With a whopping $116.2 million of projected cap space in 2021, the Indianapolis Colts have a number of big named free agents that the franchise could look to potentially re-sign.
Here’s our Top 10 Colts projected free agents for next offseason:
10. Denico Autry, Defensive Tackle
The 6’5”, 285 pound defensive lineman had somewhat of a down season last year, recording 25 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 4 passes defensed during 14 starts.
However, Autry is just a year removed from a 9.0 sack season in 2018, when he was named as a Pro Bowl alternate at defensive tackle.
Unfortunately, Autry’s path to playing time just saw the Colts acquire All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner as their fixture at the 3-technique defensive tackle spot going forward—which is Autry’s natural position.
Autry could still occupy a ‘Jabaal Sheard’ role on running downs at defensive end and should kick inside to nose tackle Grover Stewart’s (1-technique) spot on obvious passing situations—but he may not be the every down defensive starter that he’s been in recent seasons for the Colts.
The more limited snaps could help him stay fresher during pass rushing situations however.
That being said, with Buckner in the fold, Autry’s long-term future with the Colts appears to be murky, as he’s set to have a $5.74 million cap hit in 2020.
9. Xavier Rhodes, Cornerback
The Colts signed the former Minnesota Vikings All-Pro cornerback to a 1-year, $3 million deal earlier this offseason—hoping that he can regain his prior lockdown form.
Rhodes had 43 tackles and 10 passes defensed during 13 starts in 2019, but he’s really struggled over the past two seasons compared to the elite cornerback he once was.
At 6’1”, 218 pounds (with 33 3/4”) arms, Rhodes is the type of long armed, athletic cornerback that the Colts typically covet—who’s also a willing defender in run support.
The hope is that with a much needed change of scenery, being reunited with his former Vikings’ defensive backs coaches now with the Colts, and a scheme transition, that Rhodes can become that shutdown starting cornerback on the outside once again.
While the Colts have 2nd-year cornerback Marvell Tell—who could eventually become the long-term answer on the other side of Rock Ya-Sin after an encouraging rookie debut, there’s not a clear cut successor to Rhodes at starting cornerback quite yet.
Still, Rhodes’ Colts contract is very much a one-year, ‘prove it’ deal, and given his age and play over the past two seasons, this seems like a fair spot for him—although he could very well ascend a bit with a bounce back 2020 season.
8. Marlon Mack, Running Back
Seeing the Colts former 2017 4th round pick this low on the list says less about the kind of featured running back that Mack has been over the past few seasons, but more about 1) the shelf life of running backs on their second contract and 2) the highly touted rookie running back, Jonathan Taylor, that Indianapolis just drafted in late April.
At 6’0”, 210 pounds, Mack rushed for 1,091 yards on 247 carries (4.4 ypc. avg) and 8 rushing touchdowns during 14 starts in 2019. Mack may not be an elite NFL running back, but he’s a pretty good featured rusher—who’s consistently gotten better each season for the Colts.
His long-term future with the Colts was just clouded when Indianapolis traded up to select Taylor with the 41st overall pick, who’s been lauded for his speed, power, and production—as one of the best running backs in this year’s draft class.
Mack should split carries with Taylor this season, but barring a cold free agent market or a ‘hometown friendly deal’, it appears that 2020 could very well be his last in Indianapolis.
The Colts will presumably let Mack cash in on his next contract elsewhere, while allowing Taylor to assume full-time bellcow duties in 2021—but that’s not a guaranteed certainty yet.
7. Anthony Walker, Linebacker
Originally drafted by the Colts in the 5th round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the 6’1”, 230 pound linebacker recorded a team-high 124 tackles (84 solo), 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and an interception in all 16 starts during 2019.
As the ‘Mike’ linebacker of the Colts defense, Walker has a high football I.Q., is a sure tackler, and one of the unit’s young leaders. While neither the most explosive nor fastest athlete, Walker is an instinctive, rock solid starting linebacker for the middle of the Colts defense and has formed a strong bond with his ‘partner in crime’ Darius Leonard.
