With a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz to throw to, Eli Manning could be set up for a career year.
The football season may be short, and the fantasy regular season even shorter, but a bad start doesn’t necessarily doom a player to a sub-par year. The two players below finished the year ranked ninth and 11th, respectively, among quarterbacks in standard-scoring leagues. They both had their owners nervous through three games, however. Here’s how they fared in the first three weeks of the season last year.
Quarterback A: 67-for-114, 632 yards, 5.54 YPA, 3 TD, 0 INT, 11 fantasy PPG
Quarterback B: 65-for-100, 674 yards, 6.74 YPA, 5 TD, 4 INT, 14.47 FPPG
And here are their numbers for the rest of the season.
Quarterback A: 306-for-468, 3,477 yards, 7.43 YPA, 30 TD, 9 INT, 19.55 FPPG
Quarterback B: 314-for-501, 3,736 yards, 7,46 YPA, 25 TD, 10 INT, 18.47 FPPG
By now, you have probably already guessed that one of those quarterbacks was Tom Brady. Congratulations, he is Quarterback A. After a terrible opening month, Brady ultimately finished as the No. 9 scorer among quarterbacks. The identity of Quarterback B, however, may be a bit of a surprise. From Week 4 through Week 17, he scored at least 20 points seven times and outperformed Matt Ryan, Tony Romo and Philip Rivers. His name? Eli Manning.
The younger Manning had one of the best seasons of his career in 2014. He reached the 30-touchdown mark for just the second time, threw for 4,410 yards, the second-highest total in his career, and tossed fewer than 15 interceptions for the first time since 2009. He did this despite losing Victor Cruz to a torn patellar tendon during the sixth game of the season. Odell Beckham Jr. capably took over as Manning’s favored target, but it’s awfully impressive that he was able to put together the season he did with just one above-average weapon at his disposal.
In traditional one-quarterback fantasy leagues, it’s easier than ever to play the waiting game with your QB. The seismic, league-wide shift to pass-first offenses hasn’t just benefited those at the top of the position. It has also created a glut of second and third-tier quarterbacks that are perfectly capable fantasy starters. But that doesn’t mean that you can blindly throw a dart and find a starting quarterback in the middle-to-late rounds. If you do end up waiting on the position, Manning will be one of the best options available to you.
For Manning, it all starts outside. Few people would say the Giants have the league’s best 1–2 combo at wide receiver. However, they should be on the short list with the likes of the Packers, Broncos, Steelers, Lions and Colts. I say “should” because we’ve never really seen Beckham and Cruz on the field together. Remember, before Beckham made the NFL his personal playground, he missed the first four games of the season because of a hamstring injury. In Beckham’s first game, he played just 38 of the team’s 71 snaps. In his second game, Cruz blew out his knee early in the third quarter.
Viewed through that lens, Manning’s 2014 performance was even more impressive. He essentially didn’t play one game with his top two receivers on the field at full strength. Cruz is ahead of schedule in his rehab, and chances are he will be at or near 100 percent when the Giants visit the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football in the first week of the season. If that happens, it will be the first time that Manning has had both Beckham and Cruz, the real Beckham and Cruz, available to him in the same game.
Manning also got very little help from his running backs in the passing game, despite going north of 4,400 yards and racking up 30 scores. Giants backs caught 62 passes, the seventh-lowest total in the league. For comparison’s sake, Matt Forte had 40 more catches than all Giants backs combined. Two other running backs, Le’Veon Bell and Fred Jackson, also had more catches than the entire Giants backfield. They were one of just three teams—the others being the Eagles and Rams—that didn’t have a receiving touchdown by a running back.
Recognizing this deficiency, the team signed Shane Vereen during the off-season. Vereen had 52 receptions last year and hauled in 47 passes in just eight games in 2013. A running back in name only, Vereen gives Manning a legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield, something he sorely lacked last year. Add to the mix Larry Donnell and Rueben Randle, and it’s likely that Manning has the best collection of pass catchers surrounding him of his 12-year career.
The final piece to the puzzle is the offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, the Giants had the ninth-best pass-blocking unit last season. Two of last year’s starters, left guard Justin Pugh and center Weston Richburg, are back. Right guard Geoff Schwartz, who missed nearly all of last season with a broken toe, is fully healthy. In 2013, PFF rated him 16th among all guards in pass blocking. Finally, the team used the ninth pick in the draft to select tackle Ereck Flowers out of Miami to protect Manning’s blind side. Manning was under pressure on just 28.7% of his drop-backs last season, which ranked 21st in the league. That percentage could very well drop this year.
It’s not often that a quarterback has his best statistical season at the age of 34, but everything is in place for Manning to be the exception. He has had three top-10 fantasy quarterback seasons in his career, the last of which came in 2011. Don’t be surprised if he breaks that drought in 2015.