Which hat will Peyton Manning wear next?

It’s basically a done deal that Peyton Manning is leaving Indianapolis. Any word otherwise from the Colts at this point is just a public relations move or a bargaining chip or a strategic communication.

Andrew Luck will be their Quarterback for the foreseeable future.

His neck having sufficiently healed, Peyton Manning WILL be the starting QB for a team outside of Indiana in the season which starts just six months from now, and with time of the essence, let’s consider the options:

Out Of The Running

If I need to explain why the New England Patriots, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers or New Orleans Saints are out of the running for Peyton’s services, then either you didn’t watch the Super Bowl the past three years, or I missed a breaking news story about one of the top NFL QB’s getting seriously injured outside of a stadium. Like them or not, the QBs at the helm of those teams are the poster boys for the league and their franchises aren’t going to give up on them, nor should they.

Detroit Lions – Matthew Stafford might not be a house-hold name outside of Michigan yet, but when the Lions are (hopefully) back at full health next season, he’s likely to put up the type of numbers which should put him into the discussion. The injuries he has sustained in his career thus far aren’t nearly enough to warrant anything less than full confidence in his abilities to move this team forward into deep playoff runs in future seasons.

Cleveland Browns – from the good… to the woefully bad. Would the Browns love to have Peyton Manning? Absolutely, but they won’t be putting in a bid to get him because there’s no way he’ll end up in Clevleand next season. Not enough weapons.

Pittsburgh Steelers – hearing some of their rants, which are often warranted, plenty of the Steelers fans would be happy to see Ben Roethlisberger leave town, but it’s not going to happen. He’s cleaning up his off-field issues and he’s the tough type of QB that Terrible Towel wavers love to have leading their squad. Unless there’s another motorcycle incident or bathroom altercation in the next week, there won’t be a change in the Steelers roster that would include Manning.

Cincinnati Bengals – Andy Dalton. Remember his name because he’s going to be a fixture for the Bengals for years to come, alongside one of the most dynamic young receivers in the league. No chance the Bengals are even considering Peyton.

Buffalo Bills – the Bills faithful love Ryan Fitzpatrick, even if he did throw as many interceptions as touchdowns this year (it was actually 23 INT and 24 TD, but let’s not split hairs here). QB is far from the top of their needs list.

Carolina Panthers – Did you see the insanely good numbers that Cam Newton put up this year? 21 passing TD, 4000+ yards passing, and more rushing touchdowns than a lot of teams got all year? Yeah, he’s not going anywhere, and they’re not going to stunt the growth of the 2011 Rookie Of The Year just to bring in a Hall Of Famer.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Though the Jaguars would love to bring in Peyton and push aside Blaine Gabbert, it’s not going to happen because there are not enough weapons in Jacksonville. There’s a reason no one is mentioning it as a potential landing spot for Manning. I’d be more surprised if he landed here than if he went to Cleveland.

Houston Texans – Matt Schaub and T.J. Yates are quality options at QB for the Texans. The holes they need to fill are at other positions.

San Diego Chargers – Philip Rivers continues to throw for 4000+ yards with far more touchdowns than interceptions, and their front office and fans seem to love him, and why wouldn’t they?

Atlanta Falcons – though he has his detractors, Matt Ryan threw for 4000+ yards this season with 29 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions, running for an additional two scores along the way. He’s 9 years younger than Peyton Manning and is having the best productivity of his career.

Dallas Cowboys – Nearly 4200 yards passing this season, 31 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. Tony Romo isn’t going anywhere and he’s not getting supplanted.

Unlikely Options

Tennessee Titans – They’ve got their future QB already on the roster in Jake Locker, and they’ve got a willing-and-able mentor on the squad in Matt Hasselbeck. No reason to upset that balance right now. Peyton Manning is going to want to start for a team for at least the next two seasons, and there’s no need to make Locker wait that long. The money they would spend on Manning (and whatever else they owe to Hasselbeck) would be better spent elsewhere.

