What to Expect from Eli Manning in His Second Season Under Ben McAdoo
The addition of offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo to the New York Giants coaching staff in 2014 was met with much fanfare. Coming over from the Green Bay Packers with the same West Coast offense that had helped turn Aaron Rodgers into a perennial top-five quarterback, optimism was high that McAdoo could help lift Eli Manning into the upper echelon of the position.
But after a disastrous preseason in which Manning completed just 48.8% of his passes for a paltry 188 yards, fans quickly called on McAdoo to scrap his "over-complicated" system in favor of a simpler one.
Luckily for Eli and the rest of the offense, McAdoo held steadfast to his philosophy and the Giants would eventually be rewarded with one of Manning's best statistical seasons as a pro. Despite a slow start, Manning managed to post his best completion percentage (63.1%), second-best touchdown total (30), and third-highest quarterback rating (92.1) of his career.
So now with another year under his belt and improvements in almost every facet of the passing game, the question on everyone's mind is whether or not Eli can continue to build off last year's performance and propel his team to the top of the NFC East in 2015.
Tracking Eli's Growth in the McAdoo Offense
In order to project Eli Manning's performance in his second year under Ben McAdoo, we must first follow his progress during his first year in McAdoo's system.
The Usual Suspects
When watching film of Eli Manning last season, the old eye test tells us that Eli was a far different player at the end of the year compared to when the season began. But when we look at some of the more traditional metrics, we see that his performance in these regards remained relatively level throughout the season.
Indeed, for the most part, Eli Manning's numbers in terms of completion percentage, yards per attempt, and quarterback rating on a game-to-game basis hovered around his averages for the season (denoted by the dotted lines) in each of these categories.
Looking beyond these numbers however, one category where Manning did show a vast improvement from Week 1 to Week 17 was in passing efficiency as measured by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP is our signature metric that quantifies a player's on-field production and compares it to league average -- or expectation-level -- production. A positive NEP means a player increased his team's chances of scoring relative to expectation, whereas a negative value means the exact opposite.
While Manning recorded an abysmal Passing NEP per drop back of -0.23 In Week of 1 of the season -- meaning each drop back decreased his team's chances of scoring -- as the season progressed and he became more comfortable in McAdoo's system, Manning was able to improve this number to a peak of 0.09 in Week 17.
So what was the source of this marked improvement?
Many will point to Odell Beckham, Jr. and argue that he deserves much of the credit for Eli's success last season, and rightfully so.
The Giants offense boasted a schedule-adjusted Passing NEP per play of 0.07 in the 12 games that Beckham played (which would been good for 11th place last season, right behind the Colts), compared to a mark of -0.07 in the four games he sat out due to injury (which would have been the third worst mark in the league, just ahead of the Bucs).
However, if we track the progress of the passing game on a game-by-game basis through the entire season, we see that in terms of Eli's emergence, Odell's arrival is actually only half the story.
We can see that Eli really began to hit his stride in Week 4 of the season, one week prior to Odell Beckham joining the lineup. So while Odell Beckham played a large part in sustaining the high level of play Eli enjoyed last season, the trend toward this efficiency was well on its way even in his absence.
We'll Make It up in Volume And what did this increased efficiency garner Eli Manning and the rest of the passing game?
It resulted in an increase in the number of passing plays Ben McAdoo was willing to call. Indeed, while the total number of plays per game was not greatly affected by this increased efficiency -- 70 in Weeks 1 to 3 compared to 73 in Weeks 4 through 17 -- the number of passing plays called was greatly influenced, seeing an increase of nearly 20% over this same time span.
And as we can see from the figure above, Eli took full advantage of this increased opportunity by adding to his yardage totals as the season progressed, eventually amassing the second-highest single-season total of his career with an impressive 4,410 yards through the air.
It's reasonable for us to expect that if Manning can maintain the same level of efficiency he had in the second half of 2014 into the 2015 season, McAdoo will continue to feel comfortable calling the same high volume of passing plays he employed during the latter half of the year, much to the benefit of Eli and the rest of the aerial attack.
Year Two Projections: Lessons Learned from Aaron Rodgers From the section above, it's clear that Eli Manning experienced vast improvements throughout the season as he started to master the new offense. But the questions remain. Can he continue this growth into year two under McAdoo, and if so, to what extent?
If you ask Ben himself, the answer to the first question is a resounding yes. Speaking on his expectations for the offense this upcoming season McAdoo stated, "Usually when you put in changes or change the system or address fundamentals, it usually shows up in year two."
To best gauge what Manning might do in his second year in this offense, it's useful to compare him to Aaron Rodgers, another quarterback who played in the same West Coast-style offense that McAdoo now employs in New York. When looking at Rodgers' numbers during his first full year as a starter in 2008 compared to Eli's numbers from 2014, the similarities are uncanny.
And with the close resemblance between Eli and Aaron in their first full seasons in this same system, we can use the growth Rodgers showed between year one and year two of this offense to get an idea of how Eli might fare.
Consistent with McAdoo's assertion that improvements on offense really begin to manifest themselves in the second year after a new system is installed, Rodgers displayed a significant boost in his production from 2008 to 2009.
Rodgers enjoyed a 38% increase in efficiency as measured by Passing NEP, resulting in a 10% increase in total passing yards, yards per attempt, and passing touchdowns. Rodgers also saw his interception rate decrease by 50% over this same time span.
And based on the growth and improvements Eli displayed throughout the 2014 season in McAdoo's system, it's reasonable to think that Eli will be able to make a significant second-year leap in 2015 With a Passing NEP of 62.37 that ranked 12th in the league last season, there is room to grow.
