After 14 years, a Super Bowl title, and four MVP awards, Hall-of-Fame-bound quarterback Peyton Manning has been released by the Indianapolis Colts, who are expected to draft Stanford QB Andrew Luck with the number one pick in this year's draft. "I sure have loved playing for the Indianapolis Colts," Manning said in an emotional press conference Wednesday afternoon. "I will leave the Colts with nothing but good thoughts and gratitude." Manning, 36, sat out last season with a neck injury — he's had three neck surgeries in the last two years — and it's unclear whether he'll ever be able to return to top form. Still, he has no plans to retire, and frenzied fans are eagerly speculating where he might play next. More than half the teams in the NFL may flirt with signing Manning. Here, five top contenders:
1. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins' deep roster of talent should be enough to woo Manning, says Shalise Manza Young at The Boston Globe. With impressive wide receivers Brandon Marshall, Davone Bess, and Brian Hartline, running back Reggie Bush, and tight end Anthony Fasano, Miami boasts a host of "good offensive weapons." And with $17 million in salary cap space, the team can actually afford Manning. Plus, Miami owner Stephen Ross needs a true star to fill the seats at Sun Life Stadium. Manning would "get fans to the games" and make the team "a real threat in the division."
2. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals "did this same thing with Kurt Warner many moons ago and had great success," says Will Brinson at CBS Sports. Arizona scooped up the supposedly washed-up two-time MVP Warner after he bottomed out with the New York Giants, and Warner led the team to its first Super Bowl ever. Because today's Cardinals have Larry Fitzgerald — "one of the best receivers in the game" — and an increasingly strong defense, the team is poised to turn Manning into the same kind of comeback story.
3. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks have $12 million to $13 million in salary cap space. But it's not what they can offer Manning, but who they might be able to offer him, says Chris Burke at Sports Illustrated. Manning's former Colts teammate, five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Reggie Wayne, is an unrestricted free agent. Landing him may be "the key to landing Peyton Manning," and Peyton may insist that the duo come as a packaged deal. Many teams are considering this strategy, but the Seahawks are the squad most likely "to get it done."
4. New York Jets
Bombastic head coach Rex Ryan "has been effusive in praising Manning in the past," says Nate Davis at USA Today. And current QB Mark Sanchez has been "wildly inconsistent," leading the team to a disappointing 8-8 record in 2011. The prospect of Manning delivering the Super Bowl victory that Ryan has long promised might be too tantalizing for the mouthy coach to pass up, while "wrestling control of The Big Apple from little brother [and New York Giants quarterback] Eli might have irresistible allure for Peyton." According to Newsday, Gang Green is poised to make a "serious run" at Peyton.
5. Houston Texans
Manning would make the Texans "Super Bowl favorites," says Michael Silver at Yahoo. And the Houston squad should be enticing for Manning, with its premiere defense, exceptional offensive line, star running back Arian Foster, and elite receiver Andre Johnson. The Texans' current quarterback, Matt Schaub, "has been injury-prone and has struggled against top-notch competition." Cutting him would free up $7 million of salary cap space, enabling the Texans to make Manning a serious offer. "If the Texans take a leap of faith, Manning should jump at the opportunity."