Indianapolis Head Coach Chuck Pagano and General Manager Ryan Grigson have a big 2013 offseason to look forward to.
The Colts enjoyed an unanticipated rebound from their disastrous 2-14 record in 2011, finished 11-5 in 2012 and returned to the NFL playoffs. A major component in that turnaround was the play of the Colts’ 2012 draft picks including quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts' number one overall draft pick.
As part of the amazing 2012 NFL quarterback class, Luck started and played every minute of every game in his rookie season. He will be the cornerstone of this team for as long he stays healthy.
The 2012 Draft was a clear success for the Colts, and the coaches and front office will need to be just as prescient in the 2013 offseason if they want to build on their 2012 success.
The first issue that the Colts must contend with is their own free agents. Nearly a third of the Colts’ current roster—11 unrestricted free agents (UFA) and six restricted free agents (RFA)—could leave if the Colts choose not to re-sign any of their UFAs, to deploy the franchise/transition tags, or to exercise their right of first refusal on the RFAs.
That leaves the 2013 NFL Free Agent market. Colts management deserves a lot of credit for playing the NFL salary cap to their advantage. The Colts were hampered a bit this year by $38 million in “dead” money, most of it going to players who they lost in free agency but to whom they still owed money—$16 million on Peyton Manning and Dallas Clark alone.
With the dead money brought back to life and a $3.5 million carryover, John Clayton of ESPN is reporting that the Colts have a total of $46 million in cap space to spend in the offseason. The carryover money will need to be spent in 2013 on something that does not count toward the 2014 salary cap.
Only Cincinnati, Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Miami will be able to compete with the Colts’ money. Given the Colts’ history of postseason success and the promise of a young quarterback, the Colts should be able to out-recruit these perennial bottom feeders.
The Colts can pursue a continuum of two strategies with their salary cap windfall. They can pay out big money to a handful of established stars, or they can sign a boatload of value-priced veteran leadership.
Somewhere in between the cost of an established star and the price of a late-career veteran are underperforming players who are finishing big money contracts from their high draft status. Their underperformance means they will not command big money this time around, but their unrealized potential means they could be a high value bargain for the right situation.
The Colts’ greatest needs appear to be on both sides of the line, the front five on offense and front seven on defense. But, any team that loses a third of its roster is going to have needs at every position.
So, rather than rehash the Colts’ greatest needs here, I will look at every position, assess any specific needs the Colts may have, provide estimates of what it would cost to upgrade at that position, and suggest some players the Colts could either keep or bring in to meet those specific needs.
As cost estimates, I will use the average cap hit for the five highest paid players at each position. Veteran and underperforming free agents will be below this price with star talent at or slightly higher.
The Colts have a veteran kicking corps and will keep it intact.
Top Five (Punter): $2.9 million
Punter Pat McAfee is an unrestricted free agent for 2013 and kicker Adam Vinatieri has one more year on his contact.
McAfee made $1,308,000 in 2012, not even in the top 10. He was fifth in gross yards per punt (48.2 yards), but 30th in touchback percentage (10.4 percent) and 19th in punts downed inside the 20-yard line (33.8 percent). McAfee has good hands and does a good job holding for Vinatieri.
Its hard to imagine the Indianapolis Colts wanting to spend some of their salary cap windfall bringing in a different free agent. Like most teams, they will invite some undrafted free agents into training camp to push their kicking corps.
This may be a good place for the Colts to use their Franchise or even their Transition tag. Either would cost the Colts just under $3 million, which is just about the size of their salary cap rollover from last season that has to be spent in 2013.
Colts' cost: $3 million
Stanton is an unrestricted free agent playing behind superstar talent, he is surely moving on.
Top Five: $15.2 million
The Indianapolis Colts obviously don't need to go after star talent to sit on the bench behind their franchise player Andrew Luck. But, with Drew Stanton an unrestricted free agent and no prospect of seeing playing time with the Colts, it would be shocking if he didn't go somewhere else where he can compete for a starting job.
This means that the Colts will need a backup quarterback or two. The Colts can find some undrafted rookie talent for training camp, but they really need a veteran QB who doesn't mind carrying the clipboard, can bring veteran leadership to the locker and meeting rooms, and when called upon, have the experience to come in and play well.
