The last couple of weeks, the Colts have been actively reshaping its coaching staff and signing priority in-house free agents to contract extensions. The 2019 NFL season and free agency period is still six weeks away but lets take another look at the team, projected starters, holes that need filled, and an updated look at expected 2019 cap space remaining.
QB — Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett
The quarterback position is currently all set. Luck proved that he was fully recovered from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. He should continue to improve with more time and experience in Frank Reich’s system and may get some shiny new toys, particularly at wide receiver. Brissett is a quality NFL backup quarterback and may be a better starter than at least a handful of current ones. Does he stay with the team or will Chris Ballard find a suitable trading partner?
Need Level - Low
RB — Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins, Jonathan Williams
This is a young, varied group that will enter 2019 on cheap rookie contracts. Mack had a very productive back half of the season behind a revamped and improved offensive line. Hines saw some of his workload and production wane but it is expected that he will be used as a hybrid option in the backfield, particularly as a pass catcher. While Wilkins fumbled a couple of footballs as a rookie, he also showed the ability to get the most out of small creases. Ballard spoke highly of Jonathan Williams as well, making it seem unlikely that major resources will be devoted to the backfield this off-season.
Need Level - Low
WR — T.Y. Hilton, Deon Cain, Zach Pascal
There is a lot of uncertainty about the future at wide receiver. There are some key free agents that make a lot of sense, including the possible return of Dontrelle Inman who played a key role in the offense late in the 2018 season. Ballard is armed with 9 draft picks, including three in the first two rounds to find another receiving option as well.
Need Level - High
TE — Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron, Mo Alie-Cox
When healthy, the Colts have perhaps the most dominant trio at tight end in the NFL. Unfortunately, Doyle is coming off of an injury plagued season and is hoping to avoid another surgery. Ebron is essentially a big receiver who lines up at tight end but offers little as a blocker. Alie-Cox showed incredible growth in his second season of organized football since his freshman year of high school. This is a talented draft class that could offer a future long-term starter, or Ballard could choose to sign Ryan Hewitt to an extension and give himself more flexibility.
Need Level - Moderate
OL — Anthony Castonzo, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski, Braden Smith, Joe Haeg, Evan Boehm, Le’Raven Clark
It has been quite awhile since the Colts have entered an off-season with every starting spot on the line secured. The projected starting unit allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL in 2018. With his emphasis on bolstering the line and question-marks surrounding Le’Raven Clark’s ability to stick in the NFL, along with Anthony Castonzo nearing the end of his current contract, it wouldn’t be surprising to see additional resources provided to address this position group.
Need Level - Moderate
DL — Denico Autry, Grover Stewart, Tyquan Lewis, Jabaal Sheard, Kemoko Turay, Jihad Ward, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Hassan Ridgeway
This group is undergoing significant change with the transition to Matt Eberflus’ defensive scheme. Free agents Margus Hunt and Al Woods played considerable roles during the 2018 season. Will either be retained? This draft class is touted as a very talented and deep class along the defense line. Chis Ballard has noted that no need is a greater priority for his team than finding multiple highly effective pass rushers. Right now, it arguably doesn’t have anyone who fits that bill.
Need Level - High
LB - Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker Jr, Matthew Adams, Zaire Franklin, Skai Moore
It is incredible how far the Colts have come at the linebacker position in one season. It was arguably the position of greatest need heading into the 2018 off-season. Even in free agency, only veteran Najee Goode was added to the mix. The position was so lacking in known talent that Goode was assumed to be a sure-fire starter. Instead, four Chris Ballard draft picks, three from the 2018 NFL Draft, and a Ballard undrafted free agent composed the entire depth chart and inspired confidence. The unit could improve in pass coverage.
Need Level - Moderate
CB - Kenny Moore, Quincy Wilson, Nate Hairston, Jalen Collins
Kenny Moore and Quincy Wilson will return for their third NFL season in 2019. Both showed signs of improvement in 2018, with Moore separating himself as the best defensive back on the team. Behind them is Nate Hairston, a player who fell entirely out of favor after a promising rookie campaign, and Jalen Collins, a former second round pick who has been unable to follow NFL rules. It is difficult to feel confident entering the season without adding one or two other trusted pieces to this group, including possibly retaining Pierre Desir.
Need Level - High
S - Malik Hooker, George Odum
Two of the three top safeties on the team are set to enter free agency. Malik Hooker didn’t have the impact on the field that fans had hoped in 2018 but he suffered a catastrophic knee injury in the middle of his rookie season, one that is often takes players a full calendar year to recover from and often another season to get back to normal. Still, there isn’t a true box safety on the roster at the moment and Odum showed that he has a lot to learn before the team can feel comfortable trotting him out as a starter every week.
Need Level - High
CURRENT SALARY CAP PROJECTION
In the last week, the Colts have started to address some of their own free agents. Adam Vinatieri signed a one year deal paying him $3,875,000. Mark Glowinski signed for three years and $18 million. While yearly cap hits may vary, we’ll use the average of $6 million to calculate Glowinski’s 2019 cap hit.
After the veteran contracts, the Colts have $106,829,322 in projected cap space and still remain $14 million above the New York Jets.
