The Indianapolis Colts are not entering into "salary cap hell" with QB Peyton Manning, contrary to popular analysis. The Colts' cap situation isn't ideal, especially given the number and caliber of their own free agents they'll have to consider re-signing, but it's far from "hellish." What many seem to be missing are the cap crises of Manning's potential suitors and what might happen if Manning was willing (which seems to be the case) to restructure his current deal.
The anticipated 2012 NFL salary cap will be somewhere around $124 million by most accounts. Teams can borrow up to an additional $2 million against future years as well. The Colts current cap number is $116,773,228 which includes the $6 million that Manning would count against the 2012 number if his contract was renewed in its current form on March 8. Simple math shows that the Colts are $7-9 million under the 2012 cap even if they do nothing at this point. That would allow them to keep Peyton Manning and comfortably sign their 2012 draft class, even with Andrew Luck, comfortably.
What these numbers do not address are the Colts own free agents that they have to consider. Neither does this number take into account any "cap casualties" which would be current players under contract who end up being cut to create more cap space. It also doesn't show the effects of any potential restructured deal involving Manning.
The Colts have several of their own to consider before going out into the free agent market to address needs. Those players include Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Robert Mathis, Jeff Saturday and Jacob Tamme. It's a good bet that not all of those players will be back in blue and white next season, although owner Jim Irsay has previously mentioned Mathis and Garcon by name as priorities for the team to re-sign.
There are a couple of "wild card" factors, however, that will shape the way the Colts approach the off season. First would be the style of new GM Ryan Grigson. Under Bill Polian, the Colts were notoriously absent from the free agent bidding wars. Will that change under Grigson?
The other is the leverage the team has in dealing with Peyton Manning. Taking Manning at his word, he would prefer to finish his career in Indianapolis. That makes sense for him. As great as he is, dealing with all that would come with relocating to a new team and new city isn't in his best interests at the age of 35. As Colts 101 wrote last week, it's also in the Colts' interests to keep Manning around if he's at all healthy. As good as Andrew Luck or RGIII might be some day, they won't be that way next season.
Looking at Manning's potential suitors, the reality of the salary cap would show that there's only really one that's been mentioned that could seriously make a run at signing him. Miami, Arizona, the New York Jets, Tennessee and Washington have all been mentioned as possible landing spots for Manning, but only the Redskins are in a realistic position to go after Manning, even with an incentive-laden contract.
The Redskins are one of the teams in the NFL with the most cap space and with very few in-house demands on free agents. They have approximately $22 million dollars more than the Colts to spend on new players. If owner Daniel Snyder opened up the checkbook for Manning, Jim Irsay couldn't match the dollars that Snyder could put on the table. Now that assumes that Snyder would put all his eggs in Manning's basket and that Manning would want to go into such a situation. It also assumes Snyder won't trade to get in position to get the other QB the Colts don't select, an option that would be much more cap friendly for the Redskins.
As for the rest of the suitors, they may sound like good matches for Manning, but their finances say something different. Miami is pretty much exactly where the Colts are in cap space and have to get a deal done with DT Paul Soliei, the anchor of their defensive line. Unless the Dolphins get creative with their cap number, they won't have much wiggle room to pursue free agents, including Manning.
The Cardinals are actually $2 million worse off than the Colts, although they don't have as many in-house priorities. Still, they're going to need to make some moves just to fit in their draft class. The Jets are a pipe dream for Manning's services as they are already over the projected cap and still need to do something with defensive signal caller Jim Leonhard and wide receiver Plaxico Burress. There's just no realistic way they're going to be able to maneuver their roster to make room for Manning, unless Peyton were to play for free.
Despite the pleas of Peyton's Tennessee fans, the Titans aren't going to let Matt Hasselbeck go, whom they signed last year, and replace him with another aging QB. More to the point, they're not going to do that with their own first round pick from a year ago, Jake Locker, waiting in the wings with some effective playing time already under his belt. I can't see Manning wanting to go to another AFC South team either.
So that leaves this scenario for Irsay to present to Manning: restructure your deal with the Colts to give us enough room to resign some of our key players, make it incentive-laden so that the Colts aren't on the hook for any future damage in case of another injury, and finish your career in the town where you're practically deified and with the players (and coaches like Clyde Christenson and Bruce Arians) who know you so well. Or take Dan Snyder's money and go to D.C. where you'll be playing in a run-first system under Mike Shanahan, with a suspect group of receivers with whom you've never worked. And oh yes, in a division where you'll have to go head to head with your brother twice a year.
Those are the facts as they stand now. The conversations between Manning and Irsay, which are slated to begin as soon as this week, should be fairly interesting over the next few weeks. Hopefully both can see the mutual benefit of them continuing their professional relationship.
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