Where are 49ers in the Manning sweepstakes?

Even as Peyton Manning was putting the Indianapolis Colts in the rear view mirror, a traffic jam of other NFL teams were lining up to see if he will park the next phase of his career with them. Three of the four NFC West teams – yes, including the 49ers – are among the top prospects for his services. Here's a breakdown of possible suitors who figure to be given serious consideration by Manning.

Manning will indeed be in the driver's seat when it comes to determining his destination, if – and this is a BIG IF – he is healthy and ready to play after four neck surgeries. There has been no definitive report on the progress of the nerve regeneration necessary for his physical comeback.

The NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement prevented Manning from working out for Indianapolis team executives, although he could have done so for the team's medical staff.

Instead, he worked out with Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne in Florida and there is a YouTube posting of Manning throwing to tight end Dallas Clark and wide receiver Austin Collie last week at Duke, where the head coach is David Cutcliffe, who was Manning's offensive coordinator at Tennessee.

Manning tried to sound confident about his condition during his parting press conference in Indianapolis, but his words come up a little short of a sure thing that he is physically ready to go.

"I'm throwing pretty well," he said. "I've still got some work to do, some progress to make. But I've come a long way. I've really worked hard. I can't tell you the hours and the time I've put in. I really enjoy being back out there. That's been the most fun part.

"I don't want to retire. No, I don't feel I have anything to prove. But nobody loves their job more than I do. Nobody loves playing quarterback more than I do, and I still want to play."

It's great to want. But it doesn't mean he can.

Pushing aside the huge issue of whether he still can play, the most talk is about where he should play and why.

The consensus among everybody discussing the situation – team executives, media, players and others – is that the 35-year old, 14-year veteran will be more interested in the quality of the experience on his next team than he is the quantity of money he receives.

But none of those people talking actually has any insight because Manning is not among those talking.

Leading prospective teams are, in alphabetical order, the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins.

Manning maintains an offseason residence in Florida, and by most accounts the Miami Dolphins can be made to sound like the best fit for all involved.

But there are plenty of other towns and variables to consider.

Here is a closer look at the teams that figure to be in contention for consideration by Manning, with the three NFC West teams listed first:

San Francisco 49ers

Overall fit: Contenders? The overtime loss in the NFC Championship Game indicates as much, but can the 49ers maintain their level of play when they're the hunted? Coach Jim Harbaugh was replaced by Manning in Indianapolis in 1998 and described Manning as a good friend in February. Harbaugh also said, unequivocally, the team is committed to Alex Smith at quarterback and also has second-round pick Colin Kaepernick to develop entering his second season. Running back Frank Gore, a solid but plodding offensive line, and receivers with potential – led by tight end Vernon Davis – could make the 49ers a sleeper if they opt to invest. Weather, and particularly chilly winds, could be a challenge if Manning's arm strength doesn't fully return to his own high standards.
Cap situation: Estimated $23 million under the cap
Contender status: They'll be in the hunt in the NFC West – and probably the division favorite – but two other teams on this list, Seattle and Arizona, could be nipping at the Niners' heels if one of them adds Manning. The Seahawks have an immense amount of money available this offseason and the 12th overall pick in the draft.
RG3 interest: Minimal at best. Harbaugh recruited Griffin to Stanford – Griffin declined because of that Andrew Luck guy, opting for Houston and then Baylor to follow coach Art Briles – but that's only a nice story in retrospect and has no true bearing on the 49ers' investment strategy – guarded, cautious.