In 2012, the Pittsburgh Steelers had two older veterans backing up Ben Rothlisberger. Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch only cost the Steelers about $600,000 each toward their salary cap.
For about the same amount of money, the Colts could probably bring in former quarterback prodigies Matt Leinart or David Carr. Both of these guys came into the league with the same promise as Luck, but for various reasons were never able to obtain and maintain a high level of performance. That experience could be invaluable to a wunderkind quarterback and both of these guys have the experience to step in and play well when called upon.
Colts' cost: $600,000
All purpose backs are a nice weapon to have.
Top Five: $9.4 million
The Indianapolis Colts have unrestricted free agent running back Mewelde Moore on the roster, but they are unlikely to find a reason to bring him back.
The Colts' fifth-round pick, Vick Ballard, had an excellent rookie season and got better as the season went on. He came close to 1,000 total yards from scrimmage despite not playing much in the first five games. His ability to pound the ball between the tackles and to bounce outside may make him a featured back for the Colts.
Donald Brown will count $2,225,000 toward the Colts' salary cap in 2013. Brown was injured much of 2012, but he is a nice compliment to Ballard and, like Ballard, he's already paid for.
NFL teams rarely go with a single, featured back anymore. Running backs have the highest injury rate and shortest careers of any NFL position. In recent years, more and more teams use the "platoon" system of shuffling several running backs into the game, often depending upon the specific game situation. This limits the punishment their most talented backs will take as well as getting players with specific skill sets on the field.
What the Colts could use is a bulldozer fullback or h-back to lead block, catch an occasional pass, and most importantly pick up blitzes and protect the franchise quarterback. Jacob Hester is available, has great hands, and is making only the league minimum after a mid-season trade from San Diego to Denver.
There is also an SUV-load of designated fullbacks entering the draft this year. The Colts could get one of them in the later rounds of the draft.
Another intriguing possibility is an all-purpose back with speed and good hands. The New England Patriots' Danny Woodhead is an unrestricted free agent eating $899,788 in cap room at the end of his rookie contract.
Woodhead boasts a 4.33 seconds in the 40, has over 100 catches and a 4.8 yards-per-carry average. Because the Patriots maximize the use of the platoon method, Woodhead has not put up monster numbers and he should be relatively healthy.
The Colts could probably get him for slightly more than Brown's salary, somewhere around $2.5 million, maybe less. Woodhead is a steal at this price when you consider his big play capability, huge motor and positive attitude.
Colts' cost: $2-3 million
Good hands, huge motor, big heart, Welker is the complete package.
Top Five (WR): $11.4 million
The Indianapolis Colts are set at tight end with rookies Coby Fleener and Duane Allen having fantastic inaugural years. Again, the Colts will bring some low-cost talent to camp and perhaps they can find some depth.
At wide receiver, Donnie Avery is an unrestricted free agent, and if the fans' attitude toward him is any gauge, there is little chance the Colts will even try to resign him.
Austin Collie is a restricted free agent who was injured most of the season, recording only a single catch, a touchdown, all season. Interest in Collie will be low because of the missed season, but there will be some interest because of the skills he demonstrated when Manning was his quarterback. The Colts might resign him, but they won't break the bank for him.
The returning receivers are mostly young with a lot of potential. Reggie Wayne is a consummate veteran who just turned 34. He effectively leads the four now ex-rookies.
If Avery and Collie both move on, the Colts will be left with some talent, but questions about age and experience remain.
Colts receivers were also fourth in the league in dropped passes. Not what you want for your superstar quarterback.
The Colts need an experienced receiver with a reputation for catching anything within the earth's orbit.
Wes Welker had the Patriots' franchise tag last season and made $9.5 million. He had another stellar year and may be available for Top Five money, around $11 million.
Greg Jennings is another consummate professional who continues to produce and has experience with rhythm-type offenses like the Colts run. He'll be available for Top Five money too.
An intriguing possibility is St. Louis' Danny Amendola. He's quick and has great hands, but he was injured most of 2011 and part of 2012 which will bring his price down. He is currently making around $2 million and might be available for a salary closer to Reggie Wayne's $3.5 million.
Colts' cost: $3.5-11 million
Jake Long was the number one overall pick in 2008. He's not done yet, not by a long shot.
