The Colts 2023 season has ended. The team was agonisingly close to making the playoffs, but fans can take heart from a season that went much better than many of us expected. As NFL fans, we’ll all enjoy the playoffs, but as Colts fans, our minds inevitably now turn towards the future. We know Indianapolis will be picking 15th in the 2024 NFL Draft (barring any trades), but first our attention turns to free agency.
At his annual post-season press conference, Chris Ballard suggested a potentially more aggressive approach for the team in free agency.
Colts GM Chris Ballard Sets The Tone In “End-Of-Season” Presser
Hear from GM Chris Ballard at his end-of-season press conference: https://t.co/W9INn93YLJ
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) January 11, 2024
“I think we have more flexibility right now than we’ve had the last few years. A little bit of that is we’re not paying a quarterback big money anymore. We’re going to have some more flexibility. We’ll always be prudent, but we’ll be as aggressive as we need to be in free agency with players that we think can help us.”
Given Ballard’s usual reluctance to spend big in free agency, I wouldn’t expect fireworks this offseason. Ballard tends to believe that players hit the open market for a reason and he doesn’t tend to spend big money or be active in the first few days of free agency. We can likely expect Ballard to target those second-wave free agency players once again. Best case scenario, that’s more players like Samson Ebukam.
Samson Ebukam this season
39 Solo Tackles
18 Assisted Tackles
3 FF pic.twitter.com/AZfVmcLYU3
— NBANFLPosts (@NBANFLPosts) January 9, 2024
More Of The Same? Or Will Ballard Shake Things Up?
Some expected Ballard to be more aggressive in free agency last year as he was potentially fighting for his job given the disastrous 2022 season. That was always unlikely as the team started a rebuild with a new HC and QB. As Ballard’s quote alludes to, he does have more flexibility this year. Indianapolis let players like Gilmore and McLeod go last year so they could play for winning teams late in their careers. Indianapolis will be a much more attractive destination for free agents after a winning season, a Coach of the Year candidate, and an exciting new QB.
I don’t think we can expect Ballard to shell out for any top players in the prime of their careers who will hit the open market. But he might be willing to spend money to get a great player towards the end of their career, especially if they become a free agent because their team is way over the salary cap limit or are likely to be rebuilding. Those players could be ripe for the taking for a Colts team that has a great shot to win the AFC South next year and has the 7th most cap space in the NFL for 2024.
— Shaun Newkirk (@Shauncore) January 13, 2024
Teams That Might Be Forced Into Selling Off Pieces
So, which teams might be unable to bring back players due to the salary cap? And what players might they have to offload due to these financial constraints? There are 9 teams currently on track to have negative cap space in 2024 according to Overthecap.
The Chargers have negative $35m cap space and a roster with a lot of big-name, aging talent (alongside some great younger players like Justin Herbert and Rashawn Slater). Surely they’re ripe for a rebuild with a new GM and HC. The Saints are in by far the worst financial position in the NFL — a staggering $82m in the red. They may have been competitive in a lackluster NFC South, but they certainly don’t look to be Super Bowl contenders anytime soon. New Orleans would be wise to take its financial medicine now and look to build for the future.
Overthecap have helpfully put together a list of the Top 100 Possible Cut Candidates for 2024. Not all of these players could be considered big names if they do hit free agency, and many of them don’t play in positions the Colts are likely to prioritize this year. There are, however, several players on the list who I could envision being cut and whose value on the free agent market Indianapolis might be willing to pay.
Which Players Will Indy Have On Its Radar?
Of those possible cut candidates, I’ve focused on those who play for teams with negative cap space, have the most players on the list, and missed the playoffs. In some cases, a player’s team meets all three of these criteria. I’ve also prioritized players who would fill a position of need for the Colts, which I’ve considered the secondary and wide receivers.
#Colts GM Chris Ballard on WR Michael Pittman Jr.: "I care about him deeply. … We're gonna work to get him back."
— James Boyd (@RomeovilleKid) January 11, 2024
Wide receiver has to be a position the Colts look to get deeper and more explosive at this offseason, even if they do re-sign or tag Michael Pittman Jr. This could happen in the first round of the draft (but won’t mean Marvin Harrison Jr., I’m afraid). But there are some talented veteran WRs who would add a lot to the Indy receiving corps.
One receiver is Keenan Allen, who had an outstanding 1,243 receiving yards season that was ended prematurely by injury. The Chargers surely have to cut one of Allen or Mike Williams, even if rookie Quentin Johnston was deeply disappointing in 2023. Allen is older than Williams but would be a more exciting addition. At 32, his price would likely be significantly lower than his existing $20m a year contract. When healthy, he can clearly still be a dangerous weapon in the NFL, although his injury history would be a concern. His experience would also be a great help to the likes of Alec Pierce and Josh Downs.
