In order to realistically evaluate how Chris Ballard and the Indianapolis Colts have navigated the first week of free agency — using the tampering period as a starting point — there has to be a baseline for what fans should expect. Ballard has been straightforward from the beginning. He has outlined what fans should expect, how he plans to build his roster, and what primary factors will influence his decisions.
In my words, this is how fans should expect Chris Ballard to approach free agency:
1) Only players who fit into the team’s long-term vision, on the field and in the locker room, will be seriously pursued.
2) Over time, sensitivity to locker room culture will become less important. This is not because the importance of the culture will grow less important, but because home grown, established players will ensure that big personalities don’t throw the culture off.
3) Ballard will assign a value to a player who he would like to join the Colts and stick to that value. Throwing more money at a player than you feel he deserves sets a bad precedent and will inevitably harm future contract conversations with outside and inside free agents.
4) Draft picks must serve as the foundation for the team. A coaching staff filled with great teachers is prioritized over those who are great personality managers.
5) Free agency is not a one day or one week undertaking but happens 365 days of the year. The front office should always be considering ways to improve and shouldn’t allow one week of free agency to alter their long-term approach to team building.
With this backdrop, it is easier to get some kind of expectation. It is easier to process why recognizable names are heading to other teams. Let’s take a look at some of the names that hit free agency and why they weren’t realistic options for the Colts.
BIG NAMES, BIG DOLLARS, NO THANKS
Safety Landon Collins signed a 6 year, $84M contract. There is no reason to believe that the Colts would or should throw that kind of money around to bring him onto the team.
Edge defender Trey Flowers signed a 5 year, $90M contract. This makes him the fourth highest paid edge defender in the league, behind only Khalil Mack, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Von Miller. He isn’t the fourth best — or close to it.
Linebacker C.J. Mosley signed a 5 year, $85M contract. This gives him the top salary in the league for an inside linebacker and is $3.5 million more, on an average salary basis, than any other player at the position. He received $16M more in guaranteed money than Luke Kuechly in 2015 and three times the guaranteed money that Kwon Alexander received for his new contract in 2019.
Linebacker Anthony Barr signed a 5 year, $67.5M contract. This is the fifth largest contract for an outside linebacker in the NFL.
Edge defender Za’Darius Smith signed a 4 year, $66M contract. He has had one season of strong production and didn’t have a high sack tally. His contract size is bigger than Melvin Ingram’s.
Safety Earl Thomas signed a 4 year, $55M contract. He is 30 years old and plays the same role as Hooker.
Running back Le’Veon Bell signed a 4 year, $52.5M contract. This is $13M per year, which is more than T.Y. Hilton’s average annual salary. This is four times the money allocated to Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins and Jonathan Williams combined.
Safety Tyrann Mathieu signed a 3 year, $42M contract. He received more guaranteed money than Landon Collins and for half the time period. This may very well be the worst contract signed in 2019 free agency.
REASONABLE TARGETS FOR A REASONABLE PRICE
Edge defender Preston Smith signed a 4 year, $52M contract. While $13 million per year may be slightly more than his production warranted, he fit squarely into the type of player the Colts would like to add to the locker room.
It has been reported the Ballard made an effort to sign him and there are no details as to what led to his decision to sign with Green Bay. How much different was the offer? Did he choose the Packers for other reasons — perhaps because they play a 3-4 defense, like the previous team did?
I'm told free agent LB Preston Smith is going to Green Bay on a 4-year deal worth $52M. $16M fully guaranteed at signing. Smith choices came down to the #Colts and the #Packers, per source.— ig: josinaanderson (@JosinaAnderson) March 12, 2019
Wide receiver Tyrell Williams signed a 4 year, $44.3M contract. This isn’t much higher than the contract Ballard ended up offering Devin Funches, at least on an annual basis. Ballard had the money to sign both receivers, if he wanted.
Instead, Ballard signed Funchess — a similar receiver in pretty much every way — to a one-year deal with only $10M in guarantees. Funchess is on a four-year deal with $21M in guarantees.
Wide receiver Adam Humphries signed a 4 year, $36M contract. This is a reasonable price for one of the more underrated slot receivers in the league. Strangely, Humphries agreed to sign with the Tennessee Titans extremely early once the legal tempering period opened. He reportedly did so with an offer from the Patriots on the table.
Cornerback Bryce Callahan signed a 3 year, $21M contract. Perhaps the biggest reason the Colts didn’t have a big interest in Callahan is that he is best suited for the slot position, which is manned rather well by breakout player Kenny Moore. It is certainly reasonable to improve depth, though.
Running back Mark Ingram signed a 3 year, $15M contract. The Colts have a young core in the running back room but Ingram is a proven commodity and would have brought experience to the group.
Cornerback Ronald Darby signed a 1 year, $8.5M contract. He has a medical red flag after tearing his ACL in the middle of the 2018 season and may not have received big offers from anywhere. He re-signed with the Eagles.
Running back Mike Davis signed a 2 year, $6M contract. If Ballard was looking to add a hard-nosed short-yardage back, this is a reasonable price for a player who has some starting experience.
Cornerback Jason Verrett signed a 1 year, $3M contract. Another defensive back for a low price who could have created competition and could be a steal if he can stay healthy. Medical red flags may have eliminated him from the list.
While each of these players signed reasonable deals and could have possibly improved the Colts roster, few would have likely had a major impact on the team. Each of the running backs would have been rotational only and would have taken snaps from younger players on cheaper contracts. Each of the cornerbacks would have been medical question-marks.
One wide receiver is almost a carbon copy of the one Ballard did sign for less, and for a shorter period. The other receiver spends most of his time in the slot, which will be pretty heavily manned by T.Y. Hilton.
It’s hard to get super frustrated that any one of these players didn’t end up in Indianapolis. The one who made the most sense had an offer on the table but chose another team.
Edge defender Shaq Barrett signed a 1 year, $5M contract. Barrett is only 26 years old and could have been more productive if he wasn’t on a team that included Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. This is the kind of bargain signing that Ballard seems likely to make. It is disappointing that Barrett was never linked with Indianapolis.
A team that is in need of pass rushing help and likes to plan for the long-term missed out on a high upside option at a low downside price.
Safety Adrian Amos signed a 4 year, $36M contract. This is a reasonable price in the current market for a young safety with a lot of potential coming off of the best season of his career. He could have paired nicely with Malik Hooker. There is no indication that Ballard ever reached out to him.
Safety HaHa Clinton-Dix signed a 1 year, $3.5M contract. That is a team friendly deal to add an experienced safety who could have paired nicely with Malik Hooker. Did the Colts even make an offer?
Safety/linebacker Deone Bucannon signed a 1 year, $2.5M contract. It is reasonable to wonder how he could have fared in a role similar to the one the Colts asked Clayton Geathers to play.
When all is said and done, few other free agents who have signed contracts that would fit anywhere inside of Ballard’s philosophy. You have to feel pretty good when, given all of the information we know now, the biggest disappointments have been limited to a grand total of five players at three positions.