The issue with Walker isn’t his production or play, but rather, that last year’s 3rd round pick, Bobby Okereke, as a potential breakout star, could be the Colts starting ‘Mike’ linebacker of the future—as it’s arguably his most natural position bigger picture.
Although far less proven, Okereke possesses more speed, explosiveness, and athleticism than Walker and could be a better fit for the Colts fast defense long-term—as a much more dynamic playing piece, especially in coverage.
However, there’s something to be said for Walker’s leadership, cerebral play, and reliability at the heart of the Colts defense.
Letting Walker potentially walk won’t be an easy decision by any means.
6. Grover Stewart, Nose Tackle
The 2017 4th round pick quietly had a breakout season for the Colts in 2019 as a full-time starter at nose tackle, recording 16 tackles and 3.0 sacks in 16 games (13 starts).
At 6’4”, 315 pounds, Stewart isn’t the sexiest or flashiest Colts defensive player, but he may be among the unit’s most unheralded as he commands double teams, eats blocks, and helped stop the run for the league’s 7th best run defense last year.
It seems like a stretch to call Stewart a star at this point of his young career, but he’s a solid starter for the Colts interior defense, who could still get better—especially playing alongside Buckner next year.
The Colts also don’t have any young nose tackle waiting behind him as his potential in-house replacement either—should he depart in free agency next offseason.
Even if he doesn’t offer a ton of pass rush push, Stewart looks like a young defensive lineman whose ceiling is still ascending a bit and would make sense bringing back on a reasonable, multi-year deal.
5. Malik Hooker, Safety
The former 2017 first round pick of the Colts is the most polarizing player on this list because Hooker has the ability to be such a dynamic safety—if it all eventually clicks together.
At 6’1”, 214 pounds, Hooker recorded 51 tackles, 3 passes defensed, 2 interceptions, and a fumble recovery in 13 starts.
Hooker simply has athleticism, ridiculous range, and ‘Ed Reed’-like ball skills that simply cannot be taught at safety, but he’s also shown lapses in coverage—blowing his coverage assignments or taking poor pursuit angles entirely.
The durability issues are overblown, as Hooker has only missed 5 games over the past two seasons (and the ACL tear was a downright cheap shot), but the consistency issues in coverage clearly are not. (That being said, Hooker was better in run support as a tackler last season than he’s been credited for at times).
With defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ recent comments praising other safeties on the Colts’ roster for their versatility in coverage—including 3rd round rookie Julian Blackmon, Indianapolis may already be preparing internally for ‘life without Hooker’.
However, Hooker still has the chance to re-write his own ending in Indianapolis—even after the Colts declined his 2021 5th-year option. With a strong season, Hooker could be catapulted towards the top of this list given his age and unique skill-set at safety.
If Hooker plays up to his immense potential in 2020, the Colts will pay him, period.
4. Justin Houston, Defensive End
Having been signed by the Colts to a 2-year, $23 million deal last offseason, the former Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro was as good as advertised in his debut season for Indianapolis, recording 44 tackles, a team-high 11.0 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles in all 16 starts.
At 6’3”, 270 pounds, Houston keeps his body in great shape, but turning 32 years old next January, he’s getting a bit long in the tooth as a veteran pass rusher. That doesn’t mean that the NFL’s 50th all-time career sacks leader (89.5 career sacks) can’t still be a productive pass rusher on his next contract, but it means it’s going to be on another short-term (and probably discounted) deal.
If re-signed, the Colts could look to further limit Houston’s snaps to purely pass rushing situations—to keep his veteran legs fresh, but as it stands, the Colts don’t necessarily have a clear-cut heir apparent to him at starting defensive end.
3rd-year pass rusher Kemoko Turay looks like one of the pass rushing bookends of the future for the Colts defense, but the franchise is hoping for a breakout season from last year’s 2nd round pick Ben Banogu in 2020—which could very well happen as a rotational pass rusher this season.
That being said, if Houston puts together another strong or double-digit sack season, it makes a lot of sense for the Colts to bring the veteran leader back, with seemingly still plenty of juice left as an impact pass rusher and a high level of productivity.
3. Philip Rivers, Quarterback
Signed to a 1-year, $25 million deal earlier this offseason, Rivers has yet to throw a practice pass, let alone debut in ‘Horseshoe Blue’ (or ‘Anvil Black’ for that matter).
