One of the bigger decisions facing the New York Giants this offseason is the one they must make about quarterback Eli Manning. He has one year left on his contract with a nonguaranteed base salary of $17 million and a salary-cap charge of $19.75 million for the 2015 season.
Their options at the start of the offseason will be as follows:
1. Do nothing, and let him play out the final year of his deal as the third-highest paid quarterback in the league behind only his older brother and Drew Brees.
2. Extend his contract, potentially picking up cap room in 2015 but committing to the two-time Super Bowl MVP (who turns 34 in January) at a premium quarterback cost for another half-decade. (Manning's not likely to cut the Giants a deal, considering what the market would bear.)
3. Release Manning, saving $17.5 million against the cap in 2015 but starting over at the most important position on the roster with either untested Ryan Nassib or an undetermined player who's still in college at the moment.
The third option is the least likely by far. If the season ended today, the Giants would hold the No. 7 pick in the draft. They could move higher, of course, but their remaining schedule and the condition of the teams above them make it unlikely they could get into the top three or four. And even if they did, there's no guarantee they find their long-term answer in the draft. Nassib, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston would do well to even have half the career Manning has had, and if you had to bet on which of the four will be the best NFL quarterback in 2015 and the three or four years to follow, you'd still bet on Manning, because there are no sure things these days in a non-Andrew Luck quarterback draft.
The merits of Manning as a player aren't at issue just yet. He had a terrible game Sunday, obviously, with five interceptions, but it was his first truly bad game of the year, and in the nine games prior he'd shown smoothness and reliability in the new offense. Sunday's interception total nearly doubled his total for the season, and unless he continues to turn it over at an alarming rate over the final six games, it'll be easy to look at Sunday as a fluke and the rest of the season as representative of what the Giants can expect of Manning.
The question is whether the Giants need a $19 million quarterback in Ben McAdoo's system, and that's where it gets interesting. Manning's salary is as high as it is because of his Super Bowl heroics, and the Giants haven't blinked at committing 17-18 percent of their salary cap annually to Manning because he has been so reliable. He never misses a game, never causes drama inside or outside the building and he has, in the past, demonstrated an ability to elevate the players around him to a championship level. In this day and age, when 32 teams are looking for franchise quarterbacks and there aren't 20 walking the Earth, there's no such thing as overspending to get or keep one.
But under the new offensive system, the requirements for being the Giants' franchise quarterback may be changing. The Giants don't really throw the ball downfield anymore, and McAdoo's offense is designed to eliminate risk. It won't be asking Manning to make the heroic throws he made in the past in playoff games and Super Bowls. Part of Manning's magic has always been his fearlessness of tough throws and his ability to hit them in the clutch. In a timing-based offense that rarely asks the quarterback to throw the ball more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, those qualities may not be worth a premium price anymore.
Manning accounts for 17 percent of the Giants' salary cap this year. Assuming the cap rises to around $142 million next year, and they do nothing with his contract, he'd take up 14.4 percent of next year's cap. Only the Saints, Cowboys and Broncos are currently scheduled to spend a larger percentage of their cap on their starting quarterbacks in 2015. The Giants may still decide it's worth it for a player whose durability alone keeps them from the cringe-worthy quarterback juggling act you see half the teams in the league go through every year. But with so many other needs still to address, and as they think about what they're going to be on offense in the future, the question of cost looms larger than ever with regard to Eli Manning.