It is a challenge, and should be impossible, to select the best player in the NFL draft and still jeopardize the long-term success of your football team. So you at least have to give the New York Giants credit for ingenuity.
They used the No. 2 pick Thursday night on Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, and if there was consensus among draft cognoscenti that Barkley – both for his remarkable physical skills and his impeccable character – was the surest thing available, there was much disagreement about whether he was actually the right player for the Giants to take. That debate has nothing to do with Barkley and everything to do with the present and future of quarterback Eli Manning, and it will have ramifications not only for the Giants but also for the team that is the reigning NFC East and Super Bowl champion. You know, the Philadelphia Eagles.
Ask a veteran NFL analyst or a random person at the corner of 12th and Market to pinpoint the greatest and most important advantage that the Eagles have over their intradivisional rivals, and chances are you’ll get the same answer: quarterback. (All apologies to Doug Pederson.) It’s not merely that, if and when he is fully healthy again, Carson Wentz is the best quarterback in the NFC East. It’s that there’s a credible argument to be made that, in light of the 2017-18 postseason, Nick Foles is the second-best quarterback in the NFC East.
However one might rank the rest of the quarterbacks in the division after Wentz, it’s pretty clear that, for reasons of age and style of play, Manning would fall below the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott and the Redskins’ Alex Smith. He will turn 38 in January. And while he is sometimes underappreciated for the breadth of his career and accomplishments – he has won two Super Bowls and two Super Bowl MVPs, has led his team to the playoffs six times, has thrown for more than 4,000 yards six times, and once started 210 consecutive games – there’s no denying that he has regressed lately.
His QBR has dropped each of the last four seasons. That decline has coincided with a five-year stretch in which the Giants had four losing seasons, went 33-46 in games that Manning started, and lost eight of their 10 games against the Eagles.
Put simply, the Giants had the second-worst record in the NFL last season, at 3-13, and have the worst quarterback situation in the NFC East. By drafting Barkley, the Giants passed on four quarterbacks who were selected later in the first round: Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and Lamar Jackson. In doing so, they passed on the opportunity to acquire Manning’s successor, and that seems a shortsighted and imprudent decision, to put it mildly.
Quarterback is an inherently more valuable position than running back, and the odds that Barkley will be so spectacular, that his effect will be so profound, that his presence will close the gap between the Giants and the Eagles is far-fetched. Yet Giants general manager Dave Gettleman told reporters Thursday night not only that didn’t he hesitate to draft Barkley, not only that he didn’t consider trading the pick to acquire more assets, but that he expects Manning to thrive as the Giants’ starting quarterback for years to come. (Which is hardly an endorsement, too, of Davis Webb, the team’s backup quarterback.)
“What’s the long-term plan with the quarterback? He’s going to play,” Gettleman said of Manning. “What do you want me to tell you? He’s our quarterback. We believe in him. … There are some guys who are just freaks.”
Manning is not Tom Brady, though. He is not improving with age or even maintaining a particular level of excellence. After a terrible season in 2003, the Giants made that blockbuster trade at the ’04 draft to get Manning, and in a year’s time, he made them competitive and relevant and kept them that way for nearly a decade. Similarly, the Eagles’ decision to pursue and acquire Wentz in 2016 shifted the balance of power in the division again. That realignment, with the Eagles as the presumptive favorites, might remain for a long time, and it only helps them if one of their opponents is willing to cling to a quarterback in decline. Saquon Barkley is a great person and a great prospect and could turn out to be a great NFL running back, but if you’re the Eagles, you still have to like your chances against the New York Giants, next season and beyond.