1. What kind of deal is waiting for Peyton Manning once he reaches the open market?
Not the blockbuster that his career credentials would seem to merit. Not with him soon turning 36 and coming off three neck surgeries, amid the ongoing drama of whether the needed nerve regeneration will ever take place and allow him to regain the arm strength and stamina necessary to play quarterback at the highest of levels. At this point, everything about Manning's future is a question mark, including the where, the when and, most importantly, the matter of what he has left.
Though the $28 million March 8 bonus payment the Colts owe him is the ultimate deadline, some time this month he and team owner Jim Irsay will meet and figure out how to best part ways after 14 years. That will set off a bidding war of sorts, but a cautious one. Manning is reportedly going to get interest from teams like Miami, Arizona, Washington, Seattle, the Jets and others, but when he finally picks a new team, he'll almost certainly receive an incentive-laden contract with a modest base salary, but one that will escalate in pay depending on his playing time, statistical benchmarks and victories earned.
We know Manning wants to play in 2012, and we know there will be teams more than willing to give him every opportunity to do so. What we don't know, and maybe won't know for months, is can he play any more? That's the biggest mystery of all, and the answers to all the other questions ultimately will be irrelevant if Manning doesn't prove capable of returning to at least a semblance of the pace-setting form he has displayed in the NFL from 1998 on.
2. How will the fit be between Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and new Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley?
Haley's in-your-face style isn't for everyone, but my hunch is it's exactly what Roethlisberger needs right now. The Steelers quarterback openly lobbied for Pittsburgh to retain offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who he was admittedly very close to and comfortable with. But comfortable isn't always a positive in the NFL, and the Steelers apparently are looking to light a bit of a fire under Big Ben and get him out of his comfort zone in the quest to take his game to a higher level.
Haley will challenge his players, prodding and pushing them to extract their best. Sometimes he can go overboard with that approach, but usually he gets results. He coached a top-five passing attack in Arizona under former Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt (who won a Super Bowl with Roethlisberger at QB), and he led a top-rated running game when he took Kansas City to the playoffs in 2010. In Pittsburgh, he's going to be tasked with reviving the Steelers running game to a degree, bringing it a bit more in balance with a passing game built around Roethlisberger and those talented young receivers.
I think the new marriage in Pittsburgh has a great shot to work.
3. How many teams will really be involved in the Matt Flynn sweepstakes?
Miami, Seattle and Washington would seem the most motivated to pursue the former Green Bay backup quarterback in free agency, and that comes with the premise that for the time being I'm penciling in Robert Griffin III to the Browns in the draft, either in the No. 2 (via trade) or No. 4 slot. Of course, Peyton Manning's landing spot could affect this list, particularly if the Dolphins acquire No. 18. In that scenario, it'd be hard to see Flynn signing on in Miami, given that he's ready to start for someone and wouldn't be interested in hanging around to see how the Manning saga would turn in South Florida.
But the presence of new Dolphins head coach and former Packers OC Joe Philbin in Miami makes all the sense in the world for Flynn. The Redskins are another team that desperately needs a ready-made starting upgrade in 2012. As for Seattle, well, the Seahawks had pretty good luck with the last Packers backup quarterback they acquired (see Hasselbeck, Matt), so there's some good karma and history at play with their potential interest.
4. Which big-name free agents won't really be "free?''
If you think the Saints are letting NFL Offensive Player of the Year Drew Brees get out of town, you haven't been paying attention for the past six years or so. If you believe 49ers quarterback Alex Smith really will be available next month, then you probably missed the fact that Smith is caddying for his head coach and BFF Jim Harbaugh in Thursday's first round of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Ray Rice, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch and Wes Welker? I'll give you odds that all four either wear the franchise tag at some point in March, or they'll have new long-term contracts in Baltimore, Chicago, Seattle and New England, respectively.
It just makes economic sense in terms of this year's franchise tag salary levels. The franchise tag is down to just $7.7 million for running backs, and $9.4 million for receivers. Rice, Forte, Lynch and Welker are well worth keeping around for another year at those numbers. And Brees and Smith are far too valuable to the Saints and 49ers, respectively, to let them get a sniff of the open market.
5. Who will be the biggest prize in free agency?
Houston defensive end/outside linebacker Mario Williams probably isn't going to coax the Texans into a franchise tag designation, given that his number would be more than $22 million and the team has some cap issues this offseason. That means a 27-year-old pass rusher with 53 sacks in less than six full seasons will reach the market, and that could kick up a little dust from teams fighting over him.
On the other hand, Williams might prefer to stay with the ascending Texans and work with the team to make that happen. He had five sacks in five games playing outside linebacker in Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense before a torn pectoral muscle ended his 2011 season. Houston, of course, didn't fall off a cliff without Williams, finishing second in overall defense and winning the franchise's first playoff game ever.
There are pass-rush-needy teams that could come after Williams and make it very difficult for Houston to keep the player who went first overall in 2006. Three that come quickly to mind: Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. In addition, the 3-4 Packers are hungry for another pass rusher at outside linebacker, although the big free agency splash hasn't been the Green Bay way under Ted Thompson.
