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Eli Manning suddenly New York Giants' biggest question mark

If there's one thing we've learned in chronicling every pass Eli Manning has thrown in the NFL, it's that it would be foolish to write him off. You can't prematurely pen the epitaph on his career.

Eli has put together winning seasons and championship runs that have lifted his reputation to the highest levels. While his play has been uneven at times, the younger Manning has built a sound case for the Hall of Fame, with his knack for delivering titles and clutch play. He's a winner -- with two Super Bowl rings to prove it.

But maybe because of Eli's deserved status, some disconcerting facts seem to be flying under the radar. Here's the truth: Manning is 33 years old, just authored his worst NFL season since his rookie campaign and must learn a brand new offense. Oh, and did I mention he's currently immobilized, recovering from last week's ankle surgery?

Put all this together, and it's an issue -- just how big an issue remains to be seen, of course. But it's a situation that simply cannot be ignored, especially given the current state of the New York Giants.

General manager Jerry Reese has enjoyed a strong offseason, attacking free agency with a purpose after missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Still, this team is far from complete. The NFL draft remains on the horizon, but at this point, the Giants need a dominant quarterback to carry them in 2014. Is Eli set up to assume that role again? It's a legitimate question, despite how I opened this column, because a number of incontrovertible issues are working against the 10-year vet.

In a statement released last week by the team, Manning said he should be running in about six weeks. The Giants begin organized team activities May 28. Will Eli be ready to rock? Maybe, maybe not. Chances are, he won't be a full go. The Giants' medical team is respected as one of the NFL's best, and there's no reason for Eli to push it and potentially compromise his health. But it's easy to see why the quarterback would want to. After all, the Giants are installing a new offense.

Kevin Gilbride retired in January after seven seasons as offensive coordinator, and truthfully, a change was needed. Credit Gilbride for helping guide this franchise to a pair of Lombardi Trophies, but his offense was sputtering of late, ranking 28th overall last season. Reese has taken a lot of heat for the lack of talent on the roster, but something was amiss with the scheme/play calling.

I loved the hire of former Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo as Gilbride's replacement. I applauded the Giants' decision to not promote from within or hire someone Eli was familiar with (like former Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan). The Giants needed a jolt. McAdoo is young and very well-respected -- a fine candidate to reinvigorate New York's offense.

But wouldn't it be nice if the offense's most important piece weren't rehabbing from surgery?

I'm not a doctor. I don't know if Manning could've had the surgery earlier. But in hindsight, it certainly would've helped with the offensive makeover. Receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz both missed large chunks of offseason activities a year ago, and this hurt offensive chemistry. Just ask Cruz. Anything less than full participation from Eli is troubling, especially given the roster turnover this offseason. It's not just about a new playbook, but new personnel, as well.

Reese wisely let Nicks walk after a second straight season of regression and health concerns. (Not to mention, he failed to score a single touchdown in 2013.) The Giants looked to compensate by courting Jacoby Jones, but he opted to re-up with the Baltimore Ravens. Yes, New York brought back familiar face (and former Super Bowl hero) Mario Manningham -- but he totaled all of 51 catches in two injury-riddled seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Big Blue would be well-served to target another playmaker in the draft, perhaps tight end Eric Ebron or one of the many talented receivers available. But again, we're talking about adding new players to a new offense.

I liked the Geoff Schwartz pickup -- it's an upgrade at offensive guard. As is Rashad Jennings at running back. The Giants said they did their due diligence on John Jerry, who was involved in the Miami Dolphins misconduct scandal. If that's true, he's also a solid addition to the offensive line. But these are more parts Eli must get to know. Did I mention he's coming off an absolutely horrendous season? Manning threw a league-high 27 interceptions last year and, quite frankly, just looked totally out of whack.

Yes, questions abound with the Giants' new offense. But what about the defense, a unit that certainly did its part in New York's magical postseason runs of 2007 and 2011?

The D looks much better in the back end after two brilliant cornerback signings (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond). And I give Reese a ton of credit for refusing to overpay Justin Tuck, who left to join the Oakland Raiders after nine seasons with Big Blue. Looking into the crystal ball, the money and commitment just didn't make sense. Thanks for the memories. But are the remaining members of the front seven ready for prime time? The linebacker group is very suspect, even after the re-signing of Jon Beason. Up front, will Jason Pierre-Paul bounce back? His sack totals over the past three years look like this: 16.5, 6.5, 2. That's what you call a downward trend. And, in a development that went very much under the radar, the Giants lost a valuable piece in tackle Linval Joseph; the free-agent departee was very reliable in the middle of New York's defensive line.

So yes, questions abound on defense, as well.

Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers routinely carry teams with warts. Last year, Philip Rivers did, too. At this age, with this team, can Eli follow suit?

Like I said, the most foolish thing you can do is totally count this guy out. And it doesn't hurt that he's coached by a future Hall of Famer in Tom Coughlin.

But right now, even after a strong effort in free agency, the Giants are far from the team to beat in the NFC East. That's the Philadelphia Eagles. And the Washington Redskins should be vastly improved, with a new coach, a healthy Robert Griffin III and DeSean Jackson in the fold.

Looking beyond the division, the conference race simply gets scarier by the moment. The NFC West is the best division in football, plain and simple. The NFC South, as I wrote earlier this offseason, is competitive from top to bottom. And NFC North residents Green Bay and Chicago are both better than these Giants.

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Conventional wisdom says this kind of aging quarterback -- one who, fresh off surgery and his worst season in a decade, must learn a new offense -- has little chance to shock the football world and lead his team to the playoffs. But Eli's shocked everyone before.

We are now two seasons removed from his last Super Bowl triumph. Was 2013 a blip or part of a trend? Looking forward to 2014, should Eli inspire hope or concern?

You just wish things had started off on the right foot -- as opposed to a balky left ankle.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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