One important thing to note is that the Green Bay Packers fielded almost the exact same team in 2009 that they had in 2008, with no major personnel changes between these two seasons. In this case, a portion of the improvements Rodgers enjoyed from 2008 to 2009 can likely be attributed to experience.
In this regard -- with the impending return of Victor Cruz, a healthy Rashad Jennings, and the additions of free agent Shane Vereen to the backfield and first-round draft pick Ereck Flowers to the offensive line -- it's actually reasonable to expect an even bigger leap for Manning (relative to NEP) in his second year in McAdoo's system.
Odell Beckham, Jr. & Company
Ben McAdoo emphasized the importance of the players on this team to the success of his offense when he stated, "[The offense] is tailored to the players we have in the room. It is about the players, not the plays."
So beyond the steep learning curve Eli had to endure last season, the numbers he amassed in 2014 are even more impressive when we consider all the other hurdles Manning had to face in terms of his personnel.
Manning dealt with injuries to some of his best playmakers including lead wideout Victor Cruz and lead running back Rashad Jennings. To make matters worse, he played behind an offensive line that ranked 20th overall according to Pro Football Focus.
Manning finds himself in a markedly better situation in 2015 than the one he faced in 2014. His biggest playmaker in Odell Beckham, Jr. has a year of NFL experience behind him, he gets to call upon additional weapons -- both old (Victor Cruz) and new (Shane Vereen) -- in the passing game, and his offensive line just received a huge upgrade through the draft.
So how exactly will all of this influence Eli's performance for next year?
The Wide Receivers
Anytime you have a player on your team that can do this, you're in pretty good shape. Despite playing just 12 games last year, Odell Beckham, Jr. still collected 91 receptions for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns, and his Reception NEP of 118.01 ranked him seventh amongst all wideouts last season.
With such an explosive, game-breaking ability at his disposal and a year of NFL experience to his resume, it therefore goes without saying that Odell will play an instrumental role in Eli's success in 2015.
But while Beckham may very well be the Giants best receiving option, he's not their only weapon in the passing game.
Tight end Larry Donnell is set to continue the growth he enjoyed in his sophomore season, where he gained 623 yards and 6 touchdowns on 63 receptions. And going into his fourth year in the league, the physically-gifted Rueben Randle is set to build off his 71 receptions, 938 yards, and 3 touchdowns from last year as he enters the prime of his career.
Standing in at 6' 6" and 6' 4", respectively, Donnell and Randle also form a formidable duo in the red zone. Indeed, eight out of the 12 receptions these two combined for within the opponent's 10-yard line went for touchdowns last season.
But the true wild-card on this team, and possibly the biggest factor determining the extent of Manning's success in 2015 is wide receiver Victor Cruz.
In 2011 -- Manning's best season in the league in which he threw for well over 4,900 yards, tallied 29 touchdowns, and led the Giants to a Super Bowl XLVI victory over the Patriots -- Eli had two 1,000-yard receivers at his disposal in Victor Cruz (1,536) and Hakeem Nicks (1,132).
With Cruz's highly anticipated return to the Giants lineup, Eli may once again find himself in this same exact situation.
But coming off a devastating patellar tendon tear suffered in Week 6 of last season, questions remain regarding Victor Cruz's ability to fit into and contribute to this offense. However, should Cruz regain the same speed and explosiveness he displayed in seasons past, it's evident that Manning has a good chance to once again set career highs in multiple categories.
The Running Backs and Offensive Line
The addition of Shane Vereen in free agency presents another huge asset for Eli Manning in the passing game. An adept pass-catcher out of the backfield, Vereen secured a 32.69 Reception NEP last season, which ranked him fifth amongst all running backs in this category.
Beyond Vereen, Manning also gets a healthy Rashad Jennings for 2015, who is the Giants' best early down option on the ground.
Jennings' ability to help rack up yards in the running game should help keep defenses honest with their pass rush and will open up things for Manning in the passing game; in games where the Giants produced a positive Rushing NEP, Manning averaged a 3.20 Passing NEP, versus a -0.90 Passing NEP in games during which the run game produced a negative Rushing NEP.
On this note, while this offensive line ranked 20th overall last season, the big uglies up front for the Giants actually performed a respectable job in pass blocking, finishing as the 13th best unit in this category according to Pro Football Focus. The addition of 6' 6", 340 pound starting guard Geoff Schwartz in free agency, and 6' 6", 329 pound offensive tackle Ereck Flowers in the first round of the draft should boost the pass protection for Eli this upcoming season. Indeed, when asked about his first round selection, general manager Jerry Reese described Flowers as a "nifty pass-blocker" who was "very productive" in this duty during his time at Miami.
Taken all together, we can see that with skilled pass catchers out of the backfield, a strong running game, and a revamped offensive line, Eli Manning should have an easier time to delivering the ball to his playmakers this upcoming season.
Forecast for 2015
With a full year of experience to learn and master McAdoo's offense, the addition and return of multiple game-changing playmakers, and an improved offensive line, hopes are high that Eli Manning can take this offense to the next level in 2015.
Indeed, when asked to comment on his predictions for Eli this season, McAdoo stated, "I like the look in his eye. I am excited for what is on the plate this year."
If everything goes according to plan for the Giants and the team stays relatively healthy, Manning may not just find himself in the midst of a career year but could also find himself leading the Giants on a third Super Bowl run since his arrival in New York.