Agent's Take: What's next for the Colts? Here's a preview of things to come this offseason
The future is bright in Indianapolis as it looks to build on a successful season
The Colts were going nowhere fast early in the season. After six weeks, the Colts were tied for the worst record in the NFL at 1-5 and quarterback Andrew Luck was working his way back from an injury to his throwing shoulder that kept him from playing last season.
Things began to turn around with a 37-5 victory over the Bills in the next game. The Colts won nine of the last 10 regular season games to earn an AFC Wild-Card Playoff berth. It was the third time since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970 that a team made the playoffs after beginning the season with a 1-5 record.
Luck answered the questions about his ability to perform with his surgically repaired shoulder. He is expected to be named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year.
The Colts were the hottest team in football heading into an AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Chiefs after beating the AFC South champion Texans in the Wild-Card round. Kansas City easily won 31-13.
General manager Chris Ballard is a leading candidate for NFL Executive of the Year honors for overseeing a roster overhaul in which the Colts had a six-game improvement from 2017 to make the playoffs for the first time since 2014. He hit a home run in the 2018 draft class. Most notably, sixth overall pick Quenton Nelson and second round pick Darius Leonard were named first team All-Pro at offensive guard and outside linebacker respectively. A team having two rookies earn such honors simultaneously had only happened in 1965 with Bears linebacker Dick Butkus and running back Gale Sayers, both Hall of Famers.
The Colts exceeded expectations this season and are probably a year ahead of schedule in the rebuilding process. The Kansas City game demonstrated there is a gap between being a playoff team and a championship caliber club.
Here's a preview of things to come in the offseason for the Colts.
The Colts are the envy of the NFL from a salary cap standpoint. They have $123.1 million of 2019 cap commitments using offseason cap accounting rules where top 51 cap numbers matter according to NFLPA data. 56 players are currently under contract for next season. The Colts have the NFL's second most unused cap room at $49.146 million that can be carried over to the upcoming league year.
The NFL's preliminary projections put the 2019 salary cap between $187 million and $191.1 million. The Colts will have approximately $103.5 million in cap space, which leads the NFL, once tenders for restricted free agents and exclusive rights players with expiring contracts, and the proven performance escalator for eligible 2016 draft picks are taken into consideration, assuming the salary cap is set at $190 million.
The NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) requires each team to spend 89 percent of the salary cap in cash over the four year period of 2017 through 2020. The Colts are last in spending during the 2017 and 2018 league years at $291.187 million according to NFLPA data. This amount has Indianapolis below the 89 percent threshold at the halfway mark of the period. Spending is 84.6 percent. The league wide average for team spending in this period is approximately 20 percent higher at just over $350.5 million. There will have to be an increase in spending the over the next two years in order for the Colts to be in compliance with the CBA.
The CBA's spending requirements and an abundance of cap room put the Colts in a position to make a splash in free agency much like the Jaguars did in 2017 should Ballard choose to do so. The high-priced signings of cornerback A.J. Bouye and defensive lineman Calais Campbell transformed Jacksonville's defense into arguably the NFL's best in the 2017 season while the duo earned All-Pro honors. The Jaguars won the AFC South and made an appearance in the AFC Championship Game for the first time since the 1999 season.
Ballard has preferred to rebuild the Colts through the NFL Draft while being judicious in free agency during his two years as general manager. Tight end Eric Ebron was an excellent signing for a base value of $13 million over two years after the Lions released him early last March to prevent his $8.25 million 2018 fifth-year option from becoming fully guaranteed. The 2014 first round pick had a much bigger role than anticipated because injuries to tight end Jack Doyle, who played in last season's Pro Bowl, limited him to six games in 2018. Ebron set career highs of 66 catches, 750 receiving yards and 13 touchdown receptions, which were tied for the NFL's second most, while earning his first Pro Bowl berth.
Defensive lineman Denico Autry was one of the better free agent values on a three-year, $17.8 million deal. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate with a team leading nine sacks.
The Colts have 14 unrestricted free agents including major contributors in cornerback Pierre Desir, safety Clayton Geathers, offensive guard Mark Glowinski, outside linebacker Najee Goode, defensive lineman Margus Hunt, wide receiver Dontrelle Inman and kicker Adam Vinatieri. Ballard should be able to retain any of the free agents he wants given the cap situation.
The Colts reportedly are interested in bringing back the 46-year-old Vinatieri, who met with Ballard on Tuesday to discuss his future. Vinatieri became the NFL's all-time leading scorer in December. He missed the shortest field goal of his 23-year career, a 23-yarder, against the Chiefs. Ballard values Vinatieri's intangibles and the leadership he brings to a young Colts team. Another one-year contract in the same neighborhood as his expiring $3.625 million contract could be in order.
Nine players will be restricted free agents. Not all will be tendered although the cap room gives the Colts flexibility for retention. The Colts could err on the side of caution by giving defensive back Corey Moore and wide receiver Chester Rogers second-round tenders of approximately $3.125 million. The lowest tender, which should be in the $2.05 million range, wouldn't provide the Colts with draft choice compensation if an offer sheet wasn't matched since both were undrafted free agents. Center/guard Evan Boehm, safety Matthias Farley and long snapper Luke Rhodes are candidates for the low tender.
