Is Eli Manning the nation's top quarterback prospect? Our answer is no, not yet, but he's very close and it may just be a matter of playing time and experience before he moves to the forefront of the passers. The Manning name carries a lot of weight at the quarterback position, and justifiably so. Eli is the next in line and all signs point to him being more than capable of carrying the family mantle. Like brother Peyton, Eli is a great technician and fundamentally sound in every aspect of throwing the ball. His selling of either the play action or run action is masterful, the way he looks off the safety makes opponents dizzy and Manning is a great leader, truly in charge of the offense. The accuracy is right on as are the decisions he makes from the pocket when things break down. Like Peyton the arm strength is adequate, not superior or outstanding, and young Eli also displays the ability to improvise like his older brother when things break down. The one area we feel Peyton was way ahead of his little brother to this point is the pinpoint placement of his passes, putting them in an area where only his receivers had a chance to catch the ball. Peyton was also a little better hitting receivers the moment they came out of their routes, though Eli has made improvements in that area. But those are not knocks on Eli's skills; Peyton was forced into action as a freshman, splitting the starting duties whereas Eli's sophomore campaign of '01 was his first real one behind center. For what its' worth we think Eli will stay in college, return to Oxford for the 2003 season and then become yet another Manning to be the first pick of the NFL Draft, this time in April of '04. Manning has several targets to throw too, all pro-prospects in one form or another. Tight end Doug Zeigler, Manning's roommate, is a terrific football player with top-notch wherewithal and a feel for what is happening on the field. His big, soft hands give Manning an enticing target as he is always on the same page as his quarterback, consistently making the difficult or important catch over the middle or out on the flanks and always finding a way to get open. Zeigler is also a solid technician as a blocker but does not stand out to us as an explosive, overly athletic prospect rather a solid late day-one-draft selection that will eventually grow into a starting tight end at the next level. Receiver Jason Armstead has been a little inconsistent and needs to get more involved in the action but displays game breaking skills as a big play receiver. On the other hand junior wide out Chris Collins has size, reliability and is a nice "go-to guy" in college. His ability to run a solid forty-time will dictate whether or not he fits into the middle rounds in two years. The Rebels have a pair of solid linemen; one familiar and the other overlooked. Ben Claxton has been a reliable and durable center that effectively blocks for the run or pass on the pivot. Strong, technically sound and smart, Claxton really does a solid job in every aspect of his game. He is not a mobile or agile lineman but then neither was LeCharles Bentley until the combine and like the former OSU star if Claxton has a good senior campaign, performs well in the post-season and stands out at the combine, he could move into the middle of the first day and atop the charts at the center position. The lineman we like no one seems to mention is left tackle Belton Johnson, a powerful blocker that controls opponents at the line of scrimmage, driving them up the field on running plays or anchoring in pass protection. Though he displays some ability to shuffle and slide his feet Johnson is by no means a nimble lineman and may ultimately be better off on the right side as he grows into his body or even inside at guard. Regardless, he is a legitimate prospect.
The strength defense is almost literal as it comes in the form of linebacker Eddie Strong, a productive and powerful defender that makes a lot of plays up the field. Strong easily holds his ground against blocks, sometimes throwing opponents aside to get to the action and plays with a vicious attitude. He makes plays sideline-to-sideline and displays adequate range in pass defense but shows some hesitation to his game when the ball is in the air (as much a result of the scheme as his skills), an aspect he must iron out. He has the size and strength to play over tight end and right now would be a first day pick but could move into the top 45-60 selections with good workouts prior to next April's draft. Lanier Goethrie is another hard working linebacker that flies around the football but lacks the top size/speed numbers for the weak-side and may not be fast enough to play strong safety. He could fit in as an inexpensive back-up for a three-four defense and definitely has the mentality to be productive on special teams.