Everywhere I go now, everyone asks the same question: "Where will Peyton play?" It happens so often, we might want to think about just abbreviating the question for text or twitter form to save on time:
Yet for me, the real question is not where Peyton Manning will play, but rather which teams should be interested. Even teams with a starting quarterback might want to consider a trade-in. The fundamental question an executive must ask himself when a free agent hits the market: "Is this player better than who we have?" If the answer is yes, then he must attempt to improve the team. This is his duty to the franchise. Sometimes financial restrictions burden the executive, but when money is not an issue, the executive cannot let emotions play a role in improving the franchise. Loyalty to winning is the only loyalty that matters.
If Manning is cleared medically (and to some teams, that is a big if), he will hold all the cards. There will be teams that require a complete physical before they can put significant dollars on the table and really begin the courtship. Manning might claim he is healthy, but he will have to go through a battery of tests to prove that to most teams.
There is an old saying relative to golf that applies to the Manning situation. If a person wants to join Augusta National Golf Club and has to ask how much it costs to join, he probably can't afford it. Same thing applies to Manning. If a team has to ask what it would take, it might want to discontinue its pursuit.
Since Manning has known his release was coming for some time, he has been studying prospective teams trying to find the right fit for his talent and a situation where he can win right away. Manning is continuing his career not to rebuild a franchise, or to help a team sell tickets, but to win a Super Bowl. That eliminates some teams that should be interested yet have no chance to acquire his services.
We all know the obvious teams in need of Manning, but what about the others? Here is my breakdown of all 31 teams (Colts not included):
The "We love him, but we really don't need him" category
This is the easiest group to determine because these teams already have legitimate blue-chip starters in place. Blue-chip starters are the best at their position and can routinely compete for Super Bowls. Some here have already won titles, and these teams are not going to be in the race for Manning. But trust me, they will watch this closely and hope Manning does not end up in their division.
New York Giants
The "We love him, but we have a young star who might be just as good one day" category
This category is not for all the young quarterbacks in the league; it's really a small group based on their play last year. Carolina appears to have hit the lottery with Cam Newton as he has demonstrated rare talent and the kind of competitiveness needed to reach the highest level of play. Finally staying healthy for a full season, the Lions' Matthew Stafford showed the football world he was worthy of the first overall pick and his future in Detroit appears to be bright.
The "He is better than our guy, but it's too hard to make it happen" category
Assuming Manning is healthy, these four teams know that he is better than their current starter, but it likely will be too hard to make the move. They cannot publicly show interest in Manning because it would cause their starter to feel threatened. However, privately all these teams know Manning would be an upgrade.
The "We need him, but he would never play here" category
A completely healthy Manning is needed by most teams. But some clubs in the league realize they have no chance to secure his services, mainly because Manning is not going to be a part of a rebuilding program.
The "We are all-in for Manning" category
These teams are easy to determine and have openly expressed their love for Manning. These teams know Manning would help them win and is better than anyone they could put on the field. Not all these teams have an equal chance, so some might pull out quickly once they realize they cannot acquire Manning. No team wants to be embarrassed in its pursuit, so some might only go all-in if they sense they can actually win.
New York Jets
The "We need him, but won't admit it yet" category
This final group is very much interested in Manning, but working behind the scenes for now. These teams have starters who are good, but know Manning is better. If Manning were to join San Francisco or Houston, he would make both teams instant Super Bowl favorites. Right now, San Francisco is trying to sign back Alex Smith, but if they add Manning and pair him with that defense, the Niners might be the best team in the league. Houston could sign Manning and then trade starter Matt Schaub to the Redskins for a significant draft pick and end up with a pick and a better player ... if they are willing to make the move. This is doable as Manning appears to love the Texans.
Sources tell me that Manning is expected to make a decision soon. Buckle up, folks. Next week in the league, with free agency beginning and the Manning decision likely coming down, will be a fascinating time in NFL history.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi