Stocked with a projected $65.8M of salary cap space, the Indianapolis Colts will have a lot of flexibility this offseason to pursue significant acquisitions this offseason.
However, the franchise also must make difficult decisions on a number of soon-to-be key free agents.
Without further ado, let’s take a look:
Philip Rivers, Quarterback
2020 AAV: $25M
2020 Stats: Completed 369 of 543 pass attempts (68.0%) for 4,149 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions during all 16 starts.
GM Chris Ballard End-of-Season Quote: “Do I think Philip can still play? Absolutely, I do. Philip and I had an hour talk yesterday. He’s going to take some time, and we’re going to take some time, and we’ll meet in about a month and see which way we’re going to forward.”
Outlook: When the Colts can properly pass protect him, and he’s supported by an effective ground game, Rivers has been a pretty good starting quarterback for the Colts.
Despite playing through a nasty turf toe injury, Rivers had the second highest completion percentage rate in Colts franchise history—trailing only legendary quarterback Peyton Manning (68.8%) in 2009.
That being said, the Colts offense ultimately has to get more explosive in 2021. In a loaded AFC that just saw young stud quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and even Baker Mayfield all playing into the second week of the playoffs, the Colts might need to consider getting more dynamic at the position going forward.
In the twilight of his playing career, Rivers gets by with his accuracy, anticipation, pocket presence, and great understanding of opposing defenses, but his lack of mobility and diminished arm strength still limit the Colts offense’s full capabilities.
When the pocket breaks down, Rivers is generally in trouble with the inability to extend plays once under duress—as a figurative statue.
It also limits the Colts’ use of play-action—which can be an effective tool for an offense that features budding star Jonathan Taylor and a power running game to play off of, as he simply cannot move at all (not even on a QB sneak).
Rivers’ lack of arm strength also means the Colts take less calculated shots downfield too (although to be fair, the Colts did surprisingly rank 8th last season in explosive pass rate).
Rivers is a great competitor and veteran leader, and while the Colts are saying all of the right things publicly right now, the franchise also hasn’t ruled out pursuing potential starting quarterback upgrades either (with quarterbacks such as Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz, and Derek Carr potentially being possibilities this offseason).
The 2021 Colts would be fine with Rivers returning behind center again, and he knows head coach Frank Reich’s offense like the back of his hand (something that a new starting quarterback seemingly wouldn’t), but Indy’s playoff ceiling appears to be pretty low right now with him returning as the starter—maybe winning a wild card game?
With the 2020 Colts having already accomplished making the postseason this past season—and Indianapolis ‘built to win now’, maybe it’s time to aim a little higher with a starting quarterback who’s more dynamic and can potentially lead a deeper January playoff run.
It’s a really tough call, but...
T.Y. Hilton, Wide Receiver
2020 AAV: $13M
2020 Stats: 56 receptions for 762 receiving yards (13.6 ypr. avg.) and 5 touchdown receptions during 15 starts.
GM Chris Ballard End-of-Season Quote: “As to his ability. T.Y. can still play. Whether it’s at the level it was four or five years ago, as you get older, you have to find different ways (to be productive). But I’ll tell you this: T.Y. is smart, instinctive, knows how to get open, and he still has value. We’ll see how it works out here over the long-haul. But we value T.Y., and we think he can still play—and he’s been a great Colt.”
Outlook: The hope to start the season was that with a starting quarterback upgrade, Hilton would have a renaissance season when paired with the former Pro Bowler Rivers.
Instead, the Colts saw flashes of ‘The Ghost’ of old, but now safely entering his early 30’s, he also had the looks of a wideout transitioning to more of a complementary piece within the Colts offense—than the teams’s top ‘alpha dog’ wideout anymore.
While Hilton may not be a #1 caliber wideout going forward, he still showed he can be plenty productive. To be fair too, Rivers’ deep ball is greatly diminished—which is arguably Hilton’s ‘bread-and-butter’ as a downfield threat—while T.Y. also may have been doubled in coverage more than readily apparent.
If looking to improve the offense’s potency in 2021, the Colts could look to swap Hilton with younger, superior wideouts in free agency such as Allen Robinson, Kenny Golladay, Chris Godwin, or Juju Smith-Schuster—but not without a steeper price-tag (and there’s no guarantee that any of them actually hit free agency).
That being said, in Colts all-time franchise history, Hilton ranks 3rd in receiving yards (9,360), 4th in receptions (608), and tied for 4th in touchdowns (50).
While sentiment rarely has a place in the NFL, Hilton is one of the greatest Colts wide receivers ever and has shown that he can still be a productive pro. At a reduced short-term salary, Hilton could be an effective complement and veteran mentor to Michael Pittman Jr. going forward in the Colts wide receiver room. Passing the torch like Marvin Harrison to Reggie Wayne, and Wayne to him in Colts folklore.
Now, it’s Hilton’s turn to pass the torch to Pittman Jr.
