Probable 1st selection of the Draft. As rounded in his development coming out of college as I've seen in a long while. Big frame, strong, athletic, quick set-up, good drive step, and quick feet to gain depth. Holds ball high, tall in the pocket and sees field well. Progresses very well; checks to 2nd & 3rd receiver. Knows defenses. Quick, over-the-top delivery, with very good arm strength; can throw the tree without any problems. Very solid mechanics in his delivery; will stand in and take a hit—still deliver. Throws well on the run right/left; squares up with good accuracy. Has short touch, catchable ball...rhythm QB...can get erratic, some tendency to force the ball and tries to make plays early in games. Will throw into coverage but quickly settles down and can make game adjustments. Smart; knows when to dump off and avoid the sack. Quick feet in the pocket and runs surprisingly well in the open field. Exceptional athlete, well-schooled, solid leadership and character. Really far along at this juncture. Should be a great one! ...Ted Sundquist (GRADE 8.5 = 1st round)
I presented that evaluation to our club in the spring of 1998 as the then-director of college scouting for the Denver Broncos. Having been in the league for over six seasons, I'd already had the chance to evaluate some so-called "franchise prospects" at the position: Drew Bledsoe, Rick Mirer, Heath Shuler, Trent Dilfer, Steve McNair, Kerry Collins, Jim Druckenmiller.
All were taken with first-round picks, but none jumped off the tape at me like Peyton Manning. With our first pick coming too late in the draft, I could only imagine what was ahead for the team that would get the chance at Manning.
At first it wasn't abundantly clear who would take the chance. Manning had been a steady and productive contributor for the Tennessee Volunteers over four seasons as the primary starter in Knoxville. But there was also an up-and-coming star out of the Pac-10:
Physically the classic drop-back, pocket-style passer. Freak physique. Good set-up; 3-5-7 step drops with good quickness. Works from the gun well. Stands tall, holds ball high, over-the-top delivery with quick release. Has arm strength to make all the throws. Shows good pocket presence; will stand and deliver under pressure, take the hit. Strong; can throw with defenders hanging on. Good feet to avoid and shuffle in the pocket; can step and slide. Not going to outrun many on roll and scramble, but athletic enough to get out of trouble. Throws short game with some touch and placement. Strength to throw the long out and has range to go deep, even off of back foot. Overall accuracy is solid, though will overthrow the long ball at times. Still learning; will make the errant read and mistake with regard to coverage. Stats are padded by quick-hitting 3-step game to multiple-receiver sets. Needs to work on upfield portion of game. Has all the tools; tough and cocky. Still on an uphill curve. ...Ted Sundquist (GRADE 8.0 = 1st round)
Ryan Leaf had distinguished himself with an equally impressive final college season and almost 150 more passing yards than Manning, while finishing shy of Manning's 36 passing touchdowns by two. Leaf's Washington State career wasn't as extended as Manning's in Tennessee, but he had shown considerable growth over two seasons, was the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and was the consensus second overall pick behind Manning in the majority of mock drafts.
There even were whispers by NFL scouts of Leaf having more "upside" than Manning, and the Washington State coaches felt he was a better prospect than former Cougars standout Drew Bledsoe (selected first overall in 1993 by the New England Patriots).
Nonetheless, on April 18, 1998, Peyton Williams Manning was drafted first overall from a pool of 241 players, and the ripple effects of that decision were felt across the NFL for 18 years.
The Broncos had the last pick in the first round of the 1998 NFL draft, after winning the first of back-to-back Super Bowls with John Elway in the twilight of his career. We knew we didn't have a shot at adding Manning to our roster, but it was fun to envision replacing the legendary Duke with the would-be Sheriff.
Our staff put as much into his evaluation as any other player in the draft, and that scrutiny led to our own first-round selection—wide receiver Marcus Nash out of Tennessee. Manning has a way of raising the level of his teammates from good to great, and Manning made Nash look great in their time together.
Manning's Influence on One Rival Franchise
We faced Manning on the field for the first time in the last game of the 2001 season. Already both eliminated from playoff contention, it was more or less a battle of two young quarterbacks from the class of 1998. Mike Shanahan had drafted Brian Griese out of Michigan in the third round, 90 picks after Manning. Griese would be Shanahan's first of two attempts (Jay Cutler the other) to develop a quarterback to replace Elway.
The game was nondescript. Indianapolis jumped out to a 19-7 halftime lead, and we more or less went through the motions in the second half in closing out the season with a 29-10 loss. Griese was sacked five times and threw four interceptions—numbers that didn't sit too well next to those of the rising star of the AFC East.
The following season, I was promoted to general manager in Denver. Manning came to town and bounced the Broncos 23-20 in overtime, leading a game-ending drive to tie the score and then a scoring drive on the Colts' first possession into overtime. It was one of four fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives for Manning in 2002. The Broncos finished the season 9-7 and out of the playoffs...by a single game. Now, as the GM, the sting was a little more personal.