Top 5 (C):$4.9 million
Top 5 (G): $7.4 million
Top 5 (T): $11.8 million
The Indianapolis Colts offensive line must improve if the team wants Andrew Luck to live past his 25th birthday. The o-line surrendered the 9th most sacks in the NFL (41) and were second in allowing quarterback "knockdowns" (118).
The rushing attack was 24th in yards per carry (3.8). Right-side rushing was particularly dismal, ranking 31st in power rushing (31 percent) and 25th in rushes of more than 10 yards (11). The left side was markedly better, converting 86 percent of short-yardage situations (3rd) and creating 23 rushes of 10 yards or more (13th).
Offensive lines are a separate unit within the modern NFL offense. O-linemen identify and call their own pass protections and no running play can be successful unless every lineman does his job.
For these reasons, and others, the o-line unit responds more than other football positions to the vagaries of camaraderie, unit cohesion, trust and confidence.
Building an effective offensive line is more than just bringing in some talent. The talent has to find a way to build their team within a team.
The Colts' brain trust should be looking for players that combine talent with teamwork, skill with solidarity. Breaking the bank on one or two high-priced players is not a smart use of the Colts salary cap windfall so expect the coaches and front office to look to pull in some veterans and underachievers and draft a couple hogs.
Right tackles Tony Hills ($540,000) and Winston Justice ($1.5 million) are both unrestricted free agents.
The Colts have two tackles under contract counting heavily against the cap: Anthony Castanzo ($2.18 million) and 2011 second round draft choice, Benjamin Ijalana ($1.1 million). Three other tackles—Bradly Sowell, Lee Ziemba and Justin Anderson—are earning the league minimums in 2013.
Its hard to imagine the Colts keeping Hills or Justice given the money that is already committed to Castanzo and Ijalana, particularly given how the right side performed in 2012.
Former #1 overall pick Jake Long is coming off of his rookie contract and will command a big payday because of his pedigree, which he largely lived up to. If there is one place on the line the Colts might want to spend some big money, it is on the left tackle who protects Andrew Luck's blindside.
If the Colts do pull the trigger on a big o-line deal, it will be for a left tackle.
Starting left guard Jeff Linkenbach made the league minimum last year and is a restricted free agent for 2013. He played well in the banged-up line. Expect the Indianapolis Colts to match any reasonable offer sheet, something in the $2 to $3 million range.
Right guard Mike McGlynn is slated to count $1.25 million against the salary cap.
Guards Seth Olsen and Joe Reitz are restricted free agents earning the league minimum. The Colts may keep them for that same price. Otherwise, they will let them walk.
An intriguing prospect for the Colts at guard is the New York Jets' Brandon Moore. Moore will be 33 years old next season, ancient by NFL standards, but he is still performing as one of the best guards in the league. Moore could cost them $4 to $5 million so expect the Colts to think long and hard on this one.
Center A.Q. Shipley finished the season as the starting center and he is an UFA after earning the league minimum last year. He would be a prime candidate for a new contract except for the fact that 6th year center Samson Satele is counting $3.86 million toward the Colt's salary cap. If he isn't asking too much, the Colts might keep him as insurance.
With Satele taking up a fair amount of cap room, the Colts will spend big on a tackle or guard before going for a center.
Colt's cost: $5-15 million
The man can flat-out clog the middle of the field.
Top 5 (DT): $9.3 million
Top 5 (DE): $16.5 million
The Indianapolis Colts switched to a 3-4 defensive scheme in 2012, a change that pushed all-pro defensive end Dwight Freeney into an outside linebacker. He counted $19 million toward the Colt's cap in 2012, and it is doubtful he will stay with the Colts who will be looking for younger players who like the new defensive scheme.
The three players listed on the Colts' depth chart at nose tackle had a combined 38 tackles and assists and zero sacks. Not much production from one of the key positions in the 3-4 scheme.
Starter Martin Tevaseu is a restricted free agent that the Colts will not make too much effort to keep around.
Nose tackle is one place where the Colts could drop some money and immediately feel the impact.
One excellent interior lineman on the market is the Chicago Bears Henry Melton. He brings the speed and power necessary to dominate and control the center of the line of scrimmage. He made a meager $700,000 last year, but will get Top Five money. The Colts should consider spending whatever it takes to land this inside force of nature.
