesee Titans where they were shutout at home, the veteran still believes he can be successful as the starting quarterback.
“I can play, I can make the throws,” Manning said to Giants reporters on Monday. “I still feel we can run around and make plays and do a lot of good things.”
According to Manning, when he is no longer able to play the position at the NFL level he will know it.
“Yeah, I’m sure that will happen at some point,” Manning said. “We’ll know when we know.
“You worry about it one year at a time,” Manning added. “Each year is a different opportunity. You’re disappointed we are not going to be playing for an opportunity to win a championship. You play hard and we’ve got to win more football games.”
At least publicly speaking, Shurmur echoed a similar sentiment after the Week 15 loss.
On Monday during a conference call with Giants reporters, Shurmur provided a vote of confidence in his veteran two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback when he named him his starter for Week 16. In naming Manning the starter, Shurmur confirmed the reason for his decision was his belief that the veteran gives the team their best chance to win right now. The first-year head coach also hinted that Manning will return as the Giants starting quarterback in 2019.
“Yeah, I want all our players to be back,” Shurmur told Giants reporters. “I really do.”
“I believe experience matters,” Shurmur added. “When you start talking about roster-shaping down the road, you need to learn how to win again and the experience of playing through adversity.”
Prior to the start of the 2018 regular season, Shurmur said that he believes Manning has “years” left — plural — as a quality starting quarterback in the NFL. We are now one year into that projection and Shurmur has not changed his mind at all.
“I do,” Shurmur said. “I’ve seen him play good football. I’ve seen how when we have coordinated effort of protecting him, running the football effectively and being able to run the ball throughout the game it helps us.”
Of course, we wouldn’t expect Shurmur to say anything different even if he had already made up his mind that his offense cannot function at its height with Manning as the starting quarterback. The ball is in the Giants court if they want to take it. A difficult decision looms and it’s made even harder by the impact this choice will have on the immediate and long-term future of the franchise.