In the summer of 2003, the Griese era ended in Denver, and we signed Arizona's Jake Plummer. Plummer led the Broncos to a 31-17 thrashing of Manning in the RCA Dome in Week 16, and we entered the playoffs heading back to Indianapolis with a great deal of confidence from our defensive performance two weeks earlier.
That confidence was quickly dashed as only Manning could do it.
Manning threw four first-half touchdowns and the Colts scored on seven consecutive series to demolish Denver 41-10. He went 22-of-26 for 377 yards and five TDs, securing a 158.3 QB rating. To date, it stands tied with performances by Terry Bradshaw and Don Meredith for the single greatest passer rating in playoff history.
The lack of a shutdown corner to control Manning's top targets, Marvin Harrison and Brandon Stokley, and the embarrassment over that wild-card whipping, led us to agree to part ways with our popular running back, Clinton Portis, in favor of the Washington Redskins' Pro Bowl defensive back, Champ Bailey.
At the root of the deal: Portis and his agent Drew Rosenhaus were looking to get out of an underpaying second-round rookie contract, and Bailey was just plain looking to get out of D.C. With Joe Gibbs wanting a feature running back to anchor his newly installed offense and Shanahan looking for someone to challenge Manning, the trade made nothing but great sense to both of us.
I recall telling our organization while we contemplated the move, "You have to give in order to get," and Portis was a prized possession worthy of landing an even loftier prize in Bailey.
"This team hasn't had a corner who has come close to him in a long time," Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said.
The deal was one of the biggest player-for-player trades in the history of both franchises (if not the game). We had also beaten out the Patriots for the services of All-Pro safety John Lynch, and the two moves combined were enough to convince our organization we'd taken the necessary steps to slow down Manning and Co. in a rematch.
Despite our additions of Bailey and Lynch to the Denver secondary, the next season was deja vu all over again. The Broncos closed out the 2004 campaign with a 33-14 thumping of the Colts in the Mile High City. Indy had easily secured the AFC South, and Manning left the game after one series in favor of backup quarterback Jim Sorgi, who promptly lulled the Broncos defense into a state of overconfidence for a second season.
In our return trip to Indianapolis in the first round of the AFC playoffs, Manning built a 35-3 halftime lead on three touchdowns and finished off the 49-24 thumping with a 145.7 QB rating. Bailey held his ground, but Broncos defensive backs Roc Alexander and Kelly Herndon couldn't control Reggie Wayne, who caught 10 balls for 221 yards and two TDs.
The repercussions of three seasons in Denver directly or indirectly ended by Manning didn't sit well in our Dove Valley headquarters.
Our staff went into the offseason looking for young secondary supplements to support the rest of our veteran unit on defense (ranked fourth in 2004). We had a fifth-ranked offense (up from seventh the prior season), reinforced by the fourth most productive rushing attack in the NFL. Our postseason evaluation concluded there weren't many gaping holes in the roster otherwise.
This allowed us to concentrate on the specific area of need. Alexander and Herndon were both undrafted free agents trying to stop the league's best quarterback. With no first-round pick, yet three in the top 100, our war room focused on adding talent to our defensive backfield. Eight of 13 prioritized prospects stacked on the board were defensive backs.
Darrent Williams, the dynamic little corner out of Oklahoma State, fell to us at No. 56 in the second round. But already gone were cornerback Corey Webster of LSU and safety Brodney Pool of Oklahoma. Also selected were cornerback Stanford Routt of Houston, receiver Mark Bradley of Oklahoma and guard Logan Mankins of Fresno State. Cornerbacks Stanley Wilson and Bryant McFadden were taken before our next selection.
That left cornerbacks Karl Paymah of Washington State and Domonique Foxworth of Maryland as our next two highest-rated defensive backs. They remained available, and so, the way things played out, we drafted three consecutive cornerbacks in the 2005 NFL draft to counter the Colts: Darrent Williams, Karl Paymah and Domonique Foxworth.
It wasn't necessarily an orchestrated plan, but so huge was the obsession in the back of our collective minds to slow down the Sheriff that we took advantage of each opportunity as the picks rolled off our board.
The fear (and there definitely was one) of facing our nemesis once again was eliminated in the 2005 divisional round when the underdog Steelers dropped the curtain on the Colts offense with five sacks. The specter of traveling to Indy for a third playoff road trip was replaced with the euphoria of hosting the sixth seed out of the AFC.
A season's worth of focus to finally overcoming Manning was replaced with the distraction of potential Super Bowl preparations. That optimism fizzled with four turnovers and a 24-3 halftime hole we never dug out of. It seemed Manning had become our Six Degrees of Separation from ever capturing another AFC championship.
