With the offseason just a few weeks around the corner and the Indianapolis Colts blessed with a surplus of cap space once again, fans are looking forward to the 2014 free-agency period as the high point of the offseason. Of course, having just four draft picks plays a part in this, but let's focus on the positives.
The Colts have the resources to give themselves some high-quality help in free agency, and fans and analysts alike will spend much of the next two months picking apart every possible target.
Why not get started early?
With an eye on specific positional needs (focusing on starters), here is an introduction to some of the free agents that will be discussed over the next few months.
Prototype: Decisive, explosive back who can get chunk yardage in both the run and receiving game, possibly a scat-back type.
The Colts need a back that can join Vick Ballard and Trent Richardson in a three-man committee. While a starting-caliber back would be preferable, as post-ACL injury Ballard and Richardson aren't proven, the Colts at the very least need a quick back able to come in and potentially get chunk yardage on the ground as well as through the air.
Ballard and Richardson are both slower backs who will (excuse the use of this phrase) "grind it out." To complete the group, the Colts need a back who can find and excel in space. Donald Brown played the role perfectly, but his future in Indianapolis seems uncertain at best.
Ideal: Joique Bell
While Bell isn't a scat-back, he's reliable in the receiving game and has enough explosion to occasionally rip off a big play (five runs of 15-plus yards in 2013). He had the sixth-highest yards per route run among running backs in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Bell also is adept at making defenders miss, a must behind the Colts' subpar offensive line.
Other Names to Watch: Donald Brown, Rashad Jennings, Ahmad Bradshaw, James Starks, Knowshon Moreno
Prototype: A quick, intelligent run-blocker who can drop back in pass protection adeptly, basically a well-rounded player instead of a one-trick pony.
With the Colts' desire to focus on running the ball, a Jeff Saturday-type player likely wouldn't fit going forward. At the same time, we've seen over the last two years just how much damage a poor pass-protecting center can do. Andrew Luck is incredibly dangerous (and comfortable) when he climbs the pocket and extends the play, but it's hard to do that when the center is getting dominated.
The Colts need an above-average center who can do both at at least an average level. This likely will be a long-term contract, so age is something to watch.
Ideal: Alex Mack
Mack was Pro Football Focus' fifth-best run-blocking center and fifth-best pass-protecting center (subscription required). Talk about consistency. Mack is by far the best center available in free agency and has a good chance of leaving Cleveland, according to Tony Pauline of Draft Insider.
Other Names to Watch: Evan Dietrich-Smith, Brian de la Puente
Prototype: A) Big, downhill tackler who can be a force in the run game and/or B) a nickel linebacker who can cover the middle of the field.
The Colts haven't found a starter alongside Jerrell Freeman and need to address it. The starting linebacker likely needs to be a linebacker with size who won't get lost in run defense (as Freeman and Pat Angerer sometimes did). But the Colts also need better options in coverage.
Outside of Freeman, the linebackers were a huge liability in coverage, a big reason why the Colts were 25th in the league against tight ends and 24th against "other" (slot) receivers this season. Unfortunately, the Colts likely won't be able to get both a run-stopper and a coverage linebacker in one body unless they invest a high draft pick in a linebacker.
Ideal: Daryl Smith
Smith had a fantastic year in Baltimore this past season on passing downs and would be a big help to the Colts' passing defense. Smith broke Ray Lewis' record for pass deflections in a season this year and is also a decent pass-rusher (five sacks in 2013) from the inside linebacker spot.
Smith can be a liability in run defense, but a short-term deal for him would be a very good piece for the Colts defense.
Other names to watch: Karlos Dansby (B, but with good run skills; downside is age and looking for big money), Brandon Spikes (A), Akeem Jordan (A)
Prototype: Physical man-to-man corner who can play both press and off the line, No. 1 corner who doesn't need safety help.
The Colts desperately need a No. 1 corner in their man coverage schemes, and Greg Toler and Darius Butler aren't going to cut it. The Colts like to play a variety of coverages and change their looks around, but their base is man-to-man.
With LaRon Landry on the right side, the Colts need a corner on that side who won't be reliant on the safety to help on every play (or even most plays). Greg Manusky and Chuck Pagano like to be creative with their safeties, which is only possible with a lockdown corner on one side.
Ideal: Vontae Davis
To be honest, the best way to go is to stick with continuity here. Davis has two years and one offseason under Pagano and has made good strides. He still allows a big play every now and then, but was largely up to the challenge while on an island all 2013. He's big, physical and fits the scheme well. Pay him.
Other names to watch: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Alterraun Verner
Prototype: Coverage safety that can drop back into center field and allow LaRon Landry to roam the intermediate realm freely.
Remember Ed Reed in Baltimore for all those years, which allowed guys like Bernard Pollard to be Bernard Pollard in recent years? Landry would be much more effective as a true strong safety, rather than the interchangeable piece he was used as in 2013. Of course, Landry's tackling still needs to improve, but that's a different matter.
The Colts could go with a well-rounded player here and play the safeties as they did in 2013, with no determined strong or free safety, mixing them around. This allows for a bit more flexibility, but also can lead to liabilities in coverage.
Ideal: Jairus Byrd
Byrd is one of the best cover safeties in the league, up there with Earl Thomas and Eric Berry. He likely will get a premium contract, but he's worth the money if used wisely. He has three seasons with at least four interceptions and six passes defensed. Bethea and Landry combined for two picks and 10 PDs this past season.
Possibilities: T.J. Ward, Donte Whitner, Chris Clemons