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Bye Plaxico, Hello Mario!

You can call it one of three things: a changing of the guard, a strange coincidence or an interesting twist of fate. Little-known New York Giants wide receiver Mario Manningham introduced himself to a national television audience with a stellar breakout performance last Sunday night (10 catches for 150 yards and one touchdown) in a hard-fought New York victory over the Dallas Cowboys. Just two days later, ex-Giant Plaxico Burress, the man whom Manningham possibly could replace as the team’s top big-play receiving threat, was sentenced to two years in prison on a weapons charge in connection with a 2008 gun incident at a Manhattan-area nightclub.

 

Anointing Manningham as the next great up-and-coming National Football League wide receiver reeks of sensationalism on my part, and I realize that. Burress is a nine-year veteran who caught the game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLII, while Manningham has played in just 10 regular-season games with no playoff appearances during his young career. On the other hand, can you remember the last time a relatively unknown NFL player stepped out from the shadows of obscurity into the national spotlight with such an impressive performance?

 

THE MANNINGHAM MEMIOR

 

Mario Cashmere Manningham was born May 25, 1986, in Warren, Ohio. He is the cousin of former NFL offensive lineman (and Michigan All-American) Bubba Paris. Playing both wide receiver and cornerback, Manningham was a three-year letterman and a two-year starter for the Warren G. Harding High School (Ohio) football team. During his two seasons as a starting wide out (2004-2005), Manningham compiled 105 catches for 1,883 yards and 24 touchdowns. He earned Parade Magazine All-American honors and was rated as one of the top high school receivers in the country by several respected talent evaluators.

 

This sturdy son of Ohio accepted a scholarship offer to play football at Michigan, where his elite talent (4.39 40-yard dash in high school) and great football instincts enabled him to dominate games as a lethal deep threat, even as a true freshman. “Super Mario” had quickly become a household name in 2005 when he caught a 10-yard touchdown pass against Penn State when time expired to defeat the Nittany Lions, which was their only loss of the season. The following year, Manningham caught three first-half touchdown passes against Notre Dame in South Bend to lead the Wolverines to a 47-21 victory over the then-ranked No. 2 Fighting Irish. A three-year letterman for Michigan (2005-2007), Manningham played in 34 games (24 starts), amassing 137 receptions for 2,310 yards (fifth-highest total in school history) and 27 touchdowns.

 

However, despite his success on the football field, Manningham accumulated some off-the-field baggage. Jim Carty of the Ann Arbor News (“Manningham Should Have Grown Up A Long Time Ago”, April 20, 2008) said Manningham was painfully shy at first but evolved into a person who was “immature and self-centered.” According to Scott Bell of the Detroit Free Press (“Mario Manningham: His Best and Worst Moments”, January 10, 2008), Manningham allegedly “alligator-armed passes” over the middle and “dogged certain routes.” Bell also claimed that Manningham “rubbed certain teammates the wrong way.”

 

Carty also chronicled how Manningham allegedly seemed “disinterested” during his 2007 junior season, “giving far less than a full effort at times” and “quitting on plays.” Now-former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr had suspended Manningham for an early-season non-conference game against Eastern Michigan. Carr had given no official reason for the suspension, only saying publically that Manningham “lacked focus.” Later in the season, when an injury to now-former Michigan starting quarterback Chad Henne (Miami Dolphins) forced now-former Michigan backup quarterback Ryan Mallet into the starting lineup — the talented Mallet was not ready for the role — Manningham, according to Carty, did not play hard and “undercut Mallet’s leadership with bad body language and open verbal criticism on the sideline.”

 

MORE MANNINGHAM TROUBLES

 

Perhaps fed up with Michigan, perhaps enamored with the prospect of playing in the NFL (and earning NFL money) or perhaps leery of what promised to be a difficult 2008 transition season for the Wolverines with a new head coach and a new offensive system (Carr had retired after the 2007 season), Manningham renounced his senior year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft.

  Nobody seriously questioned his decision at the time. Many respected draft experts had initially pegged Manningham as a first-round prospect and possibly the first wide receiver to be selected.

 

 

Manningham’s Pre-Draft Profile

(Pro Football Weekly 2008 Draft Guide)

  • Height: 6’0”

  • Weight: 180 pounds

  • 40-Yard Dash: 4.45

  • Positives: Possesses home-run speed, accelerates quickly, elusive, sharp route runner, great hands, adjusts to the ball well, good instincts.

