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Mike Bluem opens up about the Colts’ approach to the salary cap

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NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One of the largely unknown but crucial members of the Colts’ front office is Mike Bluem, their Director of Football Administration.

Or, as is probably more accurate, he’s their capologist.

Bluem handles the Colts’ salary cap and all that goes with it, so his job is very important. He’s also done a tremendous job at it too, and we’ve tried to give credit to him in the past too. Though some of Ryan Grigson’s free agent moves with the Colts didn’t work out, the contracts were structured in a way that allowed the team to get out of the deals without many serious salary cap implications. If you want a reason why the Colts still will have around $55 million to work with this offseason despite several of those free agent misses, look first to Mike Bluem. While other teams have a lot of dead money and are trying to figure out ways to get under the cap, Bluem has kept the Colts in continually good positions financially.

He recently did an interview with Colts.com in which he talked about his and the Colts’ approach to the salary cap. He explained the difference between a player’s salary and the player’s salary cap number and said that the Colts are trying to keep out of those situations with daed money. He acknowledged that this is his busiest time of the year and that they’re busy with preparations for free agency. He said that under the old CBA the time right before training camp would be busy and there would be all-nighters because of how complex the rookie deals used to be, but the new CBA makes it so much easier.

Bluem also spoke about how the Colts and other teams appropriate a guy’s market value.

“The market’s a funny place,” he said. “It can change on you quickly. What we do is we look at all these players, we see how they fit our team, whether or not we are interested in bringing that player in here. I will talk a lot with the pro scouts and get comps, players that they’re similar to out there. And we’ll study their situations when those players sign their contracts, are they similar to where this player is when we’re getting ready to sign him? And we’ll establish some kind of market for him internally, what we believe his value is for the Colts, and every club does a version of that. But once you get going and negotiating with the agent, it only takes one club to change the market. If someone steps in there and you value a guy about five million a year and another club jumps in there at eight, that’s now his market. And if you want to go chase it you can chase it, if you don’t you back away.”

Bluem, who joined the Colts in 2012, has plenty of experience. He started with the Broncos in their college scouting department but Mike Shannahan came up to him at the Combine one year and asked him about working with the cap. Bluem knew nothing about it but said sure, and then spent the next year learning under Denver’s capologist before taking over the next year. He said that this job takes experience and that he’s always learning something new every day.

That experience surely helped him prepare for the mega-contract for Andrew Luck the team signed the quarterback to last year, and Bluem said it was something they had been planning on for years.

“Absolutely, you have to plan ahead,” he agreed. “You have to always be looking at next year and the year beyond and how each deal that you do is going to affect those years as well. With Andrew’s situation, we started preparing for that contract at least two years, maybe three years prior. We knew it was coming. So we started looking at the picture and trying to get an idea of what to expect and how to manage our salary cap and our budgets accordingly. But not just with Andrew, I mean we also had Anthony Castonzo, T.Y. Hilton, and both our tight ends, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, were coming up around the same time. And so there was a lot of planning going on, and looking in the out years I had a lot of money sitting on the side that I was trying to save for certain situations, so you have to plan. If you don’t plan, the next thing you do is you’re making mistakes and you’re trying to recover from them, and we can’t afford that.”

Bluem, who worked with Ryan Grigson for his first five years in Indianapolis but is now working with Chris Ballard, said that his goal is to make it so that Ballard can focus simply on the on-field impact a player will have without having to worry about how they can make it work with the cap. Bluem wants to work the cap in such a way that Ballard can do what’s best from a football standpoint without being hindered by the financials.

“Yeah, I try to look at it more from what the player’s salary is, how much is he actually going to cost us?” Bluem explained. “What I’ve tried to establish here is keep the cap number in a situation where we’re not making decisions based on the salary cap, we’re making decisions based on is he a football player? Can he help us? And then what’s his real cost? How much cash are we going to have to put into that player to have him here? What I want to do is put Chris in a position where he’s making those decisions and not worrying about, ‘we’ve got to get under the salary cap by the start of the league year.’ There’s several teams out there that are over right now, and they’re making plans, they’re mortgaging contracts, they’re cutting players to get under. I don’t want us to be in that position. I want us to be in a position where Chris is just looking at the roster and saying, ‘this guy can help us, and he’s worth what we’re paying him,’ and then we move forward. Or, if he’s not worth that money anymore, then we go ahead and move on.”

Bluem also explained that part of his job is to establish relationships with agents, so he’s talking with agents on a daily basis. They can’t negotiate contracts for other free agents yet, but he’s in communication with agents on a daily basis to develop those relationships, talk about Colts players who might be represented by those agents, and things like that. At the end of the day, he realizes that while negotiations can feel like a tug of war between the team and the agents, everyone’s simply doing their respective jobs.

“Well, you know, both sides are doing their job,” he said. “Agents are trying to get their players the most amount of money that they can get, and from my vantage point we’re trying to put 53 guys on the field that give us the best chance to win, and it’s a puzzle. And you’ve got to determine how much each guy’s value is and how you fit that inside the salary cap and inside our own internal budgets, and it is a tug of war, and so there’s some competing interest there, but at the end of the day, when you strike a deal with an agent, usually both sides are happy.”

It was a fascinating interview and one that I’m sure fans would find helpful, as Bluem explained some of the basics of the salary cap, such as salary versus cap number as well as cap rollover from year to year (and Bluem also mentioned that the cap will be roughly $170 million this year).

Mike Bluem is terrific at his job, too, and Chris Ballard would be wise to keep him on staff for the long-term. Even while Ryan Grigson was taking criticism, something that most people acknowledged was that the contract structure was very good. Some praised that without even realizing who was the guy in charge of that area, but it’s Mike Bluem. It’s cool to see Colts.com give him some attention and give him the chance to talk about the salary cap and his approach with the Colts.

He’s got the right mindset, as he hopes to let Chris Ballard make football decisions without having to worry about how much the Colts can afford or who they need to cut to get under the salary cap. Bluem works diligently to structure these contracts, and the difference from other teams isn’t so much in his mindset but in his execution. Bluem is a good one, and it’s nice to hear him explain a bit of his approach to the salary cap.

That will be a very relevant discussion to keep in mind in the coming weeks as free agency picks up and salary cap talk is as relevant as ever.