It's not easy to get into salary-cap heaven.
It's not just about cap space. That's not all you need to reach the NFL's financial paradise. Any wannabe Moneyballer can purge a payroll and leave a team with lots of money—but also empty cupboards. And that's hardly a heavenly situation. As for veteran-heavy contenders: it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to keep a Super Bowl roster together for very long.
Salary-cap heaven is a magical place where the franchise quarterback is in his prime and under contract for years to come; the overall roster is young, talented and affordable; and of course there's lots of dough to spend both now and in the future. It's a place where the Super Bowl may be just one superstar away but there's room in the budget for two or three more superstars.
The Colts lead the NFL with $55 million in cap space this season and rank third for 2020 with over $74 million, but financial nirvana isn't just defined by the dollar figures and rankings from OverTheCap (our source for all the cap info in this article). The Colts have space and a playoff-caliber roster and a veteran franchise quarterback—an almost impossible trifecta to pull off in today's NFL.
It's all because of some solid drafts, smart long-range management and a deal that looked risky back when they signed it.
The six-year, $140 million extension Luck signed with the Colts in June 2016 looked exorbitant at the time. And yeah, there were some scary moments in 2017 and 2018, when Luck was rehabbing his bum shoulder by tossing mini footballs in a top-secret skunkworks instead of leading seven-on-seven drills. But Luck is healthy now, and that once-giant contract has entered the Goldilocks Zone: hefty enough to satisfy the player and reasonable enough to allow the Colts to build around him.
Luck is scheduled to earn $21-$22 million in salary and roster bonuses in each of the next three seasons. Compared to Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Carson Wentz—whose recent extensions pushed them well over the $30-million-per-year threshold—that's a bargain.
Because Luck's numbers are now relatively manageable, the Colts were able to sign edge-rusher Justin Houston away from the cap-strapped Chiefs and take a short-term flier on receiver Devin Funchess, and they still have plenty of money to spend over the next few seasons.
You may wonder what good $55 million in 2019 cap space does for a team in late June, when there are no big-time free agents to spend money on. Salary-cap heaven isn't just about signing future free agents. It's also about locking down in-house veterans so the team can build and nurture a playoff nucleus.
Left tackle Anthony Castonzo, tight end Eric Ebron and linebacker Jabaal Sheard are in the final year of their contracts. Castonzo returned from an early-season hamstring injury in 2018 to help anchor an offensive line that allowed a league-low 18 sacks. Ebron, a disappointment in Detroit, finished tied for second in receiving touchdowns (13). Sheard is a solid run defender and decent pass-rusher.
The Colts have the flexibility to extend any or all of their contracts before they hit free agency if they choose, front-loading the deals with 2019 money so they don't have to overextend the deals and cause themselves future headaches. They're also in no risk of landing below the mysterious and almost-illusory salary cap floor: Extensions for players like Castonzo and Ebron can keep them from falling below the league's four-year minimum spending limit without spending money just to spend money.
Also, any 2019 cap space that isn't spent gets rolled over into future years. So when the Colts search for that missing piece in free agency—another receiver for Luck, even more beef for the pass rush or offensive line, or whatever—they can splurge without having to cut anyone to make room.
When young guys like Malik Hooker are ready for their first big payday, the money will be there. It helps that some of the Colts' most important building blocks are years from the bargaining table. Guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard, most notably, are in the second years of their rookie contracts and cannot start extension talks until after the 2020 season.
Even if Luck starts murmuring about an extension next year, the Colts are in a good position to grant him one. It's easier to stretch the budget to bump a quarterback already earmarked for about $21 million per year into Wilson territory than to do what the Eagles just did with Wentz (and what the Cowboys must soon do with Dak Prescott, the Rams with Jared Goff, etc.): blast from a cheap rookie deal straight into the stratosphere. It's also a lot less risky, because the Colts and Luck have already gone through every conceivable growing pain.
No matter how they choose to proceed, the Colts have the resources to get better. And they are already really good.
No one gets a trophy for reaching salary-cap heaven. The Colts' ultimate goal is to be like the Patriots or Eagles, with a Lombardi Trophy (or six) on the shelf and a proven roster under contract that's ready to compete for another one. Delightful as it is, salary-cap heaven is just a stepping stone to the NFL's ultimate reward. But it's also an important stage for a team like the Colts to reach.
Managing a salary cap is not that different than managing your personal finances. You can buy just about anything you like by running up credit cards. But if you aren't careful, you end up eating ramen every night just to make the last 24 payments on those Jet Skis you never use (or, in salary-cap terms, letting young players go to eat dead money for old contracts or pay a fading quarterback).
Even shrewd spenders can end up maxed out and house-poor just trying to hang in the playoff picture. But we're talking about the Colts today, not the Vikings.
If you mind your money well and catch a break or two, you could just find yourself with all of the necessities, a couple of luxuries, minimal debt and a little cash squirreled away for the future. Not only do you feel secure and comfy in the present, but you can dream big and plan bigger.
It's a little slice of heaven. And it's where the Colts find themselves right now.