INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — While it’s far more exciting to fantasize about the Colts landing a shiny, new, high-profile free agent, anyone who’s paid attention to Chris Ballard over the last three years will tell you that’s not his style.
Since taking over as general manager in 2017, Ballard has opted for the free agent bargain bin rather than jump into a bidding war for the biggest names available. The largest splash he’s made was inking Justin Houston last offseason, and even that was a short-term deal that poses little risk to the organization over the long haul.
Overall, the strategy has been successful thus far. The signings of player like Jabaal Sheard, Eric Ebron, Mark Glowinski and Denico Autry may not have inspired the fanbase to clear their schedules for a Super Bowl parade, but all have far outproduced initial expectations.
Despite having a projected $86 million in salary cap space — second highest in the NFL — according to spotrac.com, it would be uncharacteristic of Indianapolis to be big spenders in 2020.
With that in mind, here are five impending free agents who may not be atop the average fan’s wish list, but could pay major dividends for the Colts this upcoming season.
Shelby Harris – Defensive Tackle – Age 28
You may have seen last week’s report that the Colts have “legitimate interest” in Harris, and it makes sense. Indianapolis needs to upgrade the interior defensive line, and Harris has quietly been one of the more productive interior defenders over the last few years. He’s hasn’t missed a game in three seasons, has 5.5 or more sacks in two of the last three years and earned an elite 90.8 grade from Pro Football Focus in 2018. Harris’ age — he turns 29 in August — will likely keep his market value at a reasonable price. With an abundance of salary cap space, the Colts could certainly offer Harris a contract in the ballpark of $30 million over three years.
Jason Peters – Offensive Tackle – Age 38
Left tackle will quickly become a top priority for the Colts should Anthony Castonzo — who’s considering retirement for “personal reasons” — decide to call it a career. Despite his advanced age, Peters continues to play at a high level when on the field. He finished 2019 with a 82.8 grade from PFF and allowed just 25 QB pressures. After trading up to draft tackle Andre Dillard in the first round last year, the Eagles, who have other needs to fill, appear likely to move on from Peters. The 15-year veteran has missed a handful of games due to injury over the last few seasons, but if healthy, he would provide Indianapolis with a high level stop-gap while the team finds their long-term blindside protector. A one to two-year deal worth $10-$13 million per season is a contract both sides should feel comfortable with.
Arik Armstead – Defensive Line – Age 26
A former first round pick, Armstead enjoyed a breakout season in 2019 that saw him rack up a career-high 10 sacks and 54 total tackles. But with just nine sacks in his previous four seasons combined, Armstead’s sudden jump in production during a contract year raises a red flag. It’s up to the Colts to determine if Armstead is for real or free agent fool’s gold, but the 26-year-old is undoubtedly talented. At 6’7″, 290 pounds, Armstead would be an enticing replacement for impending free agent Jabaal Sheard at left defensive end, with the ability to slide inside on passing downs. If teams are willing to pay him for his 2019 season alone, Armstead’s asking price could quickly exceed what Indy is willing to pay. However, I could see the Colts offering him a five-year contract worth roughly $10 million per season with the ability for Indianapolis to get out of the deal after three years.
Jarran Reed – Defensive Tackle – Age 27
After being selected in the second round of the 2016 draft, Reed took leaps forward for Seattle in 2018 when he accumulated 10.5 sacks. That momentum was derailed when the ‘Bama product was hit with a 6-game suspension to start 2019 for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. The Colts will of course want to do their due diligence on that matter, but if he checks out, Reed has the shown the capability to provide their defensive interior the pass-rush boost it desperately needs. A one-year prove-it deal makes sense for both sides, as Reed will likely be motivated to illustrate that he’s worth the substantial, multi-year contract few teams will be willing to currently offer.
Maliek Collins – Defensive Tackle – Age 24
Have you noticed a trend? With needs at quarterback, wide receiver and potentially left tackle, the Colts will likely have to upgrade the defensive line, at least in part, through free agency. Collins has been a solid starter for the Cowboys since being drafted near the top of the third round in 2016, but with several star players in need of new contracts, Dallas will likely spend their buck elsewhere. Collins has a few things going for him, including youth and a familiarity with defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who was with Dallas during Collins’ first two seasons in the league. Perhaps Eberflus believes he can get Collins to play up to the potential he showed as a rookie, when he posted a career-high 5 sacks.