The Indianapolis Colts kept some things the same, as they retained head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson, to the shock of everyone. Just because those two will be returning in 2016, however, doesn't mean that it's simply business as normal in Indianapolis.
Since the end of the regular season, eight assistant coaches have been fired by the team (including their defensive coordinator) and another left for a promotion elsewhere. The coaching staff is undergoing massive changes, and we can expect similar to the team's roster. They weren't good enough in 2015, and everyone - from owner Jim Irsay down - knows it. They realize that the team must get better if they hope to reach and win a Super Bowl, much less multiple (like Irsay wants with Andrew Luck). So it's safe to assume that changes will be coming to the roster this offseason as well.
The Colts have some decisions to make on free agents, and we'll be looking at each one of them in-depth over the coming months to determine whether the Colts should bring them back. The Colts also have decisions to make on players who are currently under contract for 2016, however, as the team could free up some significant salary cap space with some moves. Based on Over the Cap's projection, the Colts are expected to have somewhere around $21 million in salary cap space to spend - though that number can increase significantly with some other moves.
Let's take a look at a few notable players who could potentially be cap casualties this offseason. All contract numbers are courtesy of Over the Cap.
Trent Cole, outside linebacker
Potential 2016 cap savings: $6.125 million
The first and most obvious name on the list is outside linebacker Trent Cole, who was very ineffective in 2015 and who has a contract that could save the Colts significant money if they want to get out of it. His cap number in 2016 will be $7.125 million, but the dead cap money is just $1 million - meaning the team could save $6.125 million by cutting him. Cole was signed by the Colts to provide a pass rush, but he was largely invisible in that area. He recorded just three sacks in 14 games played, and all three of them came in a four week span late in the season. He forced two fumbles, broke up three passes, and recorded 32 tackles as well. To be honest, he did get more effective later in the season, but he still wasn't worth the money that the Colts were paying him. The Colts desperately need pass rush help, but paying the 33-year old Cole $7.125 million in 2016 while expecting him to suddenly produce much more than he did last year doesn't seem like a wise move. If there's one cap casualty that we could point to as being obvious, this one is it. That doesn't mean that the Colts will do it, but it means that cutting Cole makes a ton of sense.
Andre Johnson, wide receiver
Potential 2016 cap savings: $5 million
Another name that no one should be surprised to see on this list is wide receiver Andre Johnson. Another veteran who didn't live up to expectations or his contract in 2015, Johnson carries a $7.5 million cap hit in 2016 but just $2.5 million in dead money, meaning the Colts could save $5 million by cutting him. In 2015, Johnson was expected to be a reliable possession receiver but wasn't, catching 41 passes for 507 yards and four touchdowns in 16 games. There were moments in which Johnson was a factor, but too often he was an invisible part of the offense. Johnson will turn 35 before the 2016 season starts, and unless he takes a massive pay-cut, it makes sense to cut him and free up $5 million in cap space to spend elsewhere.
D'Qwell Jackson, inside linebacker
Potential 2016 cap savings: $5.25 million
This one isn't as obvious as the first two were, mainly because it depends on what the Colts plan to do at the position. Inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson currently will have a $5.75 million cap hit in 2016 with just $500,000 in dead money, meaning the team could save $5.25 million in cutting him. That's certainly appealing, as Jackson wasn't very good in 2014 and was solid in 2015. Here's the thing, though: Jackson had a fine 2015 season, as he recorded 150 tackles, three sacks, nine passes defensed, a forced fumble, and an interception returned for a touchdown. He can't cover, but we know that by now and he can help in other ways. That's why I don't consider Jackson to be in the obvious category like Cole and Johnson, as this one depends on what the Colts opt to do at the position. Jerrell Freeman, Jackson's fellow inside linebacker, is set to become a free agent and is a better player at this point than Jackson is, so if the Colts need to free up extra money to keep Freeman, cutting Jackson could make sense. But they'd still have to find someone to replace Jackson, so it doesn't make a ton of sense to simply cut him without knowing whether Freeman was coming back or without having a replacement plan in place.
Erik Walden, outside linebacker
Potential 2016 cap savings: $4 million
Erik Walden probably isn't one of the names that jumps out to you when you think of the worst players on the Colts' defense or the ones who should be cut, and that's because he has done a solid job at what the Colts ask him to do. His name appears on this list, however, because the Colts can save $4 million by cutting him, as he has just $250,000 in dead money. In three seasons with the Colts, Walden has played in 45 games (starting 44) and has recorded 124 tackles, 12 sacks, and three forced fumbles. He's not a star, but he's a reliable guy against the run. In other words, he hasn't been the problem with the Colts' defense, but the team could save a significant amount by cutting him. This is another instance of the Colts needing a replacement plan in place before cutting Walden, as they could do worse. The only reason they'd cut Walden is for the contract, and so the discussion then becomes whether he has played well enough to warrant staying around or not despite the potential savings. This one isn't an easy decision to make, which is why I think the team needs to know how to upgrade the position before parting ways with Walden.
Arthur Jones, defensive lineman
Potential 2016 cap savings: $2.3 million
The unfortunate reality in the NFL is that if you can't stay on the field, you'll likely be replaced. In two seasons with the Colts, Arthur Jones has played in just nine games (12 if you count the playoffs). He was injured early in the 2014 season and missed the bulk of the regular season, and then in 2015 he was injured in preseason and was lost before the regular season even started. For 2016, Jones has a cap hit of $5.6 million and $3.3 million in dead money, meaning the team could save $2.3 million by cutting him. It's not an easy decision, as Jones has the potential to still be an important piece for the Colts if healthy. But the Colts have had to play without him for much of the last two years and have found guys like Kendall Langford, Henry Anderson, David Parry, and some intriguing depth guys to fill in along the defensive line. And then, of course, there's always the chance of the Colts adding another defensive lineman in this year's draft, depending on who's there when they pick. It's a fair question, then, whether it's worth keeping around a guy who has been injured each of the past two years when cutting him could clear up $2.3 million in cap space.
The five players mentioned above seem like the most obvious candidates to potentially be cut for salary cap reasons. Two other names that many have mentioned bear noting here: running back Frank Gore had a good 2015 season and would clear up just $1 million in cap space if the Colts cut him, so that move makes very little sense. There's no point in cutting Gore this offseason after what he did last year and considering his contract. A guy who might very well be cut, however, is outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, though it won't be for cap reasons (which is why he's not on this list). Werner has been a bust since the Colts drafted him in 2013, and there were plenty of signs last year that the Colts have just about given up on him. Cutting him, however, would only clear up $1,481,782 million in cap space, since Werner is still on his rookie deal and isn't set to make much in the first place. I think he's absolutely a guy who could get cut this offseason, but he's not on this list because such a move would be almost solely performance-based instead of contract-based.