Baltimore Ravens – despite any criticism levied against Joe Flacco by the media or his team mates this season, the Ravens have a QB who is more than adequate to get them through the playoffs. In fact just a few days ago the owner and Ray Rice were both singing Flacco’s praises. They’re talking about giving him a contract extension, and it’s well deserved.

Philadelphia Eagles – Vick is starting to show his age and the wear & tear of the type of football he plays. He’s not getting to the end zone as much when he runs the ball, and he’s throwing more interceptions than he ever has. Do they trust that he will hold up under the rigors of yet another season? Probably, but I would still say it’s a possibility that they could go after Manning. Peyton would hate it in Philly unless they instill the right offense for him, and if that happens, I don’t know how Mike Vick fits in anymore.

Seattle Seahawks – neither Tavaris Jackson nor Charlie Whitehurst are the future at QB for Seattle, and Pete Carrol knows that. They probably don’t have enough weapons to woo Manning to sign with them, but they’re probably going to give it a strong try.

St Louis Rams – Do the Rams like Sam Bradford or do they think he’s a bust? Injuries have limited him, which isn’t necessarily a huge surprise given how his college career went. They’re probably not ready to give up on him yet, and they’ve got plenty more areas in which they need to improve. Yet, there’s always the possibility that they could try to get Peyton Manning.

Interested Parties

Oakland Raiders – Jason Campbell is a really good QB and they SHOULD be happy with him, but he’s probably not a Pro Bowl QB. Carson Palmer is likely just a one season, short term fix to deal with Campbell’s injury, so he won’t be a factor. If Peyton Manning is at all interested in becoming a member of the Raiders, they should do whatever they can to bring him on board ASAP.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers -had I mentioned this a year ago, I’d likely be considered crazy. Josh Freeman is a talented young QB who had a stellar 2010 season, but 2011 was rough on him. It took him 16% more passes to essentially gain the same number of passing yards. He had 2/3 the number of touchdown passes as the previous season, and he had almost FOUR TIMES the number of interceptions. QB is not likely their top priority, but if they could land Peyton Manning, they might heavily consider it.

Minnesota Vikings – they’ve got two young QBs, but neither Christian Ponder nor Joe Webb have established themselves as a QB which can lead this team deep into the playoffs next season – or even to a playoff berth given their tough division. A couple seasons ago there was talk of the Vikings being poised to play in the Super Bowl, and after two failed veteran QBs, it’s looking more and more like they’re going to have squandered seasons where their defense and running attack were amongst the tops in the league. They might have a bad taste in their mouth for bringing in an older QB, but there’s a big difference in a 40 year old Favre and a 35 year old Peyton Manning.

Chicago Bears – Matt Forte is one of the best running backs in the league. They’ve got a strong defense and an explosive special teams. Once upon a time Jay Cutler threw for more than 4500 passing yards in a season, but three seasons have passed since then, and he has only surpassed 3500 yards once, and not by much. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Bears were considering bringing in Peyton Manning, as it’s becoming more and more clear that Jay Cutler isn’t a perennial Pro Bowl QB. With his injury last season, they might also consider this a good point to switch gears at the helm of the offense. If they don’t view Jay Cutler as the long term option, they could easily trade him once they pick up Manning and put another piece in place to provide a weapon for Peyton on offense. Chances are goodthat it wouldn’t be a tough sell to Chicagoans that they’re giving up hope on Cutler if they’ve got a Hall Of Famer coming in to bridge the gap to the next franchise QB. And Chicago is a big enough market that Peyton could enjoy some of the luxuries that he wasn’t afforded in Indy.

Miami Dolphins – professional sports teams in South Florida have been spending cash on super-superstar players in the past couple years, so might the Dolphins follow the trend? With Matt Moore and Chad Henne, they’ve got two QB options who are above average, but it’s safe to say neither is a superstar – let alone on the level of LeBron James. They’ve got some offensive weapons with Reggie Bush, Brandon Marshall and others. They’ve also got a steep hill to climb in the AFC East, where the other three teams all look playoffs-ready. Would Peyton want to join that situation, knowing he’d have to play Tom Brady twice a season and the comparisons to Dan Marino only increasing? Manning doesn’t necessarily seem like a South Beach kind of guy.

