INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — The date is October 15. After losing their fifth game in six weeks, I’m looking up which top 2019 draft prospects would look best in Colts’ blue. Nick Bosa would be dreamy, but so would Rashan Gary and Ed Oliver should the Buckeye be taken.
Fast forward three months and I’m recovering from a divisional round playoff loss. Between then and now we learned quite a bit. Andrew Luck is back for real this time. Frank Reich was born to coach this team. Chris Ballard has stocked the Colts with a stable of young talent. But most notable is the fact that this group is still a few key pieces away from being legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
“The step from good to great? That’s the hard step,” Ballard said following the final loss of the season.
He’s not wrong. The NFL is littered with quality teams who can’t quite get over the hump. However, Ballard has more than enough capital to elevate Indianapolis to the next level. Not only do the Colts head into the offseason with four draft choices within the first 90 picks, but they boast the most salary cap space in the league. With roughly $120 million at their disposal, it’s natural to wonder if Ballard will divert from the free agent bargain bin and splurge on a marquee player. Afterall, the team’s surprising success has made Indianapolis a much more desirable destination.
“It wasn’t like people were beating our door down to come to Indianapolis,” said Ballard. “Do I think we are an attractive place (now)? Absolutely, I do.”
While it’s easy to get excited about the idea of landing the big-name free agent that pushes Indy over the edge, it’s important to remember that Ballard refuses to overpay for talent. The Colts assign a value to every player. If that player’s asking price exceeds their assigned value, Ballard has no problem walking away.
“When it gets out of reach, I just think we are comfortable enough to sleep at night saying we are going to find (another) answer,” Ballard proclaimed.
The Colts won’t let the open market dictate their decisions. If Ballard is to sign a big-name free agent, it will be because the market value and his assigned value align.
Keeping Ballard’s free agent philosophy in mind, let’s examine some of this year’s top free agents to determine their chances of joining the Colts.
Le’Veon Bell – Running Back – Pittsburgh Steelers
Bell is like the smoke-show sitting by herself across the bar. Sure, her sex appeal is tantalizing, but once exposed to her baggage you realize it was the coffee shop girl that you really loved all along. Romantic comedy references aside, the Colts have been rumored to be Bell’s preferred landing spot for months. While Bell has been one of the league’s best when on the field, his lengthy list of baggage suggests the Colts are likely to say, “no, thank you.” An ankle sprain and torn MCL forced him to miss 12 career games. He’s been suspended twice for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, costing him another five games in total. Bell turned down a five-year contract worth $70 million last summer that included $33 million guaranteed. He then chose to sit out the entire 2018 season rather than play under a $14.5 million franchise tag. So what are the chances Ballard breaks the bank for a 27-year-old running back who has been out of football for a year? Nonexistent.
Jadeveon Clowney – EDGE – Houston Texans
If Houston allows Clowney to hit the open market, he becomes an extremely intriguing option for the Colts. Not only would signing the three-time Pro Bowler fill a need at defensive end, but it would weaken a division foe in the process. Just entering his prime, Clowney turns 26 in February and has 18.5 sacks over the past two seasons. One could make the case the former first-overall pick is even better at defending the run than rushing the passer. However, injuries have been an issue for Clowney, who has played a full 16-game-season just once in his five-year career. Pass-rusher extraordinaire Von Miller earns roughly $17 million a year, which is approximately what Clowney is expected to demand. It’s hard to imagine Ballard feeling comfortable with making such a financial commitment to someone whose health has been unreliable.
DeMarcus Lawrence – Defensive End – Dallas Cowboys
Of everyone on this list, Lawrence may have the best chance of becoming a Colt. The 26-year-old has 25 sacks over the past two seasons, tied for fourth-most over that span. He’s also managed to play a full 16-game-season in three of the last four years. Most importantly, Lawrence fits perfectly in Indy’s defensive scheme thanks to his familiarity with Matt Eberflus. Before becoming the Colts’ defensive coordinator last February, Eberflus spent the previous seven seasons on Dallas’ defensive staff and brought many of the same concepts and philosophies with him. Indianapolis manufactured 38 sacks from a variety of contributors in 2018, ranking 19th in that category league-wide. Eberflus knows adding a ‘Tank’ at defensive end like Lawrence would go a long way in improving those numbers. Though Lawrence won’t come cheap, Eberflus may be able to convince Ballard that he’s worth it.
Landon Collins – Safety – New York Giants
On the surface, this may appear to be a luxury signing for Indianapolis, but a deeper look at the safety position shows otherwise. Clayton Geathers, Mike Mitchell and J.J. Wilcox are all slated to become unrestricted free agents, while Matthias Farley is set to become a restricted free agent. Geathers has never remained healthy enough to complete a full 16-game-season in his four-year career. Mitchell turns 32 in June and suffered multiple injuries of his own this past season. Wilcox is best suited as a backup, and Farley is coming off Injured Reserve (IR). Let’s not forget that Malik Hooker has already missed 12 games (including postseason) during his first two years as a pro. These are all reasons why Ballard might be inclined to bring in a three-time Pro Bowler who just turned 25 this month. Collins is an enforcer who thrives in the box and can have a Bob Sanders-like impact for the Horseshoe. Before this season, Collins had only missed one game in three years, but tore his rotator cuff in week 13, landing him on IR. While signing an injured player can be unsettling, the ailment may bring his price down enough for Ballard to pull the trigger.
Grady Jarrett – Defensive Tackle – Atlanta Falcons
Jarrett may be best known around these parts for sacking Tom Brady three times during Super Bowl LI, tying the single-game Super Bowl sack record. He’s carried that momentum with him over the last two seasons and has established himself as a quality interior defender. Though a tad undersized, Jarrett is a penetrator who excels at shooting gaps and making plays in the opponent’s backfield. The 25-year-old is coming off a career-year in which he notched 6 sacks to go along with 53 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Jarrett would be a perfect fit in the Colts’ 4-3 scheme, which emphasizes applying pressure with the front four. The former Clemson Tiger has proven to be durable for the most part, missing just three games over his four-year career. Given his talent, age, scheme-fit and durability, Ballard might be willing to shell-out roughly $10 million a year for Jarrett. However, if the asking price is closer to $15 million per season, Indianapolis is likely to back off.
Golden Tate – Wide Receiver – Philadelphia Eagles
It’s no secret that wide receiver is the Colts’ biggest need heading into the offseason. Let’s put aside for a second the fact that Dontrelle Inman (unrestricted), Ryan Grant (unrestricted) and Chester Rogers (restricted) are all set to become free agents. According to The Washington Post, Indianapolis’ 28 drops in 2018 were the third-most in the NFL. After T.Y. Hilton, Chester Rogers had the second-most receiving yards (485) of any Colts receiver. Rogers’ 30.3 yards per game average was the second-fewest of any team’s number-two receiver. Tate is considered the top receiver in this year’s free agent class but will be 31 by the start of next season. He seemed out of sorts once joining the Eagles, and his 5’10” stature wouldn’t do much to compliment the small but speedy Hilton. If Ballard addressed the position through free agency, expect him to turn toward a younger receiver with more size, such as Devin Funchess or Tyrell Williams.