That being said, the 17-year veteran could be more than simply a one-year stop gap if he can return to the passer he was in 2018 with the Chargers, when he threw for 32 touchdowns to 12 interceptions in all 16 starts.
Behind a poor pass blocking offensive line, Rivers struggled last season to the tune of just 23 touchdowns to 20 interceptions—but Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni did not notice a drop-off in his actual play, just that he had been frequently playing from behind.
Passing behind a strong Colts offensive line with a solid receiver corps—including Pro Bowler T.Y. Hilton and rookie Michael Pittman Jr., as well a power running attack that features last year’s 1,000 yard rusher Marlon Mack and rookie rusher Jonathan Taylor, Rivers has all the tools to regain his 2018 form—especially by being reunited with head coach Frank Reich (his former offensive coordinator in San Diego).
This is still essentially a 1-year, ‘prove it’ deal though for Rivers and the Colts.
If he’s productive, the Colts will bring him back for at least one more year, and understandably, when looking at next year’s lukewarm projected starting quarterback free agency class—and assuming rookie 4th round pick Jacob Eason isn’t ready.
That being said, while quarterback is the league’s most important position, knowing that Rivers can’t reasonably be more than a 1-2 year starting stop gap puts him lower on this list than he otherwise would’ve been—a little earlier in his potential Hall of Fame career.
2. T.Y. Hilton, Wide Receiver
The 4x Pro Bowl wideout is coming off a down season for the Colts, as he battled lingering injuries which cost him 6 games (as well as some inconsistent starting quarterback play)—and recorded just 45 receptions for 501 receiving yards (11. ypr. avg.) and 5 touchdown receptions.
‘The Ghost’ is not only one of the greatest wide receivers in Colts franchise history, ranking 4th in receptions (552) and receiving yards (8,598) respectively, as well as 7th in receiving touchdowns (45), but also among one of the franchise’s most valuable.
The Colts are 1-9 historically when Hilton doesn’t play, as he’s consistently been their top offensive weapon and a dynamic playmaker since his arrival in 2012. He’s the Colts ‘alpha dog’ at wide receiver and has been a bonafide #1 option throughout his entire NFL career.
With Rivers’ ability to throw the ball downfield, take chances, and anticipate open reads—with overall polish, Hilton should return to being one of the game’s truly elite deep threats—assuming he can stay fully healthy in 2020.
That being said, he’s about to hit the wrong side of 30, and for a wideout that relies a lot upon his blazing fast speed—and has had some lingering lower leg issues recently, the Colts have to be smart about his next contract—which Hilton has already stated will be his last in the NFL.
Nevertheless, he’s been so valuable and meant so much to this franchise that if Hilton has a rebound season, the Colts should find a way to keep the franchise great in Indianapolis for the remainder of his career—presumably being a few more seasons of spooking opposing defensive backs.
Simply put, Hilton’s earned that right.
1. Ryan Kelly, Center
The former 2016 first round pick of the Colts had some injuries early on in his career that held him back a bit, but he started all 16 games for Indianapolis’ offensive line last season—and was the ‘alpha dog’ anchor to one of the league’s best units.
Kelly made his first Pro Bowl in 2019 and is arguably a Top 5 player at his position now. This seems like an easy slam dunk for the Colts to re-sign the stalwart center—who’s both an elite player and just hitting his prime at age 26.
It won’t be cheap though, as even though Kelly wants to return, he very well could become the NFL’s highest paid center here shortly.
Kelly is smart, tough, powerful, and athletic as a center—as he simply checks all of the boxes.
It’s hard to believe that not too long ago the Colts were starting the likes of Samson Satele, A.Q. Shipley, Jonotthan Harrison, and whoever else at center—meaning Kelly has been a revelation for what had previously been a turnstile position since franchise great Jeff Saturday’s departure in 2012.
Kelly’s rightfully #1 on this list because his elite talent level and youth clearly align to make him the Colts’ highest priority among next offseason’s potential free agents (assuming a contract extension can’t be reached with Kelly much sooner).
Pay the young man!