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At 37, what can the Giants expect from Eli Manning?

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With a quarterback decision looming, let’s look at what the Giants already have in Eli

New York Giants v Arizona Cardinals
Eli Manning
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This could be one of the most important offseasons in the history of the New York Giants. There’s a new head coach, new general manager, and a second overall pick that should shape the future direction of the franchise. There’s been a debate over whether or not this is the right time to target the quarterback of the future in a front-loaded quarterback draft class.

A lot of this centers around 37-year-old Eli Manning and what he might have left in the tank. Both GM Dave Gettleman and head coach Pat Shurmur have stated on the record they believe Manning has years — plural — left in his career, while a large outside sentiment suggests the Giants should be prepared for a new quarterback to take snaps as early as the 2019 season.

While this debate has gone on all offseason and likely will until after the draft with a rookie quarterback on the roster or not, what’s been lacking in the discussion is an actual assessment of Manning’s play. That seems important, and that’s why we’re here.

A gradual decline

Statistically, the past few years have been rough ones for Manning. His yards per attempt has dropped in each year since 2014 and in 2017 Manning had a near league-low 6.1. Only Brett Hundley (5.9) and Joe Flacco (5.8) were qualified quarterbacks with a worse mark last season. By YPA+ — an index metric that sets the league average at 100 — Manning’s 78 YPA+ suggests he was 22 percent below league average in that metric during the 2017 season. Manning has put up a YPA+ below 100 in four of the past five seasons with 2014 (103) as the lone exception.

Through the lens of adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A), which factors in sacks, touchdowns, and interceptions and might be the best simple quarterback statistic, Manning was 13 percent below league average and 25th among 34 qualified quarterbacks in 2017. Still not great, but better than his raw yards per attempt average thanks to his ability to avoid sacks and interceptions. Of course 2017 was also a season in which Manning spent a great deal of time without Odell Beckham in the lineup among other circumstances that wouldn’t lend themselves to the best offensive environment. Charting drops can be subjective and highly variant from year-to-year, but somewhere around eight percent — give or take some tenths pending the source — of Manning’s passes were dropped in 2017. Though even in 2016, a year the Giants went to the playoffs and closer to six percent of passes were dropped, the overall numbers were not much different — Manning’s 97 ANY/A+ in 2016 suggests he was still three percent below the league average. This is the case with many statistics across the board even with the wild swing in quality of supporting cast.

A debate on what has and hasn’t been in place for Manning to succeed is common, but it also takes the focus away from the quarterback. That’s going to be the goal here — to focus on and analyze parts of the game the quarterback can control.

Going deep

It’s hard to argue there hasn’t been a decline in Manning’s play over the past few seasons. What’s important to understand is where that’s come from.

In Manning’s peak seasons, the Giants were very much a vertical-based offense. In each season from 2010-2013, Manning had an average depth of target (aDOT) — the average distance the ball traveled in the air — over 9.0. But over the past three seasons, Manning’s aDOT hasn’t been over 7.9 and 2017 featured a career-low 7.3. While that does fit in with a growing overall trend of quarterbacks throwing shorter passes in recent years, it also points to one of the biggest flaws in Manning’s current game.

Below are graphs from airyards.com that chart Manning’s completion percentage by the distance the ball traveled in the air (green line). The chart also shows the league average completion rate at each distance (orange line), which clearly notes the expected completion percentage goes down and passes go deeper down the field.

The air yards data goes back to 2009, so the charts below have been broken into three-year increments: 2009-2011, 2012-2014, and 2015-2017. These charts also only show throws from clean pockets in an attempt to isolate quarterback performance and not bring in rushed throws forced under pressure.

Here’s Manning from 2009 to 2011, where he completed a higher number of passes than expected until the ball traveled around 33-34 yards down the field. Even at that point, his completion percentage wasn’t much worse than expected.

source: airyards.com

From 2012 to 2014, Manning was much closer to the league average on throws from five to 23 yards down the field before a slight dip below expectation. However, Manning was more successful than expected on throws 30-plus yards down the field.

source: airyards.com

Now comes the troubling part. Over the past three seasons, Manning has been below average up to three yards, closer to average from five to around 17 yards past the line of scrimmage, and then there’s a steep drop off on anything deeper.

source: airyards.com

In its simplest terms, what this trend shows is Manning has lost the deep ball — or at least the ability to consistently hit it. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Manning’s longest completion of the season traveled 46.2 yards through the air, the fifth-shortest max throw from a quarterback in 2017.

Much of this takes shape on throws to the outside. Here is a chart of Manning’s throws to the left and right over the past three seasons.

source: airyards.com

This shows up on film, too.

Against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 5, Manning missed Odell Beckham three separate times in the game. The first was an overthrow with Beckham wide open after being matched up against linebacker Hayes Pullard through a zone. The second miss showed better deep coverage by cornerback Casey Hayward, but the ball was still overthrown. The third saw Beckham beat Trevor Williams deep, but unable to come down with another overthrown ball.

Against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 9, Manning missed an open Sterling Shepard down the field for what should have been a touchdown. Manning did get hit at the end of the play, but it was late and the quarterback was able to fully step into the throw.

The misses weren’t all deep down the sideline, though that is where most of the struggles were. On the play below, Manning overthrew Evan Engram up the seam against the San Francisco 49ers off play-action.

Just missing long or high were the best places to miss. Occasionally those throws got a little more dangerous. Below is a play against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 7. The throw is intended as an anticipation throw on a post-route and the ball does go out of the reach of the dropping linebacker, but it’s thrown right to a safety for what should have been an easy interception. This is a flaw in both accuracy and decision making.

