While the Indianapolis Colts have—for the second year in a row—a plethora of cap space, there is something holding them back from going after an inordinate amount of high-quality free agents.
As we've referred to here several times over the last few days, Colts general manager Ryan Grigson recently told reporters that the Colts are looking forward to contracts they will have to sign in 2015 and 2016—contracts that could be quite sizable (per Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star).
Because of those contracts, Grigson and the Colts executives have to be careful about the contracts they sign, and they can't sign free agents to large, long-term contracts.
So what exactly are we talking about when we discuss these future contracts? It's easy to refer to them, but let's nail down exactly what contracts we're referring to.
2015 Big Contracts: Anthony Castonzo, Jerrell Freeman
The two players who will almost surely get semi-large contracts from Indianapolis, or will need significant investment to replace, are left tackle Anthony Castonzo and linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Right now, these two players represent some of the best value on the Colts' roster, and they'll look to cash in with large contracts next year.
Castonzo likely will cost between $7 and $8.5 million per year, and that's if he doesn't have a strong year in 2014. Freeman will probably be looking for around $5 million per year. Both players will want at least four-year contracts as they are young and looking for a long-term contract to get paid.
Of course, if either player has a down year, their price will go down. But no Colts fan is hoping for that, and both players ended 2013 on the upswing.
Other notable free agents in 2015 include Reggie Wayne, Cory Redding, Da'Rick Rogers, Josh McNary and Darius Butler. While Wayne and Redding won't demand long-term contracts, they will either need to be paid moderately sized short contracts, or be replaced. Rogers, McNary and Butler wouldn't demand large contracts right now, but they could have large roles in 2014 that will demand notable contracts or production replacements in 2015.
Right now, the Colts have between $60 and $70 million in cap space for 2015, but that doesn't include the 2014 rookies or the impending free agents. Depending on the state of the contracts that the Colts sign this offseason, they could end up with anywhere between $30 and $40 million in space—for the third year in a row—in 2015.
2016 Big Contracts: Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, T.Y. Hilton
The good news about the 2016 free agents is that the most important one, Andrew Luck, may not actually be a free agent.
Luck's contract includes a club option for 2016, which would allow Luck to play for one more year on his rookie contract. Of course, the Colts won't want to anger the franchise's future, so if Luck is insistent on a long-term contract, there's no doubt that it would happen. Luck will almost certainly receive over $20 million per year—the only unknown is how much over he'll receive.
Fleener, Allen and Hilton's contracts will depend on their performance over the next two seasons, but Hilton will certainly command top dollar, while Fleener and Allen still have some developing to do. Hilton could command $8-10 million per year, while Fleener and Allen could draw over $6 million if they continue to improve.
Other notable free agents in 2016 include Trent Richardson, Robert Mathis, Vick Ballard, Greg Toler, LaVon Brazill and Josh Chapman. Mathis is a huge hole that will need to be filled. Even if the Colts re-sign him to a short contract, it would be a miracle if he produced at a rate anywhere near the level he's been at for the last few seasons.
That kind of production is going to cost to replace.
While the Colts currently have less than $40 million committed to the 2016 cap, that's only for 10 players. The six key players above could cost around $60 million per year to re-sign. While much of that would be back-loaded—and it's no sure thing that all of those players would be re-signed—it is a huge amount of the cap that will need to be dedicated to just a few players.
That's not even beginning to look at the cost to replace the other eleven "uncertain" players.
Keep that in mind when looking at potential contacts and team-building strategies this offseason.
While the Colts have plenty of cap room this year, and likely will again in 2015, the extra wiggle room is going to get significantly smaller in 2016 and beyond. The Colts have to plan for that, and while words don't always match actions, Grigson and the Colts executives know what's coming.