by Kent Sterling
The Indianapolis Colts have some decisions to make – a lot of decisions. The team that took a step forward in 2013 will need to hit again in the free agent lottery to take another big stride toward the ultimate goal of winning a second Lombardi Trophy for Indianapolis.
Minus an unforeseeable misstep, Andrew Luck continuing his evolution into elite status during his third year as one of the NFL’s quarterbacks is a given. Defensive player of the year candidate Robert Mathis doesn’t appear ready to recede into mediocrity yet, despite age becoming an issue for the Colts all-time sack leader. By the time the 2014 regular season starts, Mathis will be 33 1/2 years old, and that is long in the tooth for a speed rusher.
Add to Luck and Mathis group of players returning from injury like Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard, Donald Thomas, and Reggie Wayne, and the future is quite bright.
The Colts have a lengthy list of free agents they will decide to re-sign or allow to walk away. Some of the choices will be made with relative ease, and others will be tougher. Rarely does a player opt out of Indianapolis because of a distaste for the city or direction of the franchise, so as long as the Colts are in the financial ballpark with their offers, they should be able to hold onto those they target to retain.
The Colts salary cap situation is the second most friendly in the NFL with $36,555,700 to spend, according to spotrac.com. The salary cap is a complicated beast, and the number from Spotrac might be flawed because of contract provisions of which they are not aware.
One area through which the Colts are unlikely to improve is through the 2014 draft. Without a first and fourth rounder because of trades, the Colts only have five picks, and that will make it tough to hit it big with youth.
Another consideration is the cap hit that Luck will cause beginning in 2015. Luck is under contract through 2015, with a team option for 2016 that becomes worth the average of the top ten paid players at Luck’s position. The following year, the Colts could franchise Luck for one year at the average salary of the top five quarterbacks.
The Colts will almost certainly sign Luck to an extension after 2014 that will both reward Luck as the future of the franchise, while suppressing his cap number to a level that doesn’t require the Colts to mortgage the rest of their roster.
The free agents the Colts will need to keep or allow to walk are:
- S Antoine Bethea: 29 – Likely a goodbye to one of the four players remaining with the Colts who owns a Super Bowl XLI ring. Bethea has been quite good for a long time, but he and LeRon Landry are similar players, and the amount of cash Bethea will cost could be spent to net a safety with cover skills that will better compliment Landry. This isn’t a done deal as Bethea was the only Colt to play more than 1,000 defensive snaps (1,048).
- K Adam Vinatieri: 41 – Still one of the best kickers in the NFL, Vinatieri made 38-43 attempts in 2013, including the playoffs. From 50+ yards, he was 4-6, so distance is not a concern yet. Anyone remember the playoff losses that came because of Mike Vanderjagt misses? Sign Vinatieri.
- P Pat McAfee: 26 – The third best punter in the NFL, according to profootballfocus.com, and also a very solid public representative for the team. McAfee also kicks off, which allows Vinatieri to focus on what he does best. Sign him.
- RB Donald Brown: 26 – This is a toughie that will be determined by whether the Colts feel they can get better value elsewhere. Football is a business, and Brown’s future in Indy will be determined by how much he is coveted elsewhere. The Colts will not be put in a position to win an auction for Brown’s continued solid play.
- WR Darrius Heyward-Bey: 26 – Despite being a very supportive teammate who embraced his reduced role on special teams, he’s likely a goner. Someone is going to over-evaluate DHB because of his speed, and that will keep the Colts from paying him at a logical level for doing what he does well – all those things that don’t involve hands.
- G Mike McGlynn: 28 – The question with the guys on the interior of the offensive line is whether they are in any position to lose any of them, or whether they are in a position to keep any of them? McGlynn and center Samson Satele would appear to be the guys most likely to be replaced.
- RB Ahmad Bradshaw: 27 – Oft-injured, late 20s. Goodby.
- CB Vontae Davis: 25 – Best corner on the team acquired for a second rounder. Likely an $8 million per year guy. Sign him.
- G Jeff Linkenbach: 26 – Linkenbach can do a lot of things okay. Serviceable backup. At the right price, he’s a good guy to have around.
- CB Cassius Vaughn: 26 – There have to be free agent corners who will be better for the same cash.
- LB Pat Angerer: 26 – He’s a goner. Traditional 4-3 MLB stuck in a 3-4 system that doesn’t suit him.
- DT Aubrayo Franklin: 33 – Who knows?
- DE Fili Moala: 28 – Probably gone. Injured, 28, and mediocre.
- LB Kavell Conner: 26 – I have always liked Kavell Conner, but not a lot of productivity this season for the soon-to-be 27 year-old. He played only 115 defensive snaps, which represent roughly 10% of all defensive plays. Also a very good special teamer.
- S Sergio Brown: 25 – Great special teams player. No idea the market for him. The Colts have the cash, but is the money better invested elsewhere. Decisions like this are why GM Ryan Grigson makes the big bucks.
- CB Josh Gordy: 26 – See Cassius Vaughn.
- OL Joe Reitz: 26 – I like Joe Reitz as a versatile back-up offensive lineman, but that might have more to do with him being the brother-in-law of a kid that I coached in little league for four years.
- LB Scott Lutrus: 25 – I’m not an expert on Scott Lutrus.
- DE Ricardo Mathews: 26 – Depends upon expense. At the minimum, why not?
- LB Lawrence Sidbury: 27 – Healthy, he can play.
- LB Cam Johnson: 23 – No idea
- LB Justin Hickman: 28 – Again, no idea
- DT Jeris Pendleton: 30 – I root for Jeris because his story is unique. Supposed to go to Michigan State on scholarship out of Chicago Dunbar, he didn’t qualify academically, and he went to work for six years to help with the family financial situations. At 24, he decided to try to right that wrong, and enrolled at Joliet JC. He transferred to Ashland, and was a 28 year-old seventh round pick for Jaguars in 2012. I like good stories, and would sign him just so I wasn’t the guy who ended his dream. That romanticism is one of the multitude of reasons I am not a general manager in the NFL.
What free agents the Colts pursue will be determined by which of those they keep. Obviously, they need interior offensive lineman and help in the defensive backfield. Fortunately, the Colts are set where it’s most important – quarterback, speed rusher, and offensive tackle.
Expect Grigson to be just as busy over the next four months as he was following the surprising 2012 season.