One of the more perplexing features of the NFL is the salary cap. On the one hand, it seems straight forward. On the other hand, it can get dicey and confusing. All general managers 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 years the team expects 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, 89 percent rule, and what fans might be able to expect Chris Ballard and Mike Bluem to do in 2019 and beyond.
Evaluating the Colts Top Positional Needs
It is hard to believe how far the Colts have come at positions of need from the end of the 2017 season. Heading into the 2018 NFL Draft, we included pass rush, off-ball linebackers, offensive line, and running backs at the top of the list. While the need for pass rush remains, there is very little need to commit significant resources to adding off-ball linebackers, offensive line, or running backs.
At this point, the Colts defense desperately needs to find help rushing the passer. The unit did a great job stopping the run but the defensive line-secondary symbiosis was off for much of the season and made life particularly difficult against strong offenses and good quarterbacks. As the symbiosis suggests, more help in the secondary, especially in terms of depth is important and the work to add to the interior of the defensive line will never end.
In particular, the safety position could go through considerable turnover if Chris Ballard chooses not to retain his own free agents. On offense, Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton would benefit considerably by adding a couple of legitimate threats at wide receiver through the draft or free agency.
Our list: Pass Rush, Wide Receiver, Secondary, Defensive Line — Depth?
There are an intriguing number of defensive backs about to hit free agency who could provide a spark for the Colts defense. The biggest obstacle might be Ballard’s confidence in some of his own in-house free agents and the continued development of his young players.
Consider that Ballard has spoken highly of Clayton Geathers, Matthias Farley oozes the type of player and locker room presence Ballard covets, and former first round pick Malik Hooker is firmly entrenched as the starting free safety. A player like Landon Collins could certainly be a huge boost for the secondary but I doubt that Collins will reach free agency, as the Giants have already indicated their intention to use the franchise tag if a deal cannot be reached before the deadline.
Also, consider that cornerbacks Kenny Moore and Quincy Wilson earned praise from Ballard and the coaching staff in 2018. Free agent Pierre Desir is another player who seems to offer the kind of “homegrown” background that Ballard wants to reward. Desir is already familiar with Matt Eberflus’ scheme and could be retained for less money than some of the marquee names to hit free agency.
With that said, the Colts have the money to go after any player they covet.
S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix — While Clinton-Dix could certainly be a priority free agent for the Redskins, the team doesn’t have a ton of cap space and has other free agents who may be a high priority. How they plan to approach their quarterback situation with Alex Smith recovering from a gruesome leg injury is a complete unknown and it could alter their approach to the coming off-season.
The upside of adding a player like Clinton-Dix is having a second deep safety in certain packages. A pairing with Hooker would create perhaps the most impressive coverage safety combination in the NFL. Spotrac projects his future contract will average $9.9 million with a total contract value of $49,500,476 over five years.
CB Ronald Darby — The Philadelphia Eagles have worked salary cap magic in the past and they may be able to do so again but they will have to make some difficult decisions to get there. Do they risk placing a franchise tag on Darby after he suffered a season-ending knee injury? How do they approach the rest of their very heavy unrestricted free agent class to keep the team together?
At some point, sacrifices will be made and it is possible that Ronald Darby makes his way to the free agent market solely due to cap restrictions. If he does, he could be a major upgrade for the Colts secondary. Placing him on the outside with Pierre Desir or Quincy Wilson would give Colts pass rushers additional time to get after the quarterback. Even with the injury, Spotrac projects Darby’s contract to cost an average of $13.4 million per season and to total just over $80 million for six seasons.
CB Bashaud Breeland — The Colts brought in Breeland during his most recent stint in free agency. He ended up leaving without a contract and played for the Green Bay Packers this season. They could bring him back or allow him to get back to free agency. If he does get back to free agency, the Colts are in a far superior position than they were previously. He was one of the top free agent corners heading into the 2018 season but had to recover from injury.
Spotrac projects that Breeland will cost an average of $6.9 million per year with a total contract value of just shy of $36 million over 5 years. It will be interesting to see if he can convince teams that he is fully recovered from his previous non-football injury that caused him to fail physical in his last team visits.
Unfortunately, there are not a ton of interior defensive line prospects that are currently set to become unrestricted free agents. Those with the biggest names and who have proven the most are unlikely to make it to free agency. If a marquee free agent like Grady Jarrett did, it is hard to imagine that Chris Ballard would break the bank for him.
DT Darius Philon — At only 25 years old, Philon still has legitimate upside potential. If a move to Matt Eberflus’ system can work some magic, he can continue his upward trajectory. Each season, Philon has managed to take a step forward in at least one area of his development. 2018 saw him take just under 60% of the Chargers’ defensive snaps, put up his highest single season tackle total, tie his single season record for one forced fumble, and come .5 sack shy of matching his mark in 2017 of 4.5 sacks.
There is certainly a chance that the Chargers choose to bring him back to the fold but it is also fair to think that the team could focus significant resources at one major free agent to try to push them deeper into the playoffs while Philip Rivers is still playing. Like the next free agent prospect, Philon could likely be signed to a three-year deal worth $12 million with an average cap hit of around $4 million.
DT Rodney Gunter — Gunter is 27 years old and will hit free agency in March as his rookie contract is coming to an end. It is unlikely that he will top anyone’s free agent want list and rather likely that only Cardinals fans are familiar enough with him to have a strong opinion about what he is worth or what he can bring to a team. That said, at 6’5”, 305 lbs. Gunter tallied 4.5 sacks, 44 tackles, and 2 forced fumbles in only 10 starts in 2018.
Adding Gunter would be similar to signing Denico Autry, in that neither were marquee players on their respective defenses but both had a knack for making the most out of their opportunities. He played on just under 60% of Arizona’s snaps last year and could likely be signed to a three-year contract worth about $12 million. Knowing Ballard, if he signed this contract the guaranteed money would be front loaded with an average cap hit of around $4 million.