Tyler Lockett Profiles As Perfect Mentor For Josh Downs
The Seahawks are in a much better situation than the Chargers, both in terms of their financial health and results on the field. However, they may still be willing to move on from veteran wideout Tyler Lockett. Seattle should still have a strong WR room without Lockett with D.K. Metcalf and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. They also look unlikely to challenge the 49ers to win the NFC West for the rest of Lockett’s career. As such, they could look to spend the money they’re currently paying Lockett in other areas of the team.
Perhaps on their defense, which has regressed season after season. Lockett’s just under 900 receiving-yard season was less impressive than the four 1,000-yard seasons preceding it, but he certainly looks like he can still play. Given he’s only an inch taller than Josh Downs, he might also be able to impart valuable advice on success and longevity in the league as a smaller receiver.
Lockett 2-point conversion
— NFL (@NFL) January 8, 2024
Courtland Sutton Is An Intriguing Potential Cut Candidate
There are some slightly younger potential cap casualties at wide receiver who might interest Indianapolis. Although their ages may increase their market value beyond what Ballard is willing to pay. One is Courtland Sutton, who perhaps would appreciate the QB stability in Indianapolis (when’s the last time we were able to say that?) compared to Denver. At $30m over the cap, Denver might look to cut Sutton and target a WR in the draft to pair with Jerry Jeudy.
Speaking of the Broncos, they may decide to part with 31-year-old star safety Justin Simmons to save on his $15m a year salary. They do already have the truly elite Patrick Surtain II to lead their secondary for years to come. If he did become available, Simmons would add skill and experience to a young and inconsistent group of safeties in Indianapolis.
— NFL (@NFL) January 8, 2024
Other potential veteran options to boost the Colts’ secondary currently play in Buffalo in Jordan Poyer and Tre’Davious White. At 29, White could still command big money on the open market as he’s been an elite cornerback since entering the league in 2017. The one factor that might dampen his value is his injury history. I’d be surprised if the Bills let him walk, but he’d have the chance to fill the Stephon Gilmore/Xavier Rhodes hole at CB if he did become a free agent. Jordan Poyer isn’t the player White is, he’s also older and the market for safeties is much cooler than it is for cornerbacks.
Help In The Secondary?
For those reasons, Poyer would be a cheaper and less exciting way for Indianapolis to strengthen its secondary. Nevertheless, Poyer would improve the team’s depth at the position and his experience could really help the likes of Nick Cross and Rodney Thomas.
I do think their receiving corps (especially WRs) and secondary (especially CBs) are the Colts two biggest needs this offseason. Depending on how the draft board falls, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ballard address those needs with his first two or even three draft picks.
There is another position that isn’t as much of a glaring need but is being discussed by the fanbase at this early stage of the Colts’ offseason. That position is edge rusher. The Colts pass rush was much improved in 2023, with the fifth-most sacks in the league (51). Samson Ebukam, Dayo Odeyingbo, Kwity Paye and DeForest Buckner all made big contributions to this success, with Grover Stewart once again being the “Guard Butcher” when not suspended.
Colts ranked 5th in sacks this season and rushed 4 guys pretty much the entire season because of the inexperience in the secondary.
— Justin Bauerle (@justinbauerle) January 12, 2024
The Pass Rush Was Impressive, But The Colts Need A Premier Piece Off The Edge
However, several Colts fans have highlighted the team’s lack of a prestige, elite edge rusher. The kind of game-changing player the likes of AFC rivals Pittsburgh and Cleveland can boast of possessing. Players like T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett are clearly never going to hit the open market and even if they did, Ballard is extremely unlikely to be the top bidder. There are, however, some big-name edge rushers who could hit the market this year and could make the Colts noticeably better.
The biggest name is perhaps Joey Bosa, who has been one of the best and most expensive edge rushers in the league year-after-year ($27m a year), although fellow Chargers edge rusher Khalil Mack is also a cut candidate. Bosa is the younger of the two and would likely command a higher price in free agency, but Mack had the stronger 2023 with 17 sacks and 5 forced fumbles. I think the former Bear and Raider is the more likely of the two to be cut given his age (32) and $23m cap savings if the Chargers cut him before June. Mack’s age should mean his next NFL contract is likely to be considerably less generous than his current price tag. It would certainly have to be for Ballard to go anywhere near it.
Could Joey Bosa Return To The Midwest?
If Bosa were to hit the free market, I’d anticipate him demanding one last big, multi-year deal. A deal that would be more generous than Indianapolis is willing to offer. Bosa might also be young enough for the Chargers to believe he’s worth keeping as they rebuild. That’s less likely with Mack, who might be willing to accept a cheaper, one-year deal at this stage in his career — a Jadeveon Clowney deal, but for someone who can consistently get sacks. Mack would be the kind of elite pass rusher who can move the needle for the Colts defensive line, taking attention from Buckner and setting an example for Paye and Odeyingbo.
As with any discussion about possible Colts free agent acquisitions, I’d urge readers not to get their hopes up about Ballard being too aggressive in free agency. Although, if this year is quiet again, we can at least take heart in the good state of the roster and the lack of glaring holes that must be filled in free agency.
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