A Quick Offseason Guide For The Indianapolis Colts

If you're a casual fan, or heck, even a hardcore fan, the uncertainty of the yet-to-be-negotiated CBA probably has you scratching your head wondering what comes next this time of year, now that the Colts are out of title contention and must wait until September to play another meaningful snap.  There are a lot of things that much happen before the Colts take the field again, though, and of course few if any of those mechanisms will operate with expected functionality until/if the new CBA is negotiated.  We've already laid out some of them, in terms of CBA disputes and owner clashes, but that just covers the first part of our calendar.

I thought we might break down what to expect this offseason, though, if nothing else to give us a calendar or timeline of sorts to operate from, if nothing else to direct conversational priorities when it comes to "well, what next?"

Assuming this offseason has the same purpose as any other offseason, the Colts have a lot of work to do.  They have several players eligible for either unrestricted or restricted free agency, a handful of players with sensitive contract situations, an opportunity to make some moves in free agency (which Bill Polian has hinted at, a rarity for him) without the "Final Eight" restrictions they faced last year and finally the best draft position they've had since 2002, when they took Dallas Clark in the first round.

It's going to be an interesting offseason to say the least, and I have a feeling it will be a bit noisier than your typical one.  After the jump, let's take a look at what the chronology might look like.  Feel free to make any suggested additions or comments, obviously, as I don't consider this anything close to a comprehensive list in this form.  It's just a guide.

1.  The CBA must be re-negotiated.

In my eyes, this has to be the number one priority.  Is it possible for things to happen without a new CBA?  Yes, and they probably will as this drags on.  But a new CBA has to be negotiated and implemented in order for this season to carry on as usual.

As it stands, Polian has already laid out four front office approaches to this offseason:

  1. A CBA is worked out prior to March 4.
  2. A short work stoppage occurs.
  3. A long work stoppage occurs.
  4. Both sides agree to operate under an undefined "set of rules" separate from the CBA.

Those are basically the four options.  Obviously, we'll all be pulling for the first option to be realized.  But option two would see players on strike through the preseason and potentially into the regular season and option three would probably usher in a regular season full of scab players like Shane Falco.  Options two and three would see players locked out of competition for varying amounts of time. Option four, wherein both the NFLPA and owners have some sort of odd mutual understanding, seems to be the least likely scenario.

We'll assume for the remainder of the chronology that option one is realized.  But this has to be realized for a standard offseason, preseason and regular season to take effect.

2.  The Colts must come to terms with Peyton Manning.

Before the Colts can make any sort of financial decisions for the rest of their club, before they can consider their cap situation, they have to figure out how much they're going to pay Manning.  The Colts' star quarterback will undoubtedly, and deservedly, command the largest contract in NFL history.  Now the Colts just have to figure out how that affects 2011 and situates the franchise going forward.

My guess is that Manning receives a heavily back-loaded contract with a hefty signing bonus so that his actual 2011 cap hit is manageable.  The Colts know that, assuming guys like Austin Collie and Dallas Clark can return healthy and they play their cards right in terms of re-signing valuable players and dipping their toes in the free agent pool, they'll have a championship-caliber roster for 2011.  They've already got the core guys, or at least have first dibs at re-negotiating with the ones whose contracts are up.  They just need to sprinkle in some supporting cast on special teams (which, judging from the Colts' history under Polian, is easier said than done) and reinforcements along the offensive and defensive lines and the secondary.  This isn't a complete renovation, it's merely a reinforcement and Manning's 2011 cap hit -- again, assuming there is a salary cap in 2011 -- needs to allow for the Colts to add these players while primed to make a very realistic title run.

This isn't necessarily mortgaging the future for the present, although sometimes I don't think that's the worst idea (I'd rather have a sure bet for a few years followed by a barren stretch than merely a shot every year.)  It's entirely within the realm of possibility that the Colts push Peyton's cap hits back into the latter years of his contract and re-negotiate with him when they begin to hamper the team's ability to operate under the cap.  Hopefully by then, the cap will have gone up enough and the one-up economy of NFL contracts will have provided for some breathing room, allowing someone else to be the NFL's highest-paid player.  A bit of a gamble, sure, but it's probably the smart play for the Colts right now.

