Andrew Luck is the consensus choice to be the first overall pick in the NFL draft.
The Indianapolis Colts are likely to be in the running for the worst record in the NFL.
Given that the Colts just signed Peyton Manning to a five year deal, everyone wants to know: if they get the first overall pick, will they take Luck?
Before looking at the situation, let's lay the ground work:
1. The best draft philosophy is to take the best available player. For the remainder of this piece, I'm operating under the assumption that Luck is the best available player. If he isn't, then none of this applies.
2. We are assuming the Colts will have the first overall pick. If they don't, the equation is entirely different. Trading up to get Luck only makes sense in a world where Peyton Manning is going to retire or the Colts don't believe he's likely to play in 2012. In that case, Indy should go hard after Luck and pay what it takes to get him.
3. We are assuming Peyton Manning is healthy. If Manning is not healthy, there is no choice to be made. If the odds of Manning playing in 2012 are anywhere south of 70%, the Colts MUST cut him and move on. They cannot be on the hook for his whole deal. For the purposes of this exercise, we are assuming Manning will be ready to play.
Many have wondered why the Colts would bring Manning back at all in 2011 if they are 2-10 or something similar. The reason is simple: they have to find out if he can still play. I've come around on this point. Indy has to know definitely if they can count on Manning. If they can't, they have one window of escape, and they must take it. If Peyton can play in 2011, he should. The Colts have to get a better idea of what they have in him going forward. If he takes over a 1-11 team (yes, it could be that bad), and wins the last four games of the year with them (which he would if he's healthy), then they can feel much better about him going forward.
The Colts will be faced with a difficult choice when it comes to Luck. They have four primary options.
1. Take Luck first overall and let him develop behind Manning.
I hate this choice. It's intellectually lazy. Taking Luck does not make the Colts better in 2012. If the Colts think Luck is a once in a decade prospect, they should take him, obviously. However, if he's that good, then it's time to move on. However, many people love to 'develop' quarterbacks. I think this leads to animosity and ugliness. People point at the Packers situation as an ideal, but forget that they wasted a season recovering from the Favre/Rodgers fiasco. They went from a Super Bowl caliber team to 6-10 in 2008. Yes, they won the Super Bowl in 2010, but they could have won it in 2008 or 2009 if they hadn't screwed around. Beyond that, Rodgers was the 24th overall selection, so it wasn't nearly as costly to have him sit and wait for a few years. Doing that with the first overall pick isn't nearly as attractive an option.
Indy was always going to have to endure a miserable season at the end of the Manning era. If 2011 has to be it, so be it. The problem with the 'keep both' plan is that then you've occupied tons of cap room on quarterbacks, and eaten up most of Luck's 'cheap' years sitting on the bench. Then, you have to decide whether not to give him a huge second contract (which he'll want even if he sat for three years), without really knowing if he can play.
If Manning is healthy, he's going to play for 4 to 5 more years. It's too soon to take Luck to 'learn' from Manning. This option makes the least sense. It's probably the most popular among fans and pundits, but it's pure unadulterated stupidity. It will ruin the franchise.
2. Take Luck first overall and trade/release Manning.
The first overall QB selected is basically ready to lead a team by his second season. If the Colts take Luck AND keep Manning, they weaken their team moving forward. You can't play them both. Keeping Luck means parting ways with Peyton. The Colts have an out in Manning's contract, and to keep both would cripple them cap-wise moving forward. It's a coward's play.
If Luck is the man, then he's the man. Manning should be dealt (Indy could at least get a first and a second round pick for him), or cut. It's hard to know what the market will be for him given his contract and health. From 1987-2008 there have been 25 quarterbacks taken in the first five picks. 11 of those have been successes (Peyton and Eli, Aikman, Palmer, McNabb, Bledsoe, Ryan, McNair, Rivers, Sanchez, Kerry Collins) . Three have had some success (Vick, Testaverde, Vince Young), and Matt Stafford has battled injuries, but looks like he might be successful. The other 10 have been beyond terrible (Carr, Alex Smith, Meier, Harrington, Shuler, Akili Smith, Ryan Leaf, George, Couch, Russell). Of the players who hit, all of them but McNair (5) and Rivers (3) were in the playoffs by year two.
By taking Luck and moving on from Peyton, the Colts have a coin flip chance of being back in the playoffs by 2013 and on the road to a new dynasty. They also have a coin flip chance of Luck busting and the team being horrible for five years.
3. Trade the pick.
The first overall pick this year will merit a king's ransom. The Colts could deal the pick and infuse the team with a wealth of young talent that would set them up for a nice 3-4 year run at the top of the AFC. You take this choice if you are 100% convinced that Manning is healthy. If Peyton is right, you are essentially saying, "We have 3-4 years of being a guaranteed Super Bowl contender (because Peyton makes you that), and we'll take that over a 50-50 chance that we've landed the next franchise QB in Luck". This is the 'bird in the hand' strategy. The pick for Luck cannot go for less than first rounders in 2012 and 2013 and a second rounder in 2012 and change. That's a lot of talent to bring into the franchise in the next two years.
4. Take Luck and then deal him after the 2012 season.
A variant of #1 and #3, the Colts could take Luck as insurance for Manning in 2012, and then deal him once it looks like Peyton can play. It's better than option #1, because you aren't paying two quarterbacks for four years. It's also worse than option #2, because it keeps the team on the hook for Manning's full signing bonus moving past this year. Still, it's a middle path. I favor bold action, personally, and respect positions two and three the most because they show clear thinking and a definite course of action.
Which is better: Three years of being elite or a 50% chance of earning another decade of relevance? It's a tough call, for sure. Hopefully, the Colts get the chance to make the call. It only matters if Peyton Manning is healthy enough to play in 2012. If he's not, there's no choice.
Personally, I'd rather trade the pick and go all in with Peyton for three or four years. I think you take the sure thing, even if it's short lived. Options 1 and 4 don't make the Colts a better team in 2012. You can't play two quarterbacks, and there's no reason to carry two expensive ones.
If the Colts decide to part ways with Peyton, it will be a sad time in my life. If they do so boldly, however, believing Luck is the next elite quarterback, I'll be able to respect and defend the decision.