There's a chance that Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history, will be a free agent this spring. If that happens, I believe he'll sign with the team that gives him the best chance of winning championships during the last few years of his career. With that in mind, here's a list of key criteria Manning will likely consider as he examines suitors:
- Defensive Ability - Do they have a strong defense against both the pass and the run?
- Offensive Ability - Do they have a decent receiving corps? Do they have a solid offensive line? Most importantly, do they have a strong running game (think about John Elway's success with Terrell Davis)?
- Management Stability - How patient is the owner? How successful is the GM? How proven is the coach? How secure are all three in their positions?
- QB Situation - Have they acquired a QB recently who is expected to become the starter? We're assuming Peyton will play for more than three years, so he's less likely to sign with a team that has a future starter waiting expectantly in the wings.
- State of the Team - How old is the roster? How have they performed in the past few seasons?
- State of the Division - Are the other teams in the division good? The worse they are the better, as it will make it easier for Manning to get to the playoffs.
This article will use these factors to identify the team Manning is most likely to sign with.
Narrowing the List
Let's quickly narrow down the list of destinations. The reasoning below includes Peyton's considerations as defined above and the team's perspective based on their QB situation:
|Team||Current QB||Potential Destination?|
|Arizona||Kevin Kolb||Just acquired Kolb|
|Atlanta||Matt Ryan||Solid starter|
|Buffalo||Ryan Fitzpatrick||Extended Fitzpatrick, rebuilding|
|Carolina||Cam Newton||Stud young player, rebuilding|
|Chicago||Jay Cutler||Solid starter|
|Cincinnati||Andy Dalton||Stud young player, tough division|
|Cleveland||Colt McCoy||Rebuilding, tough division|
|Dallas||Tony Romo||Solid starter, owner thinks he's a good GM|
|Denver||Tim Tebow||Rebuilding, GM learning on the job|
|Detroit||Matthew Stafford||Solid starter|
|Green Bay||Aaron Rodgers||Solid starter|
|Houston||Matt Schaub||Solid starter|
|Jacksonville||Blaine Gabbert||New owner, rebuilding|
|Kansas City||Matt Cassel||Maybe|
|Miami||Chad Henne||Rebuilding, tough division|
|Minnesota||Christian Ponder||Rebuilding, young player in wings|
|New England||Tom Brady||Solid starter|
|New Orleans||Drew Brees||Solid starter|
|NY Giants||Eli Manning||Solid starter|
|NY Jets||Mark Sanchez||Maybe; a popular media pick|
|Oakland||Carson Palmer||Rebuilding, unstable, just acquired Palmer|
|Philadelphia||Michael Vick||Solid starter|
|Pittsburgh||Ben Roethlisberger||Solid starter|
|San Diego||Philip Rivers||Solid starter|
|San Francisco||Alex Smith||Maybe|
|St. Louis||Sam Bradford||Solid starter, rebuilding|
|Tampa Bay||Josh Freeman||Solid starter, rebuilding|
|Tennessee||Matt Hasselbeck||Young player in wings|
|Washington||Rex Grossman||Rebuilding, tough division, unstable owner|
Determining the Finalists
Let's look at the remaining five contenders in greater detail:
- Baltimore Ravens - I think this is the ideal destination. The defense is incredible, they've stockpiled good receivers in recent years and they have an excellent RB in Ray Rice. Imagine that rock-solid defense with a consistent and perhaps even high-scoring offense. Unfortunately, it's unclear if they intend to move on from the mediocre Joe Flacco, and they play in an extremely tough division against the equally good Steelers and the emerging Bengals. Furthermore, Ray Lewis is 36, Ed Reed is 33 and Reed has considered retirement. If I was Ozzie Newsome, I'd bench Flacco and put on a full-court press to get Manning, but that scenario is too perfect to actually happen.
- Kansas City Chiefs - With a highly regarded GM, a young roster, a solid three-deep receiving corps with a good pass-catching tight end, a defense that improved throughout the season, an absolute stud RB in Jamaal Charles, very good defensive coaching and no proven QB or QB-in-waiting, the Chiefs should be one of the front-runners when Peyton starts examining suitors. They have the added advantage of playing in a division with no dominant teams, which should make the road to the playoffs easier. However, they'll have a new HC next year, the RB is returning from a torn ACL and their offensive line has been inconsistent.
