While Mario Manningham has slowly been slipping down the depth charts in New York, he might have given himself a jet-propelled kick start into his offseason of free agency—and perhaps a return to Michigan makes sense.
While sure handed, Manningham has endured some injuries and mental mistakes during his short career in New York. This season the 2008-3rd round pick out of the University of Michigan started to get buried on the bench behind Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, but when the Giants needed Manningham the most he came through in a huge way in the Super Bowl. With Cruz ineffective and Nicks blanketed, Eli Manning turned to Manningham late in the game. Manningham’s over the shoulder, falling out of bounds, circus catch was the play of the game and likely earned him an eternal place in Giants’ lore.
Now I know what you’re saying—there’s no room for Manningham in the Lions crowded receiving core. That’s true, there is no room—at least none the way it currently stands. We all know that Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew are about to be sinking to the depths of salary cap hell. Every single penny is going to matter. There will be some restructured contracts and some veteran cuts in the next several weeks while the Lions try to retain some of their own top free agents–namely Cliff Avril, Jeff Backus and Stephen Tulloch. One possible way to make this job easier for Lewand and Mayhew could be to cut #2 wide receiver Nate Burleson* and sign a replacement (such as Manningham) to a cheaper and/or front loaded deal. Following a string of two wins over two season, Burleson was heavily targeted as a free agent prior to the 2010 season. While he has brought leadership and been the most dependable #2 receiver for the Lions since possibly Johnnie Morton, Burleson’s production hasn’t been outstanding and he has committed some key turnovers and drops. In 2011, while targeted only the 25th most in the league his 10 drops ranked 6th. Additionally, Burleson is starting to reach the twilight of his career as he’ll be 31 years old when the season starts. Manningham will only be 26.
Signed for a “Pre-2011 Detroit Lions Premium” 5 year $25 Million contract in 2010, Burleson’s base salary increases significantly over the next three seasons from his first two seasons. His base salary is due to increase to $4 Million in 2012. While a restructure of the contract is a possibility, the Lions could also chose to cut Burleson and pursue another receiving option. Rookie Titus Young came on strong during the second half of the season showing ability to both stretch the field and play in the slot. Young should be able to assume the #2 role behind All-Pro Calvin Johnson before too long. Adding Manningham, who has better size but not Young’s speed, would give the Lions additional versatility as he’s shown ability on both deep routes and as a possession receiver–unlike Burleson who’s evolved into strictly a slot receiver.
Of course, the only way this works is if the Manningham’s salary demands are not prohibitive. If a team is willing to pay Manningham as a #1 wideout, the Lions would not be an option–however, Manningham likely hasn’t shown enough to warrant a team to invest that much into him. As a barometer, Steve Breaston (another UM product coming off a better season than Manningham) also signed a 5 year deal for $25 Million with the Kansas City Chiefs before the 2011 season, however the deal is much more cap friendly than Burleson’s. Only $8 Million of Breaston’s contract is guaranteed and his salary hit in 2011 and 2012 was/is only $700,000 and $1.8 Million, respectively. Manningham would probably command in the ballpark of that contract and any deal for Manningham would have to be structured similarly.
It’s tough to imagine the Lions cutting Burleson after having a solid (albeit unspectacular) impact on the Lions, but there is no doubt that the Lions have some difficult decisions to make. If it comes down to say keeping Burleson or having Manningham and Stephen Tulloch, a move for a free agent receiver could make perfect sense. At a minimum his expendability might force Burleson–already committed to a minor restructure during the 2011 season–to further restructure his contract to a more cap friendly figure.
* Note: I had difficulty find precise details of Burleson’s contract. He was entitled to $11 Million guaranteed so it’s a possibility that cutting him might not be feasible if much of that is still owed.
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