It’s that time of year again, when Colts fans have to forget about the frustration of having our playoffs cut short and start thinking about how to get better in 2009. The offseason is upon us, and it’s time to improve.
The NFL draft is one of the most exciting times of the year, but before we can speculate what the Colts will do in April, it’s important to first turn our attention to free agency. Which players we decide to retain or let go will greatly affect what we do on draft day.
While our list of upcoming free agents is short, it is packed with talent, and Bill Polian and the rest of the staff are going to have some big decisions to make.
Kelvin Hayden, Jeff Saturday, Dominic Rhodes, Tyjuan Hagler, Keiwan Ratliff, Matt Giordano, and Josh Thomas will all be unrestricted free agents, and reserve offensive lineman Dan Federkeil will be a restricted free agent.
As usual, the Colts are strapped for cash, and it will be difficult to retain all of these players. Here’s a look at each free agent and a couple other guys who affect our ability to sign the rest of them.
But first, a disclaimer:
If you are the kind of Colts fan who thinks that in order for this team to win a Super Bowl we need to sign Albert Haynesworth or Brandon Jacobs, please stop reading this article and move on. You obviously have not been paying attention to the Colts this past decade, and you do not understand the team’s philosophy of building through the draft.
All 22 starters on this team are home-grown players. The team admitted that they made a mistake signing Corey Simon and this will never happen again. No big-name free agent will become a Colt this year, none of them need to be, and that’s okay and please understand this.
Now moving on…
Manning’s cap number is $21.2 million in 2009. That is more than 17 percent of the team’s salary. Manning is a true competitor who wants nothing more than to win, so if he doesn’t take a pay cut, he would be very hypocritical.
My guess is that he will, since he has done it in past seasons. The Colts are already $2 million over the cap, so a lot of money needs to be freed up in order to sign draft picks and bring back some of our own guys.
As hard as it is to admit, we will never again see the Marvin Harrison from years ago, who was one of the most dominant receivers the league’s ever seen. Recently, NFL Network re-aired the 2003 Monday Night Football game when the Colts came back from a 35-14 deficit with four minutes left in regulation to win it in overtime.
I was amazed at how incredible Harrison was, and I realized that he just isn’t nearly the player he once was. He’ll get three or four catches a game, but his deep-threat ability is gone.
That being said, I am not calling for his release. I would love to see him stay. But not for $13.4 million. If he cannot restructure his contract, then he has to go. We keep drafting these young, high-potential wide receivers like Roy Hall and Pierre Garcon, but we haven’t gotten to see what they can do yet.
A lot of people assumed that Anthony Gonzalez would be a great slot receiver for the Colts, but he’s actually a lot more comfortable on the outside. For three-wide-receiver sets, the Colts usually put Wayne in the slot and put Gonzo on the outside.
Gonzalez is becoming a very valuable weapon, and if you throw Dallas Clark into the mix, then Harrison can sometimes be Manning’s fourth option, and you can’t pay a fourth receiver $13 million.
For how mediocre Harrison has played, there’s no reason to think that Hall or Garcon or a mid-round draft pick couldn’t match his production. Therefore, if we did cut Harrison, the drop off wouldn’t necessarily be all that bad.
We’d also save $7 million (unfortunately, the rest of it is dead weight loss), so this might be enough to justify cutting one of the greatest receivers of all time.
For years the Colts have plugged in one mediocre cornerback after another and it's been great to finally have a nice starting tandem with Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson. Hayden seems to be getting better and better and in my opinion he should be locked up long term.
It takes corners a couple years to develop in our system, and I would hate to see us take a step backwards and throw young talent out there again.
At the same time, one could argue that things wouldn't be all that bad without Hayden in the mix. Jackson will be back to full health and Tim Jennings and Keiwan Ratliff have really turned into reliable players.
Dante Hughes has a lot of promise and Michael Coe and T.J. Rushing are both young players on injured reserve who should be able to contribute next season.
If the coaches feel that these players can get the job done, they may let Hayden walk. Recently though, I have definitely gotten the feeling that Hayden will be back with the club next year.
In an interview after the Chargers loss, he talked about how he’s ready to come out next year and try to win another Super Bowl, and Bill Polian said in his weekly segment on Colts.com that Hayden is “a free agent who we will very likely re-sign.” Therefore, it definitely seems that Kelvin will be back again.
Jeff Saturday will also present the staff with a big decision. Certainly a fan favorite and an elite player in this league, his value to the team cannot be understated. This was seen first hand when seventh-round pick Jamey Richard was thrown into the fire at the beginning of the season and the drop off was very evident.
At the same time, all of our young lineman started to show some promise as the season went on, and they should be expected to play at a fairly high level next year.
