Eli Manning truly wants to return for a 16th season with the Giants. If the Giants truly want him back but at a reduced price, here is what likely has to happen: Manning has to bet on himself and the improvement he says he sees in the offense and accept less money.
Manning is set to count $23.2 million on the 2019 salary cap, with the base salary in the final year of his contract sitting at $17 million. There is no realistic way for the Giants, even with aggressive maneuvering, to slash that cap hit significantly without costing them a big hit on the 2020 salary cap. That would be the ultimate insult, paying for Manning when he is not even on the roster.
Here is the best-case scenario for the Giants: See if their 38-year-old quarterback will accept a small cut he can earn back. To see how that works, Eli can stay in the family and review how older brother Peyton handled it in 2015.
The Broncos, concerned with the health, durability and performance of Peyton Manning, who had undergone complicated neck surgery four years earlier, wanted him back, but at a reduced price. They took $4 million off his base salary and converted it into incentives not likely to be earned: $2 million for getting to the Super Bowl and $2 million for winning the Super Bowl. It turned out to be a perfect match, as the Broncos’ defense carried Peyton Manning to a Super Bowl triumph and he earned back the $4 million taken off his salary.
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If Peyton Manning could accept that, will Eli Manning — if the Giants make the request?
“He’s an older player, he’s made money, that’s really a personal decision,’’ Joel Corry, former sports agent and currently a contract and salary-cap expert for CBSSports.com, said Friday. “Kind of like it was up to Peyton. Do you want to stay here and take the pay cut or do you want to try to play someplace else?”
Manning is due to be paid a $5 million bonus if he is on the Giants’ roster March 18. The Giants can take that money off their 2019 cap, cutting his cap number to a more manageable $18.2 million, giving them $5 million more to spend in free agency. They would have to come up with incentives not likely to be earned — anything Manning accomplished in 2018 could not be considered. The incentives could be based upon wins for the Giants, points scored by the offense and touchdown passes thrown by Manning. Playing-time incentives would not work because Manning plays every game. The Giants could even sweeten the pot so Manning would make a bit more money if he reaches all the incentives. The Broncos felt they were on the cusp of winning big, which is why Peyton Manning agreed to reaching and winning the Super Bowl as his incentive package.
“That doesn’t work for Eli,” Corry said.
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Another way for the Giants to go is to add “dummy” years to Manning’s contract. This is what the Saints did with Drew Brees — adding years the player likely will never see in order to spread out the cap hit. The NFL allows up to four voidable years on a contract. The Giants could extend Manning’s deal for two more years, through 2021 and take the $5 million bonus due in March and convert it to base salary. That would save the Giants $3.3 million on this year’s salary cap, but create dead money (which counts against the cap even with the player not on the roster) in 2020 if Manning is cut after the 2019 season.
“Why create some sort of cap charge in 2020 for him?” Corry said. “He’s not like Drew Brees, where there hasn’t been a drop-off and he’s still playing at the highest level. I wouldn’t really mess with it.”
Unless the Giants are desperate for salary-cap space, either cutting Manning before March 18 (saving $17 million on this year’s cap but costing $6.2 million in dead money in 2020) or allowing him to play out his contract might be the path of least resistance. Manning has a no-trade clause and must approve any deal if the Giants want to ship him out.
“The most sense is if you’re going to keep him, let him play it out and start finding a quarterback of the future,” Corry said. “Just bite the bullet on the cap number. I know it’s high, but that makes the most sense if you want him around for one more year.”