3.  The Colts will need to finalize medical assessments of several players.

With Manning's contract done, the Colts will then need to analyze the viability of several players with health concerns, whose abilities to contribute in 2011 are at least somewhat in question.  Specifically, this concerns Collie, Clark, Anthony Gonzalez and, of course, their featured concern: Bob Sanders.

Clark and Gonzalez are pretty much locks to return and return healthy (staying healthy is another regard), but I'd look for both to be cleared for work early in the offseason.  The only reason I even mention Clark is because his surgery was so sensitive and rare that it's at least worth noting; I've heard nothing in the way of either setbacks or successes in regards to his rehab.  Gonzalez gets a mention, of course, because he's hurt so often that team doctors have to at least consider the risk vs reward factor.

Collie and Sanders are the biggest medical question marks, in my opinion.  All signs point to Collie returning, but at the very least, the Colts will have to research options when it comes to keeping Collie concussion-free, specifically in the equipment department.  No technology is going to be able to completely shield Collie from concussions, but surely a helmet change wouldn't hurt and I think Polian is inclined to agree.  Also, since Collie's injury concerns his head and, specifically, his brain, it's a more sensitive issue than most other injury concerns.  Personally, I don't want to see Collie risk anything for the entertainment of Colts fans.  By all accounts, he's a great guy with a young family and it's just not worth it.  Would it hurt the Colts' chances at a Super Bowl run next year?  Certainly.  But no championship banner is worth a guy not being able to remember his kids' birthday parties.  Collie has to do what's best for him, and after consulting with team doctors, I'm sure he'll make that decision.

Sanders, however, is far more likely to raise concerns.  I can't even imagine the red flags that have accrued on his medical record.  Knee, shoulder, left bicep, right bicep...Bob is a walking Operation board game.  There are going to be serious questions about his cost vs productivity.  Sanders is due a $5 million base salary in 2011 that only increases going forward, so if the Colts are going to cut him, this is the perfect juncture to do so, before they incur major cap hits for dumping his salary.  Since it is such an opportunistic time for the Colts to act, Sanders will have to check out as 100 percent ready-to-go and almost mathematically eliminated from sustaining another injury going forward.  His body will pretty much need to be rebuilt in cyborg form.  Does anyone realistically see him surviving this assessment?  Not this writer.  

The best case scenario for the Colts when it comes to Sanders is that they can convince him to re-negotiate his contract to allow for substantially-lower base salary figures accompanied by high-end incentive clauses, i.e. a $2 million base salary escalated to $6 million if Sanders plays 14 games.  This is the feel-good scenario that allows Sanders to remain a Colt and fans to retain patience in Sanders.  Is this realistic, though?  Probably not.  I'd be inclined to say Sanders needs to at least consider any such offer should it come across the table if nothing else because he's cashed so many checks on his way to the training room these last few seasons.  But it's the NFL and the NFL is business, and I wouldn't be surprised in the least if Sanders and his agent scoffed at such an offer and promptly took his talents to someone else's training room on someone else's dime.

As a brief aside, I don't understand the hatred for Sanders, though.  I really don't think he's milking it.  I think he's of a build that's not well-suited to the NFL, I think he's been extremely unfortunate with some of these injuries and, frankly, and I say this without any evidence whatsoever but my common sense, I think he's on or has been on performance-enhancing drugs.  I think the combination of these three things has put Sanders in the position he's in, especially using PEDs to overcompensate for the other two drawbacks.  Again, far be it from me to levy an accusation without evidence, I'm just sharing what I think and what most of you have probably at least thought in passing on a handful of occasions.  It just seems like no one wants to say it.  But I look at his build and some of his injuries (both biceps) and have to think PEDs at least played a role in them.  I realize it's a fairly heavy assumption to draw, but I don't think it's entirely out of the ballpark either.  I think Sanders is trying very hard to stay relevant in the NFL but just can't quite do it.