Cory Redding is set to make $4.3 million next year for the Colts so you can pencil him in at one of the two bookend spots. Jerry Hughes is also earning some big coin, though he spent some time last season as one of the outside linebackers.
Given the cost of stud defensive ends, the highest paid position of any in the league, the Colts may be happy with drafting for this spot or looking for bargain free agents to bring in.
They should not break the bank on this position.
Colt's Cost: $8-10 million
How much does this all-pro have left in the tank? Plenty, I'd bet.
Top 5 (LB): $ 10 million
The Indianapolis Colts' biggest weakness in 2012 was in the front seven. In the Colts' 3-4 scheme that falls mostly on the linebackers. The Colts were 24th in sacks per game (1.9) and 31st in yards per carry allowed (5.2).
Backup middle linebacker Moise Fokou is a restricted free agent who the Colts are unlikely to resign.
Outside Linebacker Robert Mathis led the team in sacks last year (8) and will count over $10 million against the 2013 cap. At 31 years old, he is the unit's veteran leadership.
Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman led the team in tackles (90 solo), but will play in 2013 for the league minimum. This is a breakout year for Freeman after going undrafted and spending three years in the CFL.
Free agents Anthony Spencer and Paul Kruger are the two top-rated linebackers in this free agent class. Both are excellent pass rushers and would fit well in the Colts' 3-4 scheme. Unfortunately, they will command the highest salary at their position, something in the $10 to $15 million dollar range. If the Colts could get either one for $10 million, they should go for it.
There are two veteran free agent linebackers the Colts should size up if they prefer to spend their money elsewhere. Brian Urlacher and Shaun Phillips could be snapped up by a successful team in need of veteran leadership. Urlacher could pair with the rising Freeman in the middle and Phillips could do the same with Mathis to bookend the outsides.
These two future Hall of Famers could give the Colts a few years, help Mathis develop any young talent the Colts bring in, and in the end, leave the Colts better than when they arrived.
The Colts have a couple good linebackers on the 2013 books but should spend big for a couple of free agents to really solidify this important unit.
Colt's cost: $10-20 million
Trufant still has some gas in the tank.
Top 5 (S):$9.5 million
Top 5 (CB): $10.4 million
The defensive backfield was not the Indianapolis Colts' main concern in 2012, ranking in the middle of the league in every passing category like opponent passing yards (19th) and opponent completion percentage (19th). They were 11th in percentage of passing touchdowns (56 percent), which suggests how their opponents preferred to attack. Despite the big plays the secondary gave up in the Wild Card game, they actually ranked 10th in plays of 20-plus yards allowed.
Jerraud Powers (UFA) and Cassius Vaughn (RFA) are the only two defensive backs the Colts could miss next year due to free agency. Powers had a mediocre year and the Colts should let him walk. Vaughn, on the other hand, was third on the team in tackles in 2012 and only earned the league minimum. The Colts will match any reasonable offer sheet that Vaughn brings them.
Starting corner Vontae Davis also had a decent year and will count $1.13 million against the Colts' cap. With Vaughn's emergence and Davis' salary, it is unlikely that the Colts will look for a high priced cornerback to pay.
The Colts corners played well for most of the year and it is hard to see them as a weakness. Vaughn and Davis are both near 6' tall so chasing a taller player just for the height seems like a waste of time and money.
The Colts also return Antoine Bethea and his $5.75 million salary. Bethea was second in tackles (75) and had a couple of sacks. Don't expect the Colts to try to replace him.
At the other safety position, Tom Zbikowski returns from an injury-plagued season and is due $1.1 million from the Colts. If he can stay healthy, the Colts have a good set of safeties.
I know that others are arguing for the Colts to go big and spend their money on DBs, but aside from the big plays they gave up against the Ravens, I thought they had a pretty good season.
If the Colts are going to spend big money on defense, it should be in the front seven that was consistently gashed by their opponent's ground game and who produced minimal pressure on the opposing QB.
If the Colts feel they simply must spend some money on free agent DBs, they should look at wily older vets who can bring some leadership to the defense's back four. Baltimore's Ed Reed or Seattle's Marcus Trufant could fit the bill.
Colt's Cost: $4-5 million