Manning's League-Wide Influence
Football critics might argue there were other changes to the game that affected it more than Manning's arrival in 1998: "The competition committee's focus on player protection (particularly hits on the QB) and freeing up receivers downfield has opened up the passing game more than ever," they might say.
Realistically, it was changes made in the late 1970s that widened the gap between rushing and passing yards per game. Manning's keen sense at the line of scrimmage only perfected the ability to utilize the pass as an offensive supplement in obvious running situations, expanding the effectiveness of the forward pass on all downs.
Regardless, the end result of Manning's presence on the field has been staggering. Prior to drafting Manning, the Colts franchise from 1978 to 1997 had five winning seasons, zero double-digit-win seasons and three playoff appearances.
The Manning-led Colts generated 11 winning seasons (all double-digit wins) linked to 11 trips to the playoffs, three AFC Championship Game appearances, two Super Bowls and one NFL championship. In Denver, Manning's Broncos generated four double-digit-win seasons, four playoff appearances, two Super Bowls and one title.
Manning's success contributed to an immense pressure on the rest of the league to find the right quarterback. From 1976 to 1997, there were just five quarterbacks taken with the first overall pick in the draft. After the Colts' selection of Manning, a quarterback was taken 12 times with the first pick in the draft (1999-2015).
You could argue the only organization to keep up with Manning and his monumental numbers has been Tom Brady's Patriots. But recall, it was Manning's emergence that pressured owner Robert Kraft to retool in Foxborough. Bill Belichick arrived in New England only after Pete Carroll finished 8-8 and Manning had secured his first divisional championship in the AFC East.
Brady took over in 2001 for the last quarterback selected first overall prior to Manning (Drew Bledsoe in 1993), and then realignment immediately pushed the Colts to the AFC South.
And remember Marcus Nash? How Manning had this way of raising the level of play of those around him?
It begs the question whether Colts Hall of Famers GM Bill Polian, receiver Marvin Harrison and head coach Tony Dungy would have crossed that threshold without the influence of their quarterback. Or how about the careers of Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark—would they have reached their status without Manning?
The Final Act
Though Manning's physical tools were beginning to show signs of wear by 2011, his football mind was still sharp as a tack. New Broncos general manager John Elway understood this.
Armed with a future Pro Bowl wide receiver in Demaryius Thomas, an All-Pro left tackle in Ryan Clady and the second overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, Von Miller, Elway set out to land the biggest recruit in NFL history. He put all of his one year of front-office experience into signing Manning, who promptly led the revival of fortunes for a franchise that had been mired in mediocrity for the better part of six seasons.
Thomas developed into an NFL star, as did Eric Decker, who left for a big deal with the Jets in 2014. Nondescript tight end Julius Thomas (taken in the fourth round in 2011) made the Pro Bowl twice and hit free-agent pay dirt in Jacksonville. Former first-round pick running back Knowshon Moreno finally reached his potential in his fifth season and then took the money in Miami.
The Broncos won four consecutive AFC West titles with Manning at quarterback, and collectively their competition within the division has drafted seven defensive backs within the top 100 picks over four consecutive drafts to try to stop him.
With each passing season in Denver, and especially after the collapse in Super Bowl XLVIII, it was difficult for me to see Manning walking off the field as Elway did for us in Super Bowl XXXIII. Jim Plunkett was the oldest NFL quarterback to leave his original team and win a Super Bowl. The former first overall pick of the Patriots in 1971 set the record twice at 33 and 36 years of age with the Raiders.
Manning failed at 37 and struggled at 39 with injury and poor performance off and on throughout 2015. My heart said to pull for Manning, but my head was clearly with the opposition: Pittsburgh, New England and Carolina.
But Manning ultimately prevailed, going out on top as the Super Bowl 50 champion and the only starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl with multiple teams.
What Manning Leaves Behind
Peyton Manning has changed the NFL more than can be addressed in anything shorter than a book. His impact is undeniable. But it's the subtle effects that sometimes go unnoticed—the careers he enhanced, the draft strategies he influenced, the defensive coordinators he haunted season after season.
Manning earned his second Super Bowl victory with a team he spent over a decade terrorizing. But he terrorized most of the teams in the league. Looking back at his career and the way it impacted my own with the Broncos, I ask: How many others have similar stories about Manning's impact on the game? And how different would the NFL be without his storied career?
Manning's legacy was already complete. It was complete before his second Super Bowl ring. It was perhaps even complete before he joined the Broncos. The problem is, we might not appreciate or even know the full extent of his legacy for years, simply because it has been so vast, so monumental and so awe-inspiring.
As clear as his impact has been, the legacy of his career is one we're still struggling to fully grasp.
Ted Sundquist is a former general manager of the Denver Broncos. You can follow Ted on Twitter, @Ted_Sundquist.