What would fetch more value on the open market, a healthy Peyton Manning or the first overall pick in next year's draft?
This is a tricky question: Manning would have to push back his March 13 option date (when he's due a $28 million bonus) to make this remotely possible. And the team with the first pick would have to be willing to trade it (and that team could end up being the Colts, who, you know, already employ Manning).
I spoke to executives from six teams and all agreed that the pick would be worth more.
But let's start with Manning. The most any decision maker thought he was worth was a first- and a second-round pick. "I could see you making the case that he's worth what the Raiders gave up for Carson Palmer," one GM said, while adding that the Bengals essentially fleeced Oakland on the trade and no other team in the league would have made that deal.
The lowest potential trade value I heard for Manning was two second-round picks. Several general managers suggested a first-round pick that could move to include additional picks based on production and durability, given the very significant risks with Manning's neck. But all these guys agreed that in the real world, given the unique circumstances of this situation, the Colts would not get close to that.
Remember, Manning holds all the cards. He would have to push back that option date, which now comes five days before the start of the league year, into later March, when the league year has begun, otherwise a trade is impossible. And no other team would pick up that $28 million option given his health issues, so Manning would have to restructure his deal and thus could choose where he goes.
"You could certainly make the argument that Manning, even with the neck, is worth at least what Carson Palmer was worth," one high-ranking NFC exec said. "But that will never happen. Manning will dictate where he goes, if he goes anywhere, because of the contract. It's his call. He'll dictate the market, and I don't think there would be more than a handful of places he would go."
The group of execs I spoke to suggested San Francisco, Seattle, Arizona and the New York Jets as places they believed would be Manning-approved destinations. These sources just couldn't see Manning going to other teams that need a quarterback -- such as Washington, Cleveland and Miami -- based on talent, offensive line, ownership/management instability or all of the above.
Given Manning's health, these execs figured the Colts likely would end up with a second-day pick for Manning, because any team talking to him would know Indy had just three options: take the best deal with a team Manning approves, cut him (in which case Manning is an unrestricted free agent), or pay him $36 million for 2012). Not much leverage for the Colts should it come to this.
In the meantime, these executives believe that the value for the first overall pick has never been higher. This year's likely top pick is considered a potential franchise player, a good 20 percent of the league's teams need a QB, and another potential franchise quarterback, Matt Barkley, will be available in 2013.
Under the new CBA, the first overall pick is a steal, especially if you get a QB anything like Cam Newton, whose contract pays a little over $22 million over the course of four years. These quarterbacks will make less than half of what Sam Bradford got from the Rams in 2010 under the old system, which greatly mitigates the financial risk. And remember the blockbuster trade of a year ago, when Atlanta gave up a boatload of picks to move from the bottom of the first round to the top 10 to select receiver Julio Jones.
These GMs figured it could take three first-round picks (swapping 2012 picks, and then dealing them in 2013 and 2014), plus a mid-round pick or two to get it done. Bottom line, the pick would not come cheap, if shopped at all, and the people I spoke to figured the team, whether it be the Rams or Colts, shoots for the moon.
"There's a lot of pressure to have a quarterback in this league," one general manager said, "and a lot of owners expect it to happen now, and turn around quickly. So there will be pressure on some GMs to make a splash and do what you have to do. Then you look at the caliber of the player they're moving up for, and, wow, if I have that pick I am holding their feet to the fire. I would want a ton in return."
Cleveland's offense has been a mess this season, and while some of it has been out of the Browns' control, it's impossible to watch them play and not think rookie head coach Pat Shurmur needs more help on his staff. Being a quarterback guru, coordinator, play caller and first-time head coach is too much for most to handle, and I'd be surprised if Shurmur is wearing all those hats next season. I could see a veteran coach added to the play-calling mix.
Saturday's loss magnified some of those issues. The Browns were pounding Peyton Hillis early, gashing Baltimore's defense and in field-goal range, but on third-and-one with backup Seneca Wallace in, Shurmur called a pass. Baltimore's pass rush got off, Wallace was flushed out and he threw a terrible pick; Baltimore responded with its first of 17 straight points.
Then just before the half the Browns imploded again. They reached second-and-goal from the 3 with 11 seconds left and no timeouts; Shurmur called a run this time, Hillis was stuffed and Cleveland failed to even attempt a field goal. A different outcome on either of those plays and the Browns might have pulled off their biggest upset of the season.
Casting a Webb
Remember a year ago, with all the Favre drama, when Webb came in and won a game at Philadelphia that the Eagles really needed? He's been superb replacing Ponder in spot duty this season and seems to thrive off what Bill Musgrave calls for him. At the very least I'd be thinking about a Webb package for each game next season, even with Ponder being a first-round pick (Webb is signed for two more years). All he did Saturday was go 4 of 5 for 84 yards with two touchdowns, leading the Vikings to victory with Adrian Peterson knocked from the game. He averages 7.6 yards per carry for his career, and six of his 36 career rushes have gone for 10 yards or more. He also has four rushing TDs despite such a short sample size. Given Ponder's concussion, I figure Webb plays Week 17, and I bet he doesn't play badly.
Odds and ends
» I feel bad for Bradford, with injuries and bad luck all season. And Josh McDaniels could well be gone in a week or so, which would mean a third offensive coordinator for Bradford in his first three seasons. If the Rams make a head coaching change as expected, finding stability for Bradford is paramount. I fully expect the Rams to take a big run at Jeff Fisher if the job becomes available.
Lombardi: Cutler needs help
» Ditto for Jay Cutler. Unless the Bears come at Mike Martz with a multiyear deal far eclipsing what he was offered earlier this year, he will explore all options, according to league sources. Which would mean more change for Cutler, a possible contract holdout for running back Matt Forte, Johnny Knox trying to recover from a serious back injury and plenty of holes remaining on that offensive line.
» One of strangest plays of weekend had to be Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich's pass interference penalty on Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore while Moore was running a pattern (awkwardly, I might add) on a poorly thrown Wildcat pass. That penalty kept a touchdown drive moving, and had the Pats not come back to win the game, it might have been a much bigger deal afterward.
» If the Ravens are going to beat the Bengals and clinch their division on the road, where they've been underwhelming, young tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson must come up big. They work the same areas of the field as injured receiver Anquan Boldin, and Joe Flacco has struggled over the middle at times. Baltimore is very thin at receiver, and placing a call to old friend Derrick Mason early this week might make some sense.
» When the Jets are bad, you can usually look to Mark Sanchez on offense and Antonio Cromartie on defense. Both are as streaky as they come; Sanchez has been poor the past two weeks and Cromartie whiffed on a tackle that helped Victor Cruz to his 99-yard jaunt in one of the biggest plays of the season for both New York teams. In the last two games, Sanchez is 45 of 85 for 408 yards, three touchdowns, four interceptions, nine sacks and a 58.4 passer rating.