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Reviewing the Indianapolis Colts salary cap situation ahead of free agency

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NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Colts General Manager Chris Ballard has earned a reputation for being responsible with his franchise’s budget, perhaps to a fault. He made clear from the beginning that he feels the only way to build a championship caliber NFL football team is through the draft and that spending aggressively to bring in outside free agents is either ineffective or particularly disruptive to locker room chemistry — another foundational piece to building a championship team in Ballard’s view.

While it is fair to say that Ballard has earned some mixed reviews in his three seasons with Indianapolis, it appears that most fans continue to believe his efforts to bring in talent through the draft, undrafted free agency, or his shrewdness stealing players at final roster cut-downs has led to a young nucleus in Indianapolis that has demonstrated a real desire to play with and for one another. Perhaps the foundation building in the locker room is nearly complete.

If it is, will Ballard look to be more aggressive with outside free agents? Perhaps. However, he will also make it quite clear to his locker room that in-house players who have produced will be rewarded. It is why no one should be surprised to learn that the Colts are interested in having serious contract extension negotiations with Marlon Mack. It is why no one should be surprised if Anthony Castonzo is rewarded with a very lucrative contract if he chooses to return to football, after one of the best seasons of his career.

With this in mind, how much cap space do the Colts really have to spend on outside free agents? We will take a look at in-house free agents who are likely to sign, provide a rough projection for how much it might cost to retain current players, and settle on a projected budget for outside free agents.


CURRENT PROJECTED CAP SPACE

According to Spotrac, the Indianapolis Colts are projected to have $86M in cap space for 2020 — second to only the Miami Dolphins. Frugal contract construction has put Indianapolis in a position to currently be projected as having the most cap in 2021 — of course that is subject to change after spending occurs this off-season.

Overthecap projects that the Colts rookie signing class will cost approximately $10M, reducing the available cap to a projected $76M. This, of course, does not take into account possible trades that would increase or decrease the rookie salary hit.

Given that it is too difficult to know what the Colts will do this off-season with current players who are still under contract, we will not speculate on players who could be cut and how that could impact the team’s budget. However, keep in mind that the Ballard would save $5M if he chose to cut Brian Hoyer, $4M if he chose to cut defensive tackle Margus Hunt and another $1M if he chose to cut corner Quincy Wilson. None of these cuts would be particularly earth-shattering and would create another $10M in cap to sign other players.


SIGNING INSIDE FREE AGENTS AND EXTENSIONS

If Anthony Castonzo plans to return to the NFL, he will likely be offered one of the largest contracts at his position. Average salaries for top left tackles are currently costing between $12-16M per year. As the salary cap continues to grow, new contracts always creep up and new record contracts occur every season. Given that Taylor Lewan is 28 years old and is the highest paid player at his position, let’s assume that Castonzo is slightly less than his $16M a year figure and slide him in as a projected $15M cap hit in 2020.

This would leave the Colts with $61M in projected cap space.

If the Colts choose to sign Marlon Mack to a contract extension, he will be significantly increasing his projected 2020 hit of $2.2M. The average salary for the top running backs in the league is between $13-15M per year, a figure that is likely to go up this off-season when Derrick Henry signs a new contract. Given that Ballard is unlikely to pay Mack like an Ezekiel Elliott or Todd Gurley, we’ll settle on a $11M cap hit in 2020, making him the fifth highest paid running back in the league as of this writing.

This would leave the Colts with $52M in projected cap space.

Outside of possibly re-signing Devin Funchess or Jabaal Sheard it is unlikely that any other internal Colts free agent will cost considerable money against the cap. With restricted free agents and perhaps a couple of rotational players in mind, we’ll budget another $8M in potential cap hits from current Colts.

This leave Ballard with $44M in projected cap space.

Another candidate to receive some consideration from Ballard and his front office for an extension this off-season is center Ryan Kelly, who is currently projected to be a free agent in 2021. Last season the team chose to exercise his fifth year option, giving him a projected cap hit in 2020 of just over $10M — keeping him among the highest paid players at his position.

Kelly is 28 years old and forms a great interior tandem with Quenton Nelson to his left. He just went to the Pro Bowl. It wouldn’t require a higher cap hit in 2020, at least not much of one, if the Colts wanted to negotiate his extension before the season. This makes him not only a reasonable candidate for discussions but also one that won’t alter the landscape for the team’s other decisions.

Again, we will project that the Colts have around $44M in cap space to play with in free agency.


OUTSIDE FREE AGENTS

WR Amari Cooper

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

While it remains somewhat unlikely that the Dallas Cowboys would allow wide receiver Amari Cooper to test the market, the Colts just brought in his former wide receivers coach at Alabama. It is more likely a simple coincidence than it is a sign that Ballard is seriously considering making a run at Cooper but if he did want to go that direction and spend some of his budget on securing a long-term top receiver to line up with T.Y. Hilton, Spotrac projects it will cost an average annual salary of just shy of $20M per year.


WR Robby Anderson

NFL: Miami Dolphins at New York Jets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

If Ballard wanted to go a potentially cheaper route, he could make a play for Jets free agent receiver Robby Anderson. In his career, Anderson has shown the ability to be a big play threat and can carry the load as a team’s top option. Spotrac projects that it would cost an average of $12M per year to land Anderson.


TE Hunter Henry

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

It is no secret that Frank Reich values the role tight ends play in his offense. With the expected departure of Eric Ebron, the best option hitting the market will be Hunter Henry. Henry is a threat in the passing game and has enough size to play a role as a blocker as well. If Ballard wants to sign Henry to fill Ebron’s shoes, Spotrac projects it will cost an average of $9M per year.


DE Yannick Ngakoue

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Houston is likely not a long-term answer for the Colts at defensive end. He had an excellent season in 2019 but may also be past his prime. It is no secret in the NFL that one of the biggest keys to playoff legitimacy is a consistent and potentially dominant pass rush. No player hitting free agency represents a better long-term solution or bigger weapon off of the edge than Jacksonville’s Yannick Ngakoue. It should come as no surprise that Spotrac projects an average annual salary of just over $17M per year to sign Ngakoue.


DT Chris Jones

NFL: AFC Championship-Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It is exceedingly unlikely that Chris Jones makes to free agency. There may only be a handful of players teams will make difficult sacrifices to keep and outside of Patrick Mahomes, Jones may be at the top of the list for the Chiefs. Still, it is difficult not to salivate at the notion that the Colts defensive line would change drastically by adding an interior pass rusher and all-round disruptor like Jones. Spotrac projects it will cost a team just north of $19M per year to get it done.


ANALYSIS

While the Colts are in a strong position to utilize available salary cap to sign meaningful free agents, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Signing most of the biggest name free agents will likely cut the available cap space in half, or at least a third. This is what makes it particularly unlikely that Ballard will sign two or more marquee names for large contracts — he may not be able to afford it as much as fans believe, at least not without leveraging his teams future and hamstringing his ability to adjust in the future due to injury or other considerations.

If Colts fans are extremely lucky, Ballard may be able to land a player like Ngakoue, a receiving threat at either tight end or wide receiver, and perhaps someone to add to the secondary. However, the dream scenarios of signing three of the big names above are likely well out of reach and entirely uncharacteristic for Ballard.

Don’t be surprised if he signs one name that fans are excited about and the rest of the players are ready to join the team on a prove-it contract and represent untapped potential Ballard will ask his coaching staff to develop.