NFL teams have been fighting for Peyton Manning from the moment the Indianapolis Colts released him. After all, he is a four-time MVP with a Super Bowl win on his decorated resume.
The future Hall of Fame quarterback will make whichever team he chooses an instant contender for the title. Nearing the end of his career, Manning probably wants nothing less from his team to be.
Recent reports have narrowed the possibilities down to three teams: the Denver Broncos, Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers. Here’s a breakdown of how each of the teams compare talent-wise, as well as a few other factors off the field that could come into play.
A primary concern of Peyton Manning is an obvious one: Whom is he going to be throwing the ball to?
The Denver Broncos have a young receiving corps with all of the potential in the world. Due to their run-heavy style of offense, it’s hard to see exactly what each receiver brings to the table. Eric Decker showed flashes of brilliance in 2011, leaving the Broncos with hope for a brighter future. Demaryius Thomas was a legitimate deep threat that kept defenses honest in a run-first offensive system last season. He can burn a defense at a moment’s notice, as evidenced by his 80-yard touchdown catch that beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs.
The Tennessee Titans have a talented top receiver in Kenny Britt. Britt does have a history of off-the-field issues, however, as well as some injury concerns. The star wideout amassed 271 receiving yards and three touchdowns in just two games in 201 before tearing his ACL and MCL in Week 3 of the season. Nate Washington did an admirable job taking over as the Titans’ primary receiver, grabbing seven touchdown catches and collecting more than 1,000 receiving yards. The team also has reliable options in Chris Johnson out of the backfield and Jared Cook at tight end.
The San Francisco 49ers have the edge with their receiving options after making a couple of big splashes this offseason. The Niners added a proven playmaker in Randy Moss and a high-caliber receiver in Mario Manningham. The new additions could spark improved play from young talent Michael Crabtree. The team already had arguably the most dynamic tight end in the game in Vernon Davis and another go-to target in Frank Gore.
Advantage: San Francisco
A good running game will make Peyton Manning’s passing game even more effective. Each of the three teams have strong rushing offense.
The Titans have Chris Johnson, one of the league’s elite running backs. He has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his four years in the NFL. After a rough start last season, Johnson regrouped and still managed to gain 1,047 yards on the ground in 262 attempts. He’s incredibly fast, as he owns the NFL combine record for the 40-yard dash at 4.24 seconds.
The Denver Broncos were a running team in 2011, leading the NFL with 164.5 rushing yards per game. Though Tim Tebow provided a prominent impact on the ground, Denver running backs Willis McGahee and Lance Ball wore down opposing defenses with 1,199 and 402 rushing yards respectively on a combined 345 carries.
The 49ers have the tandem of veteran back Frank Gore and the young Kendall Hunter. Gore got the lion’s share of carries on his way to 1,211 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns in 2011. Hunter exhibited more of a slashing running style compared to Gore, along with a quick burst of speed.
Advantage: Tie. Manning can’t go wrong here—each team is good on the ground.
Coming off neck fusion surgery, the 35-year-old Manning definitely wants the luxury of standing in the pocket behind a strong offensive line. At the end of his career, protection is a top priority.
The Titans were one of the best offensive lines in 2011, allowing just 24 sacks and 55 hits on the quarterback. Tennessee has a mauler in tackle Michael Roos, a Pro Bowler and AP first-team All-Pro in 2008. It appears the team will lose a hard-nosed blocker in guard Jake Scott, who helped the Super Bowl XLI-winning Colts surrender just 15 sacks in 2006. Scott is a free agent this offseason.
The Denver Broncos have a decent offensive line, but an upgrade couldn’t hurt. The line doesn’t lack toughness, though. A prime example of that is tackle Ryan Clady, who won the Ed Block Courage Award in 2010 by starting all 16 games after recovering from an offseason knee injury. The Broncos allowed 42 sacks and 68 quarterback hits last season. Under a traditional pocket-passer offense, the Broncos allowed an average of 1.6 sacks in the games that Kyle Orton started.
Quarterback Alex Smith had to run for his life at times behind a 49ers offensive line that improved, but still needs work. The crew anchored by offensive tackle Joe Staley surrendered 44 sacks in 2011. The quarterback also got pummeled to the tune of 82 hits allowed. The Niners saw better performances out of former first round picks Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis. According to recent reports, the 49ers have made efforts to bolster the offensive line by talking with veterans Leonard Davis and Geoff Schwartz.
