The Indianapolis Colts entered the new league year with an estimated $41 million in cap space and looking to jump into the free agent market to improve their young, but flawed roster. Heading into the start of free agency, we targeted pass rusher as the No. 1 priority for a Colts team that was allowing its all-time sack leader, Dwight Freeney, to walk away. With pass rushers like Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Connor Barwin, and Paul Kruger hitting the open market, it seemed likely that the Colts would use some of their cap space to find an adequate replacement for Freeney.
That's not what happened.
Instead, Colts general manager Ryan Grigson overpaid on decent, but generally marginal talents such as linebacker Erik Walden, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury, and defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois. The Sidbury and Walden signings were the ones that had more than a few people around the NFL raising their eyebrows. I spoke with one scout for an NFC North team, and he expressed surprise that Walden got the contract the Colts offered him.
The perception around the league is that Grigson overpaid for players that were was no market for.
Giving large signing bonuses to players like Gosder Cherilus and LaRon Landry did make some sense because both men had strong reputations and were, quite honestly, worth the money. If the Colts didn't sign them to those deals, someone else would have. In the case of Ricky Jean-Francois, it was reported that ten other franchises were interested in his services, but were they going to give him a 4-year, $22 million dollar deal?
If so, the conventional wisdom is to just let them.
Jean-Francois has 33 tackles and 3 sacks for his career, and only played 27% of the defensive snaps in San Francisco last year. In the case of Walden, they gave pass rusher money to a guy who isn't a pass rusher. Meanwhile, outstanding rushers like Avril are signing two-year deals worth peanuts with teams like Seattle.
The knock against general manager Ryan Grigson and owner Jim Irsay during this free agent spending spree - and it is a credible knock, regardless of how fans feel - is that they wasted valuable cap space on glorified back-ups. They're paying starter money to back-up talent, hoping that back-up talent develops into starting-caliber. From Mike Tanier at Sports on Earth:
It’s not that the Colts signed bad players (except Walden perhaps), it’s that they overpaid.
And, in typical Jim Irsay Twitter insanity, when rightly called out by fans and media for making these questionable moves, Irsay responded with counter-arguments on Twitter that are easily dismissed and mocked. As fans ranted at the Colts owner for paying too much for players like Walden, Irsay countered by saying people once questioned the acquisitions of Jeff Saturday, Gary Brackett, and Robert Mathis.
Here's Tanier commenting on Irsay's insanity:
Irsay commented on fan disenchantment on Wednesday: "I know sum of u fans want BIG names n neon- Old, hurt or off field question marks/Grigson isn’t GM of year, who won 11 games by being wrong!" It is more accurate to say that most Colts fans want to avoid a scenario in which the team cannot extend Andrew Luck’s contract because too much money is tied up in right tackles and former 49ers bit players. "Once upon a time, players like Saturday, Mathis, Bracket n others walked into Coltsland and there were those who yawned n moaned n yelled ‘WHO!’" added Irsay on Thursday. Well, yes, they were a fifth round pick and two undrafted free agents who cost pennies and were not accompanied by a 27-exclamation mark salute. Of course fans yawned. This is different.
On the one hand, it's not like these new Colts deals will kill Indy's cap in the future. Players like Walden are only counting a reported $3.25 mill against the cap this year. However, Indy has dished out $25.5 Million in bonuses and $21.6 million in salaries for 2013. All that is guaranteed, and counts going forward against the cap. This isn't like signing, say, Corey Simon, and then having to let him go and eat a bunch of dead cap for two or three years.
However, it's a lot of bread dedicated to guys who just aren't as good as their price tag:
Here’s the thing: the Colts could afford to overpay, not just because they are (or were) in great cap shape for 2013, but because there is almost nothing on the books beyond 2014.
That's good to know, but the issue here isn't the Colts financial future in 2014. The whole point of this free agent spending spree was to "Build the Monster" and compete for a championship in 2013. The Colts were 11-5 last year. This year, the expectations are Super Bowl. Anything less will be seen by many as a missed opportunity, and the moves made by Grigson this offseason do not scream "championship."
I know lots of people like to talk about building towards a championship over time. No. This is the NFL, not college basketball. Win now, or go home. The 49ers went from the dung heap in 2010 (6-10) to the NFC Championship Game in 2011 (13-3). We fans can never assume that Andrew Luck will be around for ten or fifteen years. People thought Peyton Manning would play for 18 years in Indianapolis and retire a Colt.
How'd that work out?
Assume nothing. Win now!
What these moves do is take away valuable cash that would help the Colts fill the remaining holes on their roster, such as pass rusher, wide receiver, back-up quarterback, and nose tackle. Quite simply, Grigson did not do enough to address core needs that will help the Colts win now. If you personally think that the 2013 defense will be a-okay with Robert Mathis, Jerry Hughes, and Erik Walden as its primary pass rushers, no medication on god's green earth is going to cure that kind of insanity.
Paul Kuharsky of ESPN estimates that Indianapolis has spent roughly $34.3 mill of its cap space since the start of the free agent signing period. This leaves them with roughly $8 mill in cap, which is enough to sign rookies and small contract veterans in time for free agency.
It looks like the Colts and Ryan Grigson are done spending for a while, and instead of answers we are left with more questions.