Depending on who you ask, Peyton Manning is either the best, second-best or third-best player in the NFL, and it’s been that way for about a decade. As a result, Manning is inevitably going to once again become the highest-paid player in the NFL in 2011.

That was originally the case in 2004, when Manning inked an unprecedented seven-year deal worth $14.7 million per year with about $35 million guaranteed. Since then, though, Albert Haynesworth and Tom Brady have signed richer contracts and 2010 No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford has received more guaranteed money.

That means Colts owner Jim Irsay has work to do if he wants to live up to his word while avoiding cap hell. See, Irsay has promised that Manning will get more money than Brady and will once again become the league’s highest-paid star. But the Colts were forced to slap the franchise tag on No. 18 prior to the work stoppage.

Brady’s new contract, which kicks in this year, calls for him to make $18 million annually with $48.5 million guaranteed. If Manning plays under the franchise tender this season, he’ll make a ridiculous $23 million, which is 20 percent of the new salary cap.

Naturally, Irsay seems worried.

“I’ve offered to make him the highest-paid player,” he told reporters in a conference call this week, according to Cindy Boren of the Washington Post. “We know when we look at our team, we need people to surround him to have a chance to win a Super Bowl. With the cap actually going down this year, [Tom] Brady’s contract is something that would be reduced, so-to-speak. There’s only so much you can pay one player. Whatever the number is, $20 million, you’re topping off there. Then it becomes very difficult to be competitive and to field a team.”

But if it’s going to get done, it has to get done soon. Manning can essentially hold out without holding out by using offseason neck surgery as an excuse. The Colts are about to start training camp and would have to sign Manning to a long-term contract by Sept. 20. Otherwise, they’ll be stuck with a $23 million bill and an unhappy franchise quarterback.

“To me, I hope we get something done in the next couple of days,” said Irsay. “We’ve been ready and I’ve been ready. It’s really important that we get the deal done so we plan going forward, not only cap-wise, but competitive-wise. It’s something I hope gets done quickly and quite frankly, it is should get done quickly.”

“He is going to be the highest-paid player and he is going to make more than Brady. At the same time, under the system, you cannot pay a player $25 million dollars. It’s just not going to work and you’re not going to be able to compete. We have to get something done and I look forward to doing that. I’ve had a conversation with [Manning's agent] Tom Condon and we’ve talked in the last couple of days. [Colts GM] Bill Polian and him will process in the next days to come. It’s something that we need to get done.”

Mile Chappell of the Indianapolis Star reports that the Colts offered Manning $20 million a year prior to the lockout and that “it apparently wasn’t sufficient.” So either someone will have to cave, or the team will have to chop salaries elsewhere in order to accommodate the vast financial desires of its best player.