Colts to Release Peyton Manning; Where Will He Play in 2012?

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Where could the free agent quarterback possibly end up playing in 2012?

<p> A look at possible fits for Peyton Manning, who is expected to be released by the Colts and become an unrestricted free agent</p>

— by Mark Ross

Peyton Manning's last pass in an NFL game came on Jan. 8, 2011. It also represents his final game as an Indianapolis Colt as the team is set to release its long-time quarterback.

The official announcement ending Manning's 14-year career with the Colts is expected to come in a press conference this afternoon. The decision to release the former No. 1 overall pick and four-time NFL MVP coincides with the $28 million roster bonus Manning was due come Thursday.

Besides not paying the roster bonus, the decision to release Manning also means the Colts are not picking up the four years remaining on his contract, making him a free agent. That contract is the five-year, $90 million extension Manning signed last July, just days after the NFL lockout ended. Now, less than eight months later, Manning is looking for a new team. 

Make no mistake about it, the Colts' decision to release Manning is all about the future, both Manning's and the franchise's. Manning has had three different surgeries on his neck in 19 months and will turn 36 in less than three weeks. Although he has been medically cleared to resume his career and is reportedly making progress to that end, it remains to be seen if he is physically capable of playing in an actual game.

Meanwhile the Colts are in full rebuild mode following last year's 2-14 disastrous season with a new general manager and head coach in place. The team's focus now shifts fully and entirely to the upcoming draft. Just like they did with Manning 14 years ago, the Colts hope they will be selecting their next franchise quarterback on April 26 when they are expected to take either Stanford's Andrew Luck or Baylor's Robert Griffin III with the No. 1 overall pick.

For now, Manning has made it clear he fully intends to be under center come Week 1 of the 2012 NFL season. So the question then becomes which uniform will he be wearing this fall? What sort of market exists for a Super Bowl-winning quarterback who took his team to the playoffs 11 times in 14 seasons? Let's take a look.

For starters, forget about teams who already have established quarterbacks on their roster. As good as Manning has been in his career, teams like Green Bay, New England, New Orleans, the New York Giants, Pittsburgh, San Diego and Dallas are already in pretty good shape at quarterback. So you can forget about any dreams of the Manning brothers playing together in the Big Apple.

Then you have teams who either appear to be fully committed to their current starter, like Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia, or those who think they already have their franchise quarterback on their roster, like Carolina, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

That still leaves 16 teams, or half of the NFL, technically still in the running. Here’s how those teams stack up:

Nice Idea But…

Buffalo Bills
Current starter Ryan Fitzpatrick signed a six-year, $59 million contract extension in October, which includes $24 million in guaranteed money. Ironically enough, Fitzpatrick struggled after signing his extension, throwing just 12 touchdown passes with 17 interceptions in his final 10 games with the Bills going 2-8 in that same stretch. That said, the Bills already have invested a lot in Fitzpatrick and appear to be fully committed to “The Amish Rifle”

Denver Broncos
This is just what Tim Tebow and Denver needs, another quarterback controversy. While Tebow’s NFL future is anything but certain, he has earned his standing as the Broncos’ starting quarterback headed into training camp. The last thing he needs is another Hall of Fame quarterback to worry about. He’s already got that in his boss, Broncos Executive Vice President of Operations John Elway.

Houston Texans
Houston would have to appeal to Manning if anything because the Texans are ready to win now and he would be guaranteed two shots each season against Irsay and the Colts. However, Matt Schaub is the entrenched starter and is expected to be fully recovered from last season’s foot injury by the time training camp starts and the Texans also have capable backup Tyler Yates on their roster.

Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings drafted Christian Ponder in the first round of last year’s draft and handed the starting reigns over to him in late October. The rookie went 2-8 in 10 games as the starter, while the Vikings finished with a 3-13 mark overall. Despite Ponder's struggles in his first season, the team appears to be committed to him moving forward, not to mention the fact that it has plenty of other holes to fill on the roster. The bottom line: this Vikings team does not present the same opportunity to Manning that it did to Brett Favre back in 2009.

Oakland Raiders
The Raiders already have a 30-something quarterback on their roster, Carson Palmer, and they paid a hefty price to get him. Oakland sent a 2012 first-round draft pick and a conditional second-round pick in 2013 (that could end up being a first-rounder) to Cincinnati last October to get Palmer, who played adequately (13 TDs, 16 INTs) in 10 games for the Raiders. Oakland also is a team in transition as Dennis Allen was hired in January as the Raiders’ seventh head coach in the past 10 seasons.

Tampa Bay
Josh Freeman had a disappointing 2011 season following a breakout 2010 campaign during which he led the Buccaneers to the playoffs. His touchdown passes fell from 25 to 16, while his interceptions increased dramatically from just six in 2010 to 22 last season. However, Freeman is just 24 years old and will enter just his fourth season as the Bucs’ starter this fall. New Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano will lean heavily on Freeman as he makes the transition from the collegiate head coaching ranks to the NFL.

Tennessee Titans
It reads like a fairy tale – former University of Tennessee star returns to his adopted home state to lead the Titans back to postseason glory, no doubt some of that coming at the expense of his former team and division rival, the Colts. Titans and UT fans can dream all they want, but it’s not going to happen. For one, the Titans already have a 36-year-old quarterback on their roster in Matt Hasselbeck. More importantly, they also believe they have their franchise quarterback of the future waiting in the wings in Jake Locker, the No. 8 overall pick in last year’s draft.

Now You’re Talking:

Cleveland Browns
Although he is signed for two more years, Colt McCoy’s future in Cleveland is uncertain at best. While Manning would appear to be an upgrade, the Browns will probably look to the draft to find their future franchise quarterback. With two picks, Nos. 4 and 22, in the first round, Cleveland is seemingly in prime position to select Baylor’s Robert Griffin III early or wait for either Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill or Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler later. Besides, I’m not sure Manning’s that thrilled about having to play the Ravens and Steelers twice each season.

