A New Eli This Year

Albany, NY — Despite the fact he is about to affix his signature to a a six-year, $97.5 million extension that includes $35 million guaranteed, a contract that will make him the highest paid player in the history of the sport,  the inherent pressure of being the richest player does not compare to the tension Eli Manning is about to experience as he continues his pre-season workouts with his current corps of inexperienced, unproven receivers.

Gone forever are the two receivers Manning could most count on over the past several years when protection would break down, when he had to complete key third and short plays, and when his own erratic throwing usually kept his completion percentage on the wrong side of  55%, considered the minimum efficiency level for winning football. In Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, Manning was fortunate to be able to lean on proven NFL stars while he was in the learning stages of his career. Manning, always a somewhat erratic thrower of the football had at his disposal tall, strong, fast, and poised pass-catchers who could make him look better than he actually played. Even when Eli’s passes were flying all over windy Giants Stadium in November and December games, the 6′6″ Burress and the 6’3” Toomer could leap over shorter corners or to out-muscle defenders who simply couldn’t match up with their size, speed, and catching ability.

Having veterans the stature of Burress and Toomer took a lot of the pressure off of  young Manning during his formative years but, now they’re gone and so far, as we observe the current group of youngsters comprising the Giants receiving corps and the chemistry that has yet to develop between the now six-year veteran Manning and these youngsters, we are beginning to think this season could become an enormous struggle for the Giants to move the chains via the air.

Now, this isn’t such a terrible thing when you have guys like Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw running the football behind what is arguably the league’s best offensive line. Of course, should anything happen to Jacobs, expected to be a true workhorse this season, the running game will then fall onto the not-so-broad shoulders of Bradshaw, who is still unproven in many respects. And then, the potential for catastrophe will be great as it will fall on the passing game to carry the Giants offense and quite frankly, the hopes of their 2009 season.

Is this an overreaction to a couple of potential nicks or injuries to the running game? Uh, no, it isn’t. Let’s take a look at Manning and how his receivers stack up for this season.

The projected starters are Dominick Hixon and Steve Smith. Hixon, for two years now has played his most stunning football during pre-season games when he exploded with huge games both in catching the ball and in returning the ball on special teams, mostly against players who were getting cut the next day by their teams. When given the opportunity to play almost every offensive down last season when Burress was out of action, Hixon didn’t distinguish himself nor did opposing defenses respect him with double teams or rotations to his side.

Smith is a very nice receiver, more of a possession guy who has hands of glue and the poise of a veteran. He runs great routes and is as reliable a target as Toomer was. Only problem with Smith, he’s never possessed the type of speed necessary in the NFL to stretch defenses, to be effective in the vertical game that is so crucial to the Giants offensive objections this season. I asked him the other day what his 40 yard dash time was. He told me, “Well, in college, I ran a 4.5.” He looked at me at the same time I looked at him, both of us fully aware he had answered the question with a three year old time when he was a college junior. We laughed about it but the reality is, his lack of deep speed is not a laughing matter for the Giants.

Neither Hixon nor Smith demand double teams or rotations to help out cornerbacks assigned to cover them on deep patterns, It ‘s all single coverage for each of these Giant receivers, a very bad happenstance because it allows defenses to put an extra player in the box to play the run or to rush Manning with an extra blitzer.

It’s an old saying but it holds true today as much as when it was first used during the last millenium. You cannot teach speed. You can teach disciplined routes, blocking technique, improved catching skills, and reading coverages as a receiver makes his way downfield. But, you can’t teach speed. Steve Smith is a great guy. I’ve liked him since the day he stepped into the Giants locker room as a rookie but Smith will never scare opposing defenses with his ability to get behind them. Bob Hayes, he is not.

Behind Smith and Hixon are the still-unproven but young veterans, Sinorice Moss, Santana’s oft-injured and unproductive little brother and Mario Manningham, the Giants fifth round draft choice from the University of Michigan last year. Between them, they have a grand total of seven catches in the NFL.

The Giants, no dummies, drafted two receivers this year to help fill the void left by the losses of Burress and Toomer. They drafted a player from that football factory, Cal-Poly by the name of Ramses Barden. He is almost a clone of Burress in physical stature, standing 6′6″ and weighing 225 solid pounds. Of course, we have no idea if Barden can hold onto the football when he gets into a game or if he can run routes properly but he certainly is tall enough to elicit comparisons to Burress. Unfortunately, height and weight doesn’t make the player. In the NBA, there have been many 6′6″ small, athletic forwards who have come into the league since Michael Jordan retired but none of them have approached the performance of Jordan despite sharing the same physical attributes.  Burress was a very special player, one of the best in the game. If I’m a betting man, Ramses Barden is not going to be as good as his predecessor, despite his physical attributes. The Giants hope he can be a situational receiver, using his height and strength to outfight defenders for the football in the red zone and in short-yardage downs.

The Giants first pick in the 2009 draft was an acclaimed receiver from the University of North Carolina, Hakeem Nicks. In college, Nicks was a sure-handed, physical, tough player who could break free from college cornerbacks and get open as well as run for yardage after his catches. Nicks looks to have NFL-quality talent and could be a useful player in the Giants attack. The problem is, how many first-year receivers become impact players in their rookie seasons? The answer: very, very few.

Finally, we get to Manning himself. This is his team now, of that, there is no doubt. It was his team before the 139 million dollar contract and he is most assuredly in charge of this offense now, more than ever. He’s won a Super Bowl and that will never be taken away from him but he still remains, a quarterback with flaws, particularly as a passer. He is still throwing wild high here in Albany and not yet showing the capacity to turn into an instinctive, gifted NFL passer along the lines of his brother Peyton, Brady, Drew Brees, or Carson Palmer. Manning does have a solid pedigree of coming from behind in the last quarters of games but he also has the pedigree of playing miserable football for three quarters before the comebacks commence. And, of course, he’s got the Super Bowl championship.

But, it’s a new year and this training camp is crucial to whether Manning and his young, unproven receivers will develop the necessary chemistry to be a force this year. Passing attacks at this level are incredibly complex, dependent on experienced receivers to be on the same page with their quarterback in understanding down and distance, reading coverages and changing patterns on the fly when coverage dictates. Will these next four weeks of camp here in Albany bring about the type of chemistry it took Manning several years to develop with Toomer and Burress? It’s doubtful which is why you should expect the running corps of Jacobs, Bradshaw and new addition, Danny Ware to be very busy players, especially in the early stages of this season.

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