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Simulated Colts off-season - Building like Ballard

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As the the new league year begins to draw near, I wanted to simulate a realistic offseason for the Colts, with yours truly leading the front office.

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

I wanted to take a breather from scouting college prospects for a minute and do a bit of a thought experiment. The goal is to merge what I’ve seen and liked along with Ballard’s team building ideology to manufacture a realistic off-season plan that would set up the Colts for long term success.

Most writers, analysts, and draft pundits seem to choose a team and have everything go their way. I’ve seen some articles saying the Colts are going to get the likes of Cooper, Ngakoue, Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper or Chris Jones.

I’m actually going to try to do the opposite. All the marquee free agents will be off the table, and in true Ballard fashion, I’ll pursue smaller fish with high upside.

Before we start, Brett graded each position on the roster in terms of star talent and depth. That’s the roster grade I’ll abide by to start with.


Total Cap Space: $91,846,470

Re-sign in house free agents

The most important guy in this list is Anthony Castonzo. Since he was drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft, Castonzo has been the epitome of consistency, availability and production. Castonzo held down the fort while the rest of the OL became a revolving door of lackluster players who destroyed a generational quarterback.

Coming off a contract year and his best season to date, Castonzo could really be looking at a chance to cash out and set up his family for generations. Problem is, the Colts’ left tackle doesn’t know how much more his body can take. His career earnings up to this point (pre-tax) add up to a whopping $59,251,096. So if he were to call it quits, his family would be well taken care of.

Football is a taxing sport and I think that we may begin to see a new trend of well-off players begin to retire earlier, prioritizing their physical and mental health.

Still, I think the salary for an elite left tackle entices Castonzo too much. So much that he signs a market-setting 2-year $33,000,000 ($16,500,000 a year) with $25,000,000 fully guaranteed. The contract would be front loaded, with the first year being fully guaranteed and the second year being more incentive based. This way, if Castonzo called it quits after the first season the Colts wouldn’t take a huge cap hit.

Other players that get re-signed: Joe Haeg, Josh Andrews, Le’Raven Clark, Marcus Johnson, Daurice Fountain, Skai Moore.

Finally, before the start of free agency, “Ballard” decides to cut Margus Hunt (Pre-June 1st cut), an under-performing veteran, to free up $4,000,000 in cap space and Brian Hoyer (Pre-June 1st cut) to free up $3,000,000 in cap.


Total Cap Space: $71,800,000

Free Agency

Before we start this section, I have to introduce the idea that just because you can afford someone doesn’t mean you should sign them. In some cases, you may not even get the chance (franchise tag is a thing). For this reason, a lot of the top echelon free agents never even hit the market.

For example, a free agent the Colts, and their fans alike, would be ecstatic to have would be Yannick Ngakoue. A pass-rushing expert who has tallied up 37.5 sacks over his 4 year career in Jacksonville, he seems to be the answer to all of the Colts’ pass rushing problems. Take a look at the Jaguars cap space (-$40,000) and the fact that Ngakoue tweeted this out a few days ago, and you might think that it’s a done deal.

Wrong.

The fact of the matter is that the Jaguars can free up around $30 million dollars if they cut Geoff Swaim, Jake Ryan and Marcell Dareus. The average yearly salary of the top 5 edge rushers is around $18 million, so even if Ngakoue doesn’t want to resign with the Jaguars, they could just franchise tag him.

I told you this was going to be realistic.

OK, so does “Ballard” make any big, splashy signings? Any NFL.com top 25 free agents?

Chris Jones is a name that sticks out. The Chiefs have a lot of upcoming FAs who will want some long-term deals and not a lot of money to play with ($18.9 million). Cutting Sammy Watkins would add an extra $14 million to that pile, so he’s gone from Kansas City.

Jones will demand around $20 million a year, as he’s stated that he will take nothing less than his market value. That leaves the Chiefs with around $13 million to sign some of their other guys and their incoming draft class (5 picks). They also have the looming issue of Mahomes’ extension, who some predict will surpass a $40 million annual salary.

I still think that the Chiefs keep Jones as he’s one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL and their #1 priority this off-season.

