Armed with a league-leading projected $91.8 million of cap space this offseason, the Indianapolis Colts could potentially become major players in free agency—should they so choose.
While general manager Chris Ballard has shown a reluctance to overpay in free agency—refusing to exceed the contract numbers his internal free agency valuation system provides that he and his staff utilize, he still has signed a number of impact free agents to calculated, short-term deals with the Colts.
With the Colts finishing 7-9 last season, no one should expect Ballard to suddenly start becoming a major power broker in free agency, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take a “significant dip or two” in free agency—which is more than fans are usually accustomed to seeing from their generally frugal front office.
So without further ado, here are 10 top free agents for the Colts to consider this offseason:
Amari Cooper, WR, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have $81.0 million in cap space, so the franchise isn’t nearly as cap-strapped as team owner Jerry Jones’ franchise has been in prior years.
However, the Cowboys do have to offer a massive contract to free agent franchise quarterback Dak Prescott here shortly—which should significantly deplete that number.
As the former 4th overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, Cooper is set to become a free agent and has been largely up, but with some downs in Dallas —since being traded from the Oakland Raiders to ‘Jerry’s World’ in 2018.
Some of those ‘downs’ can be attributed to the offensive system, quarterback, and former coaching, as Cooper still finished with 79 receptions for 1,189 receiving yards (15.1 avg. ypr) and 8 touchdown receptions in 2019.
However, he was pulled late in the Cowboys season-ending loss to the Philadelphia Eagles because of “ineffectiveness”.
At a listed 6’1”, 225 pounds, Cooper is the type of big bodied wide receiver that the Colts have coveted to effectively complement the diminutive, yet incredibly dangerous deep threat T.Y. Hilton on the other side.
Cooper has struggled with drops at times throughout his career, but he’s the type of athletic, physical wide receiver who can really do it all—when he has it going right.
He’s a 4x Pro Bowler after all.
Unfortunately, with the Dallas Cowboys having given up a 1st round pick to the Raiders for Cooper—and with a lot of cap space, I can’t actually see them letting him walk.
With a new Dallas Cowboys coaching staff in town; however, it’s possible that they aren’t quite as attached to Cooper as the previous regime. The Cowboys have a number of big named free agents too and may not be able to re-sign all of them—which we’ll get to.
Still, the Colts chances also take a hit since Andrew Luck is no longer the starting quarterback, and wide receivers probably aren’t lining up to either catch passes from Jacoby Brissett or undergo growing pains with a rookie quarterback for a few seasons—which are the two most likely quarterback options for the Colts going forward.
Chris Jones, DL, Kansas City Chiefs
Originally drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, the 6’6”, 310 pound Jones has developed into one of the best interior pass rushing defensive lineman in all of football.
The Chiefs will have $21.2 million of cap space to attempt to re-sign Jones and could also create more space ($14 million) by releasing veteran wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Like Cooper before him, Jones is a bit of a longshot to actually reach free agency because he’s the Chiefs best defensive player—and only 25 years old, has a lot of prime football left.
If nothing else, Jones seems like a safe bet to be franchise tagged by the Chiefs.
Still, Colts general manager Chris Ballard has great familiarity with Jones, having served as the Chiefs’ Director of Football Operations in 2016, and the big man would provide a dynamic defensive tackle in the middle of Indy’s defensive line for the foreseeable future.
Jones had 36 tackles, 9.0 sacks, 14 QB hits, 35 QB hurries, and a forced fumble in 13 games (12 starts) for the Chiefs in 2019—en route to being named to his first Pro Bowl.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription), Jones was their 6th best rated “interior defender” with a +84.9 grade overall—including a +89.5 pass rushing grade (second to only Rams’ 2x NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald) in 2019.
IF Jones would actually hit the free agency market, his signing would be a no brainer, ‘slam dunk’ for the Colts because he’s a great player just entering his prime.
However, like Cooper before him, it’s still pretty unlikely that his departure actually occurs.
Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Having been selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the 6’2”, 246 pound Ngakoue has become one of the better young impact pass rushers in the NFL—and on what has been a fairly stingy Jaguars defense in more recent seasons.
He’s coming off a season for the Jaguars in which he recorded 41.0 tackles, 8.0 sacks, 10 QB hits, 32 QB hurries, 4 forced fumbles, and an interception in 15 starts.