Kansas City
Yes, Kansas City was a nice landing spot for Joe Montana in 1993, but I don’t see history repeating itself. The current incumbent is Matt Cassel, who is under contract through 2014 and the Chiefs have already invested a good deal of money in him. This is a team looking to establish its identity under new head coach Romeo Crennel and bringing in a new quarterback does not appear to be part of his plan.

New York Jets
Peyton and Eli in the same city? I can just hear the New York media types and football pundits everywhere salivating at the sheer thought. However, I suggest you go ahead and wipe that drool from your mouth because I don’t see this happening. For one, that would mean the departure/demotion of the Big Apple’s current favorite whipping boy, Mark Sanchez, who is signed for two more years and put up his best numbers yet last season. Second, I don’t think Peyton longs to play in New York and he is certainly aware of the ramifications that would come with it, for him personally and his family as a whole.

San Francisco
This appears to be an appealing destination because the 49ers are a team on rise under the leadership of head coach and former Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh. However, Manning doesn’t seem to fit what Harbaugh is looking for in a quarterback, as Alex Smith made plays with both his arm and his legs last season. Smith is a free agent, but even if he does not return, the 49ers still have 2011 second-round pick Colin Kaepernick on their roster.

Here’s Where It Gets Interesting:

Arizona Cardinals
Why it could work: Two words – Larry Fitzgerald. Just the thought of Manning throwing to Fitzgerald is enough to get anyone, other than Arizona opponents, excited. Manning has played with some Hall of Fame-caliber wide receivers in Indianapolis, most notably Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, but Fitzgerald tops them all. Arizona being in the NFC West also presents an opportunity to possibly return to the playoffs right away. And don’t forget that Kurt Warner had a decent five-year stretch in the desert after arriving in 2005 at the age of 34.
Why it won’t happen: Two other words – Kevin Kolb. The Cardinals traded Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round pick to the Eagles for Kolb last July and then promptly signed him to a five-year, $63 million contract, $21 million of it guaranteed. Kolb is signed through 2016 and even though he struggled last season (9 TDs, 8 INTs in just nine games), the Cardinals have a lot invested in him and it’s probably too soon to simply cut ties.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Why it could work: Blaine Gabbert (50.8 completion rate, 12 TDs, 11 INTs, 65.4 passer rating) struggled mightily in his first NFL season with the Jaguars, so Manning would not only represent an upgrade under center, he also could help develop his young backup. New head coach Mike Mularkey comes from an offensive background and spent the past four seasons working with and developing Matt Ryan in Atlanta.
Why it won’t happen: The Jaguars are several years away from competing for a playoff spot. Besides a new head coach and uncertainty at quarterback, the Jaguars have plenty of holes to fill, including wide receiver, and it remains to be seen if the team’s long-term future is even in Jacksonville. This is not the ideal situation for Manning to resume his NFL career.

Miami Dolphins
Why it could work: The Dolphins hired Joe Philbin as their new head coach in January. Before landing his first NFL head coaching job, Philbin served as Green Bay’s offensive coordinator for five seasons working first with Favre and then Aaron Rodgers, who won a Super Bowl in 2011 and was the NFL MVP last season. The only quarterback under contract right now is Matt Moore, the Dolphins have an appealing target to throw to in Brandon Marshall, and an All-Pro, franchise left tackle in Jake Long.
Why it won’t happen: The weather may be nice in South Beach, but I don’t see Manning taking his talents there should the opportunity present itself. The Dolphins play in AFC East, the same conference that the Patriots and Jets are in, and both teams appear to be ahead of them from a competitive standpoint in both the present and immediate future. The Dolphins have a new head coach taking over and appear to be a team in transition. I don’t think Manning will want to take his lumps at the hands of Tom Brady/Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan under these circumstances.

Seattle Seahawks
Why it could work: Seattle’s current quarterback is Tarvaris Jackson and the Seahawks, like the aforementioned 49ers and Cardinals, play in the NFC West and could potentially be back in the playoffs with Manning at the helm. Owner Paul Allen doesn’t lack for money and seems like the type who would be willing to spend it for someone like Manning to make his team better.
Why it won’t happen: Earlier this week the Seahawks took care of some important business when the team re-signed running back Marshawn Lynch. Even with Lynch entrenched in the backfield, however, Seattle has some question marks at wide receiver and this just doesn’t feel like a fit for Manning. And if you’re into conspiracy theories there’s also this: head coach Pete Carroll may be looking to “tank” this season so he will be in prime position to draft Matt Barkley, his former quarterback at USC, in 2013.

Washington Redskins
Why it could work: Whenever Redskins owner Dan Snyder is involved you never rule anything out. This man has shown time and time again that money is no object when it comes to getting who he wants. Albert Haynesworth anyone? The Redskins clearly have a need at quarterback, as John Beck is the only one under contract. Mike Shanahan is no stranger to coaching Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks (Elway) and desperately wants to win after posting an 11-21 mark in his first two seasons in Washington.
Why it won’t happen: The Redskins may be targeting the aforementioned Griffin or another quarterback in the draft, looking to land their next franchise signal-caller instead of trying to win now with Manning. Snyder’s free-spending days also may be a thing of the past. Otherwise, the Redskins appear to be the one of the best possible landing spots for Manning should he become a free agent.

NFL teams can sign free agents beginning at midnight ET on March 13. All indications at this point are that Manning fully intends to play for another team, arguably making him the most sought-after player on the market. At the very least, he will be the most-watched player as free agency plays out, which is saying something considering he didn't even throw a single pass last season.

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