That being said, even with Hilton back, the 2021 Colts need to add another playmaker at either wideout or tight end next season. It’s a receiving corps that outside maybe Pittman Jr. lacks another explosive game wrecker—with ‘The Ghost’ having finally slowed down a bit.
Relying solely on 3rd-year wideout Parris Cambell providing that ‘extra juice’ might be wishful thinking and a costly mistake after two consecutive injury riddled seasons.
Still, Hilton’s an all-time franchise great and remains a productive veteran—even as he ages.
Justin Houston, Defensive End
2020 AAV: $12M
2020 Stats: 25 tackles, 8.0 sacks, 32 total QB pressures, a forced fumble, and 2 fumble recoveries during all 16 starts.
GM Chris Ballard End-of-Season Quote: N/a
Outlook: Houston may not be the dominant force he once was a few years ago with the Kansas City Chiefs, but he can still be an impact pass rusher.
Per ESPN analytics, Houston had the 6th highest pass rush win rate (25%) among all of the league’s edge defenders this past season.
Facing long-term needs at both quarterback and left tackle, the Colts may not have the luxury or the means to plug all of these critical holes in one sole offseason—especially with some big contracts coming up among their core that prevent a glut of high profile free agency signings.
Re-signing Houston would be a short-term band-aid but ‘kick the can’ towards the Colts actually addressing the position long-term after the 2021 season.
With 3x All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard and emerging star right tackle Braden Smith set to become free agents after the 2021 season (and 3x All-Pro Quenton Nelson an offseason later), bringing back Houston on a 1-year deal wouldn’t interfere with those plans at all. In fact, it would coincide with it—keeping the Colts competitive, while maintaining much needed salary cap flexibility after next season once Houston’s contract would expire.
Houston might be better suited as more of a rotational sack specialist as he continues to age into his early 30’s than an ‘every snap’ edge, but the veteran defensive leader can still be an effective pass rusher for the Colts during the 2021 season.
Denico Autry, Defensive End
2020 AAV: $5.93M
2020 Stats: 33 tackles (20 solo), 9.0 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, and 35 total QB pressures during 14 games (13 starts).
GM Chris Ballard End-of-Season Quote: N/a
Outlook: Having transitioned to starting defensive end with All-Pro DeForest Buckner’s much anticipated arrival at the 3T defensive tackle, Autry got off to a hot start in 2021.
At one point, he was leading the defense in sacks and still finished with 7.5 sacks on the season.
Autry played admirably for the Colts, and the veteran defensive lineman has been a shrewd signing for Indianapolis—since joining the Indy defense in 2018.
That being said, while having a natural defensive tackle playing defensive end no doubt helped the Colts have the NFL’s 2nd best run defense (and Autry provided push as a pass rusher), the unit could afford to have an in-turn, more natural defensive end with greater speed, bend, and explosiveness (who’s cheaper in the short-term).
Even playing out of position, Autry figures to have a handful of productive seasons still left, but the Colts cannot afford to provide all of their mid-tier starters pay raises—especially with the team’s top young players’ mega-contracts starting to come up just after the 2021 season.
Something eventually has to give—and that unfortunately might be Autry here.
Xavier Rhodes, Cornerback
2020 AAV: $3M
2020 Stats: 42 tackles (35 solo), 2 interceptions (1 touchdown return), and 12 passes defensed during all 16 starts.
GM Chris Ballard End-of-Season Quote: “Xavier had a heck of a year. (He) really bought into what we are doing. I give Jonathan Gannon (Colts cornerbacks coach) a lot of credit for that. He had a relationship with Xavier from Minnesota. Xavier worked and bought into everything we’re doing. I think we will wait and see how it works out here in free agency, but we like Xavier.”
Outlook: After having two consecutive disappointing seasons in Minnesota, Rhodes signed with the Colts on a modest, 1-year ‘prove it’ deal—hoping that a change of scenery, reunion with Colts cornerbacks coach Jonathan Gannon, and a scheme transition could help the former Vikings All-Pro regain his prior shutdown form.
While Rhodes wasn’t quite the 1st-Team All-Pro cornerback he once was with the Vikings, he was pretty darn good for the Colts as a reliable lockdown starter on the outside.
Specifically, per PFF, Rhodes was their 9th best graded cornerback overall with a +77.3 grade overall. In coverage, Rhodes was targeted 80 times for 41 receptions (51.3% reception) for 524 receiving yards (12.8 ypr. avg.), 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions for an NFL passer rating of 78.3. He was also awesome closing down ‘Rhodes’ in the red zone.
On the outside, with Rock Ya-Sin’s second-year struggles and veteran T.J. Carrie also a free agent, re-signing Rhodes would help solidify the Colts starting cornerback position again.
However, it sounds like the Colts are willing to let Rhodes test his free agency market and potentially match or exceed the offer—if his newfound price-tag isn’t too exorbitant.
On a one or two-year deal—even with a significant pay raise, Rhodes could make sense again for Indy, as long as it stays within reason.
Anthony Walker, Linebacker
2020 AAV: $666K
2020 Stats: 92 tackles (65 solo), 2 tackles for loss, an interception, 5 passes defensed, and a fumble recovery in all 16 starts.
