This Day in NFL Draft History: The Eli Manning-Philip Rivers QB Blockbuster

Dan Mennella
April 24, 2020 - 11:46 am

The 2019-20 NFL offseason has seen a changing of the guard at the league's most important position.

Franchise quarterbacks Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning have donned new uniforms or called it a career. To boot, former MVP Cam Newton was unceremoniously cut and former No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston allowed to walk in free agency.

The overhaul was years in the making, and much of it was shaped by the landscape-changing events that took place on this day in 2004.

The son and brother of NFL quarterbacks, Manning was a can’t-miss blue-chip prospect out of Ole Miss ahead of the 2004 draft.

The problem was he didn’t want to play for the San Diego Chargers, who owned the first overall pick that year and coveted a quarterback to challenge the then-unproven Drew Brees. The young Brees went just 2-9 as a starter in 2003, with 11 touchdown passes and 15 picks.

The Chargers honored Manning's wish, drafting him first overall before dealing him to New York in exchange for another quarterback, Philip Rivers of NC State, whom New York took with the fifth overall pick.

The Giants had struggled to find a franchise quarterback after the Phil Simms-Jeff Hostetler era. Kerry Collins was found money for a three-year stretch, even leading the team to the Super Bowl, but the Giants wisely let him walk as a free agent after 2003. It’s little surprise, then, they were interested in snaring a quarterback in the 2004 draft which featured three future studs—Manning, Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger.

Manning was a sensible fit on paper, coming from a family of NFL royalty and playing well in the SEC at Ole Miss. The Giants, a conservative old-money franchise, were likely drawn to the shine of capturing some of the magic from the league's best quarterback in his little brother.

Rivers, meanwhile, had emerged as a first-round talent in the run-up to the draft despite being curiously snubbed from Heisman Trophy consideration after tossing 34 touchdowns to just 7 picks in his senior year of 2003, capping a stellar college career. Some scouts were put off by Rivers' pop-gun arm despite his prototypical size and sharp completion percentages in college.

San Diego eventually let Brees walk as a free agent following the 2005 season, finally turning over the reins to Rivers after two years of holding the clipboard. At last, several of the highest-profile figures who would come to define football on its biggest stage were in place and starting where they would become household names for the next decade and a half.

Brady, already well established in New England. Brees, now with the Saints, where he would eventually lead them to their first Super Bowl title. Manning, now starting in New York after the Giants made the gutsy call to stick with their plan for his development and bench Kurt Warner. And Rivers, now the the starter in San Diego.

Of course, we'd be remiss not to examine the other future Hall of Fame quarterback in that first round, Roethlisberger. Big Ben, a massive, strong-armed athlete with surprising mobility, elbowed his way into the first after a dominant career at Miami (Ohio). Playing against weaker competition in the MAC apparently kept him out of the top half of the draft, but his name surfaced frequently in the rumor bonanza leading up to the big day -- very likely as a red herring to throw other teams off the scent.

Ironically, Roethlisberger might have had the best career of this era outside of Brady. Of course, the others were no slouches. Eli and Brees combined for three Super Bowl wins. The Chargers never made it to one under Rivers, but you could rarely lay the blame on him for that. A bounce here or there, some better coaching, and he likely has a ring.

Rivers could still win one -- but he'll now have to do it with the Indianapolis Colts. That will take some getting used.

Despite the trophies and rings, Manning left behind a mixed and hotly debated legacy upon retiring. Belying his famously easygoing personality, the Ole Miss product has long been among the league’s more polarizing figures with respect to his on-field performance.

The debate over whether Eli was an “elite” quarterback raged throughout his playing days, but he kicked up a bit of a storm—and changed the fates of at least three franchises—before he had even suited up for an NFL game.

And it all started on this day in history.

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