Each season, NFL teams are defined by offseason decisions made by the front office. Sometimes those decisions don't make waves until future seasons, but they always come back to impact the season in some way or another.
For the Indianapolis Colts, much of their 2013 offseason underwhelmed during the season, although the 2012 offseason has proved to be crucial in their current team makeup. Jerrell Freeman, Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, T.Y. Hilton and Cory Redding have all proved to be key cogs for the Colts' future.
So what will those decisions be during the 2014 offseason? What decisions will decide the 2014 season and beyond?
The Colts' only corners under contract for 2014 are Greg Toler and Darius Butler. Clearly, the Colts need a No. 1 corner to add to the group (as well as additional depth).
The first target is Vontae Davis, whom the Colts have to decide whether or not to re-sign as the best non-specialist Colt who will be a free agent.
Davis has been the Colts' best cover corner by a wide margin and has arguably been one of the best cover corners in the league. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Davis as the second-best cornerback in coverage this season, and his shutdown cover skills allowed the Colts to move their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage all season.
Now, Davis isn't perfect. While his coverage is fairly consistent, his ball skills and ability to turn and track the ball in the air are a weakness. Occasionally he'll allow a big play over the top as a result. He also can struggle with smaller receivers running crossing routes (although, to be fair, asking any corner to cover a receiver man-to-man in crossing routes is a difficult task). Davis likely is more in the 10-15 range than a top-five corner.
Don't be fooled by the few touchdowns allowed, however. Davis is a No. 1 corner, one of several who may be available in free agency this offseason. Other options include Alterraun Verner, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Captain Munnerlyn and Sam Shields.
While the Colts don't need to sign multiple big-money corners, they have to sign at least one. Davis will likely be the first target, but the direction the Colts choose to go here will have a long-term impact on the franchise. Each of those corners is in their prime and will command a long, expensive contract.
While offense is the most stable unit for Indianapolis, thanks to quarterback Andrew Luck, there still is plenty of room for improvement.
While fans will look at the offensive line as the weakest unit on the team, the return of left guard Donald Thomas (out for most of the season due to injury) and the development of 2013 third-round pick Hugh Thornton means that the Colts likely won't make many moves that would affect the starting line.
However, the Colts do need to upgrade their skill players, whose inexperience and inconsistency cost the Colts after Reggie Wayne's season-ending knee injury in Week 7. Wayne will be back in 2014, but his effectiveness coming off of injury isn't guaranteed. Outside of Wayne and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, the Colts have no skill player that they can trust to be a long-term answer.
At receiver, Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill and Griff Whalen all have contributed over the last few months, but also have disappeared for long stretches of time. The Colts could keep all three and go into the season with the five receivers currently on contract, but a better solution would be to keep two and sign or draft (preferably draft) a receiver to join Hilton and Wayne as a starter.
Then there is running back, where Vick Ballard and Trent Richardson are the only backs currently on the roster that will likely still be there come September. The Colts need to sign a third back to split the load with those two, as Ballard's play after tearing his ACL is a mystery and Trent Richardson has not been able to produce in the NFL. The Colts could sign a back to a short contract or look to draft one in the later rounds.
Despite the Colts spending $41 million in guaranteed money on the front seven over the past two years, the franchise has plenty of issues that need addressing. That same front seven allowed LeGarrette Blount to rush for 166 yards in the divisional round and got little pass rush from anybody not named Robert Mathis.
So where do the Colts go from here? Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman is a good starter, but can get lost among the offensive line if the defensive line has having a mediocre game. The Colts desperately need a downhill, run-stopping linebacker alongside him, but they also need another linebacker that can play on passing downs.
On the defensive line, it's hard to see the Colts spending much money on a starting lineman with Cory Redding and Ricky Jean Francois' starting jobs being fairly safe. Josh Chapman may get some competition at nose tackle, but the rest of the additions are likely to be depth.
With so much money already locked into the positions, the Colts can't afford any more misses, especially not if they use a high draft pick or an exorbitant amount of money.
While specific positional upgrades, free-agent rumors and draft targets will be the big stories of the offseason, the hidden storyline will be the big contracts that are creeping up, most importantly that of Andrew Luck, something that general manager Ryan Grigson has not lost sight of:
Grigson acknowledges Andrew Luck's extension coming soon, which will impact this offseason's free agent decisions. Irsay always reminds him— Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) January 16, 2014
While Luck's contract won't be officially up until after the 2015 season (and the club has an option for the 2016 season), the team-building has to be done in a way that will be able to sustain Luck's $20-plus million per year contract.
Then, of course, there are the other contracts that will be up after the 2014 season. Key starters like WR Reggie Wayne, LT Anthony Castonzo and ILB Jerrell Freeman will all be free agents and will need re-signing or replacing. Currently, Castonzo and Freeman are getting paid little, and will be much bigger cap hits if they are re-signed.
Everything in the NFL has to be done with the long-term implications in mind. The Colts have one of the league's best cap situations right now, but it won't stay like that for long.
In the end, the biggest decision the Colts have to make going forward isn't one specific decision, but an overall philosophy that must be contemplated throughout the offseason.
The Colts have attempted to build a team that is balanced and relies on a strong running game and run defense. They've talked about it ever since this new era began in Indianapolis:
Pagano: Run/Stop run numbers not there yet. But #Colts will never change that mindset.— George Bremer (@gmbremer) December 31, 2013
The question is, is this the most efficient way to build a team, especially with a quarterback like Andrew Luck? Can the Colts truly attempt to build that kind of team while also taking full advantage of Luck's skills?
If they do choose to continue building a run-first team, they must do a better job. The 2013 Colts were no better than their Manning era counterparts in the trenches, especially on the offensive line. If they choose to build around Luck, rather than the lines, then they have to change the way they bring in new talent.
We'll likely see their true intentions this offseason. If they spend priority money on a cornerback and safety while drafting a receiver high, then maybe the "Run to Win" mentality is more lip service than a true focus.
Either way, the overall philosophy in Indianapolis is going to have an unparalleled impact on their decisions in the 2014 offseason.