As the neutral fan in each of us enjoys the thrilling last few games of this NFL season, the Colts fan in us all look ahead to free agency and the draft. It’s a time of the year when so much seems possible. Despite the immense disappointment of the way the Colts season ended, now we can look at any big player even rumoured to be slightly displeased with their current team and imagine them playing for the Colts next year.
While some big names like Julio Jones last year do become available for trade or in free agency, most of the big names tend to stay put. Some great players like Trey Hendrickson last year do hit free agency, but there tends to be a reason players hit free agency. Rarely does the perfect player make it. Even if they did, we know that the Colts under Chris Ballard rarely make the big money free agency signings. Although he isn’t afraid to make big trades, as the Buckner and Wentz trades show.
There are good reasons to believe the Colts will be more aggressive this free agency. Jim Irsay made clear that last season wasn’t good enough. We know Irsay still has faith in Ballard and Reich, but he’s made it clear he expects better results next year. His video on the tarmac next to his private jet after the loss to Jacksonville left no doubt that he expects the Colts to be all in this year.
I don’t blame Ballard for being reluctant to make big moves in free agency previously. The approach has avoided the big dead cap hits other teams have absorbed and the frantic first days of free agency to lend themselves to overpaying for players. But the Colts look like a good team ready to win if they can just fill a few key spots on the roster. With less draft capital this year but a healthy amount of cap space, they have to look seriously at filling those gaps in free agency. With Jim Irsay so keen and willing to open his chequebook so the team can win now, Ballard will have to justify his decision not to spend in free agency to Irsay if the team underperforms once again.
There is also the possibility this year that an unusually high number of great players could be available in free agency or via a trade. I’m talking about the number of teams who have been very good over the past few years but now face salary cap hell. Teams who therefore may have to part with players they would otherwise be unwilling to do so. Because these trades are forced by the urgent need to get under the cap, players will potentially be available at a much cheaper price than they normally would be.
I’m specifically thinking of the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints are in the worst position, with a negative cap space of just over $75m. That’s with players including Terron Armstead hitting free agency. The Packers situation isn’t much better. They have a negative $50m space and Davante Adams, Kevin King and De’Vondre Campbell are amongst the many players hitting free agency. We can’t say for sure that the rumours of Adams wanting $30m a year are true, but as probably the best wide receiver in the league it’s understandable if he’s seeking more than the $25m a year DeAndre Hopkins is currently getting.
Tampa Bay does have $11m in cap space next year, although their effective cap space is $4m. The issue for Tampa is that Godwin, Suh, Pierre-Paul, Gronkowski and Fournette are all amongst their many players hitting free agency. You don’t need to be a genius to work out they can’t resign or replace all those players with the cap space they have left. With Brady seemingly retiring, players may be keener to leave, and the team may decide now is the right time for a rebuild. If Aaron Rodgers does retire this year, Green Bay could face the same dilemma.
This could lead to some better players available to be traded to the Colts or signed in free agency than in usual years. New Orleans should commit to the rebuild and address their salary cap issues now. They have a strong defence but have just lost Sean Payton only a year after losing Drew Brees. Whilst three other QBs (Winston, Siemian and Bortles) are free agents this year. They’re not going to be winning a Super Bowl anytime soon and so should trade their big-name players, acquire significant draft capital and finally take the salary cap hit they’ve been putting off for years.
Terron Armstead is already heading for free agency and surely won’t be resigned by the Saints. As an elite left tackle, Armstead would be attractive to the Colts. He’d fill an important in the team and given his previous contract gave him $13m a year, he likely wouldn’t break the bank. One downside would be that as a 31-year-old, he wouldn’t be a long-term option. Ballard might also be reluctant to invest too much of his cap space in the offensive line given Nelson’s upcoming payday and the money Smith and Kelly are already getting paid.
If New Orleans does accept they need to trade big name players currently under contract, Michael Thomas and Marshon Lattimore would be attractive options. We all know how badly the Colts need more offensive weapons next year, regardless of who is at Quarterback. Michael Thomas has had an odd two years, but we shouldn’t forget how elite his 2019 season was. His $19.25m average yearly salary would likely be too much for the Colts. But if his injury-strewn last two years do meaningfully reduce his price, he’d certainly be an option for the Colts to seriously consider. Marshon Lattimore is an elite cornerback who almost every NFL team should want on their teams. He’d bring quality and experience to a talented but young Colts starting secondary. Having said that, Lattimore justifiably commands a hefty $19.5m average annual salary. That’s a lot for a position that isn’t a priority for the Colts, a position that probably needs depth rather than a new star.
