INDIANAPOLIS – It’s a question that’s tossed in Chris Ballard’s direction every year at this time.
Is this the year?
The NFL’s free-agent market opens next week, and once again the Indianapolis Colts’ fan base is curious whether this is the year Ballard is more willing to use free agency to help fix what’s wrong with the franchise. And let’s not kid ourselves, there’s a lot wrong with a team that imploded enroute to a 4-12-1 record that included the first seven-game losing streak to end a season since 1953.
The Colts hold the No. 4 pick in the April draft and most likely will invest it in their quarterback of the future. We’ll see if that means sitting at No. 4 or moving up a few spots to get the guy they truly believe can return the franchise to relevancy.
But first, free agency.
It officially opens Wednesday at 4 p.m., but players with expiring contracts are allowed to negotiate with other teams – it’s been labeled the legal tampering period on the NFL calendar – beginning Monday at noon. A contract with a new team can’t be finalized until the start of the new league year.
Ballard always has used the free-agency tool in building his rosters, albeit not with the fervor his fan base would prefer. That’s a core belief, but also one that’s necessary while working for a small-market franchise. Generally, he’s been a selective shopper while others have thrown tens of millions in guaranteed money to other teams’ castoffs.
The hits – Stephon Gilmore, Rodney McLeod, Philip Rivers, T.J. Carrie, Xavier Rhodes, Justin Houston, Denico Autry, Eric Ebron, Jabaal Sheard – have far outweighed the misses – Eric Fisher and Devin Funchess (injury) come to mind.
However, the landscape has changed. A sense of urgency permeates the Indiana Farm Bureau Football complex after a season that cost Frank Reich his job.
There are solid building blocks: Jonathan Taylor, Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith, DeForest Buckner, Shaq Leonard (if he makes a full recovery from a second back surgery), Gilmore, Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce, Grover Stewart, Zaire Franklin.
But there are areas of major concern: quarterback, the offensive line, wideout, pass-rushing end, cornerback, safety.
As much as possible, Ballard’s roster-building approach has centered on the draft – get the right guys, then re-sign them when warranted – with free-agency and trades being complementary tools.
Might that change considering last season’s unacceptable finish?
“I’ve got to grow,’’ Ballard conceded in January. “I’m very stubborn and dogmatic sometimes. I do believe we have to be great up front; that’s in my blood. That’ll be on my grave, and we weren’t good enough this year.
“In terms of how we build the rest of the roster, that’s an area we’ll examine hard and move forward and grow.’’
Every personnel move in the coming weeks will be done with returning the franchise to prominence in mind. The Colts have missed the playoffs the last two seasons and in six of the last eight.
“Obviously we’re not good enough,’’ Ballard said. “You finish 4-12-1, I’m not going to sit here and act like, ‘You know what? We had a Super Bowl roster.’
“We had some talent issues that we had to correct. I do think there’s some building pieces here. They’ve got to play better. Our best players gotta play to their standard. But I don’t think we’re void of talent. We need to add more talent.’’
That in mind, here are some area to consider as free agency looms:
TOP FREE AGENTS
- DE Yannick Ngakoue
- WR Parris Campbell
- PK Chase McLaughlin
- LB Bobby Okereke
- LB E.J. Speed
- DL Tyquan Lewis
- S Rodney McLeod
- OL Matt Pryor
- CB Brandon Facyson
AREAS OF CONCERN
Quarterback: The April draft undoubtedly will deliver the quarterback of the future to the roster. But it’s hard to imagine Ballard and coach Shane Steichen tossing the rookie into the fire from the outset. As much as everyone is flat worn out by the revolving veteran QBs, another “bridge’’ guy will be required. No one expects either Matt Ryan or Nick Foles to return. How about adding Gardner Minshew? He worked well as Jalen Hurts’ backup in Philly the last two seasons.
Pass rush: The overriding question is how the Colts value Yannick Ngakoue. He led the team with 9.5 sacks in his first season in Indy and is one of five players in NFL history to pile up at least 8 in each of his first seven seasons. But there were too many times when Ngakoue was a non-factor. He earned $13 million in 2022 on the final year of his contract. Considering defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is back for another season, re-signing Ngakoue makes sense.
If Ballard looks to the free-agent market, he’ll likely have to overpay for another team’s castoff. Jacksonville’s Arden Key is interesting. Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo need help if Ngakoue isn’t re-signed.
Receiver: Adding the QB of the future requires surrounding him with a legitimate supporting cast. As it stands, Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce are the only proven wideouts under contract for 2023. It makes sense to retain Parris Campbell, who finally proved he could stay on the field and be relevant last season. If the price is right, of course. It’s a thin receiver group in free agency, which should boost Campbell’s value.
The free-agent market includes Adam Thielen, Robert Woods, Odell Beckham Jr., JuJu Smith-Schuster, Jakobi Meyers, DJ Chark Jr., Mecole Hardman and Allen Lazard.
Offensive line: No area was more responsible for last season’s collapse. Ballard and his personal staff bet on Matt Pryor being the answer at left tackle and Danny Pinter being the guy at right guard. Neither worked. It was uncharacteristic for Ballard not to adequately address positional competition and fortify the offensive line, and that isn’t likely to happen again.
“It guts me,’’ he said of inadequacies of the o-line. “When you can’t block people, it’s hard to win. That’s an area that we will make sure we have enough competition and enough depth here moving forward where we’ll be good up front.’’
The Colts need Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith and Ryan Kelly to regain their form; if, that is, Kelly is back. The team can create nearly $8 million in cap space by releasing the veteran center.
Bernhard Raimann’s development at left tackle is critical. He was effective late after struggling early as a rookie. Pryor failed at left tackle which necessitated turning to Raimann before he was ready, and he also struggled at right tackle and right guard. But we’d be in favor of re-signing him and giving him a chance to be part of the group’s depth.
We’d also be in favor of looking to free agency for a veteran tackle – push Raimann for the starting spot or be the swing guy – and for a starting right guard. Philadelphia’s Isaac Seumalo was a 20-game starter in Steichen’s offense last season.
Cornerback: A team can never have too many viable corners in today’s NFL. We like Stephon Gilmore and Isaiah Rodgers, but suitable depth is lacking. That’s especially true if Kenny Moore II doesn’t return. He wasn’t as good of a fit in Bradley’s scheme as Matt Eberflus’. And there’s the fact the Colts free up roughly $8 million by parting ways with one of their more engaging players.
The free-agent pool includes Tampa Bay’s Jamel Dean, Philly’s James Bradberry, Jacksonville’s Shaq Griffin and Baltimore’s Marcus Peters. Oh, and there’s Rock Ya-Sin, the Colts’ 2019 second-round pick who was traded to the Raiders for Ngakoue.
The limit: The league’s cap sits at $224.8 million, up from $208.2 million in 2022. Teams must be under the cap March 15, which is the start of the new league year.
Colts’ status: According to overthecap.com, Indy is $11.9 million under the cap. That doesn’t reflect having to budget roughly $7 million for their draft class. What must be kept in mind is the cap is a moving target. The Colts will free up $17.2 million by parting ways with Matt Ryan and another $2 million by releasing Nick Foles. Doing something with Kenny Moore II frees up another $8.1 million. There also are a few veteran contracts that can be restructured for additional cap space.
They could free up roughly $7.9 million by releasing Ryan Kelly, but then would need to spend in free agency to replace him.
Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.
You can follow the Colts Blue Zone on Twitter at @ColtsBlueZone.