4.  The Colts will need to make non-free agent roster decisions, i.e. cap casualties.

This goes hand-in-hand with medical decisions.  The Colts will need to decide which players are simply not worth their cap hits anymore.  Two players highly likely to be scrutinized in this regard are Sanders and Ryan Diem.  Diem is due $5.4 million in 2011 and hardly played like a five million dollar tackle this year.  Like Sanders, Diem is at a point where it's advantageous for the team to cut him and avoid heavier base salaries down the road, which immediately opens him up to the possibility of being a cap casualty.

I'm sure some folks will mention Gonzalez here as well, but personally I think that's nuts.  Gonzo is set to make $2.76 million in 2011 and by all accounts could have returned this past year had Polian not made a handful of questionable injury/roster decisions.  I think, for $2.76 million, the guy is at least worth bringing in to camp and seeing what he can still offer this offense.  2010 proved that you can never have enough skill players on offense who know the system.  Some of those stretches that featured Brandon James and Blair White at receiver were absolute nightmares.  Gonzo is at least worth keeping because he knows the system and has good timing with Manning.  If he can make it through camp and preseason without injury, I think he absolutely deserves a chance to play in 2011.  And if he gets injured...so what?  The Colts are out a little under $3 million and he makes their 2011 offseason decision infinitely easier in regards to retaining his services.

5.  The Colts will have to decide which of their free agents to let walk and which to re-sign.

We've already taken a look at this, but the Colts will have to decide who out of their free agent class is worth keeping and who is worth wishing well and allowing to hit the market.  The Colts have 16 players due for new contracts in 2011.  They are:

Obviously, Manning will be re-signed.  We've already covered that base.  But after that, who else will be re-signed?  Again, we've had a look at that question already, but it's also worth noting that Foster and Robinson are restricted free agents, meaning the Colts have the chance to offer them low-end, one-year deals as they did with guys like Bullitt and C.Johnson in 2010.  I would look for the Colts to extend a one-year offer to Foster and neglect to send anything to Robinson but a Christmas card.

At the risk of stating the obvious, any other decisions are going to come down to the Colts' personnel strategy for 2011.  Are they going to significantly improve the offensive line and allow a back like Donald Brown more running room?  Maybe that makes Joseph Addai more expendable.  Are they going to go after special teams aces?  That makes them less likely to re-negotiate with guys like Jamie Silva, Keyunta Dawson and Aaron Francisco.  Are they comfortable with the depth they have at linebacker?  Then Clint Session might be allowed to walk.

Personally, I think that Addai, Bullitt, C. Johnson and A. Johnson have to be re-signed.  I'm taking a "believe it when I see it" approach to the offensive line, which means that Addai will continue to be the best option for this offense without a good run-blocking line.  Bullitt was a special teams captain prior to injury and should more or less be considered a starting safety for this team (any play from Sanders is a luxury.)  C. Johnson is an invaluable plug-in on a beleaguered offensive line that can start at either tackle position or at guard.  And finally, A. Johnson was without a doubt the best Indy defensive tackle last year, despite what Polian might say about Fili Moala.  A. Johnson's re-signing is particularly prioritized by the pending departure of Muir - not that Muir is very good, but the Colts need big bodies at the position and can't afford to have Moala as their lone heavyweight.

After that, it would be nice to have Vinatieri back, but I don't doubt that deal gets done.  And guys like Hagler, Rhodes, Session and Silva are helpful but not necessary.  I wouldn't be surprised to see some of these guys back, but none -- except perhaps Vinatieri -- are as important as the aforementioned players.  I really don't see Session coming back, mostly because the Colts tend to let their weak-side linebackers walk and Session proved himself to replaceable this past season.  I could see him asking for $4-5 million per year, and that's just not something the Colts are going to pay to a player they don't really need.  Kavell Conner proved himself a more-than-adequate replacement.