A player that “Ballard” signs in this simulation is Mackensie Alexander, a CB for the Vikings. The Vikings are 32nd in the NFL when it comes to cap space (-$11.1 million) and they have to re-sign other marquee players, (Everson Griffen/Anthony Harris) ahead of Alexander. He was placed on IR and the Viking have already been grooming his replacement for a few years now (Mike Hughes).

Alexander only played 48.8% of the Vikings defensive snaps, but showed flashes of excellence in a limited role. This could be a buy low opportunity for “Ballard”, where at best he gets a new starter and at worst a rotational piece for when the Colts want to implement dime packages.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Another very good player the Colts could poach off a salary strapped team would be Maliek Collins, a DT for the Dallas Cowboys. Jerry Jones’ team has quite a bit of cap space ($77.9 million) but they also have 3 very expensive free agents (Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Byron Jones) and a few others that certainly won’t be cheap (Robert Quinn and Maliek Collins).

Per reports, the Cowboys QB was offered a multi-year contract that had an annual salary of $30 million dollars. Prescott turned it down and bet on himself. The result was his best season to date: 4,902 yards with 30 TDs and 11 INTs on 65.1% completion. Russell Wilson signed a record setting contract last season, getting $35 million a year. Look for Prescott’s agent to try and get something in that ballpark.

Boom, and just like that, the Cowboys cap space has been slashed in half.

The man Prescott is throwing the ball to, Amari Cooper, will also demand a large, multi-year contract. It won’t be record setting (Julio Jones is at $22 million a year), but it’ll certainly place him in the top echelon of receivers. Something around $17 million makes sense for both parties, although Cooper has most, if not all, the leverage here.

Finally, Byron Jones, a physical freak of a DB (12’3’’ world record broad jump at the Combine and 44.5’’ vertical) switched from FS to CB in 2018, where he became one of the best at his position. Xavier Howard is the highest annually payed corner making around $15.5 million dollars a year. Like Cooper, Jones won’t reset the market, but he’ll surely get into the Top 5 annual earners at his position. In the end, I think both Jones the player and Jones the owner settle on a price around $13.75 million a year.

The Cowboys can shed a couple contracts to save some money, but these three guys will cost them upwards of $65 million. That leaves them around $12 million to sign their incoming draft class (6 picks) along with whoever else they chose to bring in.

That’s good news for the Colts as it means they can nab Maliek Collins, who was ranked in the top 5 when it came to pass rush win rate (Next Gen Stats). The Cowboys defensive tackle has connections to current Colts’ DC Matt Eberflus (who was the LBs coach in Dallas a few years back) and a reunion would occur in this simulation.

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Now, when I said there would be surprises, I didn’t just mean bad ones.

In this simulated off-season, “Ballard” doesn’t stop at Collins when revamping the IDL. He goes for another talented player: Javon Hargrave. The Steelers are 31st in the league when it comes to cap space (-$2.2 million) and their number one priority is to resign Bud Dupree.

Hargrave played 62.9% of the defensive snaps for the Steelers last season, and between 2018-2020 he’s amassed 10.5 sacks as a NT.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Pittsburgh Steelers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Neither of these defensive linemen are especially tall (both are 6’2’’) and while Collins does fit the one gap scheme (he’s lighter at 285 pounds and has nice burst), Hargrave actually comes from a 2-gap 3-4 scheme, which might scare some fans away. Worry not, as the Steelers defense is 3-4 in little more than name and their defensive line is built on speed, strength and penetration.

Ideally, this duo would pair up with Denico Autry, Grover Stewart and Tyquan Lewis to form a formidable IDL. Hargrave would play the 1-tech where strength and pocket-collapsing ability is desired while Collins would play the 3-tech that relies more on speed and penetration.

These would be the major signings made by the Colts, but “Ballard” would still make a few other moves to round out the roster and prepare for the draft.

Cost

Mackensie Alexander (26) — 3 year deal worth $15.5 million (front loaded, $7.5 million guaranteed)

Maliek Collins (24) — 3 year deal worth worth $33 million (front loaded, $19 million guaranteed)

Javon Hargrave (26) — 3 year deal worth $37.4 million (front loaded, $23.7 million guaranteed)

Tre Boston — 1 year deal worth $3 million ($2,0 million guaranteed)

B.J. Finney — 2 year deal worth $15 million ($8.1 million guaranteed)

Carl Nassib — 2 year deal worth $13 million ($7.4 million guranteed)

Then more minor bubble roster guys/camp bodies/future contracts (high estimate of $5 million)

Also, before free agency is over “Ballard” inquires to the Detroit Lions about what it would take for them to part ways with Stafford. Bob Quinn is attempting to save his job and rejects the offer unless a first round pick is involved, at the least. “Ballard” offers a 2nd and a 4th at most and both GMs decide to end trade talks.


