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Peyton Manning derby takes interesting turn as Niners reportedly emerge

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Quarterback Peyton Manning worked out Tuesday for San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, according to ESPN, bringing another contender into the sweepstakes to sign the four-time MVP free agent.

The news broke as John Elway and the Denver Broncos' brass arrived in Durham, N.C. Friday, to watch Manning throw. The Tennessee Titans also expect a chance to work Manning out, although a time hasn't been scheduled, according to the Tennessean.

[ Related: Titans suggest unique offer to lure Peyton Manning ]

Suddenly the Manning Derby is taking shape, with three clear finalists. Already Manning had called Miami to tell the Dolphins they were out. The Arizona Cardinals, who Manning visited last weekend, remains a fourth possibility.

The most important news is that San Francisco was impressed enough with Manning's ability to throw the ball that team doctors put him through a physical Wednesday.

Manning missed the 2011 season with a neck injury and there has been concern about not only that, but whether he could regain the arm strength to play in the NFL again.

The Indianapolis Colts decided early to bail on their one-time franchise player, preferring to brush off rich-trade possibilities for the No. 1 pick and clean house of its coaching staff and roster core to bank on Stanford's Andrew Luck.

Manning was officially released last week. That may turn out to be a questionable decision.

Friday, it will be one Hall of Famer in Elway watching a future Hall of Famer in Manning. The questions will remain on arm strength and deep outs and anything else that would convince the Broncos that they need to continue their all-in pursuit of him or run back into the arms of Tim Tebow.

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However, if the Niners are still interested, it stands to reason Manning will be OK. It was always unlikely the ever-prepared Manning would hold workouts if he wasn't completely convinced in his ability to shine.

Harbaugh is a former NFL quarterback who, ironically, was the Colts' starter before Manning was drafted.

The 49ers' joining the race is dramatic and possibly decision-altering. Manning hasn't spoken publicly since becoming a free agent but it is expected his chief concern is an ability to compete for a Super Bowl.

Denver, Arizona and Tennessee all offered certain ready-built parts of a team that perhaps Manning could push to championship contention. San Francisco, however, is at an entirely different level. The Niners went 13-3 last year in Harbaugh's first as coach. They lost in overtime of the NFC championship to the New York Giants, the eventual Super Bowl champs.

Niners free-agent quarterback Alex Smith's chief struggle was throwing the ball downfield consistently. If Manning is back to being Manning, that will no longer be a problem. The 49ers even gambled on signing receiver Randy Moss, who came out of hiatus after a year away from the game.

Harbaugh is a relentless competitor who has zero patience for anything but ultimate success. So it's understandable that if he believes the 49ers can be improved, at any position, he'll push for it. He's there to win today, not to build a long, slow contender.

Still, Manning's free agency will wind up rocking the confidence of at least two NFL quarterbacks.

It's clear Denver would prefer Manning to Tebow, whose late-season heroics led the Broncos to the playoffs and excited the entire league. And now Smith, who has yet to re-sign, has to wonder if he has any future in San Francisco. If the Manning deal falls through, will this impact his long-term interest in the Niners? One, if not both teams, is going to have to make up with their quarterback when this is over.

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Meanwhile, Tennessee, which might have fretted about Denver getting the first workout, has to feel confident it will get its chance.

Manning, true to his form, seems to be taking this as a process. Although he didn't visit the 49ers' facility, it's clear he is giving each team a fair shot and then paring off clubs he doesn't believe are the perfect fit.

Denver didn't fly Elway, coach John Fox and at least three team doctors across the country if it wasn't intent on signing Manning. Neither did San Francisco. And Tennessee, no doubt, has its jet ready to be summoned.

The Manning Sweepstakes continues to churn on, new contenders and intrigue building by the day.

At least it appears clear he can play. The question remains where.

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