With somewhere between $35-45 million in cap space likely available for the Indianapolis Colts this offseason, the team should be able to sign just about whoever they want this spring. That, of course, is good news for a team that has needs across the board.
Considering that the Colts will only have five picks in the 2014 draft, and two picks in the first 150, the team will have to look to free agency to fill many of those needs. While the draft preparations for Colts fans are a bit disappointing without a first-round pick, the potential free agents have provided some relief.
So, while we know that the Colts will go after multiple free agents in March, what can we realistically expect? What big names aren't just pipe dreams?
Looking at the 2014 roster, it doesn't seem like a starting center is a huge need. Samson Satele, who was signed in 2012 to be a starting center, still has one more year on his contract. Khaled Holmes was drafted in 2013 in the fourth round to contend for a starting spot eventually.
But, any fan who has watched for the last two years knows that Satele is one of the league's worst starting centers, and Holmes played just six offensive snaps this season, per Football Outsiders. With Satele being a perfect candidate to be cut, the Colts desperately need to upgrade.
Alex Mack represents the best option available, a well-rounded center who can both maul in the run game and drop back to pass protect. Mack is Pro Football Focus' best option for a free-agent center by a long shot (Dominic Raiola had a marginally better grade but is also 35) for a reason.
ESPN.com's Pat McManamon (h/t CBSSports.com's Dave Richards) feels it's "only logical that [Mack] will test free agency," and if that happens, he should be one of the Colts' big targets. Of course, there are other options out there, such as New Orleans' Brian de la Puente and Green Bay's Evan Dietrich-Smith, but Mack remains the most "sure" thing.
My personal favorite potential free agent, Jairus Byrd is one of the best coverage safeties not named Earl Thomas. Byrd's ability to drop back and play center field is one that the Colts haven't had in years. Antoine Bethea played that role with some success when Bob Sanders was healthy but hasn't been able to do so successfully for a few years.
The combination of Byrd and Landry could bring back flashbacks of the Bethea/Sanders days if Landry bounces back in 2014. Byrd has seemingly unlimited range across the back end of the field, which would allow Landry to play a more natural role near the line of scrimmage.
Of course, all of this is dependent on Byrd getting out of Buffalo. According to GM Doug Whaley (per Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com), Byrd is still part of the Bills' plans this offseason, and the club will offer him a long-term deal.
But, the two sides couldn't come to an agreement on a new deal last summer, and things got to the point where Byrd was reportedly requesting a trade, according to Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News. If Byrd tests the free-agent waters, the Colts should at least hear what kind of deal he wants. While having two high-priced safety free-agent signings isn't ideal, an impact safety like Byrd could pay huge dividends.
One of these days, I'll probably have to just put together a comprehensive piece detailing why the Colts should re-sign Vontae Davis. For some reason, some fans are extremely passionate in their desire to not pay the 25-year-old cornerback.
But what it comes down to is this: The Colts need a No. 1 cornerback to group with Greg Toler and Darius Butler. To be honest, the Colts could probably use an upgrade over Toler as well, but at the very least they need a top corner for what they do defensively.
Davis is one free-agent option and probably the best one for two main reasons. First, he's a very good cornerback, and while his mistakes can have big consequences, they don't come very often.
Second, Davis represents continuity, which is huge for the Colts, who have 24 expiring contracts this season. Davis wouldn't have to adjust to Indianapolis, the locker room or the defensive scheme, and it would allow the Colts to focus on adjusting other positions which will certainly need new faces.
While there are other options out there (Alterraun Verner and Captain Munnerlyn come to mind), Davis is the easiest option, even if he will be expensive.
Another area of defensive deficiency for Indianapolis is inside linebacker, where the Colts have been lacking for years. Jerrell Freeman was a great find for Ryan Grigson, and his flexibility allows defensive coordinator Greg Manusky to do a lot of different things with him, but he also has his flaws. Aside from Freeman, the Colts really don't have anybody they trust to start, both from a run- and pass-defense standpoint.
Spikes wouldn't solve the pass-defense problem, and the Colts would still need a nickel linebacker to pair with Freeman, but the 26-year-old linebacker out of New England would certainly be an upgrade in run defense. Spikes is a downhill tackler who attacks the line of scrimmage with a vengeance, the type of player who would mesh well with Freeman's more patient, often lateral, movement.
According to ESPN's Mike Reiss, it would be a "major surprise" if Spikes was back in New England in 2014, opening the gate for other teams. The Colts certainly could be one of those teams, especially if they plan to target other areas in the 2014 draft. At 26, Spikes is a player the Colts could sign to a three- or four-year deal and plan on being around for a while, clearing up the need to draft an inside linebacker.
On the other hand, the Colts may look to bring in a more well-rounded player who they can mold in their own way via one of their early draft picks.
Another potential safety target, T.J. Ward is a very different type of safety from Jairus Byrd. While Byrd is a natural center fielder, a free safety who would allow the Colts to play more consistent single-high coverage looks, Ward is more of a strong safety type, a big hitter who flies around the field.
So why would the Colts go after him after signing LaRon Landry last season? And why would I support the move?
Well, Ward is a much better player than Landry or Bethea and wouldn't leave quite the coverage hole that those two did in 2013. By signing Ward, the Colts would be confirming that they really do want to continue to use a fluid defensive scheme, especially in the backfield. Over the last two years, the Colts have leaned on flexibility and unpredictability in their coverage schemes, attempting to confuse opposing offenses by rarely playing in the same coverage for multiple plays in a row.
Ward would allow them to continue to do that, as he can both step up and play the run as well as drop back into coverage. With Ward, the Colts could try to use the interchangeable safety concept again, only with a better piece. While Landry still isn't the ideal safety to pair him with, Ward would be a big upgrade.
The Browns will certainly try to re-sign Ward, but there have been hints that Ward may become available. Ward has expressed his support for Rob Chudzinski in the past, and his firing may have pushed Ward into looking for a better home. No matter where Ward ends up in 2014, it will be his fourth coach in five years, and he may be looking for more stability than Cleveland seems to offer at this point.