Advantage: Tough to call, but as of right now the Titans get the edge based on last year’s numbers.
Each of the three teams have formidable defenses. If a defense performs at a high level, that takes pressure off the quarterback to shoulder the load on offense.
The Broncos struck gold with their 2011 first-round draft pick, middle linebacker Von Miller. Miller is a force to be reckoned with, and he made his presence felt in his first NFL season. He was AP’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Miller also made the Pro Bowl squad and the AP All-Pro team. The Broncos also have the services of perennial Pro Bowler and shutdown cornerback Champ Bailey (one touchdown pass allowed in 2011).
Cornerback Jason McCourty and strong safety Jordan Babineaux led a tough Titans defense with 103 and 93 combined tackles respectively. Babineaux, who also had a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown in 2011, recently re-signed with the team. Defensive tackle Karl Klug led the team with seven sacks last season. The Titans are consistent in that they tend to have a defense that gives the team a good chance to win each year.
The 2011 season was a breakout one for the 49ers defense as it ranked near the top in several major statistical categories, including fourth in total defense (308.2 yards allowed per game) and first in rushing defense (77.2 rushing yards allowed per game). The squad, led by star middle linebacker Patrick Willis (97 combined tackles, four forced fumbles), didn’t even allow a rushing touchdown until Week 16. The Niners also boast a tough secondary that improved thanks to a career year from former Washington Redskin Carlos Rogers (six interceptions, one interception return for touchdown). San Francisco also enjoyed a breakout performance from linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who lead the team in combined tackles with 143, and rookie defensive end Aldon Smith, who recorded 14 sacks.
Advantage: San Francisco
The 49ers finally got someone who could bring the franchise back to relevancy when they got Jim Harbaugh as their head coach. After a successful college career at Stanford, Harbaugh quickly turned the 49ers into a contender, leading San Francisco to a 13-3 record and its first division title since 2002. His competitive fire brought the Niners all the way to the NFC Championship Game, where the team fell 20-17 to the New York Giants.
The Broncos have the most experienced head coach of the three teams in John Fox. Fox has a 73-71 regular-season record in 10 seasons as an NFL head coach. The highlight of Fox’s head coaching career came in 2003 when his Carolina Panthers won the 2003 NFC Championship Game, eventually coming up short against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Fox has won three division titles, the latest coming last season as the gritty Broncos captured the AFC West title with an 8-8 record.
Mike Munchak coached the Titans to a 9-7 record in his first season as head coach. That was good enough for a second-place finish in the AFC South. Though he is new to the head coaching position, Munchak has plenty of other coaching experience in the NFL. From 1994-96, he was an offensive assistant for the Houston Oilers. From 1997-2010, Munchak was the offensive line coach for the Tennessee Oilers/Titans. As a former offensive lineman for the Houston Oilers, 2011 marked the 30th year that Munchak was with the organization.
Advantage: Stalemate between San Francisco and Denver.
On one hand, Jim Harbaugh has only been an NFL head coach for a year. However, he turned the 49ers into one of the NFL’s top teams after San Francisco failed for years to even get to the playoffs. On the other hand, the Broncos have plenty of head coaching experience and a solid NFL track record with John Fox.
According to a report from Comcast SportsNet Bay Area's Matt Maiocco, the 49ers have approximately $18 million in cap room, not including the two-year deal that was recently given to wide receiver Mario Manningham. The Denver Broncos have $43.9 million in space. The Tennessee Titans are $26.3 million under the cap.
With a large amount of salary cap space, the Denver Broncos have more room to work out an attractive deal with Peyton Manning. Manning will likely want a contract similar to the one he signed with the Colts last July. That deal was $90 million over five years.
Whichever team he chooses, Peyton Manning will be welcomed by a hearty fanbase. Titans fans have regularly been packing the seats at LP Field since the stadium opened in 1999. Broncos fans and the 49ers faithful have been rejuvenated by their teams’ recent playoff runs.
Manning also gets to choose from the cold, windy Candlestick Park, the thin air and occasional snow at Sports Authority Field at Mile High and the humid, subtropical climate of Nashville.
Manning has ties to Tennessee, where he played stellar college football at the University of Tennessee from 1994-1997. The fans love him in that area, as he tossed 89 touchdowns for the Volunteers in his college career.
When considering all factors, Manning has a lot to think about. Certain factors will be more important to him than others, which will most certainly affect which team he chooses.