By some counts, 14 teams have expressed interest in Peyton Manning since the Indianapolis Colts cut him Tuesday night. Of those, the teams considered serious contenders to land the future Hall of Famer include the Miami Dolphins, the Arizona Cardinals, the Seattle Seahawks, The Washington Redskins, the Houston Texans, and in somewhat of a surprise, the Denver Broncos.
Reportedly, Manning is visiting Denver Friday and will make subsequent visits to Phoenix and Miami. Manning says he wants to make his decision within a week, and it seems he has his pick.
He has a slew of factors to weigh when choosing a team. Off the field, he'll want a team that will allow him enormous license in running the offense. On the field, wide receivers will be a big consideration – a quarterback, after all, needs someone to catch his passes. But this late in his career, just as important may be a good offensive line that can protect him.
“At this stage, I’d say that the O-line is more important to him than the receivers,” says Mike Tanier, a contributor to The New York Times Fifth Down blog and a staff writer at FootballOutsiders.com. “You can make the receivers better. That’s what he was doing the last three years in Indianapolis. But he knows that to make the receivers look good he’s got to be upright.”
True, Manning was working behind a terrible offensive line in his last year with the Colts, and a line that was perhaps only average before that (as with the receivers, Peyton made them look better than they were). Furthermore, he gets rid of the ball so quickly that he’s rarely in danger of being sacked.
But essential to his success is a smart center, since centers are generally responsible for calling out protection schemes at the line. Unusually, Manning often changes the protection schemes himself, meaning he will need a center who can keep up with his football mind.
And, quick release or not, he’s likely to be more aware of the potential for injury after a year on the sidelines. But which Manning suitor can offer him the best protection?
According to Mr. Tanier, the clear winner is the Houston Texans. “They’re a dark horse contender for him, but they can point to an impact dominant O-line to protect him. They made it to the second round of the playoffs with a third-string quarterback.”
The Texans, he says, specialize in cut blocking, a barely legal tactic that involves blocking people at the knees. Texans head coach Gary Kubiak knows a thing or two about scary offensive lines: as the offensive coordinator for the Broncos, he helmed the intimidating Denver front that sheltered an aging John Elway to two Super Bowl victories.
Another selling point for the Texans is Pro Bowl center Chris Myers, just the sort of intelligent center Manning would probably love to work with. Myers is a free agent this offseason, but Tanier thinks the Texans will work hard to resign him.
As for the other teams in the hunt, the Seattle Seahawks O-line is a distant second, but better than many people think. They gave up a lot of sacks last year, but that may have had more to do with quarterback Tarvaris Jackson than it did with the line.
“The low sack totals are misleading,” Tanier warns. “Manning isn’t going to look at a sack total, he’s going to look at the film. And he’ll know better than I will that the Seahawks are better than they look.”
What about the Dolphins, perceived by many as a Manning front-runner?
“They’ll have to talk him into that one,” Tanier says. The Dolphins have a good left tackle in Jake Long, and a promising rookie center in Mike Pouncey. But the Dolphins line that looked promising on paper fell apart during the season, giving up the third highest number of sacks in the league, at 52. The squad also had the fourth highest allowed hit total in the NFL, so Manning as a Dolphin might get knocked around more than he’d like.
What’s more, teams with glaring issues on their offensive line will have a tough time resolving them this year. The free agent market for O-liners is fairly limited, full of what Tanier calls “veteran journeyman and second-tier question marks.”
The one exception might be Manning’s longtime center and good friend, Jeff Saturday.
Like Manning, Saturday has played his entire career in Indianapolis, and he is an unrestricted free agent this year. He has expressed interest in being signed as a package deal with Manning, and a club that can get a deal done with him would have a much better shot at Manning.
The Saturday, factor too, might give teams with a woeful offensive line a better shot. The Redskins, for one, have the cap room to make such a deal. Plus, Tanier says “They love spending money and they have a problem at center.”
So which team, and which line, will lure Manning? The narrative is likely to change in the coming days, and the decision may come down to off-the-field factors. Still, Tanier has his prediction. “I said Seattle earlier. Bit now I’m leaning towards Houston, and the offensive line is a big part of that.”