Faceoff: Eli Manning
Matt Waldman: Manning has not earned consideration as a viable fantasy starter early in his career and for good reason. During his first four seasons, he has never completed more than 57 percent of his passes, he exceeded 3400 yards only once and he tossed nearly as many interceptions (64) to touchdowns (77) despite playing much of his career with veterans like Jeremy Shockey, Plaxico Burress, Tiki Barber and Amani Toomer.
However, things are changing. Manning is improving despite the loss of veteran skill players and an influx of youth. A number of stats help tell the story of his maturation. For the past two years, Manning has had a 2- to-1 TD-INT ratio, a vast improvement from his first four seasons. It's a stark contrast when one examines that in 2007 Manning had six, multiple interception games, but for the last two seasons combined, he's only had five.
As his bad decisions have decreased, his good ones are on the rise. From 2007-2008, Manning had a combined, 10 multiple touchdown performances. In 2009 alone, he nearly matched that two-year total with 9. And the touchdown-interception stats reveal that Manning wasn't collecting points in garbage time, he was more judicious and functioning as the team's leading playmaker.
Manning's 4000-yard season in 2009 was at least 600 yards better than his next-best season as a starter. He had three 300-yard games last year, matching his combined total from 2007 and 2008, and he had seven games with at least 250 yards, demonstrating more consistency than either 2008 (4) or 2007 (5). Take into account last season was with three young receivers still learning the game, without Jeremy Shockey and a ground game that struggled due to injury and problems along the line. In fact, 10 of Manning's scores came in the red zone when the ground game couldn't get the job done, another illustration of Manning's increased proficiency.
Steve Smith's emergence and Hakeem Nicks' flashes of greatness weren't flukes. Let's remember that as a "possession receiver," Smith has as much speed as Amani Toomer did in his prime, and Hakeem Nicks is far more explosive and versatile than Plaxico Burress. These two players - and Mario Manningham - help the Giants stretch the field better than perhaps any unit in Giants history. When a defense can compress the field because the offense lacks reliable vertical threats, it raises the chances for quarterbacks to make more mistakes. The Giants young and improving corps is one of the reasons why Manning's completion percentage and TD-INT ratio has improved.
When a quarterback has a 2-to-1 TD-INT ratio, completes passes at a rate of at least 62 percent, and he eclipses 4000 yards while doing it with young receivers that are still learning, I think we're witnessing a passing game on the rise. I believe Manning will at least have similar numbers this year, which could easily put him in the top 6-8 QBs in 2010. If he takes another step forward, he could sneak into the top 5.
Jeff Pasquino: I cannot find a way for me to justify picking Eli Manning as a QB1 with upside in fantasy this year. I understand the basic arguments that (A) the ground game was mediocre at best last season for New York and (B) the cast of characters at wide receiver and tight end should boost Eli's numbers. Fans of Eli will point towards his 4,021 yards passing and 27 touchdown passes last year - both career bests. The expectations here are that he builds upon these numbers and, along with the young receiving corps, builds on those numbers and either meets or exceeds his 2009 levels.
Let's start with a little bit of history. You have to notice that there has never been a season where two New York Giants receivers both topped 1,000 yards receiving. With so many projecting that Hakeem Nicks will approach or exceed the 1,000-yard level along with his fellow starter Steve Smith, the historical numbers are a concern. While it is not impossible, it certainly feels improbable that the Giants will have two 1,000-yard receivers for the first time ever. The argument in favor of Eli continues that Mario Manningham, TE Kevin Boss and even Ahmad Bradshaw out of the backfield will contribute big numbers, but it is again hard to imagine that they will meet or exceed the first two options in the passing game. If Hicks and Smith will be lucky to combine for 2,000 yards, how can the rest of the club hit similar totals?
Also consider that Manning topped 4,000 yards passing last season with an average of almost eight yards per attempt - gaudy numbers to say the least. His previous five seasons were all more than a full yard worse per attempt, which included his previous high of 3,700 yards passing which required over 550 attempts. I don't want to scream "regression to the mean" too much here, but the truth likely likes between seven and eight yards per attempt for Eli for 2010. I'm more than willing to give him a 7.5 yard-per-try pace on 500 attempts or so - which should be good enough for 3,750 yards.
Now the touchdown scenario. Will Manning continue to log 22-27 passing touchdowns? Quite probably, but digging into his scoring tosses last year I found that 10 of them came inside the 10-yard line. With the ground game struggling for Big Blue in 2009, Eli had to throw more often in the Red Zone and that led to a few more scoring passes than most seasons. If the Giants get back to the way that they like to play - defense and rushing first, passing second - then more rushing scores will happen but at the expense of the passing totals. Manning should still be good enough for about 25 TD passes, but as I said earlier, the NFL is a pass-happy league. Those numbers are run of the mill QB11-QB15 fantasy numbers.
Manning will be right there in that group of Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Donovan McNabb this season with numbers that look to be fantasy QB1s but just shy of what most other clubs have when they put Drew Brees, Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers in their lineups. For those players, two touchdown passes and 250+ yards is an average day, whereas that's an upside day for Eli Manning. I would much rather have a Top 7-9 quarterback this year and play committee at depth spots than try and make up for a shortcoming at QB or try and guess the best matchups for a QBBC approach.