One of the more perplexing features of the NFL is the salary cap. On the one hand, it seems straight forward. You have a salary cap that all teams must fit under. Simple, right?
It gets more complicated in a hurry. After all, teams with very little cap space frequently sign marquee players to high dollar contracts. This is accomplished through bonuses, incentive-laden contract clauses, and back-loading a deal where the bulk of the contract’s value is paid in later years, where the team projects to have more cap space.
This salary cap planning and “manipulation” is what NFL salary “capologists” like Mike Bluem spend their time considering every day. How can we plan for the future in a way that allows Chris Ballard and Jim Irsay to field a team with the most talent in the NFL for the longest period of time? We can’t simply spend all the way up to the salary cap every year, leaving no space available, and hope to keep the nucleus together. Major contracts for our own players will consistently require work as the old ones expire and new deals need to be made.
Keeping in mind the needs for our own players, how much salary cap space do we have to work with to sign free agents and bring in outside talent? How do we work all of this together to make sure we stay above the NFL’s mandated 89 percent rule?
This week, we’ll take a look at these questions and do our best to shed light on the NFL salary cap, the 89 percent rule, and what fans might be able to expect Chris Ballard and Mike Bluem to do in 2019 and beyond.
Tackling In-House Free Agents
The upside for Chris Ballard is that the Colts do not have a high-priced marquee name hitting free agency in 2019. The biggest contract to hit free agency is Ryan Grant, and it is highly unlikely that he has a future in Indianapolis.
Next is kicker Adam Vinatieri. Of the Colts pending free agents, it is unlikely that Vinatieri will require the biggest 2019 contract to stay with the team but we will examine each of the priority free agents and what it might cost to keep them in the fold.
Remember, we are starting with projected cap space of $115,413,981 per Spotrac.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents
The easiest group to tackle for each NFL franchise are exclusive rights free agents. Players who have accumulated less than three years of NFL experience who are set to become free agents can be retained by their current team if that team offers them a contract, almost always the mandatory league minimum contract given the players experience level. There is little room for negotiation and if the player turns down the team’s offer, their only choice is to not play professional football that season. No portion of the contract is guaranteed.
WR Zach Pascal — I would expect that Pascal will be offered a contract valued at approximately $645,000 to bring him back in 2019.
WR Marcus Johnson — I would expect that, if Marcus Johnson is medically cleared, the Colts will bring him back in to compete for a spot on the roster at wide receiver. His contract will be approximately $670,000 in 2019.
It is difficult to say whether the team will bring back QB Brad Kaaya or S Ronald Martin. I could see it going either way. For now, we’ll project $1,315,000 to retain exclusive rights free agents.
Remaining cap: $114,098,981
Restricted Free Agents
Restricted free agents are in a superior bargaining position. The current team has the right to offer a tender. There are three tender levels, first round, second round, and original or low level tenders. Assuming that the salary cap will be $189 million in 2019, here are the possible tender values.
1st Round: $4,425,323
2nd Round: $3,108,072
Original Round: $2,034,006
Restricted free agents can choose to enter discussions with other teams, even after they receive a tender from their current team. If the other team extends an offer that exceeds the tender, the current team has the right to match it. If they do not match the offer, they may get draft pick compensation from the other team.
No matter what round the player was drafted in, a first or second round tender would require a first or second round pick as compensation. An original round or low level tender would require a pick consistent with the round the player was originally drafted, or none at all in the case of a player who went undrafted.
The only restricted free agent who I believe is worthy of a tender is safety Matthias Farley. He is a borderline starting caliber safety, excellent special teams player, and is exactly the kind of player Chris Ballard wants in his locker room.
S - Matthias Farley — Low level tender $2,034,006. This is a contract value that is high enough to likely retain Farley against other interested teams.
As I do not foresee the Colts issuing a tender for any of the other restricted free agents, we will consider projected contracts under unrestricted free agents. All possible restricted free agents will become unrestricted if and when they make it to the start of the new league year without a tender.
Remaining cap: $112,064,975
Unrestricted Free Agents
Where the Colts situation gets a bit dicier is the number of unrestricted free agents who they may have interest in retaining. These players span a wide range of ages and situations but all showed that they had a role to play in helping the 2018 Colts accomplish a great late-season run into the playoffs.
History says that more more players who are set to hit free agency tend to do so than fans would expect. With that in mind, I’m going to list only those players who I feel are very likely to and/or deserving of being retained. Those who are “borderline” or replacement level will not be included in this list and can/should be considered in the broader free agency picture as a non-priority option who may return after the draft or in the case of injury.
K Adam Vinatieri — Although Vinatieri struggled in Kansas City and was partially responsible for the Colts collapse and failure to effectively turn momentum in the Divisional Round of playoffs, there are still only a very small group of kickers in the NFL who are present a better option and even fewer will hit free agency.
