You can’t come to Indianapolis, even when every NFL person wants to exchange draft information, without discussing Peyton Manning’s future. But one thing is clear — the football gods have been watching over Colts owner Jimmy Irsay. In 1998, his team was bad enough to be in position to draft Peyton, and last year’s edition was so awful they will end up with Stanford’s Andrew Luck.
“If they put the right pieces around him, and give him a team, Luck has the ability to make Indy a playoff team for a dozen years,” one NFL head coach told me.
Said an NFC general manager, “I know they want to blow up their roster, but they are not in a bad situation. Some fans may think Irsay is nuts half the time, but I’d love to be in his situation.”
Consequently, the Colts and Manning top my top 10 observations from this week’s NFL Scouting Combine.
1. What team shows Peyton the money?
Free agency begins on March 13, and you can bet that Peyton and Tom Condon, his agent, would like to be free and clear of Indy pretty soon after that. They can’t wait to see what the open market brings. Their hope is that an owner — say, Miami’s Steven Ross — will give Peyton $15 million or more when he still can’t throw a 20-yard out pass with 2010 velocity. You know, with the hope that, come August, he’s going to be same, old Manning. There are other potential landing spots for Manning, but how stupid would it be for a team such as Kansas City or San Francisco to sign him while waiting for his right arm to come around?
2. What do the Colts want to do?
Well, they need to be able to sign receiver Pierre Garcon so they can put the franchise tag on pass rusher Robert Mathis. If they can’t do that, they are in serious personnel trouble. If you saw new GM Ryan Grigson visibly sweating during a news conference here when he refused to reveal his team’s salary-cap space, you know he’s dealing with a myriad of personnel issues besides getting rid of Peyton and drafting Luck.
3. Is there a mystery team wanting Robert Griffin III?
The Rams have their fingers crossed on this scenario while the media world merely talks about Cleveland and Washington as being the most logical trading partners. The Rams want a lot, and Cleveland’s two first-round picks (4th and 22nd) won’t be enough compensation for the second pick in the draft. The Rams know the Redskins will be aggressive, but they have been getting weird, uninterested signals from the Browns.
One of the problems is that Mike “Big Show” Holmgren has never really done a trade of this magnitude and, two, his coaching staff remains confused on what to do with RG3. Their talk of him being Michael Vick-like doesn’t create confidence with Holmgren. Nor does it help him that GM Tom Heckert has been out of commission because of a serious illness.
Let me tell you, I think Andy Reid would trade Vick straight up for RG3. Personally, I think the Cowboys should be interested in RG3, but one mystery team might be the Broncos. John Elway loves the Heisman winner, and it’s been no secret that their scouting department did extensive homework on college quarterbacks last fall. Then again, Elway may just hope that Ryan Tannehill falls to them.
4. Did the Vikings mess up drafting Christian Ponder?
I think that’s obvious with RG3 one spot away from them. The only consolation is that GM Rick Spielman can sit there with the third overall pick and draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil, a definite position of need. Kalil ran under five seconds, which kind of stamped him as a consensus top-five selection. Christian Ponder was a surprise pick last season; one Minnesota is stuck with now.
5. No More Mr. Nice Guy
The Saints are gagging with the idea of paying quarterback Drew Brees $63 million over three years. However, that’s the reality of the market when compared to Peyton Manning’s and Tom Brady’s contracts, and when the players’ percentage of funds goes through the roof in 2014 (when the new TV deal kicks in). If New Orleans doesn’t strike a deal pretty soon with Brees, it will franchise him and then undoubtedly lose both guard Carl Nicks and receiver Marques Colston. The Saints are even more petrified of Brees becoming a no-show if they do end up franchising him. This is an interesting storyline because Brees has forever held Favorite Son status in the Crescent City.
6. What do the Rams really want?
Receivers, playmakers and cornerbacks. They will be aggressive in free agency, wanting to sign a veteran receiver, obviously someone younger than, say, Reggie Wayne. San Diego’s Vincent Jackson would be ideal. But the Vikings will have an interest in VJax too. The Rams need Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon to run 4.52 on his Pro Day. If he runs slower than that, Blackmon most likely will slide down the Rams’ draft board. LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne is a lot better of a defensive prospect than Patrick Peterson was last year.
7. Matt Flynn: Is he worth a Franchise tag?
Let’s be honest, nobody really knows what Packers GM Ted Thompson is going to do with quarterback Matt Flynn. The price is $14.4 million to place the franchise tag on Flynn, and to do that, the Packers better have a trading partner (Miami and ex-Packer coach Joe Philbin) lined up well before making such a financial decision.
“If they get stuck with him,” one GM said, “I might give them a seventh-round pick to take Flynn off their hands.”
The weird part would be having Flynn on the roster next season at that salary while MVP Aaron Rodgers earns a little over $7 million. The only consolation for Rodgers is that he and Flynn are good buddies, while the MVP knows he’s worth twice as much as Flynn when the Packers redo his contract. If the Packers do nothing and allow Flynn to leave, they most likely would receive a third-round compensatory pick for him next year.
8. Who’s the smartest guard in the room?
Two coaches who interviewed Stanford’s David DeCastro said the player was able to walk up to the white board and diagram offensive plays and explain the offense as well as Andrew Luck.
“It was amazing to watch him talk about the complexities of their offense and how he knew Luck would check out of a certain play if the safety was down in the box,” a coach told me. DeCastro is very good, but it’s difficult to project a guard in the top ten.
9. Can the Steelers keep Mike Wallace?
The Steelers did a lot of heavy lifting with their salary cap last year, and it makes sense to clear some space to sign one of the game’s best deep threats. Yes, Wallace’s numbers declined in December but that was when the Pittsburgh offensive line couldn’t block you and when Ben Roethlisberger was playing on one leg and struggling to unload any deep throws. It makes more sense to keep a productive, young talent than attempting to replace him with an unknown.
10. The Packers need defense
Everyone knows this, but this awful unit essentially needs a total makeover. A.J. Hawk is coming off a pathetic season, and he may have to lose 20 pounds to be effective. Charles Woodson may have lost two steps, not one, and does that mean he moves to safety or remains in the slot next season?
To their horror last season, the Packers discovered that young pass rushers like Erik Walden and Frank Zombo simply couldn’t hold up and be productive. On top of all that, B.J. Raji was mired in a sophomore slump.