Posted March 07, 2012

Where might Peyton Manning wind up next?

Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Washington Redskins

Peyton Manning has walked out of Lucas Oil Stadium in a Colts jersey for the last time. (AP)

With the Colts opting to release Peyton Manning, the entire landscape of NFL free agency has shifted for this offseason. Where Manning winds up could have a major impact on division and conference races, plus dictate what happens at the top of the 2012 draft.

There are a number of teams thought to be interested in adding Manning, provided he’s healthy — and that’s a big if at the moment, despite what Manning’s father, Archie, might tell you.

But a healthy Manning could be one of the most coveted free agents in recent memory. There already are several teams thought to be interested in the future Hall of Famer.

Who’s got the inside track? We break down the pros and cons, starting with the teams most likely to be in the Manning mix and working our way down the list to the long shots …

Arizona Cardinals

Pros: There’s one huge, very talented pro in Arizona’s corner, and that’s wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who is one of the NFL’s top wide receivers. His presence alone puts Arizona near the top of the heap — no other team in the mix can offer a Fitzgerald-like star to throw to.

Two other factors to consider: Arizona plays in a dome and, despite San Francisco’s 13-3 breakthrough last year, is in a winnable division. Plus, you’ll recall that the Cardinals did not hesitate to sign Emmitt Smith late in his career, while Kurt Warner took this franchise to a Super Bowl in his next-to-last season. Arizona has a track record with this sort of thing.

Cons: Is there enough here to win a championship? The Cardinals have some promising pieces, but there are holes to fill, especially on the offensive line and at wide receiver behind Fitzgerald. A healthy Manning would immediately make the WR corps better, but even Fitzgerald called for more help at that position last season.

And not that Manning would shy away from specific opponents, but in addition to seeing all the NFC West teams twice, Arizona rolls through the NFC North, AFC East, Philadelphia and Atlanta in 2012. That’s a tough draw filled with plenty of talented pass-rushers.

Miami Dolphins

Pros: Brandon Marshall may not be Fitzgerald, but he’s a darn good wide receiver. Add in Reggie Bush, and the Dolphins have a couple of veteran pieces on offense in place for Manning to utilize. Miami also offers a sturdy defense — the Dolphins gave up the fewest points in the AFC East last season.

Oh, and new head coach Joe Philbin did a pretty decent job as Green Bay’s offensive coordinator for the past four seasons.

Cons: “Hey, Peyton, you remember Tom Brady? Yeah, he’s in your division now.”

Even with Manning, the Dolphins would face an uphill battle in the division. Add in that Manning would have to play multiple games outdoors in potentially unforgiving climates and that Miami gave up the third-most sacks of any team in the NFL last season, and there are ample reasons for Manning to keep looking.

Houston Texans

Pros: This one makes a lot of sense. The Texans might have been a Super Bowl team last season if not for — drum roll — the QB position. Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart went down with injury, leaving things to rookie T.J. Yates, but the rest of the roster had that Super Bowl feel. There’s an aggressive, attacking defense; a terrific offensive line; a running game paced by Arian Foster, who just signed a contract extension; and a passing game with the dynamic Andre Johnson running routes.

Manning knows the AFC South too — he’s dominated it for years, after all. He’d also find a similar atmosphere in Houston to the one he’s leaving in Indianapolis, with a rabid fan base desperate for a winner.

Cons: The biggest one is that Manning would stay in the Colts’ division, meaning he’d face the circus involved in playing them twice a season. Does he want to deal with that?

There’s also the issue of Houston’s current quarterback situation. Most of the other teams on this list would not think twice about kicking their current starter to the curb for Manning. The Texans might not be so quick to do so if Schaub returns to full health.

Seattle Seahawks

Pros: I’ll let my esteemed colleagues get the ball rolling here:

Miami and a couple of other teams on this list might be willing to go down the Manning-Reggie Wayne road, but Seattle has the cap space (the Seahawks were an estimated $12-$13 million under the projected number as of late February) to get it done. Heck, Seattle might throw in Manning’s long-time center, free agent Jeff Saturday, as an added bonus. Marshawn Lynch also would provide Manning the type of dynamic running back that he did not always have in Indianapolis.