- NY Jets - Why would Peyton want to play Belichick's Patriots twice a year? Why would he want to go to a team currently surrounded by allegations of "me-first" players? The Jets are often mentioned as leaders in the potential race for Manning, but they aren't a good match. They seem to have a good defense (though they were 20th in scoring defense this year), but they're unsettled along the offensive line and are thin at WR, especially if they cut or trade Holmes. Sanchez is also only in his third year and they paid three players and a second round pick to the Browns to get him, which means the OC is a more likely candidate to be replaced.
- San Francisco 49ers - With impressive first year HC Jim Harbaugh, the league's second best scoring defense in 2011, recent first round picks on the offensive line, and an older but productive RB in Frank Gore, the 49ers might be the most attractive destination for Manning. They have the added advantage of playing in one of the weakest divisions, which should make the road to the playoffs easier. However, they're basically one-deep at the receiver position, have a rookie GM, drafted a QB with a high second round pick in 2011 and their offensive line picks haven't yet proven themselves.
- Seattle Seahawks - The only way Manning would go to the Seahawks is if the 49ers were off the table, which we're assuming they're not. Pete Carroll has taken a 5-11 team and gone 7-9 in consecutive seasons, Marshawn Lynch is not a reliable threat and Doug Baldwin is their most productive receiver. They fielded a top ten scoring defense in 2011, but their performance may have been inflated by getting to play their own scoring-challenged division.
Examining the Finalists
Based on our analysis by team, we can narrow the list down to two finalists: the 49ers and the Chiefs. Each team has its own advantages:
- The better coaching situation - Harbaugh proved himself by improving a 6-10 team to 13-3 with a division title. The Chiefs don't have any coaching situation to offer up for comparison, having fired their head coach late in the season.
- Unproven division opponents - Both divisions are bad, but the Chiefs have to play the Chargers with Philip Rivers, who, prior to this year, was considered to be one of the better QBs in the league. The closest to a proven QB in the NFC West is Sam Bradford, but the Rams are looking for a new GM and HC.
- The more proven GM - If he's going to play for more than a couple seasons, Manning will consider which GM will be able to make the necessary moves to keep the team competitive. The 49ers have a solid roster, but it was put together by Scott McCloughan, who was forced out in 2010; new GM Trent Baalke has only run the 2011 draft and off-season. Scott Pioli has a long history of being among the best GMs in the league, and a player as immersed in football as Manning surely noticed all the keen moves Pioli presided over while at the Patriots.
- The better receiving corps - Manning will surely take into consideration how effective he can be with the team's receiving corps. The 49ers are one-deep at receiver with Michael Crabtree. They have a good but not elite pass-catching tight end in Vernon Davis. Bowe, Baldwin, Breaston and Moeaki provide a clear competitive advantage for the Chiefs.
- No established starter or QB-in-waiting - Harbaugh was only able to work with 49ers starting QB Alex Smith for a short period of time because of the labor negotiations, but the results have been impressive. If the 49ers believe Smith can mature into anywhere near the first overall pick he was selected to be, it could be disastrous to bench him in favor of the much older Manning. The 49ers also moved up in the 2011 draft's second round to pick Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick, a strong indication that they eventually expect him to be their starter. In contrast, Matt Cassel regressed in 2011, and the highest pick the Chiefs have spent on a QB under Scott Pioli is a fifth rounder for Ricky Stanzi. This combination means Manning would likely be more secure as the starter for the Chiefs for the duration of his career.
Where I Think He'll Sign
There's no clear-cut front-runner, as the 49ers and Chiefs are very similar teams: they play in weak divisions, have strong defenses and playmakers on offense. However, San Francisco's better coaching situation and unproven division opponents are two key advantages that I don't think Manning will be able to ignore. Manning may also believe the 49ers have enough to work with that he could make their passing game top-notch, negating the Chiefs perceived advantage at WR. Finally, the 49ers likely know that Smith will never be as good a QB as Manning and would be willing to bench, trade or cut him for the short-term success Manning would bring them. This combination leads me to believe that Manning's most likely destination if he becomes a free agent is the 49ers.
But remember, Pioli has a history of bringing in veterans with something left to prove near the end of their careers. If he hires a sharp coach and improves the offensive line's pass protection, I could definitely see him sweet talking Manning into coming to Kansas City.