IN-HOUSE FREE AGENCY PROJECTION
Over the last week, I have broken down expectations for players the Colts may target in free agency. I started by considering the in-house free agents I think Chris Ballard should consider retaining. Still on my wish list is Matthias Farley, Dontrelle Inman, Clayton Geathers, Pierre Desir, Margus Hunt and Luke Rhodes.
Using my projections for each of these in-house free agents, I expect another $16,859,006 will need to be used before the Colts consider outside free agents. This would leave the Colts with $92,981,724 in projected cap space (top 51 contracts). This is still $400k higher than the New York Jets — assuming their current projected cap room.
OUTSIDE FREE AGENTS
While it would be nice to see the Colts snatch up one of the best pass rushers to hit free agency, it seems unlikely that the ones Chris Ballard may covet will even reach free agency. With that in mind, I expect that he will focus draft resources on adding pass rushing talent.
On the other hands, I think wide receiver should be addressed in free agency and in the draft. Deon Cain will be returning from injury and is an intriguing prospect after a strong training camp last year. If the Colts follow my plan to re-sign Dontrelle Inman and add an early draft pick it will help but I think another wise and relatively cost-effective move is to add Tyrell Williams. Williams and Inman have both in Frank Reich’s offensive scheme and both offer size. Williams is a field stretching outside receiver, which is exactly what the Colts need to add. Spotrac projects his average annual cap hit will be $9.6 million.
Similar to pass rush talent, I find it unlikely that Chris Ballard will devote considerable cap resources to outside free agents at the cornerback position. Retaining Pierre Desir leaves the current group strong enough to feel comfortable adding additional talent in the upcoming draft. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if more than one draft pick is devoted to the position.
While I don’t believe it is likely that Chris Ballard will break the bank to land any big fish among the interior defensive linemen who are set to enter free agency, he loves to gives players a chance who may thrive in an increased role and who fit the Colts’ system. The player who pops out to me as being right in line with what Ballard and defensive line coach Mike Phair are looking to do is former sixth round pick Darius Philon.
The Chargers have the resources to keep Philon but every team will be forced to acknowledge that a deep defensive line draft is on deck. The Chargers may be interested in pursing a bigger fish for their major market to push the team over the hump while Phillip Rivers is still playing at a high level. I project that Philon will require a three year contract worth $12 million, a $4 million per year average.
These outside free agent contracts total $13.6 million and drop the projected available salary cap to $80,521,724 (top 51 contracts). These signings would put the Colts at third in the NFL, just $1 million below the Browns (assuming current projected cap space).
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE?
There is certainly no doubt that Chris Ballard has a ton of options and can go big game hunting if he wants but keep in mind that the following Colts are projected to hit free agency in 2020 — LT Anthony Castonzo, DE Jabaal Sheard, TE Eric Ebron, TE Jack Doyle, QB Jacoby Brissett, OL Joe Haeg, P Rigoberto Sanchez, CB Kenny Moore.
For those who are curious as to why Ballard preaches the value of retaining cap flexibility, consider a very rough estimate of what it might cost to retain these players.
- LT Nate Solder signed a contract at 30 years old averaging $15.5 million per year in 2018. We can expect that to be worth a minimum of $16.5 million per year by the time Castonzo signs his contract in 2020.
- DE Vinny Curry signed a contract at 30 years old averaging $7.6 million per year in 2018. We can expect that to be worth a minimum of $8 million per year by the time Sheard signs his contract in 2020.
- TE Trey Burton signed a contract at 27 years old averaging $8 million per year in 2018. We can expect that to be worth a minimum of $8.5 million per year by the time Ebron and/or Doyle signs their contracts in 2020.
- QB A.J. McCarron signed a contract at 28 years old averaging $5 million per year in 2018. We can expect that to be worth a minimum of $5.5 million per year by the time Brissett signs his contract in 2020.
- G Senio Kelemete signed a contract at 28 years old averaging $4 million per year in 2018. We can expect that to be worth a minimum of $4.35 million per year by the time Haeg signs his contract in 2020.
- CB Kenny Moore and P Rigoberto Sanchez will both be restricted free agents. The Colts may be able to offer the low round tender to retain Sanchez at $2.1 million but they will likely be forced to sign Kenny Moore to an extension or risk losing him in free agency.
- CB Aaron Colvin signed a contract at 27 years old averaging $8.5 million per year in 2018. We can expect that to be worth a minimum of $9 million per year by the time Moore signs his contract in 2020.
The Colts are currently projected to have $106,299,054 without any consideration for carryover cap. Our in-house average salary cap projection for 2020 is $30,459,006, which is not included in that number. The rough estimate to re-sign 2020 free agents is $62.45 million. This would leave the Colts with $13,390,048 in projected 2020 cap space, not including carryover of cap growth — which would currently give them the tenth lowest cap space for any NFL team.
Of course, the team is unlikely to retain all of these players but it gives some perspective about how or why Chris Ballard and Mike Bluem are playing the long-game as it relates to team budget.
If you look another year out, the Colts will have the following players hitting free agency in 2021: C Ryan Kelly, WR T.Y. Hilton, DL Denico Autry, CB Quincy Wilson, RB Marlon Mack, DL Grover Stewart, CB Nate Hairston, LB Anthony Walker Jr., DL Al-Quadin Muhammad, S George Odum.