We've never seen a quarterback carousel like this before. We may never see the likes of it again. And I'm sure we'll savor all the drama as it unfolds the next few weeks.
Peyton Manning, arguably the best ever at his position, is a free agent for the first time, and he's able to begin testing the market a good five days before the thing officially opens Tuesday. That alone is fairly unprecedented. Then we have an upcoming draft in which quarterbacks will be taken with the first two selections -- the Indianapolis Colts are poised to make Andrew Luck the top pick, while a handful of teams are positioned to trade up for the St. Louis Rams' No. 2 pick and snag Robert Griffin III. And just to further complicate things, Matt Flynn (a unique two-game wonder) could be in line to make $10 million a year on the open market, while Kevin Kolb (a similarly novice passer who nabbed $10 million per just a year ago) could end up hitting the open market himself if Manning ends up in Arizona.
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Pretty wild. And fairly complicated, as many of these moving parts are intertwined.
Some teams, like the Washington Redskins, love Manning andRG3. Some teams, like the Seattle Seahawks, covet Manning, but also like Flynn. The Miami Dolphins will go all-in on Manning, but also happen to have a rookie head coach who knows Flynn better than anyone else, and an offensive coordinator (Mike Sherman) who coached projected first-round QB Ryan Tannehill at Texas A&M.
In the meantime, the St. Louis Rams are trying to sort through possible trade scenarios for the No. 2 pick and identify the compensation package that makes best sense for them, with timing clearly an issue given all the teams and quarterbacks in play.
It's an elaborate puzzle. No doubt about it. So, let's attack it one scenario at a time.
Could Manning rise in Phoenix?
Of course, Manning sets the market. Any team that badly wants him won't settle for an alternative until all efforts with Manning are exhausted. And there is no shortage of teams vying for his services. The Redskins, Dolphins, Cardinals, Seahawks and Jets will pursue Manning, according to sources, while the Chiefs and Broncos are expected to monitor the market, as well.
I see Manning's decision coming down to Miami, Seattle and Arizona, and for the purposes of this column, I'm going to say Arizona lands him. The Bidwills will have to be aggressive and willing to spend some significant dough, particularly through incentives if Manning comes back performing anywhere near the way he has in the past. It's easy to see that Arizona's a great fit for No. 18. The NFC West is a traditionally weak division, making a playoff bid annually attainable. The Cardinals had great success with Kurt Warner at the tail end of his career. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt knows quarterbacks and has a strong relationship with Manning dating back to the early 2000s, when their relationship formed during Pro Bowl weeks. Larry Fitzgerald is a supreme talent, and while the offensive line could use some work, the young defense showed bite last season. The climate and relative anonymity of the desert are definitely to Manning's liking. There wouldn't be hordes of media following and chronicling his every move. Expectations might be somewhat tempered out there.
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Now, Manning does already have a home in Miami. The Dolphins will come at him very aggressively and perhaps be willing to pay the most. And yes, the Fins have talent at receiver, a franchise left tackle and a solid defensive core, as well. But the weight of having to save that franchise, the star culture of that town (LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Marlins' offseason splash) and all the glitz and glam just might be too much for Manning to take. Miami may be a great place for Peyton to visit, but not necessarily to reside. The Dolphins will be in it to the end, but looking at this franchise's track record of whiffing on Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher (and even Kyle Orton), you have to wonder if Miami can finally close the deal.
Washington is as desperate as Miami, needing a face-of-the-franchise player to help sell the future of the franchise. Money is rarely an issue for owner Dan Snyder, who's dying to finally win there, but the roster is barren. The Redskins will sell Manning on the possibility of bringing weapons like Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and Vincent Jackson to Washington, sources said. Quarterback protection could be a significant issue, though, and having to face little brother Eli twice a year isn't something Peyton would relish, according to people who know him. (In fact, these folks believe the Eli factor would be a strong deterrent, having to battle him in the same division.)
Seattle will make a strong bid, as well. Given Peyton's neck issues and overall health, though, the outdoor stadium and slick conditions in the rain might not be perfectly suited to No. 18. But Manning could have a phenomenal quality of life there, as things are very laid back. He could also run his offense, as Doug Baldwin is a Stokley-esque slot guy and Sidney Rice (when healthy) is a home run hitter on the outside. Not to mention, Seattle boasts a rising young defense, while the power run game and the young offensive line took major strides in 2011. The Seahawks are a legitimate threat here.
Flynn's waiting game
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What would be difficult for a team like the Seahawks, though, is having to gauge the Manning and Flynn markets concurrently. No one knows a realistic timetable on Manning passing a physical, being able to throw fully, etc. Some owners likely would be willing to enter into contract talks with Manning even before he's throwing the ball at 100 percent, but sorting through that won't be easy. Miami potentially faces the same juggling act. Can Joe Philbin, in his first months as head coach, conjure up a game plan that eventually lands one of those two signal callers?
If Manning goes quickly, I envision Seattle, Miami and Cleveland all pushing for Flynn. In the interest of continuing to play out scenarios in this column, I'm going to say Manning moves quickly enough that Flynn is still on the market. Flynn will be smart enough to know he doesn't necessarily have to rush, and that there will be plenty of suitors remaining after Manning is gone. Let one of the spurned owners throw some cash into his pot. If Peyton goes to Arizona, I see Stephen Ross's money landing in Flynn's pocket.
The draft dance
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If Flynn winds up in Miami, Cleveland, Washington and Seattle will still be looking for long-term answers behind center. The Browns and Redskins both have serious interest in RG3. Cleveland is putting out the word that it won't easily part with both first-round picks (Nos. 4 and 22) in the 2012 draft ... but that could change over time. I expect the Redskins, under this scenario, to exude more desperation and be willing to do whatever it takes to get that second overall pick. I'm giving the RedskinsRG3.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks have the No. 12 pick in the draft, which could position them to take Tannehill, but his stock will just continue to rise between now and late April.
What about The Others?
• I'm intrigued by the possibility of Jason Campbell with the Jets. He's a capable starter, has a very low-key attitude and is a team-first guy. He could push Sanchez, and possibly beat him out over time, but do it in an unassuming manner that would minimally damage Sanchez's confidence. Jacksonville might also make a lot of sense for Campbell. If he landed there, I think he'd eventually be starting ahead of Blaine Gabbert, who needs to make significant progress as quickly as possible.
• Pittsburgh has a trio of free agent quarterbacks (Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich). If healthy, David Garrard could be a good No. 2 for the Steelers. Garrard expects to be fully recovered from his back surgery by April, and if Miami ends up missing out on a bigger free agent, it's worth noting the Dolphins tried to sign him last year when Chad Henne was lost for the season.
• Denver plans to sign a pair of quarterbacks to compete with Tim Tebow, as Brady Quinn's hitting free agency. Henne could be an option there. Some in the league have suggested the Broncos possibly trying to move up to get RG3, but I don't see that being too feasible with all of the ground they would have to cover.
With all of these variables in play, this could be one of the more bizarre (and intriguing) offseasons we've ever seen. At least for now, all eyes are on Manning. Every decision he makes could set off a chain reaction with other available quarterbacks, and his eventual destination could well sway the balance of power in that division, in that conference, and maybe ultimately in the league.