Many fans and analysts are wondering why the Indianapolis Colts, who started free agency with the most cap space (well over 100M), are not splurging and spending money on big free agents. The Colts have only made one free agent acquisition and that was Devin Funchess, whom they signed to a 1 year, 10M dollar deal that can turn into 13M with incentives. They have re-signed Pierre Desir to a nice deal and tendered a few of their restricted free agents, but the Colts have been one of the quietest teams in free agency, despite their enormous wealth. There is one big reason why they aren’t splurging: they have a lot of big free agents they need to re-sign next year.
As it stands right now, the Colts are looking at these names as free agents next season:
Ryan Kelly (Player Option)
This list doesn’t include all the minor free agents and does not include any potential “surprise” players who might perform well this season. If the Colts were to re-sign Castonzo, Sheard, Ebron, Doyle and Kelly (on his 5th year player option), that alone would equate to somewhere between 46M and 58M dollars in cap space. Those figures are based on their current market value. Throw in quality, mid-tier players like Kenny Moore, Joe Haeg, Hassan Ridgeway, Rigoberto Sanchez and Matthias Farley, and you could be looking at another 15 to 22M. If the Colts like Devin Funchess and he plays well this season, then re-signing him might be another 12M.
In short, the Colts have a lot of their own to take care of next year and that will require a lot of cap space.
If we took the high end figure that was listed, then re-signing those players mentioned might cost the Colts 93M in cap space next year. That’s just 11 players and doesn’t include restricted and exclusive right free agents the Colts decide to tender. The Colts might also have to drop a few bucks on a new backup quarterback if Jacoby Brissett is on a different team next year.
There is a decent chance that Chris Ballard is saving 110M dollars for next year’s Colts free agency group. Ballard has proven that he wants to re-sign his current crop of players instead of branching out into the free agency market. He did it this year with Pierre Desir and tendered several players. He also did something similar last year and two years ago with a few players like Jack Doyle and Adam Vinatieri.
Ballard's model is similar to that of Green Bay’s during the Ted Thompson era, which was to build purely through the draft and use the cap space on their own free agents and to keep a strong core together. This worked as they won a Super Bowl in 2011.
If the Colts were to not sign any more free agents and sign their projected draft class (without any significant trades), they would walk into free agency next season with approximately $165M. If we use the 110M figure that was listed before, then that leaves the Colts with 55M next year and that does not include next year’s draft class. It’s not to say the Colts are tight on cap space, they aren’t by any means, but if they intend to keep their own, then it will cost them a lot of money next year.
If we assume next year’s draft class accounts for 10M in cap hits, and it costs 110M to retain all the high-end and mid-tier free agents on the Colts, then that leaves the Colts with 45M left over for next year. That is a lot of money, but it doesn’t mean they can overpay on players like Trey Flowers and Dee Ford. The value-signing approach that Ballard has done over the past few seasons still needs to be in place as big money that’s wasted could come back to haunt the team in a couple of seasons.
Over the first few days of free agency, we saw a lot of big players get massive deals. By most measures, the biggest free agency signings were overpaid. It doesn’t mean they were bad signings, but the amount of money they received exceeded their market value. If they don’t perform as expected, then those signings aren’t only bad on paper, but they have a stranglehold on a team’s cap situation for years to come. Ndamukong Suh’s deal with the Dolphins is a perfect example, as they are still paying Suh and are still taking in 12M in dead cap hit because of his release.
Free agency is less than a week old, and as the second week approaches, we should see more contracts where the players receive deals more indicative of their market value. I still don’t expect Chris Ballard to start burning through paper, but we should see the Colts make a couple more signings when this “second session” approaches.
The Colts also have TY Hilton as a free agent in 2021, so saving as much money as possible over the next few years is crucial.
This isn’t about defending or bashing Ballard; when you get a patient general manager who is very hesitant to throw big money around in the first place and add in the fact that the Colts have a bunch of big free agents next season, the fact that he has been quiet this offseason shouldn’t be surprising.
The one minor issue that will arise is the 89% threshold that each team must reach when spending money. The rule works that over a 4-year period, a team must spend 89% of their total salary cap. The rule states that from 2017 to 2020, the Colts must spend 89% of their salary cap in cash. The Colts have not reached that point yet, and still have another offseason to reach it. However, if they don’t reach 89%, the penalty isn’t severe as they must distribute the difference (between 89% and whatever they actually spent) amongst their own players and potentially lose a minor draft pick. With the amount of free agents next season, there’s a good chance that the Colts reach 89% in next year’s offseason alone.
When managing a salary cap, a general manager must have a long-term approach. Anyone can sign players in a given season, but poor spending always catches up to you. It’s become obvious that Chris Ballard has a long-term approach to the salary cap and spending money.