INDIANAPOLIS — For better or worse, the 2021 offseason will be a major turning point for the Indianapolis Colts franchise.
Chris Ballard is entering his fifth offseason as general manager and has built up a competitive roster positioned to win now. The right additions have the ability to push an 11-5 football team with Super Bowl aspirations over the hump.
One such addition has already been made. The Colts agreed to send a 2021 third round draft pick and a conditional 2022 second round pick — that will likely become a first rounder — to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for quarterback Carson Wentz. If Wentz can revive his career in Indianapolis remains to be seen, but the Colts — who have opened the season with a different starting quarterback each of the past four years — clearly believe the 28-year-old can bring stability to the position.
Wentz brings with him cap hits of $25.4M and $22M over the next two seasons. Still, Spotrac projects the Colts to have nearly $42M in salary cap space, sixth most across the league. But not all of that money can be allotted to importing outside talent.
Beyond quarterback, Ballard must find a way to retain his young nucleus with cornerstone players like Darius Leonard, Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith all on the back end of their rookie contracts.
This is the long of way explaining that while Indianapolis has plenty of cap space to work with, they aren’t exactly in a position to go on a free agent spending spree. Ballard may splurge on a star player or two, but the majority of contracts given out will likely be mid to low-level signings in which the front office believes they’re getting a bargain.
Here are seven free agents who fit the Colts’ roster needs and salary cap situation:
Chris Godwin – Wide Receiver – Age 25
T.Y. Hilton’s contract is set to expire, and while youngsters Michael Pittman Jr. and Parris Campbell have displayed their talent in flashes, both are yet to establish themselves as reliable NFL wideouts. If Hilton, 31, and the Colts can’t agree on a new deal, expect Indianapolis to acquire an impact receiver of some form.
Godwin would be an uncharacteristic splash signing for Ballard, rivaled only by his move to acquire DeForest Buckner last offseason. But Godwin checks all the boxes — talent, production, youth, character — and providing Wentz a go-to, top-end receiver may be worth the five-year, $90M contract Spotrac projects Godwin to demand.
Alejandro Villanueva – Left Tackle – Age 32
Finding an adequate replacement for the recently retired Anthony Castonzo is arguably the Colts’ most pressing need. Whether he’s added through free agency or the draft, Castonzo’s successor at left tackle will be paramount to the success of the offensive line, and ultimately, the offense as a whole.
Should Indianapolis opt for the veteran route, Villanueva would offer dependability at a reasonable price. The two-time Pro Bowler has started every game over the past five seasons and earned a Pro Football Focus grade between 74 and 82 each year. Spotrac expects Villanueva’s next contract to be in the range of two years, $32M.
Carl Lawson – Defensive End – Age 25
The expiring contracts of defensive ends Justin Houston, Denico Autry and Al-Quadin Muhammad create yet another need at a premium position. Rather than spending to resign edge rushers on the wrong side of 30, the Colts could shell out for a younger player they view as up-and-coming.
Lawson has flashed as a situational pass rusher before taking on the role of a full-time starter in 2020. While he’s yet to record a double-digit sack season, the Colts may feel comfortable offering him a contract north of $10 million per year if they feel his best football is ahead of him.
William Jackson III – Cornerback – Age 28
Cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie played well for the Colts on one-year contracts, but now both are in need of new deals. Couple that with the inconsistent play of 2019 second round pick Rock Ya-Sin, and the outside corner position seems iffy at best.
If Indianapolis can’t retain Rhodes, Jackson III becomes an attract option. The former first rounder broke out in his second season, earning a PFF grade over 90, but hasn’t matched that level of play since. Perhaps the defensive staff believes they can revive Jackson III’s career as they did Rhodes’. Spotrac projects Jackson III to ink a deal in the three-year, $36M range.
Romeo Okwara – Defensive End – Age 25
If the Colts decide this year’s top-tier pass rushers aren’t in their budget, look for the organization to target a mid-level defensive end.
Okwara enjoyed a breakout fifth season in which he totaled 10 sacks and earned a 85.4 pass-rush grade from PFF, ninth best in the league. However, prior to 2020, the undrafted Notre Dame alum was considered a below average player, making him difficult to project. Indianapolis may take a swing at Okwara if they believe his career is on an upward trajectory, similar to Autry, who outplayed the three-year, $17.8 million contact he signed in 2018.
Marvin Jones – Wide Receiver – Age 30
Speaking of mid-level options, Jones makes a lot of sense if the Colts can’t strike a deal with Hilton and aren’t willing to break the bank for a top-end talent at WR.
Should that scenario play out, Jones would bring veteran experience to a young receiving corps while still providing playmaking ability. He has scored nine touchdowns in three of the last four years, and PFF graded him between 71 and 76 in each of his last six seasons. Spotrac predicts a two-year, $18M contract for Jones — a very affordable price for a still impactful wide receiver.
Gerald Everett – Tight End – Age 26
First there was Eric Ebron, then Trey Burton, now Everett? The 2017 second round pick could be next in line as the Colts’ athletic “move” tight end with Burton headed toward free agency. Frank Reich’s affinity for utilizing multiple tight ends has been well documented, and adding a mismatch weapon at the position would provide a boost to the offense.
Everett displayed exciting playmaking and run-after-the-catch ability in a limited role with the Rams. With a projected contract (PFF) of three years, $15M, we may look back at his signing as a steal if the Colts can get him in their system.
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