Unlike the others so far mentioned on this list, Ngakoue seems resigned to the fact that he could very well be departing Jacksonville this offseason.
Per Pro Football Focus, Ngakoue was their 44th best “edge defender” with a +72.0 grade overall—featuring a +77.5 pass rushing grade.
Since 2014, he is tied for 4th among NFL defenders in creating the most turnovers caused by pressure (resulting in an interception or fumble recovery).
He was also a Pro Bowler in 2017.
While 3rd-year pro Kemoko Turay is an emerging young pass rusher, the Colts could really use a long-term answer on the other side—as even though veteran Justin Houston was great last season with 11.0 sacks, he turns 31 in a few days and isn’t getting any younger.
The Colts were tied for 15th with 41.0 sacks in 2019, so it’s definitely an area that could be improved upon going forward.
Ngakoue is a proven young impact rusher who knows the AFC South very well and would make quite a bit of sense for Indianapolis.
Brandon Scherff, RG, Washington Redskins
As the 5th overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, Scherff has solidified himself as one of the best starting offensive guards in the entire NFL.
In his 5-year career, he’s made 65 career starts—including 11 starts last season and has become a 3x Pro Bowler with Washington.
Per Pro Football Focus, Scherff was their 9th best rated offensive guard with a +75.0 grade overall in 2019—having only allowed 1 sack and 10 QB pressures—but also committed 9 penalties.
The Redskins have around $44.5 million of cap space and could save $12.5 million more by cutting veteran cornerback Josh Norman.
Still, new head coach Ron Rivera isn’t as attached to Scherff, so it’s possible that the franchise could let him test the market.
While the Colts have one of the best offensive lines in football, general manager Chris Ballard was reportedly very high on Oklahoma OG/OT Cody Ford ahead of last year’s draft—who went in the second round (#38) to the Buffalo Bills just a few picks after Colts cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (#34).
Ballard’s constantly looking to improve in the trenches and last year, starting right guard Mark Glowinski, after a breakout 2018 campaign, was clearly ‘the weak link’ on the Colts offensive line just a year later—having clearly regressed in his play.
The Colts need for an impact offensive lineman could clearly be heightened if veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo—still mulling his football future, elects to retire.
Not because Scherff will be playing left tackle anytime soon, but because the Colts would still have four very good to elite offensive lineman—only with Scherff at starting right guard.
That could help the Colts bring along a rookie left tackle a little easier in 2020 (*if Castonzo retires*), still surrounded by four exceptional to great offensive lineman.
Or, if Castonzo returns, the Colts could still add Scherff and become a true ‘juggernaut’ with a starting 5 “dream team” of an offensive line.
Byron Jones, CB, Dallas Cowboys
Selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 27th overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, Jones has quietly become one of the better starting cornerbacks in the NFL.
He was a 2nd-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowler in 2018—although you may not know it.
The 6’1”, 200 pound cornerback is coming off a 2019 season for the Cowboys in which he recorded 46 tackles, 6 passes defensed, and a forced fumble in 15 games (14 starts).
He was Pro Football Focus’ 18th best rated cornerback in 2019 with a +76.1 grade overall grade—including a +87.4 tackling grade and +74.8 pass coverage grade.
Of course, Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus already knows Jones very well, having previously served as the Cowboys linebackers coach before joining Indianapolis.
It also helps that the system that Jones has played in, recently departed Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s, is essentially the same defensive scheme that Eberflus deploys.
Big name free agents don’t often leave Dallas because team owner Jerry Jones rarely lets them get away, but it’s possible that the Cowboys could elect to keep one of Jones and Cooper at the expense of the other—with starting franchise quarterback Dak Prescott a top free agent priority this offseason.
The Colts could certainly use Jones’ help at cornerback too.
3rd-year pro Kenny Moore has been terrific covering the slot, and rookie Rock Ya-Sin showed some positive signs for encouragement—even if he took some lumps early on.
However, veteran Pierre Desir’s play took a bit of a step back in coverage last year (perhaps battling injury), and 2017 second round pick Quincy Wilson has been underwhelming so far.
If Jones hits free agency, he seems logical for the Colts from a need and fit standpoint.
