INDIANAPOLIS – In an ideal world, status quo would rule, and emotional ties would be the deciding factor in building a championship-caliber roster.
But the NFL never has been an ideal world.
There’s a time and place for emotions, but they simply cannot be the determining factor on which players should be retained and which should be given their appropriate recognition and appreciation for three, four, 10 years of service before the necessary separation.
The day after the Indianapolis Colts’ season ended in Orchard Park, N.Y., coach Frank Reich acknowledged the fine balance that exists. He steadfastly believed – still does for that matter – the roster was capable of winning a world championship.
“As I sit here today,’’ he said, “I want everybody back.’’
He mentioned Philip Rivers, T.Y. Hilton, Jacoby Brissett, but couldn’t bring himself to address the entirety of the roster.
“I can’t go there now because it’s too fresh, too emotional with these guys,’’ Reich said. “We know the realities of this league is there is change. Change happens.’’
A few days later, general manager Chris Ballard spent more than 70 minutes looking back at what might have been and ahead to what he believes will be better times.
There will be internal discussions over the coming weeks regarding the looming personnel decisions that must be made. Among players with expiring contracts are Rivers and Brissett. Eight starters and a handful of key backups from the wild-card playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills, including Rivers, hit the veteran free-agent market if an extension isn’t offered and accepted.
“I know this: We have the right group of men, we have the right group of coaches, we have the right group of front office staff and scouts, we have the right businesspeople,’’ Ballard said. “We have the right people in this organization.
“We think we can move forward and do some really special things.’’
But first things first, and that means sorting through the difficult personnel issues.
Similar to Reich, Ballard’s loyalty towards his players runs deep. All you had to do was listen to his tone when the conversation turned to T.Y. Hilton or Marlon Mack or Anthony Castonzo or Anthony Walker or Philip Rivers or Jacoby Brissett or Jack Doyle and on and on.
“Look, you want to bring back all of them,’’ Ballard said. “But that’s not realistic.’’
And that’s where emotion takes a backseat to the cold, calculated process of properly building the roster. It’s about making certain the franchise cornerstone areas – that would be the offensive and defensive lines – never are ignored. It’s about getting the absolute correct answer for the QB1 question. It’s about balancing re-signing Rivers, Hilton, Walker, Xavier Rhodes, Justin Houston and/or Denico Autry with investing in talent outside the building.
Ballard mentioned the Colts “value’’ Hilton and Walker, and that Mack, who suffered the season-ending Achilles injury in the first quarter of the opener at Jacksonville, deserves “a good contract.’’
Ballard didn’t close the door on Mack being retained but said “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that here.’’
Everything will come down to value and whether the Colts and a specific player are able to find common ground on that value. If so, maybe a T.Y. Hilton returns for a 10th season. If not, the third-leading receiver in franchise history has played his final game in Indy.
It’s a two-pronged discussion that requires each side to want the same resolution.
Ballard always has advised a player to look after himself.
“Their careers are short. They’re hard,’’ he said. “And financially they need to do the best they can do.
“Look, if another team offers more money than we do, good for them. Sometimes I get pissed about it because I don’t want to lose the player, but always able to take a step back . . . him and his family deserve to be rewarded.’’
As they move forward, the Colts hold seven picks in the April draft, including the 21st overall selection, and have roughly $65 million in projected space under the salary cap, according to overthecap.com.
A look at two significant areas in the roster-building process:
Re-signing your own
QB Philip Rivers, QB Jacoby Brissett, WR T.Y. Hilton, LB Anthony Walker, CB Xavier Rhodes, DE Justin Houston, DE Denico Autry, CB T.J. Carrie, RB Marlon Mack, S Malik Hooker, OT Le’Raven Clark, TE Trey Burton, DE Al-Quadin Muhammad, WR Zach Pascal (restricted), TE Mo Alie-Cox (restricted), S George Odom (restricted)
Given his druthers, Ballard prefers to re-sign his own. In the last 10 months, there were extensions for Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly (four years, $50 million), defensive tackle Grover Stewart (three years, $30.75 million) and Castonzo (two years, $33 million). There also was a four-year, $84 extension for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner after getting him in the trade with San Francisco. Those extensions included more than $110 million in guarantees.
Last offseason, the list was incredibly long and, again, expensive: Jack Doyle (for a second time in three seasons), Brissett, Kenny Moore II, Mark Glowinski, Rigoberto Sanchez, Luke Rhodes, Adam Vinatieri, Margus Hunt and Pierre Desir. The guaranteed money topped $47 million.
Ballard and his staff have been successful at defining core players and keeping them. A clear miss, though, was Desir. Twelve months after giving him a three-year, $25 million extension, he was released.
If we had to hazard an educated guess, Rivers is back with another one-year, $25 million contract. We’re sticking with that until someone shows us a better Plan B. The available quarterback market won’t be known for another month or two.
It’s risky to read between the lines on Ballard’s Thursday comments, but we get the impression Hilton won’t return. If he does, it would have to be on an extension that’s totally team-friendly. Ditto, Walker and Mack. It seems the Colts would like to re-sign Rhodes, but might he be able to get more on the open market? And even though there were a few too many quiet moments from Houston, we’d make an effort to bring him back for a third season. There’s no other proven pass-rush presence.
A few wild cards
While most of the attention figures to be on players with expiring contracts, no one should be surprised if Ballard focuses on extending a few players still under contract. You know, players such as Darius Leonard, Braden Smith and even Nyheim Hines.
Extensions for Leonard and Smith figure to be massive.
The Colts’ activity in veteran free agency probably will be linked to their aggressiveness at retaining their own. With a stagnant or reduced salary cap because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be limitations even for a team with the 3rd-most cap space behind Jacksonville ($73 million) and the New York Jets ($70.6 million).
The Colts have had many more hits than misses. Some of the profitable investments include Rivers, Houston, Autry, Rhodes, Carrie, Burton, Eric Ebron, Jabaal Sheard and Margus Hunt. Two misses: defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins and punter Jeff Locke, and Locke only cost them $1.25 million.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.