6.  The Colts need to explore free agent options.

Polian suggested that the front office may take a different approach (read: active interest) in regards to free agency this year.  And really, he has to.  The Colts can't keep relying on the draft to stock their franchise.  One bad draft throws that off.  A few bad choices, as Polian has had in recent years, really throws that off.  I hate to say it, but New England is the model franchise for franchise-building right now.  They consider both the draft and free agency, drafting guys who fit their system and signing free agents who bring a veteran presence and are a known, tested commodity.

Specifically, the Colts will need to utilize free agency to restock special teams.  They need to invest in this side of the ball for a change.  They need to sign some aces, some guys who are specifically hired to cover kicks.  We've seen too many times in recent years what happens when you ignore special teams, and that's not just a product of injury.  The Colts have had relatively healthy years where special teams coverage has been lackluster as well.  Polian tends to at least attempt to address whatever unit he calls out in his postgame for the Colts' last game of the year, and that happened to be special teams this year (though we saw how well poorly he addressed the offensive line after calling them out last year.)  

The Colts should mainly focus on OL, DT and CB/S in free agency this year, hopefully getting guys who can double up as position players and special teamers.  Don't expect any huge splashes, though.  It's possible that they make a big signing, but I think Polian is more likely to make a few smaller signings (like when he signed Brandon Stokley and Montae Reagor in the 2003 offseason) than any major signing.  And that makes sense, because the Colts don't need a superstar.  They need some role players who can perform their roles well.

Here's a look (not even close to comprehensive) at players I think the Colts could at least "look" at in free agency:

The only "big ticket" names on this list are Bushrod, Mankins, Mebane and Landry.  That makes sense, to me, because the Colts' biggest needs are at OL, DT and S.  They don't need a Terrell Owens or DeAngelo Williams, they need help in the trenches and secondary.

At WR, I thought Curtis and Stuckey would be interesting names because both could contribute a lot on special teams.  Curtis was once dominant in Philadelphia with Donovan McNabb and if he could establish any kind of rapport with Manning...well, you could do worse for a WR5.  Stuckey would be a special teams signing.

At OT, there isn't a plethora of available talent.  The best tackles, Doug Free and Tyson Clabo, will almost certainly remain with their teams.  The Saints will probably have to decide between Bushrod and Carl Nicks, and if Nicks wins out, Bushrod could become available.   Brown and Hunter are in the same build, probably more RTs than LTs, but the Colts could use an upgrade at either position (with C. Johnson either flipping to the opposite tackle spot or sliding inside to guard.)  Bottom line: there aren't a lot of amazing names on the market.  These are options, but if the Colts are going to tackle the problem at tackle (see what I did there?), they'll probably have to do so through the draft.

Same story at OG, although Mankins is there with surely substantial contract demands.  I've seen the Colts snipe a certain free agent from New England before, so I wouldn't be shocked if the Colts made a play.  Surprised, yes.  But not shocked.  The Colts could certainly use him.  Yanda is another interesting name; he reminds me a lot of C. Johnson in that he's extremely versatile.  I doubt Baltimore lets him walk, though.  

At DT, Mebane would be a dream signing for the Colts but Seattle probably keeps him under contract.  Pity, too, because he would make an excellent three-technique for the Colts.  Hayden is another interesting name and has had a rollercoaster career as the only semi-competent DT in Carolina.  Watson or Ayodele would more or less just be replacements for Muir, with Ayodele clearly being the better of the two.  Big bodies.

The Colts are at a crossroads at corner: do they want more man covers or do they want to scale back man coverage and incorporate more zone coverage into their scheme?  I don't know, but I just illustrated a few targets in either case.  Marshall is an excellent run defender who has struggled in coverage at times but would make a very good nickel back.  Both Carrs have great speed and would instantly upgrade both special teams and CB depth.  Routt's an interesting story with Nnamdi Asomugha set to become a free agent.  No way he moves if Asomugha leaves Oakland, but if he does, he's a guy whose speed has to at least tempt the Colts.