He can clearly cover and tackle at a high level—musts in the Colts’ Cover 2 defense, and the unit is looking to crack down on its allowed big passing plays from this past season as a whole.
Arik Armstead, DE, San Francisco 49ers
As a former 2015 first round pick of the San Francisco 49ers, the 6’7”, 290 pound Armstead doesn’t get as much attention as some of his bigger named teammates on what’s become one of the best defensive units in all of football.
The 26 year old is fresh off a season for the 49ers in which he recorded 54 tackles, 10.0 sacks, 9 QB hits, 45 QB hurries, and 2 forced fumbles in all 16 starts.
According to Pro Football Focus, Armstead was their 5th best rated “edge defender” with a +89.8 grade overall—featuring a +87.5 run defense grade, but was no slouch getting after the quarterback either—as he registered a +75.6 grade as a pass rusher.
The Colts could use an upgrade along their defensive line—regardless of positions, and Armstead is the type of dynamic defensive lineman who can impact both the running and passing games—lining up on the other side of veteran Justin Houston in the short-term.
Like Preston Smith, the free agent defensive end who the Colts unsuccessfully tried to sign from the Washington Redskins last offseason (instead signing with Green Bay), Armstead is another long-armed, elite athlete at defensive end who Indianapolis could become enamored with early in free agency.
The 49ers are projected to have around $16 million of cap space in 2020 and don’t have a great deal of maneuverability right now for future big signings or re-signings.
That could work to the Colts clear advantage this offseason as it relates to signing Armstead away from the bay.
Dante Fowler, Edge, Los Angeles Rams
The former 3rd overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft obviously already knows the AFC South, having been drafted by and played his first three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The 6’3”, 255 pound pass rushing Fowler had 58 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 3 QB Hits, 49 QB hurries, and 2 forced fumbles last season for the Rams defense in 16 games (14 starts)—albeit as a 3-4 pass rushing outside linebacker.
Per Pro Football Focus, Fowler was their 43rd best rated “edge defender” with a +72.1 grade overall—including a +73.4 pass rushing grade.
The Rams are projected to have around $21.1 million of cap space this offseason, so re-signing Fowler could be a bit of a challenge for them with other team needs.
Still only 25 years old, Fowler would provide the Colts a long-term pass rusher at defensive end (a position he played previously with the Jaguars) on the other side of Turay, big picture.
It would also give the Colts a pass rushing rotation of Houston, Fowler, Turay—with some Banogu sprinkled in, which seems pretty promising for 2020.
Fowler hasn’t quite lived up to the hype, but had 11.5 sacks last season, and with his youth, talent, and draft pedigree, there’s some definite upside still here for the Colts to fully maximize.
Shaquil Barrett, Edge, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The former 2014 undrafted free agent out of Colorado State University had a breakout season in his debut campaign with the Bucs, recording a whopping 19.5 sacks, 58 tackles, 6 forced fumbles, 18 QB hits, 44 QB hurries, and an interception in all 16 starts.
The 6’2”, 250 pound pass rusher had spent his first five seasons with the Denver Broncos, and while he was an effective rotational pass rusher, he became both the NFL Sacks leader and a 2nd-Team All-Pro in 2019 as a full-time starter—having never had more than 5.5 sacks in a single season previously.
Per Pro Football Focus, Barrett was their 31st best “edge defender” with a +76.6 grade overall—featuring a +82.0 pass rushing grade.
While the Buccaneers also have starting quarterback Jameis Winston and wide receiver Chris Godwin as priority free agents, with a projected $91.8 million of cap space, it would be surprising if Tampa Bay didn’t at least franchise tag Barrett this offseason.
That being said, Barrett was one of my potential “sleeper free agents” for the Colts last offseason, and while I thought he could be a double-digit sackmaster as a starter, I’m not sure I saw this type of ridiculous sack production coming either.
Like Ngakoue and Fowler listed ahead of him, Barrett could provide the Colts a long-term impact pass rusher on the other side of Turay, as Houston is getting a bit longer in the tooth and seemingly can’t play forever.
Bud Dupree, Edge, Pittsburgh Steelers
Having been selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, the raw, yet incredibly athletically gifted Dupree finally had a breakout season in 2019.