Indianapolis could be an ideal landing spot for free agents because of economics and the success on the field. Three-time All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell, who sat out the season rather than play for the Steelers on a $14.544 million franchise tag, apparently . He wrote "just imagine" as a comment to an Instagram post highlighting Luck's eight-game streak of three or more touchdowns in late November. There is a possibility of the Steelers keeping Bell from hitting the open market by designating him as a transition player, which would provide a right to match an offer sheet from another team.
Bell will surely be looking to supplant Todd Gurley as the NFL's highest paid running back. Gurley's deal with the Rams averages $14.375 million per year. Gurley's $45 million in guarantees are the most ever in a running back contract. David Johnson's three-year, $39-million extension from the Cardinals right before the regular season started has a veteran running back contract record $24,682,500 fully guaranteed at signing.
Bell may be more of an expensive luxury than a necessity because of second year running back Marlon Mack. Once the 2017 fourth round pick recovered from a nagging hamstring injury that kept him out of action for four games early in the season, he was one of the NFL's most effective ball carriers. Over the last 11 games of the season, Mack was fourth in the NFL with 874 rushing yards. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry and had nine rushing touchdowns during this span.
Mack set a single game Colts' playoff record with 148 rushing yards against a formidable Texans defense. The Texans gave up 82.7 yards per game on the ground during the regular season, good for third in the NFL. Houston was tops in the league limiting opponents to 3.4 yards per carry. No player was able to gain 100 yards on the ground in a game this season versus the Texans until Mack.
Finding another wide receiver to pair with T.Y. Hilton may be a bigger priority than making a run at Bell despite the Colts being high on 2018 sixth round pick Deon Cain, who missed the season with a torn ACL. Golden Tate would be a good fit although he will be 31 in August. Tate was on his way to a third straight 1,000 yard receiving season and fourth consecutive one with at least 90 catches before a midseason trade from the Lions to Eagles. His Philadelphia experience would allow for an easy transition considering Frank Reich was the Eagles' offensive coordinator in 2016 and 2017 before becoming the Colts head coach. Tate is likely looking for his last big payday where the $11.5 million per year contract extension with $24.25 million in overall guarantees Doug Baldwin, his former teammate when with the Seahawks, received from Seattle in 2016 could be have some significance.
Impact pass rushers may be in short supply during free agency. Frank Clark (Seahawks), Jadeveon Clowney (Texans), Dee Ford (Chiefs) and Demarcus Lawrence (Cowboys) are prime franchise tag candidates. Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers could be the best young pass rusher on the open market. The premium placed on players in their prime that can consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks should allow Flowers to command significantly more than the five-year, $72 million extension with $40.007 million of guarantees Danielle Hunter took from the Vikings during the offseason, if he becomes a free agent.
Another potential pass rushing possibility that Reich knows well is Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham. The 30 year old only had four sacks this season but his 70 quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) were seventh most in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. Campbell signed a four-year, $60 million deal containing $30 million fully guarantees with the Jaguars two years ago when he was 30.
There won't be a cornerback available in free agency the caliber of Bouye or Stephon Gilmore like in 2017 or Kyle Fuller, who was designated as a transition player last year. A high-risk, high-reward option that could be worth signing to a low cost one-year prove it deal is Jason Verrett. The Chargers 2014 first round pick has only played five games since a 2015 Pro Bowl season because of knee and Achilles injuries. Reich saw Verrett's capabilities first hand as the Chargers offensive coordinator during Verrett's first two years in the NFL.
Jacoby Brissett Trade
The Colts arguably have the NFL's best backup quarterback other than Nick Foles in Jacoby Brissett, who was acquired from the Patriots at roster cutdowns in 2017. The 2016 third round pick was fairly impressive subbing for an injured Andrew Luck while learning the offense on the fly during the 2017 season. Brissett is entering his contract year, which will undoubtedly be his last in Indianapolis since Ballard considers him as a starting quarterback. Ballard indicated in his season ending press conference with the media on Monday that he would need to be blown away with a trade offer in order to part with Brissett. Colts owner Jim Irsay said during the offseason when there was uncertainty about Luck because of his shoulder that he wouldn't trade Brissett for a first round pick. Whether Ballard's idea of blown away is quite as high as Irsay's remains to be seen.
Ballard recognizes that the step going from good to great is a hard step. That's something his predecessor Ryan Grigson couldn't do when Luck was at his cheapest on his rookie contract. Ballard knowing this should keep him from making moves for short-term gain that could potentially hinder long-term process. One key thing Ballard has already done that Grigson didn't is assemble a good offensive line to protect Luck, the franchise's biggest investment. Ballard staying the course with his build through the draft approach while also being more aggressive in free agency could lead to sustained success considering he is in the unusual position of being salary cap rich with a higher priced quarterback already on the books.
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