The Indianapolis Colts entered free agency this year with the largest war chest in the NFL by a sizable margin—well over $100 million. As such, the Colts were mentioned as a potential landing spot for any number of high-end free agents, from edge-rusher Trey Flowers to tailback Le'Veon Bell.
However, the Colts didn't go buck-wild in free agency, instead choosing a more measured, restrained approach. This isn't to say the Colts didn't spend at all—and in plugging two of the team's biggest holes while holding on to well more than $70 million in wiggle room, general manager Chris Ballard has positioned the Colts as one of free agency's biggest winners.
And as a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the AFC.
In an appearance Thursday on The Jeff and Big Joe Show on 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis (h/t 1070 The Fan's Kevin Bowen), Ballard said the Colts didn't intentionally avoid the big names on the open market. It was simply a matter of price vs. payoff:
"We thought there were some good players on the market, and we dabbled in to see if we could get something done. Just couldn't get a price point where we felt comfortable with what the player was going to give us. We started free agency right when the season ended when we signed [Adam Vinatieri] and [Mark] Glowinski and then being able to get [Margus] Hunt done and Pierre [Desir] done and [Clayton] Geathers done. To us, when it's your player and he's played for you and you know exactly what he is, we feel more comfortable paying our own players. Is that to say we don't want to sign a player in free agency? No. But it's got to be at a price point that we think is beneficial for both parties."
That Ballard prioritized re-upping the team's free agents might have been the wisest thing he's done in 2019. It's not that players like Hunt, Desir and Geathers are superstars—or ever will be. But Hunt's five sacks last year were twice as many as his first five seasons combined. Desir was the Colts' best cornerback in last year's run to the playoffs. And Geathers, when healthy, is a capable starter at strong safety.
Preventing more holes from opening on a roster can be just as important as filling the ones that are there.
Ballard did the latter as well.
First, he addressed the need for a wide receiver to complement T.Y. Hilton by agreeing to terms on a one-year, $10 million contract with Devin Funchess. Funchess, who had 44 receptions for 549 yards and four touchdowns in 2018, has never lived up to his status as the 41st overall pick in 2015, but Ballard said he believes Funchess has only scraped the surface of his potential:
"When I was in Kansas City, we really liked him. I thought his third year in the league, he really started making progress, to a point where you thought, man, this guy is really coming on. He's a big man. He's a really good athlete. I almost laughed; everybody says he is slow, I disagree with that assessment. He can bend. He's been inconsistent catching the football. He knows that. And there's things he needs to work on. But he's 24 years old. He's young. He's got upside. We like the kid. We like the work ethic. We did a lot of research on him, and we think we can help him get to where he wants to go, and he can help us get where we want to go."
Funchess isn't ever going to be the No. 1 receiver the Carolina Panthers envisioned when they drafted him. But he did post a respectable 63/840/8 stat line back in 2017. At 6'4" and 236 pounds, he (in theory) provides a big-bodied, physical complement to Hilton's speed. Never mind the single coverage Funchess will see all game long playing opposite the star wideout.
The Colts may not have gone all-in on bolstering the pass rush with a player like Flowers, but the team didn't sit on its hands either. Indianapolis agreed to terms this week on a two-year deal with veteran outside linebacker Justin Houston worth $24 million, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
The 30-year-old Houston, whom the Chiefs released earlier this offseason in a cap-cutting move, is no longer the player who came within half a sack of the single-season record with 22 back in 2014. Houston has missed time each of the past four years and hasn't had a season with double-digit sacks over that span. But Houston hasn't gone screaming off a cliff either—he had nine sacks in 2018 and 9.5 the year before.
Making a switch to a 4-3 base is going to be an adjustment for Houston. But he can play "Sam" linebacker in that base defense and then play rush end in the nickel, which has become the base defense for most NFL teams anyway. Or just play as a full-time end...per Joel Erickson of the Indy Star Houston actually has a fair amount of experience playing with his hand in the dirt.
If Houston can come anywhere close to recapturing past form, then he'll be a steal at $12 million a season. If he can't, then a Colts team with cap space to burn won't have lost anything but money—money it can afford to lose.
Given the short terms of the Funchess and Houston deals and the resources available to the Colts, they're about as low-risk as contracts for proven veterans get.
The receiving corps and pass rush were the two biggest weaknesses on an Indianapolis roster that doesn't have many. Quarterback Andrew Luck is the reigning Comeback Player of the Year. The ground game wasn't great in 2018, but it wasn't terrible. An offensive line anchored by young guard Quenton Nelson ranked inside the top five in both run blocking and pass protection a year ago per Football Outsiders.
Defensively, the Colts appear to have hit the jackpot with linebacker Darius Leonard, who led the NFL in tackles as a rookie. It's a team with quite a few more strengths than weaknesses.
There are still needs to be addressed. That ground game was 20th in the NFL last season. The pass defense ranked 16th. But in addition to four picks inside the top 100 (and three inside the top 60) and nine selections overall in the upcoming draft, the Colts are sitting on $77 million in cap room, per Over the Cap—over $30 million more than the next-closest team.
Whether it's the free agents still on the market or veterans who could be cut between now and training camp, the Colts are uniquely positioned to add just about anyone they want—if the price is right.
It rather appears Ballard knows what he's doing. If he can come close to a repeat of last year's success in the draft, the Colts are going to be a truly formidable team.
The Houston Texans won the AFC South last year, the Tennessee Titans narrowly missed the postseason and have been active in overhauling the roster, and the Jacksonville Jaguars made the biggest splash in the division in free agency by signing quarterback Nick Foles to a four-year, $88 million contract.
But given the totality of both their rosters and the offseason each team has had, it's hard not to view the Colts as the favorites to win the division—and as major players in the conference.
Even if Indianapolis didn't get there the way many expected.