  • Negatives: Slender frame; long-term durability a concern. Has shown a tendency to avoid contact, has shown lapses in concentration, not a practice player, maturity in question.

  • NFL player he resembles physically and mentally: Chad Ochocinco (Cincinnati Bengals).

      

 

With NFL team executives already leery of his college character issues, Manningham committed a series of blunders prior to the NFL Draft that further devastated his already shaky value. Pro Football Weekly draft expert Nolan Nawrocki (“The Way We Hear It — Draft Edition”, April 8, 2008) said Manningham waited too long to sign an agent. Nawrocki also said the wide receiver’s Combine workout was terrible, and he was “unprepared” for the workouts and grueling interviews. Manningham also scored just six out of 50 on the Wonderlic test. His biggest problem: Manningham had lied during his interviews, denying that he had ever tested positive for marijuana use at Michigan.

 

Manningham desperately tried to salvage his draft stock. The wide out showed up in much better physical condition at his pro day, resulting in a very good workout. According to Nawrocki’s article, Manningham distributed a letter to all 32 NFL teams, confessing that he had failed two drug tests while at Michigan and apologizing for any “confusion” he had caused. Nawrocki obtained a copy of Manningham’s letter. Here is an excerpt:

 

I don’t use marijuana anymore — and I have passed tests since. I know what is at stake for me, and my career. I am learning what it is going to take to be a professional. I am writing this letter because I just want a fair evaluation, and I want to be accountable for my actions. I am willing to be re-interviewed, re-tested, and to undergo any evaluation any team wants me to undergo.

 

In addition, Carr, who had clashed with Manningham, came forward, vouching for his former player. Manningham’s late-hour mea culpa received a mixed response. Troubled by his college drug use and other character concerns, several teams removed Manningham from their draft boards, according to Nawrocki. Other teams who re-interviewed Manningham, however, found his remorse for past mistakes sincere, concluding that the young man lacked a support system and just needed, according to Nawrocki, “a lot of guidance.” The Giants chose this first-round talent in the third round (pick No. 95 overall) of the 2008 NFL Draft. Manningham inked a four-year contract worth up to $2.3 million.

 

HAS “THE LIGHT COME ON” FOR MANNINGHAM?

 

Manningham’s 2008 rookie season was very quiet by NFL standards. After missing much of training camp with a quad injury, he was a fixture on the scout team but did receive some limited playing time in eight regular-season games, compiling four catches for 26 yards with no touchdowns. The departures of former starters Burress and Amani Toomer apparently inspired Manningham to improve his game in hopes of winning a starting job. According to an article written by Jenny Vrentas of The Star-Ledger (“Light Goes On For NY Giants Receiver Mario Manningham”, September 22, 2009), Manningham asked for and received extra training camp tutoring from former NFL wide receiver Keenan McCardell, who was working with the Giants as part of the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship. The two would find time during the busy training camp day to go over Manningham’s camp practice footage. McCardell said he encouraged Manningham to “understand his strengths (quickness, elusiveness and tackle-breaking ability) and be able to impose them on defenses” when he was on the field. The result? Through Week 2, Manningham has compiled 13 catches for 208 yards (currently ranks No. 4 in the league) and two touchdowns. Vrentas’ article did not mention whether Manningham and McCardell talked about maturity issues or Manningham’s troubles at Michigan, but I suspect the pair discussed much of that.

 

MANNINGHAM’S FANTASY VALUE FOR 2009

 

I am sure you do not expect Manningham to tally 10 catches for 150 yards and one touchdown (his Dallas numbers) every week. It’s very hard to give a full-season evaluation for a second-year player who has enjoyed just one career breakout game, but I think the arrow is definitely pointing up for Manningham. With Domenik Hixon (knee) and Hakeem Nicks (foot) out of action, Manningham is obviously taking advantage of his increased playing time and may permanently steal Hixon’s starting job. Remember that Steve Smith seems to be Eli Manning’s go-to guy, but the passing attack has flowed mainly through Smith and Manningham. The Giants currently are throwing more than usual, because enemy defenses have committed to containing their vaunted running game. Manningham is inexperienced and a deep threat, which suggests the odds that he will have an occasional quiet game this season are better than 50/50. Burress posted 70 catches for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns during his last full season in a Giants uniform, which is well within the reach of Manningham. Assuming Manningham continues to improve, assuming he becomes a regular starter, assuming he is a good citizen and assuming the Giants use him to stretch the field regularly, I think best-case scenario, Manningham is a decent fantasy WR2 with upside.

 

  

 

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