6. What raging debate will consume the pre-draft scouting season?
If you thought the Cam Newton-Blaine Gabbert-Jake Locker competition made for some interesting drama last spring, you ain't seen nothing yet. The Andrew Luck vs. Robert Griffin III discussion is 10 times more intriguing and is just getting started. I spoke to the draft's top two quarterbacks last week in Indianapolis, and they both clearly want to be No. 1. But while Luck approached most topics with caution, RG3 is not the type to back down from a fight or politely tip-toe when it comes to his intentions. He believes the momentum is on his side, and he's determined to show the Colts why he's the best bet in the coming 11 weeks or so.
"Perception is reality, and at the beginning of the year I wasn't on many radars,'' Griffin said. "I did have a lot more ground to cover than he did. [Luck] was the de facto Heisman winner and the de facto No. 1 pick. We already took one of those from him and we plan to continue to go out there and do that. Whether it's with the first pick in the draft, a playoff win, or who goes to the first Super Bowl.''
See what I mean? Get ready to take sides on this one, because everyone probably will at some point. As polished and attractive a passing prospect as Luck is, Griffin is going to win over some teams with his intelligence, superb accuracy and Newton-like athleticism. The pocket passer versus the running threat who can also throw the rock is the argument that's going to dominate this year's draft coverage.
7. Which new offensive coordinator-quarterback tandem has the chance to reinvent themselves this offseason?
The 2011 season was no joy ride for either Brian Schottenheimer with the underachieving Jets or Rams' second-year franchise quarterback Sam Bradford. But they're getting fresh starts in St. Louis, and they need to make the most of it. Rather than being seen as the coach who somehow helped the mildly-talented Mark Sanchez get to two consecutive AFC title games in his first two seasons, Schottenheimer was blamed for a lot of what went wrong on offense in New York last year. He needs to wash off the stench of the Jets with a strong comeback season under new head coach Jeff Fisher in St. Louis.
Bradford had his own reasons for wanting to bury 2011 and never look back. The Rams regressed significantly to 2-14 last season, and Bradford looked shaken by the waves of pass rushers and injuries that surrounded him. After his stellar rookie season of 2010, Bradford never got comfortable in Josh McDaniels' new offense in St. Louis, or in any sort of groove with the Rams' lackluster and ever-changing cast of receivers. Year three in St. Louis could be a very big determinant for the trajectory of Bradford's career, and Schottenheimer's coaching future could be on the line as well.
8. Who's the biggest potential surprise in terms of players being franchised?
Washington's Fred Davis ended the season in coach Mike Shanahan's dog house after being suspended four games for a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, but he's apparently in line to be rewarded now that his punishment is over. The Redskins are reportedly planning to franchise Davis to keep him off the unrestricted free agent market, and that's a fairly big compliment to pay a guy who caught 59 passes for 796 yards and three touchdowns in 2011.
Those are decent numbers, and represented a career year for Davis, but by the standards of the NFL's best tight ends, they represent a relative drop in the bucket. The reality in Washington, however, is this: The Redskins simply don't have many real receiving weapons, so Davis' value is increased by comparison to who would be left if he signed elsewhere. And at $5.5 million for the tight end franchise tag, he won't break the bank in Washington. Those factors seemingly have influenced the Redskins to forgive and forget Davis' faux pas.
9. Which four free-agent receivers come with buyer-beware labels?
The Eagles' DeSean Jackson is an obvious play-making talent of breathtaking impact, and he's only 25. But he's also a knucklehead at times, and his me-first, team-second act for much of 2011 should knock down his price tag a little once he reaches the market. Jackson's maturity level isn't where you want it to be before agreeing to back up the Brink's truck.
Then there's Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe, who the Chiefs need and want back. But who can forget Bowe growing those alligator arms late in a loss at home to Pittsburgh in Week 12, which should serve as a cautionary tale regarding his effort level in key moments. He's the best pass-catching threat Kansas City has, but selling out is apparently not part of his career plan.
San Diego's Vincent Jackson also comes with some risk-reward quotient. He's a game-changing threat, but he did have those two DUI arrests in a three-year span, and in 2010 he was cited for driving on a suspended license on the morning of a San Diego playoff game. In fairness, Jackson has kept his nose clean for the past two seasons, but at age 29, you're supposed to learn the error of your ways and grow up.
Lastly, Buffalo's Stevie Johnson is someone the Bills would like to retain, providing the numbers don't get silly. But the problem is, Johnson often gets silly and shortsighted, and his penchant for drawing penalty flags for his end zone celebrations has gotten to be tiresome for coach Chan Gailey and Co. The Bills want to pay him, but Johnson needs to realize he has cost himself some money.
10. Who's the most underrated free agent available this year?
Saints receiver Marques Colston has been the model of steady production and consistency since entering the league as a lowly seventh-round pick in 2006. In five of his six NFL seasons, he has caught 70 passes or more, for at least 1,000 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. In 86 career games, he has 449 receptions, for 6,240 yards, with 48 touchdowns and a solid 13.9-yard average catch.
Colston isn't just a product of New Orleans' high-powered passing attack, and while he has gotten the benefit of playing his entire career with Brees, he'll prosper almost anywhere he lands if the Saints can't afford to re-sign him. New Orleans also has Brees, guard Carl Nicks and wideout Robert Meachem eligible for free agency. Colston's blend of height, hands and the ability to find the crease in the defense make him one of the best receiving options to come available in free agency in a long time.