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NFL Draft

Did The Colts Get Any Better This Offseason?

  • The Draft Network
  • May 10, 2021
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The post-draft world has dominated our content and our focus over the last week, and it will still do so here at The Draft Network—it’s in the name, after all. But I want to do more than just focus on a decently run-of-the-mill Indianapolis Colts draft class. I want to pull us all the way back to a decidedly surprising Colts free agency: a free agency that saw them enter with the resources to dominate the market, and leave with Carson Wentz and four backups.

The Colts’ modest spending in the 2021 offseason was waved away with a gesture toward future extensions coming down the mountain. Starting right tackle Braden Smith and linebacker Darius Leonard, both members of that legendary 2018 draft class, are playing on contract years; 2018’s first-rounder, Quenton Nelson, has his fifth-year option for 2022. The expected market-level extensions for each certainly represent a pretty penny.

It’s rare that a team has three market-level extensions in the same offseason because, well, it’s rare to have as good of a draft class as the Colts did in 2018. But the Colts lead the league in 2022 cap space with a projected $72M, and they’re perfectly healthy for 2023 and 2024 cap space as well.

Nothing about the Colts’ 2021 cap room (currently at $19.7M) prevents them from getting any of these deals done, as all players have accrued three seasons, and are eligible for extensions. Nothing about their future cap precludes those signings either. So, if they are saving future cap room for those deals… why haven’t they signed them yet?

And perhaps they will. There’s still plenty of time to do so. In returning Leonard and Nelson and Smith, you return one of the league’s top linebackers, top interior offensive linemen, and a quality Tier 2 or 3 tackle—all sensible moves. With those extensions, Ballard preserves the homegrown nucleus for Indianapolis—a nucleus that delivered an 11-5 season and playoff berth in 2020.

What is lost, however, is the surplus value of those rookie contracts. When you snag a starting tackle in the second round, you pay him less than $2M per year over four seasons—less than Rashod Hill, Cedric Ogbuehi, and Mike Remmers all got on one-year deals this offseason—that money saved can and should be repurposed elsewhere—just like the money saved by paying Darius Leonard the same contract for multiple All-Pro berths.

Now, the Colts haven’t been miserly. They traded for DeForest Buckner and slapped him with the third-biggest contract for an interior rusher, signed Philip Rivers to a big contract in free agency, and took on Carson Wentz’s money via another trade this offseason. Ballard has made more moves than just hitting on Day 2 draft picks. In the slow climb out of a depleted roster held together by prayers and the memory of a functional Andrew Luck, Ballard’s careful approach and eye for talent has been lauded—and deservedly so. Following Luck’s sudden retirement, the Colts could have nosedived. But they didn’t.

But now that their arrow is pointing up, the time has clearly come to shake off the discipline of the rebuild and act like a contender. Recklessness is not welcome, nor is it necessary. The Colts are not the sort of team to tack voidable years and prorate signing bonuses into the dark abyss of the future, and that approach certainly isn’t necessary. But it is necessary that last year’s team—an 11-5, one-and-done playoff team—gets better. And arguably, it has not.

No free agency cycle would have welcomed aggressive spending like the 2021 offseason, when the COVID-limited cap ceiling took many teams out of the running for aggressive free agent moves altogether. Stars were still willing to hold out for fair deals—some, like Kenny Golladay, got them, while others, like Richard Sherman, are still waiting—but in general, it was a buyer’s market for middle-tier veterans.

The Colts were uninterested. With $63.6M sitting in the bank, Ballard passed on the early rush of big deals, as he usually does—and then he passed on the middle tier, as well. When Marvin Jones signed for $6.25M for the next two seasons and JuJu Smith-Schuster returned to Pittsburgh for $8M, Ballard contentedly waited on returning T.Y. Hilton for one more year at the same price tag as Smith-Schuster—similar productivity, just an extra seven years of tread on the tires. Xavier Rhodes’ $4.77M deal came in right around Troy Hill’s $4.5M deal, despite the fact that Hill has outplayed Rhodes for the last couple of seasons. Even when Kyle Fuller came on the market late, Ballard was again disinterested. And perhaps most concernedly: after losing Anthony Castonzo to retirement, Ballard wasn’t only frigid on Trent Williams’ massive bidding war—he was out on Matt Feiler, Alejandro Villanueva, and Riley Reiff.

Tackle remained a huge need for the Colts after their acquisitions of Julie’n Davenport and Sam Tevi, neither of which have played like starters in recent years; wide receiver and corner, after the returns of Hilton and Rhodes, remained needs as well. The Colts elected to pass on all of these needs, instead focusing on EDGE in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Having lost Denico Autry and yet to re-sign Justin Houston, it was a position of need. The Colts addressed it with their two picks in the first two days of the draft (their third-round pick gone in the Carson Wentz deal). Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo are both overwhelmingly Colts-y players in terms of rush versatility, character, and athleticism. They’ll both get playing time next year; they’ll help round out a talented defensive front.

Here, the Colts have certainly got better. They lost last year’s playoff game to the Buffalo Bills in large part because they could not successfully pressure Josh Allen—and even when they got to him, they couldn’t get him down. In a Matt Eberflus defense that all but refuses to blitz, four-man rushes are critical, and they failed the Colts down the stretch last year.

But where else did the Colts get better this offseason with their $63.6M of cap space in a buyer’s market and their top-notch drafting general manager? They spent a third and a (likely) future first on a quarterback to replace the retired Philip Rivers with Carson Wentz, who was statistically one of the worst quarterbacks in the league last year. Wentz, notoriously unsafe with the football and shaky under pressure, is playing behind a line that clearly downgraded from last year to this year—and with a modest receiving corps that didn’t add any new weapons. Defensively, the Colts want to be a two-high zone coverage team but had to play more man last year as offenses started dicing up their zones—to that effect, they added… nobody at all. They didn’t take a tackle or wide receiver until the seventh round. They didn’t take a corner at all.

The orientation on homegrown talent and retention is a respectable one. It will protect the Colts, preventing them from overextending into a multi-year rebuild like the ones the Philadelphia Eagles and the Atlanta Falcons currently sit in. It’s responsible general-managing, and with it will come job security and stability for Ballard. But eventually, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The depth chart can look solid and the cap sheets clean as a whistle, but teams gotta win their conferences to even get to a Super Bowl. How good are the Colts in an AFC with Patrick Mahomes and a reloaded offensive line, with Josh Allen and a conflagration of pass-catchers, with a dominant Cleveland Browns rushing attack and a massive investment in the secondary, with Lamar Jackson and a kamikaze defense?

All of the AFC’s top contenders took big swings this year in an effort to stay on top, and while some of those swings will miss spectacularly, at least they stepped up to the plate. If you’re just saving money to extend your own draft picks, you’re treading water. Nobody—simply nobody—can draft well enough to build an entire Super Bowl contending team. The competitiveness of the NFL has forced teams to accept windows of winning opportunity—the Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl, the Rams’ 2018 Super Bowl, the 49ers’ 2019 Super Bowl—and the aggressive retooling that must accompany their championship pushes.

If Ballard remains unwilling to make that push—and I think he will, given the opportunity he passed up this offseason—then the Colts will remain exactly what they were last season: a good football team. They’ll beat up on a bad AFC South, play some tight games against playoff-caliber teams, and eventually, run into a January opponent that simply hit on the risks that Ballard was unwilling to take.

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