Seattle Seahawks

Overall fit: GM John Schneider said the Seahawks will never panic when it comes to filling the quarterback spot on the roster. But maybe he should reconsider with Manning available and Tarvaris Jackson currently atop the depth chart. The Seahawks have the money to bring in Manning and a few of his friends with potential impact players in the receiving corps including wide receiver Sidney Rice and tight end Zach Miller. The offensive line remains a question mark and the weather in Seattle might be more of a 12th man factor than the home fans. Coach Pete Carroll knows Manning from an opponent's perspective, coaching against him as AFC East rivals in 1998 and '99.
Cap situation: Estimated $26 million under the cap
Contender status: A sneaky-strong defense and the cash to collect the right complementary parts on offense puts the Seahawks very near the defending NFC West champion 49ers at the starting line in 2012 – if Seattle can lure Manning out of the warmth of Miami or Arizona. Road games at Arizona, Miami and Detroit bring some hidden upside, but the Seahawks also play the AFC East and the NFC North. Getting to 10 wins might be a minor miracle.
RG3 interest: From the Ted Thompson and Ron Wolf school of overvaluing draft picks and undervaluing free agents, Schneider isn't one to part with a bounty of assets – veterans or draft choices – unless the Seahawks can be convinced they are only one player (RG3) away from being special. From an outsider's vantage point, that's not the case.

Arizona Cardinals

Overall fit: Throwing to Larry Fitzgerald is a fine selling point, and the comfortable climate is almost as friendly as the indoor confines in Indianapolis. The Cardinals can free themselves of Kevin Kolb's albatross contract by not picking up a $7 million option due March 17. Owner Bill Bidwell isn't one to gamble, and Manning isn't a sure thing. But coach Ken Whisenhunt can't be convinced Kolb is either. Whisenhunt can point to the renaissance experienced by Kurt Warner, who was lifted off the scrap heap in 2005 by the Cardinals and threw 56 touchdown passes in 2008 and '09 in Whisenhunt's system. Kolb was a disappointment in 2011, playing nine games and throwing nine touchdowns with eight interceptions as he battled injuries. At 27, he also has a history of concussions. The Cardinals have enough money to add a wide receiver – such as Colts teammate Reggie Wayne – to aid Manning and complement Fitzgerald.
Cap situation: Projected $37.3 under the cap
Contender status: The Cardinals scraped to 8-8 in 2011. Weak spots on the offensive line and a still-evolving but promising defense might concern Manning when he stacks the team's depth chart against other potential suitors. They're looking up at the 49ers, and expectations are high for the Seahawks given an abundance of cap room.
RG3 interest: The Cardinals are unlikely to make a move to draft Robert Griffin III and don't have the barter power to get to the No. 2 spot in a deal with the Rams without parting with veterans from the existing roster. The Cardinals traded their second-round pick to the Eagles in 2011 for Kolb. St. Louis also isn't in a hurry to give RG3 to a division rival.

Cleveland Browns

Overall fit: The Browns lack weapons with arguably one of the worst collection of skilled players in the NFL. The need at quarterback is great, but it'd be more prudent for a team still in rebuilding mode to grab a younger veteran or draft a quarterback to compete with Colt McCoy. The Browns have an outdoor stadium in a cold weather area, which probably won't be attractive to Manning anyway.
Cap situation: Projected $22 million under the cap
Contender status: The Browns were 4-12 last season, the doormat in a division with hard-hitting contenders and three playoff teams in 2011. Even the Cincinnati Bengals, who went to the postseason with a rookie quarterback, are a few paces ahead of Browns vice president Mike Holmgren's rebuilding effort.
RG3 interest: The Browns have two picks in the first round –No. 4 and No. 21 – and are considered one of the favorites for Griffin. Cleveland could also kick the tires on Matt Flynn of the Packers.

Kansas City Chiefs

Overall fit: There's historical precedent here, given the Chiefs landed Joe Montana via trade in 1993 along with Marcus Allen and had one of the franchise's best seasons in decades. This time, they'll have much healthier competition. The Chiefs have two core playmakers – RB Jamaal Charles and WR Dwayne Bowe – and the finances to make room for more. The chances for wind, rain, snow and the slow track at Arrowhead Stadium are considerations. The Chiefs' brass has a stated interest in Manning, even with Matt Cassel under contract, and general manager Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel are not strangers to Manning's heroics from the days of the Colts-Patriots duels.
Cap situation: Projected $30 million under the cap
Contender status: The Chiefs were ravaged by injuries last season but were AFC West champions in 2010. A detailed evaluation of the roster reflects there's more to like here than might be apparent. Hope would rise with Manning on board, and with money to attract other veterans plus the No. 11 pick in the draft, optimism can be found quite easily in this group.
RG3 interest: The Chiefs met with Griffin at the Scouting Combine, but that's not to be read as more than "due diligence" according to Pioli. The Chiefs need to make a splash after a dismal season that brought a coaching change and plenty of negative publicity. Griffin, a Big 12 conference hero, would be beloved.