Denver Broncos – Tim Tebow helped lead them to the playoffs and even got them a win while they were there, but the front office doesn’t believe he’s got the skills yet to take that team to the next level. Maybe someday he will, especially if he could learn from a great passer. The fans might riot if Tebow doesn’t get to be the starter on the first day of training camp in six months… unless someone of Manning’s caliber were the reason why. Denver has an extremely strong team, plays in a weak division, and this gives them the option to put Tebow on hold, not incur the wrath of the fans, attract free agents and have a legitimate threat to take them to the next level VERY soon.

Top Options

Arizona Cardinals – Cardinals fans thought they had the answer when they picked up Kevin Kolb. He had some health AND performance issues, and now they’re not so sure. John Skelton is showing some promising signs, but not enough to warrant the Cardinals thinking themselves set at the QB position. There are still some significant needs in Arizona, but Manning would sure up the QB position, which might help Skelton or Kolb progress (whomever stays as the backup). If the Cardinals want to get back to the Super Bowl while Larry Fitzgerald is still an elite WR, the clock is running out.

Kansas City Chiefs – though the incoming Offensive Coordinator says he’s got faith in Matt Cassel, we’re also hearing that the former Patriots backup isn’t assured the starting position. They’ve got Kyle Orton to challenge for the helm under center, but if they could have Manning, I’m guessing they wouldn’t think twice to get rid of one of those guys and sit the other on the bench. They get Jamaal Charles back next season, and they’ve identified some other options. Keeping Dwayne Bowe should be a priority, and bringing in a Hall Of Fame QB to throw him the ball could be an easy way to ensure that.

Washington Redskins – the big question in Washington is whether or not Peyton Manning would fit into the offense, or whether Kyle Shanahan’s scheme would dissolve into whatever Peyton would want it to be. With Mike Shanahan as the big decision maker in DC and Kyle’s reputation as a offense-minded coach potentially at stake, it’s a very tricky situation. The running backs are more than adequate. The WR situation could use a little help but I’d be surprised if Peyton couldn’t find some chemistry with Santana Moss / Jabar Gaffney / Leonard Hankerson / Anthony Armstrong / Niles Paul / Terrance Austin / Brandon Banks / Chris Cooley (and potentially Fred Davis). Sure, that corps aren’t probably as stellar as Reggie Wayne & Pierre Garcon & Dallas Clark, but there’s talent. The defense is improving quite a bit, and now the main real issue would be whether or not the offensive line is talented enough. Fill in another piece or two there, a good cornerback and potentially one more play making WR, and the Redskins could be a playoff team with Peyton Manning.  Now, whether or not that would be good for the longterm? That’s a different story, because adding another WR (or two) and other veteran pieces could mess with the team’s growth potential… but then, if that was a concern, then Gaffney and Moss wouldn’t have been the primary targets at WR the last few games of the season.

New York Jets – the running game, when it’s on, is a top squad. The receiving corps are good, but the talents of Mark Sanchez often leave fans wondering how good the Jets could be with a different QB under center. Twice Sanchez has guided the team to the AFC Championship game, but the common perception is that those teams got there on the strength of their now-aging defense.  Would Peyton Manning get along with Rex Ryan? Maybe not, but there’s also the possibility that Peyton has the reigns to the offense almost completely handed over to him, with little disruption from the head coach.

San Francisco 49ers – their defense is arguably one of the top 3 in the league. Their running game is good, and Manning makes all the WR targets better. Would it work out for John Harbaugh? That’s the real question. Alex Smith has finally evolved into a viable starting QB who can lead a team with the right talents deep into the playoffs, and bringing in Peyton Manning would equate to completely giving up on him. With the amount of time invested in getting him to that point, would the 49ers really want to start all over a couple years from now when Peyton is getting set to retire? It depends how long they think their “window” is open to making a run at the Super Bowl.