Colts’ first free-agent question: Which of their own to re-sign?

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Former long-time Indianapolis Colts front-office executive/Hall of Famer Bill Polian used to bristle whenever asked about his aversion to investing in the NFL’s veteran free agent market.

To summarize his reply: You’re not paying attention.

“We pay for free agents,’’ Polian argued. “We pay for our own.’’

That the Polian-led Colts did. They routinely ignored other teams’ castoffs at the outset of free agency and concentrated on keeping their own free agents off the market. The philosophy of recognizing core players and reinvesting in them paid monster dividends over the course of the 2000s.

It appears Chris Ballard, who’s been the Colts’ general manager for six weeks, is in lockstep with Polian as the NFL braces for its next round of free agency. The new league year, and free agency, begins Thursday although teams are allowed to negotiate with other teams’ free agents starting Tuesday at 4 p.m.

The first step for Ballard and the Colts, though, is determining which of their own to re-sign. Ballard addressed the subject at the NFL Scouting Combine and could have been reading from a script prepared by Polian.

“You want to keep your own,’’ he said. “You want to raise your own, pay your own, make sure they stay in your organization for their careers.’’

To recap, players whose contracts expire Thursday:

  • Unrestricted: TE Jack Doyle, S Mike Adams, CB/S Darius Butler, LB Erik Walden, LB Trent Cole, LB Chris Carter, RB Robert Turbin, RB Jordan Todman, CB Darryl Morris, S Duke Williams, G Hugh Thornton.
  • Restricted: OL Jon Harrison, DL Zach Kerr, LB Josh McNary.
  • Exclusive: TE Erik Swoope, WR Quan Bray.

The only caveat to Ballard’s retain-your-own statement is the Colts’ pending free agents aren’t his free agents. They were acquired by fired GM Ryan Grigson.

Ballard has offered a fresh set of eyes on a roster that has finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98. It’s his responsibility to be cost-effective when determining which – if any – of the Colts’ free agents to re-sign.

The diciest decision undoubtedly involves Doyle. The Cathedral High School product was one of the NFL’s most productive tight ends last season – 59 receptions, 584 yards, five TDs, all of which eclipsed his totals from his first three seasons – and emerged as Andrew Luck’s most trusted receiver.

But will the Colts pony up what it will cost to retain Doyle? That might well be an annual average salary in excess of $6 million. And that’s after signing Dwayne Allen to a four-year, $29.4 year contract 12 months ago.

It’s no secret the Colts must upgrade their pass rush, and Walden led them with a career-best 11 sacks last season. But he’ll be 32 on opening day and never had more than 6 sacks in a season prior to ’16. Was last season an aberration? Are the Colts willing to risk millions to find out?

Butler would be worth re-signing, if common ground on his market value can be achieved. He began making a career switch last season, playing a ton of safety along with handling his nickel corner duties. Butler, at 31, would represent a veteran presence and versatility in the secondary. His experience would be invaluable if the team, as expected, allows Adams, 36, to walk.

As for the three restricted free agents, if the Colts decline to offer a one-year tender – there are three levels based on salary and compensation should the player sign with another team – each becomes an unrestricted free agent. The three levels: first-round compensation ($3.91 million), second-round ($2.746 million), equal draft pick if player was drafted ($1.797 million).

Ballard declined to elaborate on the Colts’ plans for their own personnel, but IndyStar reported, citing a league source, the team isn’t expected to issue a restricted tender to Kerr. In three seasons, Kerr has been an invaluable rotational player: 36 games, eight starts, 68 tackles, 5.5 sacks.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.