A Peyton-Manning-shaped wave has crashed over the American sporting landscape, as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer, will be released by the Indianapolis Colts, and will search for a new team. The frenzy to determine that next landing spot is fast and furious, and it's no less high-octane in the realm of fantasy football. After all, Manning has led fantasy squads for more than a decade, shouldering a massive offensive load in Indy and lifting what might otherwise be average skill-position talent around him into the stratosphere. If he's healthy -- still a big if -- he'll likely do the same for his new teammates in 2012, potentially creating fantasy gold in unexpected places.
So let's look at the five likeliest landing spots for Manning, and gauge the impact if the Sheriff does, indeed, come to town.
Arizona Cardinals: To me, Peyton to the desert makes the most sense. The Kevin Kolb trade was never a good idea, and right now John Skelton is a replacement-level talent. Envisioning Manning lofting sweet passes to Larry Fitzgerald is truly one of a fantasy player's fondest imaginings, and Fitz would obviously instantly leap near the top of any WR draft board. Beanie Wells gutted out a knee injury last year and Ryan Williams may emerge to split backfield touches with him, and I'd say Williams (if healthy) would be a better bet to be Peyton's favorite target out of the backfield. And ancillary aerial weapons such as Andre Roberts and Early Doucet (and heck, maybe even Todd Heap) would suddenly gain some sleeper luster. But realize that the Cardinals have offensive tackle problems: Both starting left tackle Levi Brown and starting right tackle Brandon Keith are set to hit free agency and neither pass-blocked well in '11.
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins are reportedly an early favorite, as owner Stephen Ross is very interested in solving his QB issues with a bang. But is this a smart fit? New head coach Joe Philbin brings a modified West Coast offense with him from Green Bay, a system that's done pretty well for Aaron Rodgers. But if Peyton takes his talents to South Beach, one imagines (at least to some degree) Manning will run what Manning wants to run. If the Fish land their man, Brandon Marshall may not quite take a Fitzgerald-esque leap into the fantasy stratosphere, but he'd look like a clear No. 1 WR in all leagues. Reggie Bush would probably represent the best backfield receiver at Peyton's disposal since Edgerrin James, easily putting him in the conversation to be an every-week starter. And one can easily imagine Davone Bess playing an Austin Collie-esque role. The Dolphins might continue to let Brian Hartline man their starting split end spot, or someone such as raw burner Clyde Gates could get a look.
New York Jets: At age 36 (his birthday is March 24), does Manning really want to go from sleepy Indianapolis to the media maelstrom capital of the world? Does he really want to compete for the back page with his brother? Does he really want to be associated with an organization that can most optimistically be described as "brash"? (And how did one year of Brett Favre go in NYC?) I'm skeptical. But the Jets are reportedly interested, which isn't exactly a shot in the arm for Mark Sanchez. In the Big Apple, Peyton would likely help Santonio Holmes finally take a leap into every-week fantasy starter territory, and Dustin Keller would have fun reprising the old Dallas Clark role. But the team would certainly have to bring in another wideout to replace the departed Plaxico Burress, and Shonn Greene might actually be a misfit for a Manning-led offense, since he's not the greatest receiver (he had 30 grabs last year, but came off the field a bunch on third downs). Heck, maybe Joe McKnight puts it all together as a pass-catching replacement for LaDainian Tomlinson?
Seattle Seahawks: Here's another one that seems to fit the Indy mold: a usually positive fan base with a big, noisy crowd that will worship the ground Peyton walks on. If the Seahawks could ever keep left tackle Russell Okung healthy, they'd pair him with a good interior line (and something new at right tackle) and potentially give Manning real protection. But Okung's health is a continued question mark, as is the health of Sidney Rice, the man we'd all be tempted to draft for our fantasy teams if Peyton goes to the Pacific Northwest. But Rice underwent two shoulder surgeries this offseason, and is far from guaranteed a clean bill of health. Guys such as Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Mike Williams would emerge on everyone's fantasy radar screen with Manning around, and newly re-signed Marshawn Lynch can probably catch it enough (he had a 47-reception season with the Bills) to stay on the field and grab screens from ol' No. 18.
Washington Redskins: This is the oft-rumored squad that makes the least sense to me, since the Shanahans are very devoted to an offensive system that's served them quite well for a long time, and which involves a high degree of quarterback mobility. Plus, does Peyton want to wind up in the same division as his brother? But because Daniel Snyder has a history of signing high-ticket, big-name free agents, you can't rule out Washington. Certainly, Santana Moss has enough left in the tank to be a quick, in-the-box possession receiver, an asset Manning would take advantage of, and Fred Davis would instantly become even more of a fantasy darling than he was last season in the tight end ranks. Maybe guys such as Leonard Hankerson and/or Jabar Gaffney would share the love, too, but the most exciting guy in a Peyton-led version of this offense would be Roy Helu. He's already a do-everything guy with fantastic acceleration and body control when catching the ball out of the backfield. He and Manning would make some beautiful fantasy football music together.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.