Total Cap Space: $20,800,000

2020 NFL Draft

Sometimes surprises are good. Other times, they are not.

“Ballard” and his trusty team of scouts and coaches meet up in the war room, reorganizing their big board accordingly as the draft unfolds. “Ballard” has had a special interest in a certain strong armed quarterback out of the state of Utah. The player in question is carved out of the same material that former MVP and NFL superstar Patrick Mahomes is made of.

Most pundits think that Love will be a first round pick, but a lackluster 2019 season prevents him from entering top 10 conversations.

But this is the NFL draft, and if Daniel Jones can go 6th overall, anything can happen.

Matt Rhule has a former MVP on his roster. Problem is that the superstar QB hasn’t been healthy that past two years. After signing a huge 6-year deal, the new Panthers HC knows he has enough time to start anew. Enamored with all the qualities that makes Colts fans desire Love, Rhule decides to take him with the 7th overall pick.

So what now?

My post free agency grades are the following, and it’s clear that quarterback is a big need for the Colts. The people need answers. Jordan Love was supposed to be that answer.

Still, “Ballard” knows that these things happen, and he sticks to his guns. One of the positives of 4 quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks is that some blue-chip talent has certainly slid to the Colts slot.

I ran various mock drafts on The Draft Network simulator. The plan going into each draft was to nab at least 3 WRs, get at something at QB (since Burrow, Tua and Love were gone by the time the Colts picked), and then BPA the rest of the way.

These are the players “Ballard” drafted:

  • 13th — CeeDee Lamb, WR Oklahoma
  • 34th — Terrell Lewis, DE Alabama
  • 44th — Jeff Gladney, CB TCU
  • 75th — Ben Bartch, OT St. John’s
  • 112th — Van Jefferson, WR Florida
  • 142nd — Alton Robinson, DE Syracuse
  • 173rd — A.J. Green, CB Oklahoma State
  • 190th — Bryce Perkins, QB Virginia
  • 204th — Jeff Thomas, WR Miami

Following the draft, these are the grades I would hand out to the Colts’ roster.

They invested heavily on fast route runners with smaller frames. The inability to pursue a flashy TE in either free agency or the draft worries some, and the Bartch pick seems to be a bit of a luxury.

Pundits scoff at the idea of investing even more into the Edge position, but Justin Houston is on the last year of his deal and the Colts have to find a replacement. Both Lewis and Robinson fit the portfolio of raw, long, rangy pass-rushers with a quick first step. Finally, “Ballard” takes two man corners that could play significant snaps for the Colts if an injury were to occur.

Finally, in the 6th round, the Colts front office takes a former JUCO product who starred in the ACC and can create competition at the quarterback position.

Once all the picks are in, “Ballard” sets up individual meetings with his coordinators. He tells Eberflus that he wants less zone-coverage. He’s tired of seeing his tall rangy CBs go to waste in zone coverage and he’s even more tired of seeing opposing QBs dink and dunk their way down the field. Furthermore, he wants to see faster development of the young pass-rushers he’s drafted. Turay needs to step up and get at least 8 sacks. There also needs to be a heir apparent to Houston by the end of the season.

“Ballard” also meets up with his OC and he tells Sirianni that the offensive side of the ball is much deeper now. “Ballard” really wants to give his coaching staff a chance to evaluate Brissett as a long term quarterback. The Colts now have a lot of speed at WR, make sure that the offensive coaching staff develops their route running and makes sure to create mismatches through pre-snap movement (similar to what the Chiefs do). “Ballard” also wants Bartch to get reps with the ones whenever Castonzo takes a verteran rest day. Finally, make sure that Perkins also gets reps with the ones just so the Colts know what they have in him.

This is what the Colts roster looks like after this simulation. No marquee free agents signed with the Colts and they didn’t draft the common names that are constantly spewed by the national media. Yet still, in the end the roster looks a lot better.

Offense:

Defense: