With the draft far behind us and pre-season a long time away, we are well and truly in the quiet period of the NFL offseason. However, one source of excitement for fans around this time every year is the contract holdouts of particular star players.
Fortunately for the Colts, years of good management from Chris Ballard has ensured the Colt’s locker room is a happy one. However, the team does need to sort out some significant new contracts for Darius Leonard and Braden Smith this year. At the same time, Quenton Nelson should be in line for a market-setting contract the year after.
At this stage, all the signs suggest that these deals will get done in plenty of time with all parties satisfied. If so, the Colt’s primary interest in contract holdouts will continue to be eying dissatisfied players who may be available for trades.
Two of the most interesting contract holdouts are elite cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Xavien Howard. I’m not discussing Aaron Rodgers as he could take up an entire article on his own, and even if he is available, the Colts won’t be interested having traded for Wentz.
While the Colt’s secondary looks strong with Moore, Rhodes, Blackmon, and Willis, they appear vulnerable at that other cornerback slot. Last year that position was occupied by Rock Ya-Sin, but he’ll have to earn the job again this year. Young Isiah Rodgers, returning Marvell Tell III, and veteran TJ Carrie will attempt to stake their claims.
Either Gilmore or Howard would be an upgrade at the position were the Colts able to secure their services. But which is better, which would make more sense for the Colts? What would it likely take to trade for them?
It’s hard to overlook Gilmore’s excellent 2019 Defensive Player of the Year worthy season. While Gilmore’s performances last year were hampered by injuries, he has consistently been an elite cornerback since joining the Patriots. It certainly never hurts to have Super Bowl winners on your team.
Like Jones, Gilmore is one of the best in the league at his position and would make any team better. However, I think he’s just too old to be a good fit for the Colts. Realistically any team trading for Gilmore should only bank on one or two more elite years from him.
The Colts have a great core of players in or entering their primes, and with Ballard’s strong record in the draft, they should be improving each year. Therefore the team should be looking at a Super Bowl window of five years or so before players like Buckner and Kelly might retire, leave or start to decline.
With this in mind, it doesn’t make sense to trade for a player who will make you better for the next two years but will hurt the team’s chances of winning a Super Bowl for the few years afterward. This is particularly relevant given the Colt’s current best orthodox cornerback is Rhodes. It wouldn’t be wise to spend precious draft capital on a new veteran cornerback that you’ll need to use to replace the one you’ve already got.
Xavien Howard probably isn’t as good as Gilmore in the short-term, but he’s likely a better fit for the Colts than Gilmore. That being said, Howard is certainly no slouch. He led the league in interceptions last year with ten, the most in a single season by any player since 2007.
Critics have highlighted that many of these interceptions weren’t against the top teams the Dolphins played last year, but they all count. There’s a lot to be said for players who take their opportunities regardless of whoever gives them to them.
Howard was the standout player in a strong Dolphins secondary last year, and was he to join the Colts; he’d help create a unit that really would have no weak links. The Colts wouldn’t need Howard to get ten interceptions a season to be a worthwhile signing. He’d have to continue to be a good all-around player in a strong unit. If he can help the Colts secondary become one of the best in the league, the team won’t mind whether the interceptions fall to Howard or someone else.
I expect Gilmore to remain with the Patriots this season after a pay rise. Were he to be traded, it would likely be to a team like the 49ers. I’d expect the haul given by the Titans to get Jones to be a reasonable benchmark of the draft capital any team getting Gilmore would have to give up.
It’s not entirely straightforward guessing what it would take to trade for Howard, given he’s significantly younger than Gilmore at 28 years old. A Bleacher Report article suggests a 2022 second-round pick may be enough to persuade Miami to let Howard go.
The Colts may not have a second-round pick next year due to the Carson Wentz trade, although I expect Wentz to play enough for that conditional pick to be a first-round pick.
Either way, the Colts diminished draft haul next year would make them reluctant to part with any more 2022 draft capital. Therefore I’m going to suggest that the Colts would offer a 2023 2nd round pick alongside Marvell Tell III or Rock Ya-Sin to sweeten the deal. The Colts could also get a later-round pick back as part of the deal.
Given the sizable number of draft picks the Dolphins have in the near future, I expect they’d be happier than most teams to defer gratification and accept the 2nd round pick being a 2023 one. Given the current strength of their secondary, they may also be willing to accept a solid and cheaper cornerback to replace Howard and instead put more money into their pass rush.
It’s hard to tell how much of Howard’s unhappiness with his Miami contract is down to feeling he’s not being paid enough and how much is down to feeling he’s not paid enough compared to teammate Byron Jones.
Howard only signed his $75m contract in 2019, which gives him an average of $15m a year. Howard isn’t worth the $20m a year that Ramsay makes at the top of the market. A $16.5m a year contract would match Byron Jones’. Were it to include more guaranteed money than Howard’s current deal and to be a genuine Super Bowl contender in the next few years; it might be enough for Howard.
According to Over the Cap, the Colts only currently have $14,283,749 in cap space. And of course, there are still the new contracts for Leonard and Smith to complete that I mentioned earlier. Therefore signing Howard would require some of the salary cap sleights of hand justifiably avoided by Chris Ballard so far.
If the Colts were to trade and ultimately sign Howard to a new contract, I’d expect him to only play one season with Rhodes, with Rhodes one year contract not being extended. This would save almost $5m, give the Colts a year of Rhodes and Howard playing together, and give them an extra year to decide if any of their young cornerbacks are Rhodes’ long-term replacement.
Whether the Colts can afford Howard today without causing too much long-term pain will largely depend on whether the salary cap can rebound and rise over the next two years as much as some people expect. Given the unprecedented coronavirus-induced drop in the cap this year and the NFL’s new sponsorship deal, it’s not unreasonable to expect the salary cap to rise quickly over the next three years. If it does, then the Colts should be able to afford to pay Howard without jeopardizing their ability to pay the likes of Nelson, Leonard, and Smith.
I’d like to see the Colts pursue Howard if he does become available for a trade this offseason. He’d make an already formidable defence significantly better and set the Colts up to be legitimate contenders to win Super Bowls over the next four seasons. That being said, it should only be considered if it won’t prevent the Colts from giving new contracts to their current key players.