He had 11.5 sacks, 68 tackles, 8 QB hits, 30 QB hurries, and 4 forced fumbles in all 16 starts for the Steelers in 2019—having never had more than 6.0 sacks in any of each of his four prior seasons.
The 6’4”, 269 pound pass rusher really came into his own last season, and according to Pro Football Focus, Dupree was their 26th best “edge defender” with a +77.7 grade overall—including a +76.3 pass rushing grade.
The Steelers are committed to bringing Dupree back, but with an estimated $1.4M of current cap space, that could be a bit challenging.
Again, like the other young impact pass rushers already on this list, Dupree would provide the Colts another long-term answer to get after the quarterback—while improving what was around a league average pass rushing unit last season.
D.J. Reader, DT, Houston Texans
Originally drafted by the Houston Texans in the 5th round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the 6’3”, 347 pound Reader has quietly become one of the best run stuffing nose tackles in all of football.
He started in 15 games for the Texans defense last season, recording 52 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Per Pro Football Focus, Reader received a +86.7 grade overall, which was the 4th best among all “interior defenders” and included a +83.3 run defense grade (5th best at that position classification).
The Texans and Reader are currently far apart on contract extension talks, and it appears he’ll get to at least test this year’s free agent market.
With Grover Stewart playing some good football this past season as the Colts “nose”, Reader doesn’t fill as great of a need as some of the other players on this list (and may not be a natural scheme fit), but he would still be an upgrade to the Indianapolis defensive line.
The Colts actually had the 7th best rushing defense this past season—allowing 1,567 total rushing yards on 4.1 ypc avg; however, Reader’s addition could potentially elevate their defense to a Top 5 run defense going forward.
He’s simply a difference-maker in the interior—especially against the run.
**Bonus**: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
I know, I know, I know what you’re thinking, why would you sully what was otherwise an informative free agency article on the Colts?
But hear me out.
Hard feelings aside, the 6x Super Bowl Champion, 4x Super Bowl MVP, 3x NFL MVP, 5x All-Pro, and 14x Pro Bowler—even at age 42, would be a significant upgrade at quarterback for the 2020 Indianapolis Colts.
The 20-year veteran may no longer be a Top 5 quarterback at this twilight stage of his Hall of Fame career, but he’s still pretty good—with the ability to at least challenge defenses down the field at times, which is something that can’t be said for the Colts incumbent starter Jacoby Brissett—who is truly reluctant to throw deep.
Brady completed 373 of 613 pass attempts last season (60.8%) for 4,057 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and a passer rating of 88.0—making all 16 starts.
He wasn’t spectacular, but besides veteran wide receiver Julian Edelman, it’s fair to say that he didn’t have the strongest supporting cast offensively to work with either.
Brady has reportedly cleaned out his Gillette Stadium suite and “moved his family to Connecticut”—whatever that means, but it still seems like a longshot that he ever actually leaves the New England Patriots for another NFL franchise.
It seems more like posturing. Perhaps on a new contract. Perhaps to get leverage so that the Patriots add a few playmakers on offense for him this offseason.
The Patriots don’t actually have a long-term successor lined up behind Brady anymore now that the team traded quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers a few seasons ago.
This seems like a situation where Brady, team owner Bob Kraft, and legendary head coach/GM Bill Belichick eventually resolve their differences in the pursuit of at least one more Super Bowl run together.
If there was any suitor that could be a potential fit—purely from a football standpoint, it very well might be the Colts though.
Indianapolis has the need at starting quarterback, they have the cap space, one of the best offensive lines in football, a Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (with the promise of more, maybe free agent veteran A.J. Green in this situation?), and the opportunity for Brady to play half of his games under a roof—which could be beneficial as Brady may have lost some zip on his ‘fastball’ at his advanced football age.
The Colts could also still draft a rookie quarterback early in April and have him develop behind arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time for a season or two—with Brady knowing full well that he is a veteran stopgap (and mentor).
That being said, it seems highly unlikely that Brady would want to damage his long-term New England legacy for only a season or two playing for his once hated rival—and one that ignited the entire “Deflate-Gate” controversy to begin with.
Regardless of bitter feelings, Brady would help the Colts win more football games next season—if in the rare chance, he actually decides to leave New England and alter his legacy.