Against the Eagles in Week 3, Manning hung a deep ball to the left, didn’t clear the cornerback, and the ball was intercepted.

During the 2017 season, 30 quarterbacks attempted 50 or more passes at least 15 yards down the field. Only four quarterbacks — Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton, and Brett Hundley — fell below Manning’s 32.1 percent completion percentage and just Hundley (7.6) had fewer yards per attempt than Manning’s 8.1.

It was a similar story in 2016 when Manning ranked 27th of 30 quarterbacks in deep completion percentage (31.0 percent) and yards per attempt (9.0). Over the past two seasons combined, only the Chicago Bears, Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys, and Baltimore Ravens have fewer pass plays of 20 or more yards than the Giants. There’s no need for the Giants to turn into an Air Raid offense, but the inability to connect on deep balls takes away an important element of sustaining an explosive offense and severely limits the ceiling of what can be done.

Where he still wins

Manning is at his best with quick timing throws in rhythm. As much as the Ben McAdoo-led offense was criticized, it wasn’t laziness or a lack of creativity for why so many throws were slants and crossing routes. Of course, those plays could have been designed and disguised better, but the idea of a heavy dose of short timing passes fit with what Manning did best.

This showed up best in the two regular season games against the Eagles — games both Gettleman and Shurmur have singled out as examples for believing why Manning still has years left in him.

The Giants started early with the quick slants against the aggressive Philadelphia defense as a way to create easy completions and minimize the impact of the pass rush. Some plays were as quick and easy as catch and release, like this slant early in the game to Shepard.

So many easy yards are created on slants to Beckham when the Giants could help create separation, not that the receiver needed the help. On this slant, the bubble screen motion from the slot dragged the nickel corner to the numbers and opened a throwing lane to Beckham while the outside corner bailed in coverage.

With the right angles and the players the Giants have, a simple slant can be taken for a big gain. We typically picture this with Beckham, but Shepard took one to the house in the Week 3 matchup on a perfectly timed slant between four Eagles defenders.

During the Week 15 game, the Giants went even heavier in this direction. On this play, Shepard lined up in the slot as the Eagles gave a single-high safety look. Pre-snap motion from Tavarres King and a swing route from Shane Vereen out of the backfield cleared out the middle of the field to open a clear throwing lane for an easy gain on the slant.

The slant-heavy approach also opened up plays downfield. Manning hit a wide open deep throw to Roger Lewis down the left sideline after cornerback Ronald Darby bit on the initial step towards the middle of the field.

Manning threw into a tight window — defined as less than a yard of separation between the receiver and defender — on 19.6 percent of his throws, per Next Gen Stats, the 11th-highest rate in the league. However a lot of those plays could be qualified as tight coverage on slants and short passes. Rarely were deep passes thrown well enough against tight coverage to be completed.

In order to help create those open throws, the Giants relied on a lot of crossing routes. Look at a chart of routes Evan Engram ran in 2017 and they’ll be flooded with shallow crossers. At their best, those routes gave Manning quick, easy reads and gave the receiver running room after the catch.

An added element to the cross is the “mesh” concept. Mesh is an old Bill Walsh passing concept that has been adopted and adapted by spread and Air Raid offenses. The basis is two dueling crossing routes from opposite directions used to create a natural pick and spring one of the receivers free. This concept can be run from any formation, personnel grouping, and paired with a myriad of other route combinations on the outside and out of the backfield. The Eagles did just that in their Super Bowl win against the New England Patriots.

The Giants took advantage of the mesh concept during the regular season. Engram was sprung for a big play against the Denver Broncos in Week 6 after two Broncos defenders knocked into each other.

In the late-season game against the Eagles, Shepard scored a 67-yard touchdown running the concept with Engram.

Going forward

A concept like mesh is important because it was frequently used by Chip Kelly during his tenure as the Eagles head coach. Kelly’s offensive coordinator during that time was Pat Shurmur, who has taken and tinkered with some of the passing concepts he deployed under Kelly.

Below is the Vikings running mesh from a four-wide look in the Divisional Round game against the New Orleans Saints. The result was a 22-yard gain for Stefon Diggs on a third-and-5.

Shurmur can create an offense that creates openings and separation for receivers and more importantly the quarterback. This can be heavily based on yards after the catch — something Giants receivers can do well and something Manning needs out of his receivers.

Last season, 47 percent of Manning’s passing yards game after the catch. In 2016, it was 49.9 percent. This isn’t an unsustainable rate. Case Keenum picked up 51.7 percent of his passing yards after the catch for Minnesota last season with a similar 7.6 aDOT. But a big reason the Vikings had the third-best passing offense by DVOA last season and weren’t like the Giants was because the big plays and deep passes hit at a much higher rate — Keenum completed 40.9 percent of his passes 15 or more yards down the field and he wasn’t even a prolific downfield thrower.

An offense can function on manufactured separation and quick throws, but it’s unlikely to ever be great. If Manning can get back the deep ball on a slightly more consistent basis, there’s certainly a chance those plays can launch Manning and the passing offense back up the top half of the league. However, the trend over the past few years does not suggest that’s a likely result. Without that added threat, Manning realistically offers little more than replacement-level value with his greatest strength on throws many young quarterbacks could come in and execute.

If the Giants believe they can scheme more open throws down the field, there’s a chance there’s enough left in Manning to at least get through another year. But at that point, it’s showing more confidence in the scheme than the quarterback. The truth is at 37 years old, Manning is inching closer towards the end. Depending on how expectations meet reality, that end could be coming sooner than any party wants to acknowledge.