While it's always hard to say goodbye to a great player who is an integral part of your team, the team moved on after losing players like Edgerrin James, Marcus Pollard, and Cato June, and they have never looked back.
As hard as it is to do, you have to take emotions out of the equation and just do what’s best for the football team. This decision will be one to watch, and it's very hard to say right now what Polian and his great staff are going to do.
Dominic Rhodes is another player that has found his way into the hearts of Colts fans and was welcomed back with open arms after a disappointing one-year stint in Oakland. He had a really good year and offered some fresh legs and a nice burst off the bench.
His return to the team depends on how much money he is asking for. He got his big contract with the Raiders and had no success there, then came back to us for the veteran minimum and became an essential part of this team.
With the incredible success of young running backs this year, it's hard to imagine the market will be too strong for an aging change-of-pace back. If winning a Super Bowl is more important than making money, he should want to come back.
At the same time, the Colts may decide they don't even want him back, with two promising running backs on the roster in Mike Hart and Chad Simpson.
Also, after the success of players like Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, Steve Slaton, Maurice Jones-Drew, Leon Washington, and others in recent seasons, it may be worth it to spend a mid-round draft pick on a young running back who can add some explosion to the backfield.
Hagler has battled injuries his whole career in Indianapolis but has played pretty well when he’s gotten the chance. He formed what was in my opinion the best linebacking corps we’ve ever seen in the Polian era. When Gary Brackett went down with an injury, Hagler moved into the starting lineup and did a very nice job.
He makes for a great reserve linebacker behind defensive captain Gary Brackett, emerging star Clint Session, and solid WLB Freddie Keiaho.
Depth becomes so important for a team to succeed, but Hagler may become expendable with some young talent already on the roster.
Last year’s second-round pick Phillip Wheeler is the future of the linebacking position for the Colts, and Buster Davis started games at MLB for the team this year. If Wheeler can play to the level he’s capable of, then there may not be any reason for Hagler to return.
I think this will just come down to how many teams offer him a deal. If no one bites, then maybe he’ll become a Rob Morris for us, returning for the veteran minimum and accepting a special teams role.
If he is offered a contract somewhere else (and most likely he will since even Gilbert Gardner got a contract after a terrible stint with the Colts), then he will move on and should be replaced without too much difficulty.
Ratliff is one of the rare Colts players who have played a snap for another NFL team. Most fans, including myself, saw Ratliff as just a camp body when he was signed last summer.
But in the preseason, he made big play after big play and proved that he deserved a spot on the team. He then showed that he was worthy of this spot by having a very solid season, starting at times and making plays when he needed to. His interception return for a touchdown in Jacksonville is what propelled the Colts into the playoffs.
This one is really a tossup, but I would love to see him stay. The Colts set the record for passing touchdowns given up in a season with only six, and I would like to see us keep the secondary in tact.
It will most likely come down to money, and if some other Cover-Two team thinks he could play a bigger role for them, then he may decide to leave.
Hopefully though, he will accept a minimum contract and come back and be a quality reserve cornerback for the Colts again next season.
I had very high hopes for Giordano coming out of college, and until we drafted Antoine Bethea, I actually thought he may start for us someday. But with the emergence of Melvin Bullitt, there isn’t a dire need to bring him back.
He is a very good special teams player though, and sometimes fans forget how important it is to have these types of guys on your team. Plus, with Bob Sanders constantly getting banged up, if he can return for a small amount of money, it would be a good thing.
But like I’ve said with a few of the players before, if he doesn’t return, the team shouldn’t have much trouble finding a replacement for him, and we have had good success finding safeties as Bethea was a sixth-round pick and Bullitt was undrafted. We can part ways with Giordano without much of a problem.
Thomas is the lone defensive end on the roster who is a decent run-stopper, and for this, he has some value. I love the fact that we have two future Dwight Freeneys on the team in Marcus Howard and Curtis Johnson, but they are pure pass rushers.
Thomas can also play defensive tackle in a pinch, something he did for a few games when we were ridiculously thin at the position.
Most likely he will be on and off the roster again next year, re-signing when we’re in need of some depth but being released when other areas need help.
Federkeil is a restricted free agent, meaning any offer he receives can be matched by the Colts, and he would then stay here.
I am guessing that teams won’t be drooling to get their hands on this guy, and he’ll return as a solid reserve offensive lineman and the next solid Colts player that Bill Polian plucked from Canada (with Mike Vanderjagt, Nick Harper, and Kenton Keith being the others).
Well there you have it. The basic story this year is that we could have potentially two of the best players in franchise history leaving the team. But as I said earlier, emotions can’t get in the way, and both of these players are replaceable.
We have certainly had some tough offseasons where we’ve lost a lot of good players but this year we seem to be in pretty good shape and this team should be ready for anther Super Bowl run in 2009.