Miami Dolphins

Overall fit: Ideal is one word. Manning has a residence in Florida and the supporting cast offering is very acceptable. Running back Reggie Bush has played and excelled in a similar system to the spread-based offense new coach Joe Philbin employed with the Packers. The Dolphins will remember how in 2006 they passed on free agent Drew Brees because of a spotty physical. They doubted he'd recover from shoulder surgery – and instead signed Daunte Culpepper. Miami has an elite left tackle, Jake Long, and a respectable group of receivers with Brandon Marshall and Davone Bess. There's also the weather, the nostalgia – Manning won his only Super Bowl at Sun Life Stadium – and no state income tax. Want more? The Dolphins play the Colts and there's two meetings with Tom Brady and the Patriots. Hey, Manning said Wednesday he isn't one to back away from a challenge.
Cap situation: Estimated $28 million under the cap
Contender status: The Dolphins dominated defensively in the second half of last season. They have holes, but no fatal flaws, that would deter Manning. The elephant in the division is New England. But Manning has crossed that bridge and lived to celebrate.
RG3 interest: Manning dependent, of course, but the Dolphins are considering all options with Matt Moore currently atop the depth chart.

New York Jets

Overall fit: The Jets are reportedly split on whether Manning would entertain joining a dysfunctional locker room, and his mild-mannered professionalism is the diametric opposite of the perpetual noise that is coach Rex Ryan. The Jets have an excellent offensive line, including All-Pro center Nick Mangold and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Their receiving corps is getting a makeover – but wide receiver Santonio Holmes is under contract and has playmaking ability as does tight end Dustin Keller. Chasing Manning will be a delicate pursuit for the Jets, who must consider the emotions of Mark Sanchez. But they did something similar before when they brought in Brett Favre.
Cap situation: Projected $3.8 million under the cap
Contender status: Ryan bypassed his annual Super Bowl prediction and the cap situation is dubious for a team with clear needs. The Jets have to draft extremely well and there's a sizable obstacle – New England, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady – on the team's Super Bowl roadmap.
RG3 interest: The Jets sold out for Sanchez to draft him just three years ago and he's now the team's highest-paid player with a cap value of $14.25 million in 2012. That prohibitive number, and a $5 million charge if Sanchez is cut, make moving up for Griffin virtually impossible.

Washington Redskins

Overall fit: Manning isn't a statue, but he's close, and that means he's not ideally suited for the bootlegs and waggle plays in the West Coast offense playbook. Of course, coach Mike Shanahan and owner Daniel Snyder are expected to move constellations to get Manning signed, so why not let him manage the offense? There's good talent on both sides of the ball but also a number of weaknesses that won't be addressed simply by signing Manning. The Redskins do have the sixth overall pick and could get a top-notch playmaker – Alabama RB Trent Richardson or Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon – or elite offensive lineman if they can get Manning on board. One drawback would be competing twice a year against younger brother Eli Manning and the highly competitive NFC East. The Eagles and Cowboys have far more talent, at least on paper, than the Redskins and the Giants won Super Bowl XLVI last month. One positive: friendly road "climates" at New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Dallas and St. Louis.
Cap situation: Estimated $47 million under the cap
Contender status: They are the fourth dog in the race in the NFC East today. Signing Manning and Reggie Wayne or another receiver and addressing the offensive line and secondary would boost the Redskins at least toward contender consideration.
RG3 interest: Major, as it should be, with RG8 (Rex Grossman) having proven he's not the answer. But the trade options with the Rams are on hold as Daniel Snyder fuels his private jet – the Bombarderdier BD-700-1A10 Global Express with the Redskins logo in the tail – and will be tracked by every media outlet in America.

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