GM Chris Ballard End-of-Season Quote: “I have a special relationship with Anthony Walker. Selfless. Team guy. Rare leader. I hope he gets into coaching one day or scouting. Mark my words on this: if Anthony Walker gets into coaching, he will be a head football coach in the National Football League, and if he gets into scouting, he’ll be a general manager. He’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and he’s made of the right stuff. I know Anthony wants to play more. We value Anthony. We’ll see how it works out. I want good for Anthony.”
Outlook: The former 5th round pick of the 2017 NFL Draft has developed into a solid starting middle linebacker in the Colts seemingly stacked linebacker corps.
While not the most athletic or fastest linebacker, Walker is cerebral, instinctive, a sure tackler, and a leader on the Colts much improved defense. He’s also one of 3x All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard’s closest friends and teammates on the team.
Still, Walker’s lack of athleticism can make him a liability at times in coverage, and one could make the argument that emerging soon-to-be 3rd-year linebacker Bobby Okereke’s best natural position is at the ‘Mike’ and not the ‘Sam’ long-term for this Colts defense.
The Colts are going to have to feed a few mouths with big contracts coming soon and paying solid starters pay raises eventually adds up—because a franchise can’t seemingly keep everyone (and that accelerates the need to continue to draft well and get young, cheap, team controllable talent).
Still, there’s something to be said for Walker’s leadership, consistency, and reliability, and he has drawn some similarities in my opinion to former Colts linebacker David Thornton—who former Colts Hall of Fame General Manager Bill Polian said was his biggest regret in free agency, when he allowed him to sign with the Tennessee Titans in the 2006 offseason.
Along with Rivers, Walker might be one of the toughest decisions to make on this list, but long-term, I’m just not sure the Colts can afford to pay him pretty good starting NFL middle linebacker money with some mega-contracts coming up elsewhere.
The Colts have to retain their top talent in the near future, meaning that the franchise can’t keep all of its mid-level starters going forward. Walker may be another unfortunate salary cap casualty here.
Marlon Mack, Running Back
2020 AAV: $705K
2020 Stats: 4 carries for 26 total rushing yards (6.5 ypc. avg.) in 1 start.
GM Chris Ballard End-of-Season Quote: “Marlon Mack broke my heart. That sucked. That was hard. Really hard. And it was hard on him, but he’s so tough-minded. I watched him work his butt off here all season to get back. Marlon Mack deserves a contract unequivocally. He deserves a good contract. I don’t know if we are going to be able to do that here. Saying that, I’m not going to say that ‘Marlon is not going to be back,’ because I think he’s really special as a player and I could just see a backfield of Marlon, Jonathan (Taylor) and Nyheim (Hines) and (Jordan) Wilkins be really special. So I’m not going to discount it, but I think Marlon Mack is a great player and deserves what he has coming to him. And he’s even a better teammate, unselfish, everything you want.”
Outlook: It appears unlikely that the Colts’ 2019 1,000+ rusher is back in Indianapolis, after Mack suffered an unfortunate season-ending torn Achilles in the team’s opener.
Entering into a contract season during 2020, the timing couldn’t have been worse for Mack, whose long-term future with the Colts was already murky with the arrival of highly touted rookie rusher Jonathan Taylor—in what was an expected ‘1-2’ punch at running back.
In Mack’s absence, Taylor broke out in the second half of the season and is now the team’s undisputed workhorse—while scatback Nyheim Hines provides an electric jolt behind him and operates as a dynamic receiver in passing situations.
Despite the devastating injury, Mack is just one season removed from a 1,091 rushing yard and 8 touchdown season with the Colts during 2019. To his credit too, even while rehabilitating and faced with an uncertain Colts future, Mack has been nothing but a ‘pro’s pro’ for the team’s young backfield, continuing to serve as a mentor for Taylor and others.
The Colts just don’t have the available reps to provide Mack a significant contract this offseason with their already crowded backfield (which also includes Jordan Wilkins).
However, should his free agency market prove to be cold—coming off such a tough injury, perhaps the franchise could look to bring him back on a modest 1-year ‘prove it’ contract to let him continue to rehabilitate with the team and set himself up nicely for a rebound season to show that he can still play at a high level—albeit in a reduced role.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard did something similar with veteran safety and team leader Clayton Geathers back in 2019—but hopefully, this would have better on-field results.
However, at this time, it appears more likely than not that Mack has played his last snap in a Colts uniform—although that could still change.
That’s just the cold nature and reality of the NFL’s business.
Other Notable Colts 2021 Free Agents:
- Jacoby Brissett, quarterback
- Malik Hooker, safety
- Le’Raven Clark, offensive tackle
- T.J. Carrie, cornerback
- Trey Burton, tight end
- Al-Quadin Muhammad, defensive end
- George Odum, safety (*RFA)
- Zach Pascal, wide receiver (*RFA)
- Mo Alie-Cox, tight end (*ERFA)