For those who have been reeling from the last three weeks without NFL football, things are about to get better. February 19th marked the first day that teams could designate players with the franchise tag, locking them down for the 2019 season. In just a few days, on February 26th, the NFL Combine will get underway in Indianapolis. The Combine ends on March 4th.
Shortly thereafter, the 2019 NFL season will officially begin. March 11th will mark the first day that NFL teams can communicate with free agents and March 13th at 4 PM will mark the beginning of the new league year and open season on all free agents. This means that the next two weeks are likely to be filled with a lot of negotiation, NFL front offices will be working long nights, and franchises will do an incredible amount of heavy lifting toward what their team will look like next season.
The Indianapolis Colts find themselves in perhaps the best spot of any NFL franchise as this activity gets underway. The team is armed with a league leading $107 million in cap space, per Spotrac, and have nine draft picks in April’s draft. If Chris Ballard can be even half as good at finding talent in this group as he was in 2018, bright things are coming in Indianapolis.
What will the team do with all of its cap space, though?
Ballard has made it known that he is open to speaking with marquee free agents and players but that he will stick to the process of determining player values and does not foresee overpaying for a single player, or for a couple of players, in a desperate attempt to outperform realistic expectations in the short-term by sacrificing the team’s outlook for the long-term. While this doesn’t mean that a splash signing is out of the cards, it does mean that a big pocket book will likely not move the needle on Ballard’s philosophy.
The Colts front office has made it clear the team may be a season or so away from having a locker room culture strong enough to take on players who might challenge it. However, talent overcomes a lot of distraction in the same way that wins overcome front office or coaching issues.
Ultimately, the good thing for Indianapolis is that there are some key free agency situations working themselves out in a manner that should benefit the Colts. Consider that Le’Veon Bell will become an unrestricted free agent. This means one of two things for the Colts.
First, Ballard may speak at great length with Bell and reach the conclusion that his addition to the offense in Indianapolis would propel the unit to another level. He may determine that Bell’s position in Pittsburgh was entirely reasonable and that the Colts’ locker room would embrace him as a player it can trust to be there to fight, no matter the circumstances (1-5?). If that is the case, Indianapolis could shock the NFL world by signing one of the best running backs in the NFL and adding him to what would immediately become a stacked unit.
Second, some other team will bust the piggy bank not just in 2019 but likely in the future — leaving the Colts in a superior bargaining position this year and in future years for the services of other free agents.
The same can be said for Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. While he is unlikely to enter free agency, he will end up altering the balance for some team. If he comes to Indianapolis on the cheap, for ridiculously low trade compensation given his ability, the wide receiver “problem” is broadly addressed in one move. If he goes elsewhere, he will increase the financial burden on that team and potentially alter the team’s draft board. Perhaps this aids the Colts when the time comes in April.
Rumors out of New York suggest that Landon Collins believes he will not be signing a franchise tag. He could certainly be taking to Twitter to gain leverage in contract negotiations with the Giants and it is still more likely than note that he will stay in New York but if he hits the market this would be a marquee player at a position of current need, at a very young age, and potentially a nasty combination with Malik Hooker in Matt Eberflus’ defense. If he goes elsewhere, other free agent safeties become second tier and perhaps the Colts can more effectively pursue them.
We discussed at length the Colts salary cap situation, tried to consider the future and likely contract amounts, and how the team may address in-house and external free agents. We determined that the team’s needs were likely pass rush, wide receiver, secondary and defensive line — possibly in that order.
Just this week, rumors have circulated that Preston Smith will likely not be tagged by the Washington Redskins. He was one of three possible players in our list of targets at the position. No matter what happens with the other players, if the Colts have a shot to add a player like Smith — only 26 years old — it could be a nice chance to restore his career in a new role.
While we won’t know for weeks just how teams will approach their pending free agents, and many teams may have already turned their full attention to the NFL Combine, things are shaping up reasonably well for Chris Ballard and the Colts. There will be solid options available at numerous positions of need ranging from franchise level player to meaningful upgrade. Even if Ballard doesn’t sign or trade for the franchise players, the very fact that they exist and will likely receive so much attention can work to Indy’s benefit.