Will Peyton Manning really be NFL’s highest-paid player?

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Now that the Indianapolis Colts’ season is over, owner Jim Irsay is ready to get down to business negotiating a new contract for quarterback Peyton Manning.

Irsay and Colts President Bill Polian better hurry. The Colts and Manning have until March 3 to come to terms. That’s when the current collective bargaining agreement expires. If there’s no agreement in place by then, the owners are promising to lock players out. That likely means no contract negotiations.

If the battle between players and owners is protracted, Manning could head into next fall as a free agent. But Manning isn’t going anywhere. Both sides seem committed to keeping Manning in Indy.

So committed in fact, Irsay this week re-emphasized his pledge to make Manning the NFL’s highest-paid player. Many people have already warned Irsay that paying Manning too much leaves the team with too little money for critical support players.

That’s why I expect the gesture—and Manning’s contract—to be largely symbolic. Manning turns 35 in March and is likely good for four or five more seasons. But by giving him a seven- or eight-year contract, one that Manning has no intention of playing to its conclusion, Irsay can make good on his promise and show his appreciation while not actually hurting the team in the short-term as much as it initially appears. To give Manning the most lucrative NFL contract, it will have to be in excess of $100 million.

If Manning is as interested in winning another Super Bowl as most people think he is, I would expect his agent, Tom Condon, to agree to a back-loaded contract which would pay Manning more during the final year or two of the contract.

Those are years Manning doesn’t intend to play, which means Irsay wouldn’t have to pay.

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