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NFL Draft: Giants' updated receiving corps will extend Eli Manning’s career

Eli Manning of the New York Giants takes

Eli Manning of the New York Giants takes the field before the NFC Wild Card game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Jan. 8, 2017 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Credit: Getty Images / Stacy Revere

PHILADELPHIA — True to his word, Giants general manager Jerry Reese made good on his vow to search for 36-year-old Eli Manning’s potential successor. Whether that successor actually turns out to be third-round quarterback Davis Webb out of Cal remains to be seen.

The odds are actually against Webb, who was considered among the top quarterbacks in the second tier of a draft considered comparatively weak at the position. None of the four quarterbacks drafted ahead of Webb — Mitch Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and DeShone Kizer — is considered a can’t-miss prospect along the lines of Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston, or Marcus Mariota, or Manning himself all those years ago. So it’s absurdly premature to expect Webb to be the eventual answer at quarterback once it’s time for Eli to leave.

Even Reese knows it’s too soon to know much of anything, other than the fact that Webb at least has the measurables to be in the mix for a shot at the starter’s job down the road.

“Obviously, we’d like for him to have a couple years and be the caddy,” Reese said. “Hopefully, he can sit on the sidelines and learn the game.”

But I would argue something else Reese did in this year’s draft will impact Manning far more than Webb’s selection. And in a good way.

That first-round pick of Evan Engram, who starred at Manning’s alma mater, has a chance to give Manning an important weapon on offense, a luxury he rarely has enjoyed in his time with the Giants: a big-time pass-catcher at tight end. From one Ole Miss alum to another, Engram can provide Manning with the kind of difference-maker on offense that will render Webb’s presence a moot point until Eli is truly unable to play at a high enough level to lead this team.

Engram was a bit of a surprise going at No. 23 to the Giants, not that they didn’t have a need at tight end, but that Engram wasn’t considered the second-best player at his position in this year’s draft. The consensus among many scouts was that Miami tight end David Njoku was next up behind O.J. Howard, who surprisingly slipped to the Bucs at No. 18 after being mentioned as a potential top-10 pick.

Engram is like a wide receiver in a tight end’s body, a 6-3, 227-pounder with freakish speed. His 4.42 in the 40-yard dash was not only the fastest among all tight ends at the scouting combine in February, but it was faster than all but four wide receivers. And it was faster — albeit by only .01 second — than Odell Beckham Jr.

He is an offensive coordinator’s dream, a player who can solve the problem that vexed the Giants all last season, the problem that accounted for many of Manning’s struggles because his supporting cast was unable to deal with the way opposing defenses schemed against them.

Teams figured out very early that the Giants were highly susceptible in going against one of the simplest defenses known to football: the two-deep zone. It’s an alignment in which the defense keeps two safeties back in an attempt to limit the deep pass. It was the scheme of choice throughout the season, a brilliantly effective way of keeping Beckham in check and not allowing him to get behind the defense, and every time the Giants failed to beat it, opposing teams kept using it.

Go back to that regular-season game in Green Bay on Oct. 9 as a perfect example. Late in the second quarter, with the Giants trailing 14-6, Manning dropped back from his own 39 and looked for tight end Will Tye on a deep pattern down the middle. It’s called a “seam route,” where a player runs straight up the field, right into the seam between the safeties. It’s a perfect play call against a Cover 2 alignment, and Tye easily beat the coverage. And then he dropped the pass.

On the next play, Manning was sacked and fumbled, the Packers recovered and turned the miscue into a field goal to make it 17-6 at halftime. The Giants lost, 23-16.

Tye doesn’t have nearly the speed of Engram, so it stands to reason that coach Ben McAdoo, who doubles as offensive coordinator, now will have that play at his disposal for a player with top-end speed who can not only run the same route but can turn it into a huge play.

Throw in the fact that the Giants signed blocking tight end Rhett Ellison, a more conventional pass catcher, and added a big-time outside receiver in Brandon Marshall, and there is every reason to believe that Manning can still be a viable quarterback who won’t be smothered by opposing defenses the way he was last year.

When you have weapons like Marshall and now Engram alongside Beckham and emerging second-year wide receiver Sterling Shepard, your quarterback is operating much more from a position of strength than last year, when there were major tight end deficiencies and Victor Cruz was miscast as an outside receiver.

Teams can no longer rely on the Cover 2 as their defense of choice when you have the kind of athletes who can stretch the field and thus open things up for Manning.

So yes, it’s certainly newsworthy that the Giants added another promising arm to the quarterback room in Webb, a prototypical 6-3, 240-pound passer with a big arm who threw for 4,295 yards and 37 touchdown passes last season. And it very well could be that Webb is the guy who eventually takes over for Manning, even though the odds are against him in a league where so few quarterbacks grow into championship caliber passers.

But like Reese said after drafting Webb, he’s Manning’s caddy for now. And if McAdoo can dial up the right schemes with the benefit of a strong influx of talent, the latest being Engram, then the Giants don’t have to worry about who’s next for at least another few years.


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