This is normally when the buzz from the opening days of free agency begins to fade a bit.

As the major names (think Williams, Mario) find new homes and mid-March slowly turns into late March, the swift pace of the league’s offseason calender typically requires our attention to shift, and turn to the draft. So it’s about now when we usually start working on the first of 17 mock drafts, previewing each team and their draft strategy, and generally going about the business of scrutinizing the football futures of an elite group of young men, most of whom will have a minimal impact. And we’ll be doing all of that.

But there’s nothing usual or typical about this offseason. That will hopefully change in the next 24-48 hours, but we won’t divert our eyes from free agency until Peyton Manning gives us permission.

Right now let’s be definitively clear on Manning Watch: no one knows what the hell is going on. No one.

We can make guesses that are both educated and uneducated, and we’ve cretainly floated plenty of both. The foundation for Manning’s final day(s) as a free agent is set, and he’ll choose between Denver, Tennessee, and San Francisco.

But if a noted insider like Sports Illustrated’s Peter King is clueless, then the rest of us are left to wait and wonder, just as we have been for nearly two weeks.

That was King’s advice this morning in his Monday Morning Quarterback column:

I had one smart football official tell me Sunday Manning’s going to San Francisco, and another tell me he’s going to Tennessee and a third tell me: “His brain tells him San Francisco. His heart tells him Denver.”

So, folks, we’re all guessing here. So let’s not guess. Let’s just say if all things were created equal, he’d probably rather go to the AFC, because that would take him away from playoff competition with his beloved brother Eli until the Super Bowl and because the AFC doesn’t have as many good teams at the top as the NFC this year, from the looks of it. But all three contending teams have logic on their side.

There are indeed compelling reasons for each team, but if Manning’s motivation truly is a shot at another championship–or more ideally, several shots–then San Francisco is his best option. That’s especially true after the addition of Randy Moss, and more recently Mario Manningham over the weekend.

In San Fran Manning’s arm–and more importantly, his neck–wouldn’t be tasked with being the center of the offense, a title that could still lie with the running game if Jim Harbaugh chooses to ease the burden on his elite but still fragile and aging quarterback.

But hey, we’re just speculating. And the more time we’re given to speculate about Manning, the more he’s allowing angst and nervous energy to grow.

Just end it, Peyton. End it now.

And now the rest of the story…

  • The Dolphins met with Alex Smith for five hours yesterday, and they are reportedly negotiating a contract that could be in the range of $8 million annually. [Mike Klis]
  • Ryan Clark stated the obvious last night, saying that while taking your talents to South Beach may be cool and hip in the NBA, for NFL players it’s about as trendy as plastic-covered couches. [Ryan Clark on Twitter]
  • As the days tick by the price tag for top-end linebackers is dropping, but it likely won’t drop enough for the very LB-needy Eagles to afford either Stephen Tulloch or Curtis Lofton. [Jeff McLane]
  • New England signed Daniel Fells, and soon the Patriots will just field 10 tight ends on offense, and Tom Brady will take the snap from Rob Gronkowski. [Ian Rapoport]
  • The numbers are in on the Bills’ ticket sales last week, and we have quantifiable proof that signing a marquee free agent promptly raises fan interest. Crazy talk. [Russ Brandon on Twitter]
  • Between the merciful end of Manning Watch and the announcement of the Saints’ penalty for their three-year bounty program, it’s going to be a pretty busy week in NFL land. Heavy fines, suspensions, and possibly the loss of draft picks are expected in the wake of Bountygate. [Mike Freeman]
  • In what would be a low-cost and low-risk move with nice potential upside, the Jets are visiting with wide receiver Donnie Avery. [The Jets Blog]
  • After signing Brandon Carr last week, the Cowboys now have a pair of capable press corners. [Blogging the Boys]
  • The Browns’ strategy in free agency is flawed, but fans shouldn’t be angry over the lack of a major splash either. [Tony Grossi]
  • On the other end of that is Kansas City, a place where fans are quite happy with the Chiefs’ moves in free agency. From a public relations standpoint, that means Scott Pioli can now feel free to take a big swing and miss in the draft without worrying about a fiery public backlash. [Arrowhead Addict]
  • One of Detroit’s offseason goals was to sign Cliff Avril to a long-term extension. That appears unlikely, and he’s set to play under the franchise tag. [Anwar Richardson]