In an effort to make inroads on what is expected to be the richest player contract in NFL history, the Colts and Peyton Manning's agent, Tom Condon, met face-to-face Thursday in Indianapolis, and for the first time the team presented a proposal to its quarterback in these negotiations, according to team and league sources.
The two sides met for hours, trying to accelerate a process that has generated much speculation but, until this week, no discussion. During the meeting, the Colts extended their first offer to Manning; it was more lucrative than the four-year, $72 million contract that included $48.5 million in guaranteed money that Tom Brady signed in September, according to sources.
While the Colts are willing to make Manning, 35, the highest-paid player in NFL history, sources say the Colts are expressing the need to show reasonable financial constraints on a five-year deal. Sources say team president Bill Polian presented a pitch Thursday that the Colts want more cash flow to build the talent around Manning with a more aggressive offseason that could include a few key free-agent signings. Even though the Colts will remain a franchise that builds around the draft, they have signed just four free agents since Manning signed his last $98 million contract in 2004.
The two sides are trying to consummate a deal before the league year ends at 11:59 p.m. March 3, when players will not be allowed to sign contracts unless there is a new collective bargaining agreement. If they fail to strike a deal in the next two-plus weeks, the Colts are preparing to slap their franchise tag on Manning, even if there is a question about whether it would hold up without a collective bargaining agreement.
Manning's franchise tag would be at 110 percent of last year's salary and is projected to be slightly more than $23 million for the 2011 season. But it just goes to show how determined the Colts are to keep Manning in Indianapolis and ensure that he can't go anyplace else, no matter the price. In fact, the Colts used the franchise tag on Manning in 2004 before finalizing his seven-year contract.
The two sides have landmarks by which to work. Brady's contract is one. Whenever Manning's deal is signed, and the two sides are hopeful it will be within the next month, it also will help shape the negotiations that Condon eventually will have with the New Orleans Saints for another of his high-profile quarterback clients, Drew Brees.
But as financial uncertainty grips the rest of the league, the Colts and Manning's agent are attempting to make it certain that the perennial Pro Bowl quarterback will spend the rest of his career in Indianapolis.
Chris Mortensen is ESPN's senior NFL analyst. Adam Schefter is ESPN's NFL Insider.