Say what you want about the Colts' 2011-12 season, but their 2012 free agents are hardly bereft of talent. This is a group that features one of the league's top veteran WRs in Reggie Wayne, one of the league's top pass-rushers in Robert Mathis and several promising young players in Pierre Garcon, Jacob Tamme and Philip Wheeler, the latter of whom was never a great fit in the Colts' conservative 4-3 defense but may translate very well to a 3-4 edge-rush role.
Projecting contract worth, of course, isn't an exact science. But using some common sense, you would have to assume Jim Irsay and Ryan Grigson would need to come up with the following numbers to retain each of the Colts' free agents (values calculated at annual amounts):
Jamaal Anderson: $3 million (estimated)
Anderson is the rare Colts free agent that a) improved his stock in Indy's disastrous 2-14 season and b) also figures to project well to a 3-4 defense. The former Atlanta Falcons bust anchored the edge brilliantly for the Colts in 2011-12 and recorded the team's lone field-goal block. He still doesn't have quite the quickness you'd like to see in a pass-rush role, but as a 3-4 defensive end, Anderson would hold up just fine and prove more than capable of setting a hard edge, freeing up linebackers and defending the run.
The Colts valued Anderson at $1.3 million in 2011-12, but look for that number to more than double in 2012-13. In fact, I may even be undervaluing his worth.
Tyler Brayton: $900,000 (estimated)
Brayton isn't going to make any more money for a 2012 roster than he did in a 2011-12 season that saw him play an uncomfortable tweener role that was too small and weak for defensive tackle or a 5-tech end, but too slow and athletically limited to offer any edge-rush ability from a traditional defensive end spot.
As Brayton's 2011-12 base salary was $810,000, we can safely assume he won't eclipse the $900,000 mark.
Ryan Diem: $1 million (estimated)
Like Anthony Gonzalez, Ryan Diem would truly be lucky to sniff $1 million here, and like Jeff Saturday, Diem very well may be on the road to retirement. These add up to a $1 million ceiling for an Indy bookend who spent much of his career protecting a QB who may never play again.
That the Colts used their first two draft picks on offensive tackles last year tells you that Diem's time is likely up in Indy, and won't be highly valued anywhere else. Some may point to the fact that he was arguably the best guard the Colts had in 2011-12, but that was only because he played over Mike Pollak. Don't mistake marginal superiority for actual talent.
Eric Foster: $900,000 (estimated)
Foster actually made $1.2 million in 2011-12, but saw his season end early after suffering a horrific ankle injury vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football. At 6'2", 265, Foster was already on the smaller end of the NFL's defensive tackle spectrum. His game was primarily predicated on speed and quickness, the ability to get a quick burst and beat his blocker on a swim move.
Assuming Foster even returns for the 2012-13 season, he certainly won't eclipse the $1 million mark given the severity of his injury and its projected effect on the strength of his game.
Pierre Garcon: $8 million (estimated)
Last year, the Seattle Seahawks signed free-agent WR Sidney Rice to a five-year, $41 million contract. The New York Jets signed WR Santonio Holmes to a five-year, $50 million deal. If you figure the annual average for a top, young, free-agent WR is somewhere between $8-10 million, that's what I fully expect Garcon to demand in 2012-13.
We'll estimate this on the lower end of that spectrum, as even though Garcon performed extremely well in spite of Indy's QB play last year, there are still questions about his hands and consistency. I would expect Garcon to receive an offer in the five-year, $40-45 million range.
Anthony Gonzalez: $1.5 million (estimated)
Given his inability to stay healthy, Gonzalez would honestly be lucky to even sniff a million here. But because of his age (coming off his rookie contract) and promise (showed extremely well when healthy in 2007 and 2008), don't be surprised if some team bites the bullet and takes a chance on the oft-maligned wideout.
Gonzalez fits well into any offensive system, as he can play both slot and wideout, and as most Indy reporters would admit, probably suffered just as much from the wrath of Bill Polian and Colts management as he did from actual injuries.
Robert Mathis: Update: The Indianapolis Colts have reached a tentative long-term deal with DE Robert Mathis, in lieu of franchising the star pass-rusher.
Jeff Saturday: $3 million (estimated)
It's hard to imagine the Colts' longtime anchor averaging anything close to the $4-5 million per year he averaged on his last deal, given his decline in play and increase in birthday candles. More than likely, contract worth is a moot point, though, as the Colts have reportedly already reached out to Saturday about a front-office role, so you would have to assume the end of his playing career is nigh.
If Saturday does return to NFL action, look for his team to simply offer a one-year deal at a respectable, but not ridiculous, $3 million.
Jacob Tamme: $3.75 million (estimated)
Dallas Clark's understudy has proven that he can be an effective receiver in this league, so his 2012 contract will probably be in line with Todd Heap's two-year, $5.5 million offer from the Arizona Cardinals last year (Heap's deal limited by his injury history, Tamme's limited by the fact that he's a solid, but not dynamic, TE).
I've elevated Tamme's worth somewhat because of the New England Patriots' success using Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in a two-TE offense. As the NFL has proven time and time again to be a copycat league, more teams will be looking for bodies to send down the seam, and Tamme fits the bill. A four-year, $15 million contract wouldn't be absurd for the former Kentucky Wildcat.
Reggie Wayne: $9.5 million (estimated)
As one of the top receivers on the market, Wayne will get his payday. I project that number to be slightly less than the contract Holmes received from the Jets last year, as though Wayne is a more proven player than Holmes, he is also on the downside of his career.
If I already figured Garcon at $8 million, it makes sense to lift Wayne about $2 million above that average. Look for Wayne to at least score a four-year, $40 million deal, though given the fact he's one of the most prominent free agents on the market, don't be surprised if someone bids out of whack with his market value and lifts that offer closer to the $50 million range.
Philip Wheeler: $1.5 million (estimated)
Wheeler falls in the tricky territory of coming off a decently strong contract year, but still showing on film as too inconsistent to entice many 4-3 teams. Coming out of Georgia Tech, he was likely always a better fit in a 3-4 scheme, but as his entire pro body of work has been at OLB in a 4-3 defense, don't look for 3-4 teams to be in any hurry to open their wallets.
At best, Wheeler is a three-year, $6 million player. But don't be surprised if he enjoys some relative success in a 3-4 scheme and ends up as one of the better value signings in the 2012 NFL free-agency class.
You can also look for the Colts to tender their RFAs as such:
Jacob Lacey: One-year, $1.417 million (second-round tender, estimated)
The Colts are in a difficult position when it comes to Lacey. Jerraud Powers is the only true starter on their roster, as it stands now. Kevin Thomas has shown nothing to lead you to believe he's a NFL starter, Terrance Johnson was a disaster on the outside all year long and Chris Rucker, though still a work in progress, didn't exactly enjoy a stellar 2011-12 season either.
Barring major moves in the draft and free agency, the Colts may be forced into tendering Lacey. As Lacey was an undrafted free agent, offering him the lowest-base $927,000 qualifying offer would be inviting another team to match the offer with pocket change, so a second-round tender makes the most sense for preserving some semblance of order and familiarity amongst the Colts' CB ranks this year.
Michael Toudouze: One-year, $927,000 (estimated)
Toudouze is not worth anything above the lowest possible qualifying offer, but it makes sense for the Colts to bring him in as a camp body this summer. Worst case, he eats snaps in a few meaningless preseason games.