When Deion Branch recovered Pat McAfee's onside kick with 36 seconds left in Sunday's game at Foxboro, he didn't just clinch an important win for the Patriots. He sealed the fate of Andrew Luck's draft rights. By failing to pull off a monumental upset, Indianapolis fell to 0-12, staying two games worse than any other team in the NFL. And with Baltimore, Tennessee and Houston coming next on the schedule, it probably won't matter if the Colts finish their season by beating Jacksonville -- which, let's face it, if you saw the Jaguars on Monday night, is eminently possible.
I project that Indianapolis now has an 87.2 percent chance of gaining the first pick in next year's draft, according to data from Accuscore simulations. (Note: That's just an estimate, because I have to admit, I don't have all possible tiebreakers figured out. But you get the point. There's not much use discussing what any other team would do with the pick.)
We would expect a record like the Colts' to correspond to a desperate need for a player like Luck, whom Todd McShay calls "the most NFL-ready quarterback to come along since perhaps John Elway." (And I'm guessing an editor stuck in that "perhaps.") Indeed, the three-headed monster of Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky has generated a Total Quarterback Rating for Indianapolis of just 21.8 this season, second worst in the league behind Jacksonville. Of course, Indy has an increasingly healthy Peyton Manning itching to return from the sidelines. But the Colts seem inclined to spend the first overall pick on Luck anyway; vice chairman Bill Polian has talked, with Manning and to the press, about drafting a QB, and Mel Kiper Jr. is already writing about where Manning might land.
Let's assume for the moment that Manning is able to play next season. If that's true, he and Luck would be too valuable for the Colts to keep both, especially because the team has so many other problems beyond quarterback. Just one indication of how severe they are: Indianapolis has allowed opponents a QBR of 72.0 this season, by far the worst in the league.
But the team is likely to get far more value for the rights to Luck than for an aging Manning. And the numbers say the Colts should trade the No. 1 pick. To see why, let's start by looking at the economics of NFL draft-choice transactions.