Finally, at safety, the Colts could make a major signing with Landry that would put them at least three-deep at safety with Bullitt and Bethea.  I like Landry as a box safety for the Colts.  Abdullah and Zbikowski are both young players that would help special teams tremendously.

We'd be lucky to see the Colts sign one of these guys and I realize that.  These are just some names for consideration.  But, counter to Polian's usual plans, he will actually have consider some names this offseason.

7.  The Colts need to nail this draft.

They won't gain much in terms of compensatory draft picks (remember, they cut Ryan Lilja and Raheem Brock so they receive no compensation for their releases, and between Tim Jennings, Marlin Jackson, Hank Baskett, Lance Ball and Matt Giordano, the Colts would be lucky to see two seventh-round compensatory picks.)  But the Colts do have the best draft position they've had since 2002, possessing the 22nd pick of the NFL Draft.

Right now, the Colts, have the following picks:

  • Round 1, pick 22
  • Round 2, pick 21
  • Round 3, pick 23
  • Round 4, pick 22
  • Round 5, pick 21
  • Round 6, pick 23
  • Round 7, pick 22

I can guarantee that this draft order does not stand, though.  Compensatory picks have yet to be factored into any of these rounds, and the Colts still owe Washington a conditional pick for Justin Tryon.  As Tryon played so well and unexpectedly started so many games this year, they could owe the Redskins up to a fifth-round pick.

We'll know more about the Colts' available picks later, but for now, I can just tell you that the Colts have to nail this draft.  No more projects.  No more guys unable to help on special teams.  They need to find players who can play, and play well, off the bat.  If they're not ready to start right away, they need to be ready to make an impact on special teams right away.  This is an important draft, folks.  

For once, the Colts may not be lacking for line prospects at pick 22, both offensively and defensively.  That alone is reason to make that first-round pick count.  It's also possible that the Colts could trade up or down from that pick, depending on how they like (or don't like) this draft's depth.

Now, I've rambled on and on about how the Colts need help on the lines and in the secondary, but my favorite player of this draft - at least for the Colts - is Boise State WR Austin Pettis.  Unfortunately, his draft stock has propelled him to perhaps a mid-second round (and rising) prospect, but I can't remember the last time I've seen a college player who so obviously was meant to be a Colt.  I won't be upset if the Colts don't draft him in lieu of finding line talent, but I'm telling you, that kid would make a very good Indy receiver.

Players who might be available at pick 22 include: USC OT Tyron Smith, Oregon State DT Stephen Paea, Colorado OT Nate Solder, Boston College OT Anthony Castonzo, Mississippi State OT Derek Sherrod, Florida G Mike Pouncey, Wisconsin OT Gabe Carimi, Penn State G Stefen Wisniewski, Illinois DT Corey Liuget, Alabama OL DeMarcus Love and TCU G Marcus Cannon.

We'll break down the draft a little more as it gets closer and the Colts' picks shape up.

8.  The Colts will need to continue unearthing prospects in undrafted free agency.

Nothing new here.  You can fault Polian for a few things, but undrafted free agency is hardly one of them.  Year after year, he unearths undrafted players who end up contributing in a major way.  This year, we saw Blair White, Javarris James, Jeff Linkenbach and Cornelius Brown make some notable contributions for the Colts.  In years past, we've seen Bullitt, Rhodes, Gary Brackett, Jeff Saturday, etc.  

The nice thing about undrafted free agency is that the cream of the UDFA crop will always be interested in Indianapolis.  Why?  Because Indy always gives them a chance to come in, state their claim for a roster spot and contribute when needed during in meaningful games.  Also, the Colts can take a shotgun approach to undrafted free agency.  They don't just have to worry about upgrading their need areas, but can just actively seek out players.  It doesn't matter if they find a WR who can play ball or a TE or a LB, they can just find guys who project to be solid NFL players.

That should about cover the offseason chronology.  If there are any steps I forgot, feel free to chime in.  Otherwise, feel free to comment on what's here.

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