Are you ready? NFL’s free agency bonanza begins

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JANUARY 08: A detail of the official National Football League NFL logo is seen painted on the turf as the New York Giants host the Atlanta Falcons during their NFC Wild Card Playoff game at MetLife Stadium on January 8, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It begins.

Arguably the most interesting and debate-fueling phase of the NFL’s calendar is underway, and only figures to intensify in the coming days and weeks.

Welcome back, free agency. Teams were allowed to negotiate with pending free agents beginning at noon Monday, but contracts cannot be finalized until the start of the new league year, Wednesday at 4 p.m.

We’ve already gotten an early boost thanks to Antonio Brown, who maneuvered his way out of Pittsburgh and now is the face of the Oakland Raiders. We’ve got pending deals in place for a Quarterback Carousel that sends Joe Flacco from Baltimore to Denver and Case Keenum from Denver to Washington, and everyone anticipates Nick Foles relocating from Philadelphia to Jacksonville by the end of the week.

Kansas City slapped the franchise tag on Dee Ford, but apparently is listening to trade offers, and the Chiefs released Justin Houston. The New York Giants’ novel approach to improving their No. 24-ranked defense includes trading sack leader Olivier Vernon to Cleveland and opting not to use the franchise tag on Landon Collins, allowing their three-time Pro Bowl safety to hit the open market.

Early signings for players who’ve been released include Eric Weddle (from Baltimore to the Los Angeles Rams), Malik Jackson (Jacksonville to Philadelphia) and Dwayne Allen (New England to Miami).

And it’s still so very early.

Here’s where we remind you Chris Ballard enters free agency with the ability to do whatever he wants in terms of addressing an Indianapolis Colts roster good enough to post a 10-6 record, earn a wild-card playoff berth and win at Houston in the first round of the postseason, but deficient in enough areas to be overwhelmed at Kansas City in the second round.

The Colts have an NFL-high $101 million in cap space.

We expect them to be busy, but not initially when the crazy money flows. In his first two years, Ballard has targeted so-called second-tier free agents (Denico Autry, Eric Ebron, Jabaal Sheard, John Simon). The only real exception was Johnathan Hankins, who was given $14.5 million guaranteed on a three-year deal that lasted one year.

While we expect Ballard to follow his active-but-selective blueprint in the coming days, we’re not going to be shocked if he deviates. The Colts lack playmakers and the NFL is all about a team possessing a handful of players who make a difference.

Which players on this roster do teams fear? Andrew Luck. T.Y. Hilton. Darius Leonard. Maybe Eric Ebron. Maybe.

For the Colts to establish themselves as a legitimate championship contender, they need a bona fide pass rusher and a top-flight sidekick for Hilton, another linebacker and help in the secondary.

Free agency offers a quick fix, if Ballard and his personnel staff are willing to take the risk.

It’s worth keeping in mind agents are adept at churning the market for their clients by leaking interest from this team or that team. The more interest – real or perceived – the better payday.

With the clock ticking and social media whirling, the Colts have been linked to Collins, Ford, Houston, C.J. Mosley, Baltimore’s four-time Pro Bowl linebacker and Chargers wideout Tyrell Williams.

Believe what you will.

Trust no one.

Colts’ free agents:

Ballard still might re-sign a few of his own free agents in the coming day. A quick recap of how he’s handled his own:

Re-signed: PK Adam Vinatieri (1 year, $3.825 million), G Mark Glowinski (3 years, $18 million), DL Margus Hunt (2 years, $9 million), TE Ross Travis (1 year, $645,000).

Unrestricted: S Clayton Geathers, CB Pierre Desir, WR Dontrelle Inman, WR Ryan Grant, DL Al Woods, LB Najee Goode, S Mike Mitchell, TE Ryan Hewitt, S J.J. Wilcox, OT J’Marcus Webb, DE Geneo Grissom.

Restricted: WR Chester Rogers, C Evan Boehm, S Matthias Farley, CB Chris Milton, S Corey Moore, RB Jonathan Williams, OL Josh Andrews.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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