The option is likely between retaining the GOAT, bringing in a castoff who failed to stick with their own team, or move on and bring in a rookie. I like the chances that, if Vinatieri returns, he will be retained on a one-year contract that is in line with his last one. Given the increase in cap space, we’ll mark it down as $3,866,000.
WR Dontrelle Inman — The Indianapolis Colts have been desperately seeking a reliable wide receiver to pair with T.Y. Hilton. While Inman isn’t the superstar partner the team is looking for, he was a breath of fresh air in a receiver room that regularly dropped passes and deflected balls into the air for interceptions that played a role in early season losses.
He deserves to be retained and makes perfect sense in Frank Reich’s system. He is a veteran, leads by example on the field and has system knowledge to share with the young prospects Chris Ballard will continue adding to roster.
Comparable contract: Jarius Wright, who signed a three-year contract with the Carolina Panthers in 2018 for a total of $7,500,000 with $2,000,000 guaranteed. His cap hit varied between $1,766,000 and $2,466,000 in his first two seasons. This seems like a reasonable target and we’ll use $2,000,000 as a 2019 cap hit to be “safe.”
S Clayton Geathers — It is hard to predict what the future brings for Clayton Geathers. On the one hand, his injury history can scare away the free agent market. On the other, Geathers has earned considerable praise from Chris Ballard for his toughness and the work he put in to play this year.
Comparable contract: Patrick Chung was 31 years old when he signed a 2-year deal to return to the New England Patriots in 2018. His contract was valued at $7,800,000 with $5,115,000 guaranteed. His average cap hit was $3,900,000. I’m not sure it is fair to say that Geathers has had the career Chung did prior to his contract so we will project a two-year contract offer with an average cap hit of $3,500,000 and $4 million guaranteed.
CB Pierre Desir — Desir has taken full advantage of his time in Indianapolis and has enjoyed the best two-year stretch of at corner in his career. He played a big role in helping to shut down marquee receivers like Deandre Hopkins (twice) and Amari Cooper. He is the best man cover corner on the team and will still only be 29 years old in 2019.
Comparable contract: Nickell Robey-Coleman was 27 years old when he signed a three-year contract with the Los Angeles Rams. His total contract offer was for $15,675,000 with $6,625,000 guaranteed. His average cap hit is $5,225,000. Depending on the market for Desir, a similar contract should keep in him Indianapolis. We will go with a two-year contract averaging $5,500,000 per year against the cap.
G Mark Glowinski — Glowinski is another player who is difficult to accurately predict given that he is a former fourth round pick who was picked up off of waivers from the Seattle Seahawks near the end of the 2017 season. It wasn’t until Matt Slauson and two right tackles went down to injury that Glowsinki ended up getting his opportunity but when he did, he capitalized in a major way.
The upside for the Colts is the Glowinski is only 27 years old, particularly young for a lineman, and could be retained as the final piece of a projected starting unit that led the league in fewest sacks allowed in 2018. What is the price tag for a player like Glowinski?
Comparable contract: Laken Tomlinson was 26 years old when he signed a three year contract with the San Francisco 49ers. His total contract was valued at $16,500,000, including $9,250,000 in guarantees, and averaged a cap hit of $5,500,000. Given that Tomlinson is a former first round pick, we will keep his cap averages consistent for Glowinski.
DL Margus Hunt — Margus Hunt has enjoyed the best two season of his career in Indianapolis. He has the ability to move around the defensive line and has lined up at end and in both one-technique and three-technique roles, depending on the situation. He is 32 years old and not a household name by any stretch but defensive linemen can play a relatively high level into their mid-30s. Hunt doesn’t have a ton of miles on his body given that he didn’t participate in football until he was in college.
Comparable contract: Shamar Stephen signed a one-year contract for $2,100,000 in 2018 with the Seattle Seahawks. He wasn’t as productive as Hunt, particularly as a pass rusher, but is four years younger and bigger name players like Haloti Ngata signed contracts paying $3,000,000 in 2018 so there has to be some room to play. We will meeting in the middle and see Hunt receiving a two-year contract offering average $2,650,000 per year against the cap.
LS Luke Rhodes — The highest paid long snapper in the NFL was given an average of $1,175,000 per year. We will use that number for Rhodes for simplicity.
Fringe unrestricted free agents who could receive a contract offer but may have to wait until after the draft include: Jihad Ward, Mike Mithcell, Matt Slauson, Al Woods, Chester Rogers. For now, we’ll project in-house unrestricted free agent spending at $24,191,000.
Remaining Cap: $87,873,975
While some of these contract numbers will fluctuate and some players will insist on hitting the open market, possibly driving up their values, these projections should give us some idea of what it would take to keep 10 players who will likely have a meaningful role on the 2019 Colts roster. After spending the money on in-house free agents, the Colts would come in as having the second highest cap space available for dabbling in outside free agents — assuming the Jets don’t spend at least $9 million retaining their own in-house free agents.