If New Orleans are the most likely team to have big names available, Green Bay are the team with the most attractive star players. They have four elite players at key positions the Colts have holes at. All four players they may have to let go to get under the cap. Davonte Adams is the only one of the four who will be a free agent. Indianapolis badly need more talent at wide receiver and Adams is probably the best in the game. That being said, if Adams does want $30m a year, the Colts money is probably better spent on a number of good players. I’d suggest Ballard would be better off attempting to get Robinson, Ertz and Ogbah instead for likely not too much more than that $30m. Both the Bengals and Chargers have the cap space and elite Quarterbacks to get Adams, although I’m not convinced wide receiver is the greatest need for either team.
Aaron Rodgers would be an instant solution to the Colts QB dilemma were he to decide on a change of teams over retirement. Rodgers is a strong contender to pick up consecutive league MVP awards. His postseason performance has left a lot to be desired, but he’s a brilliant player who wouldn’t have to play the 49ers in the postseason until the Super Bowl. The biggest downside to Rodgers for the Colts is the fact he may only have another year left in him, especially if he did win a Super Bowl with the Colts. Does Indianapolis really want to be back in QB purgatory in a few years’ time? Especially when the likes of Buckner, Nelson and Leonard will be in their primes?
David Bakhtiari is one of the very best left tackles in the game who would instantly fill one of the Colts’ biggest needs. I’d certainly love to see Taylor running through the chasms created between Bakhtiari and Nelson. However, Bakhtiari isn’t much younger than Armstead but would likely be significantly more expensive. His current contract pays him $23m a year. Adding him to the Colts offensive line would make it an incredibly expensive line whilst not necessarily solving the position in the long-term. Bakhtiari would be a brilliant new LT for most teams in the NFL, and would actually be a good fit for a team like the Bengals. But if the Colts do pursue a veteran LT this offseason, I think Armstead is a much more likely option.
The Packer who I think would be best suited to the Colts would be Za’Darius Smith. We know they need to improve their pass rush having finished 25th in the league in sacks last year. Pundits and analysts have rightly discussed the quality of Quarterbacks in the AFC. With Mahomes, Allen, Burrow, Herbert and Jackson set to be in the league for a long time. It’s not easy finding a QB who can match those names. But if you can’t get yourself a Quarterback like that, you can get yourself a pass rush that consistently gets to those Quarterbacks. Za’Darius Smith could be that guy. Whilst his 2022 season was a write-off due to injuries, he picked up 12.5 and 13.5 sacks in his other two seasons with the Packers. Smith is 29 so should have several good seasons left in him. At $16.5m a year, his contract is only the 12th most expensive amongst edge rushers in the league and would offer good value for his production. I’d certainly want Smith and another good player for the money Davante Adams is supposedly asking for.
If the Packers are clearing house, the likes of King and Campbell are talented players who would undoubtedly be in high demand across the league, but aren’t in positions of great need for Indianapolis. Robert Tonyan wouldn’t be the blockbuster signing of the other Packers names I’ve mentioned, but could be a solution to the team’s issues at Tight End.
I don’t expect Tampa Bay to do a major rebuild if Tom Brady has indeed retired, as a lot of their top players like Evans, Wirfs and Vea are young enough to endure a rebuild. I think they’d be more likely to not resign a lot of their many free agents, alongside potentially looking to trade Lavonte David as he’s 32-years-old. Chris Godwin is scheduled to hit free agency after playing on the franchise tag this season. He’d be the second best wide receiver in free agency after Adams and would be significantly more affordable if he gets paid anything like the almost £16m he’s received this year. However, even that is a lot for Ballard to spend on a WR in free agency and I could see his price being pushed higher. If the Buccaneers do undertake a soft rebuild, I could see them resigning Godwin as he’s still a young player but let a lot of their free agent veterans go.
Many of the Tampa players scheduled to hit free agency are good veterans who are important members of the team but not their most valuable players. I’d expect Gronkowski to follow Brady into retirement. I could envisage Pierre-Paul or Suh being useful options for the Colts on short-term contracts, whilst OJ Howard could be a useful addition to the Colts TE room. However, I expect the big names and big contracts of Mike Evans and Shaquil Barrett to stay put.
There’s no guarantee that the players I’ve discussed will be available, what it would cost to get them or whether the Colts would be aggressive enough to go get any of them. But the financial pressures facing those three teams makes it more likely than usual that big names will hit the market. Whilst the reasons for Chris Ballard to be unusually aggressive in free agency this year mean the Colts have a good chance of getting one of them. We should remember that despite the disappointing way their season ended, the Colts will be an attractive destination for a lot of good players.