While NFL followers far and wide wait with bated breath to see where Peyton Manning is headed next, one of the reported three finalists for the four-time league MVP's services made a move Saturday night that could have further tilted the scales in its direction. With a glaring need at wide receiver, the 49ers signed free-agent WR Mario Manningham, a Super Bowl hero for the Giants, to a two-year deal. It was a move that no doubt had to catch the attention of Manning, who is said to be pondering three specific landing spots — San Francisco, Denver and Tennessee — in the wake of his early-March release by the Colts.
Another dot further possibly connecting Manning to the Niners is the news that Niners free-agent QB Alex Smith, who most close team observers believed was a lock to re-sign before the team's pursuit of Manning was revealed, was on his way Sunday morning to Miami to visit the Dolphins, fresh off their lengthy visit with Packers free-agent QB Matt Flynn Saturday. In addition, PFW Niners correspondent Kevin Lynch was the first to reveal that Smith is seriously considering changing agents because of a potential conflict of interests. Smith and Manning are both represented by agent Tom Condon and CAA Sports.
The PFW spin
Before delving into the Manning topic — where extreme uncertainty regarding his future continues to be the order of the day — let's deal with the certainty that the Niners have made a solid upgrade to their WR corps with the addition of Manningham, who blossomed in the postseason in a big way after being greatly overshadowed much of the season by fellow Giants WRs Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. In the Giants' first three playoff games, Manningham had eight catches for 116 yards (14.5 ypc) and three TDs, including a 17-yard go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter of the NFC title game victory over the Niners. But the icing on the cake was his effort in Super Bowl XLVI, when he caught five passes for 73 yards, the most notable being a highlight-reel 38-yard grab in heavy traffic down the left sideline in the Giants' game-winning drive.
With a definite knack for coming up big in crunch time, Manningham joins a Niners WR corps also consisting of former first-round draft pick Michael Crabtree, newly acquired Randy Moss (who is 10 years Manningham's senior) and NFC title-game goat Kyle Williams. Williams, who made some big plays in spot duty as a receiver that were overshadowed by his pair of costly fumbles in the NFC title game, shapes up as a solid No. 4 wideout at this writing. But it's a bit more difficult to project the status for the first three WR spots at the moment among Crabtree, Moss and Manningham.
Crabtree showed signs last season of being a No. 1-caliber receiver, but he faded late when it counted most (one catch for three yards in the NFC championship game), and there's talk that the Niners might be thinking about moving him into strictly a slot role. Manningham definitely shapes up as a strong No. 2 option. He would appear to be every bit the equal of Joshua Morgan, a popular player with the Niners who signed with the Redskins, with more of a big-play flair than Morgan. As for Moss, we all know how good the six-time Pro Bowler and all-time NFL single-season TD leader used to be in a No. 1 role. But it very much remains to be seen just how much gas he has left in the tank after a one-year lay-off.
Recent failed attempts by former star wideouts such as Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco and Braylon Edwards, who was released by the Niners last year after never coming close to making an impact, would not appear to bode well for Moss. But, by all accounts, Moss still has the top-end downfield speed the Niners so desperately need. As the only receiver on the field when the Niners go with their "jumbo" (extra linemen) package — a role filled by free-agent WR-RS Ted Ginn last season — Moss could prove to be particularly potent. At the age of 35, though, anything more than a specialized role could be asking a lot.
Nonetheless, the Niners' receiving corps is a lot more stable today than it was yesterday, and a Moss-Manning pairing certainly offers potential big-time box-office appeal. The big question, though, is what the biggest factors are in Manning's mind regarding his next destination. If landing on a team with big-time playoff potential is at the top of his wish list, then the Niners would appear to be at the top of the list over the Titans and Broncos — a no-brainer further enhanced by the addition of Manningham. But if it's more a case of where Manning has the biggest comfort level, the Niners almost certainly would seem to lose out to his old Tennessee stomping grounds, especially with a guaranteed job for life on the table after Manning finally decides enough is enough.
In the meantime, you know Manning is dead serious about the San Francisco option. Just ask Alex Smith, who has made it undeniably clear that he can't afford to wait for Manning to make up his mind.