Seattle’s owner, Paul Allen, probably wouldn’t hesitate to throw a ton of money Manning’s way either, which could elevate Seattle over more hesitant teams.

Cons: Where are the playmakers at wide receiver? Getting Wayne to join Manning out west would be a must, because even Manning might have trouble tossing passes to a receiving corps led last year by Doug Baldwin, as Sidney Rice lost several games to injury. Seattle’s O-line had trouble of its own, too, allowing 50 sacks in 2011.

Kansas City Chiefs

Pros: Well, Romeo Crennel already possibly put himself in line for a phone call from the NFL by saying at the combine, “With a talent like that, I would be crazy not to consider it if he was available,” a potential tampering violation.

But at least we know the Chiefs are thinking about Manning. And why wouldn’t they? Landing Manning would make Kansas City the odds-on favorite in a weak AFC West, especially since Dwayne Bowe, Jonathan Baldwin and Steve Breaston would be the top overall group of receivers from the teams on this list. Kansas City’s in a decent cap situation too.

Cons: Is there room for Reggie Wayne? We’ll have to wait to see how committed Manning is to bringing his favorite receiver along. If it’s a make-or-break scenario, the Chiefs might not have the financial means to pay Wayne after franchising Bowe.

Like with Houston, there’s also a probable starting QB in Kansas City. The job is Matt Cassel’s, should Manning not hop on board.

New York Jets

Pros: We’ve reached the portion of our program where the “cons” outweigh the “pros.” That said, the Jets are committed to winning a Super Bowl, plus offer up a strong defense and at least a few weapons on offense for Manning to tinker with in 2012.

Cons: For better or worse, the Jets have Mark Sanchez in tow — they made a major move at the 2009 draft to take him, and signing Manning would be an emphatic admission of mistake.

The reasons for Manning to avoid NYC go beyond the Jets’ current QB situation, though. This move would plunge him into a complete circus, plus force him to duke it out with his brother, Eli, for headlines in the Big Apple. Boisterous head coach Rex Ryan is about as opposite from Manning’s former Indianapolis coach, Tony Dungy, as can be.

Is there talent on this roster? Sure. But that hasn’t kept the Jets from falling short of expectations and earning the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. That culture would have to change for Manning to want to join.

Washington Redskins

Pros: Money would not be an issue in any sense — the Redskins have shown a willingness to spend it, they have more cap room than about 28 or 29 other teams, and they would certainly open the checkbook to pay Manning plus Wayne and anyone else the QB wants. Fred Davis would be a major threat at tight end with Manning tossing him passes.

Cons: The stubborn Shanahan would have to open his playbook a lot more to let Manning do his thing … or Manning would have to be happy handing off 30 times a game. There are also the issues of a disappointing offensive line, overmatched defense and talent-starved RB/WR spots to address.

A lot of what falls into the “con” category for the Jets applies here too. Washington has long struggled to reclaim its glory days, often flopping in a storm of off-field issues and poor managerial decisions. Could Manning put his trust in this organization to build a winner around him?

Doing so in the NFC East, where Washington has been unable to close the gap, only makes the challenge tougher.

San Francisco 49ers

Pros: In reality, the 49ers ought to be higher on this list. This team nearly got to the Super Bowl last season and appears to have the foundation in place to stay competitive. San Francisco’s defense is as solid as they come, meaning that any semblance of offense should give the 49ers a shot to win the division and make a playoff run. Upgrading from Alex Smith to Manning could make them equally lethal on offense.

The 49ers have a hefty amount of cap space to work with too, should they choose to use it.

Cons: Well, the biggest one is that GM Trent Baalke said Tuesday that the 49ers have not even discussed bringing in Manning. San Francisco was happy with the progress Alex Smith made in 2011 and wants to do what it can to bring him back into the mix.

The biggest challenge for San Francisco in the event of a Manning addition would be figuring out how to fit the current pieces in with their new QB. Jim Harbaugh’s attack is predicated on running the ball and winning the time-of-possession battle. Manning’s skill set would require San Francisco to make significant upgrades at wide receiver and redo the entire playbook.

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