Indianapolis Colts February Scouting Report
Hey there Colts fans! Here are my early thoughts on what is sure to be a very busy offseason for the boys in blue.
While the salary cap has yet to be determined for 2021, it is expected to be about $18 million lower than it was in 2020. And unlike most teams, the Colts are actually in a pretty good position to have among the most cap room available, possibly as much as $60 million dollars according to some sources. For starters, there was about $56 million last year assigned to the starting left tackle and two quarterbacks, and none of those guys are currently under contract. There are also a few other higher-dollar players that are unsigned and may not be resigned as well. This is a team that is poised to perhaps address their many big needs in free agency and perhaps make a few splash moves if the price is right. I will address those key players and specific needs in the positional analysis, though.
The coaching staff did lose a bunch of pieces this past year, most notably offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni who is the new head man in Philly; he will be replaced from within as offensive assistant Marcus Brady gets elevated to the O.C. role. An underappreciated loss is backs coach Tom Rathman who gets a ton of credit for helping rookie RB Jonathan Taylor with his fumbling issue from college. Perhaps the biggest name and the most interesting new addition to the staff is HOFer Kevin Mawae as the offensive line coach. As the line is the strength of this team, if he can impart some of his own wisdom and fire, this unit could be scary.
Of course, the big retirement of QB Philip Rivers has left a gaping hole in the backfield for a team with championship aspirations. For the entire time he was dangled, there were rumors that the Colts would be a big player on Matt Stafford, but the Rams simply paid so much that no one else was even in the race. Consensus opinion seemed to be that the fallback option is Carson Wentz who has successful history with HC Frank Reich, and it appeared that the Colts had made the best-known offer for him to date of a pair of 2nd rounders. However just today it broke that the Colts will be acquiring Wentz for a 3rd rounder in 2021 and next year's conditional 2nd rounder; that pick in 2022 can become a first-rounder if Wentz plays at least 70% of the snaps and the team makes the playoffs.This is a great deal for Indianapolis and they still have a lot less money spent on the quarterback position than they did in 2020. The team kept both of their top two picks this season and paid less to get Wentz than was reported earlier, although they will be on the hook for Wentz's $10 million roster bonus on March 19. If Wentz returns to form, four more years for $100 million is a bargain; if he stinks it up, they are on the hook for $40 million over two years which is a palatable cost for the position and can escape after 2022 for no dead money. And for all of Wentz's troubles last year, he is in an elite group in NFL history that had thrown for over 20 TDs and under 10 picks for three straight seasons(Brady, Brees, Aa-Rod, Peyton and DangerRuss - good company). In any case, I now think they turn to bringing back team leader and solid backup (and as important, a valuable locker room presence) QB Jacoby Brissett. They should pay him top backup money and secure him, like maybe 2 years at $2-3 million per year.
They clearly found a gem in RB Jonathan Taylor and he will lead the fire and ice duo with electric RB Nyheim Hines. I think they would love to have RB Marlon Mack back as a backup or a 3-headed monster, and an Achilles injury might be the key to depress his market value and allow them to make him a bargain signing. This would be ideal to let him rehab slowly without a lot of snaps and stay here with a "prove you are healthy and explosive" sort of contract with a contender, while he gets ready for a potential 2022 payday. If someone makes him a stupid offer though, we will let him walk because of the success the running game had without him, and then they should sign a veteran back as a #3 as needed. RB Jordan Wilkins is likely not that guy, I would guess.
Obviously the big name is veteran WR TY Hilton. On a team devoid of explosiveness, losing the one guy that had shown that is a potential killer. But GM Chris Ballard was very noncommittal about bringing him back, stating the usual "we'd love to have him back, but it depends on what the market dictates," indicating that they absolutely will NOT overpay for him. With a ton of younger and frankly better receiver options on the open market, if they spend big money on a receiver it probably won't be for T.Y. I think they make a play for a young stud #1 guy like JuJu, Allen Robinson or Chris Godwin - heck maybe even Kenny Golladay. They love WR Michael Pittman and are praying that they can get that explosiveness from oft-injured WR Parris Campbell, but neither is ready to lead a receiving corps as a true #1 option. The one guy that Ballard has unequivocally said he wants to resign is backup and special teams contributor WR Zach Pascal.
This is an interesting bunch with a great deal of possible outcomes. TE Trey Burton is versatile and could do way more than he did last year, but is currently unsigned. TE Mo Alie-Cox is still a bit raw and may draw some expensive attention on the open market, as he is also a free agent. And graybeard TE Jack Doyle is a local boy and under contract, but has shown signs of decline. I can see them bringing back all or none of these guys, with the cutting of Doyle being the most cost-effective move should they feel the need. My gut is that Alie-Cox parlays his development into a speculative big money payday elsewhere and the Colts bring back two familiar veterans with injury histories, making this a nervous situation. There are rumors that they might bring in veteran Zach Ertz from Philly to reunite with Wentz, as Ertz is expendable there also.
With the sudden loss of stalwart veteran OT Anthony Castonzo to retirement, the anchor of the staunch O-line is lost and a blindside protector becomes a huge need regardless of whether the quarterback is a veteran or a new kid. There has been much talk about moving All-Pro OG Quentin Nelson to left tackle and finding a new left guard, or perhaps moving RT Braden Smith over there next to his draft classmate. Either way they need to fill a tackle slot and get some O-line depth, so there is sure to be some serious investment at the position high in the draft and/or in free agency. If it were me, I would look for a 2-year solution at left tackle from a proven veteran on the market and draft a guy for current depth and future startability. My gut is that they spend the #21 overall on a starting tackle -- or maybe even move up to grab a top option at the position -- while spending mid-range free agent dollars on versatile veteran depth. Smith and Nelson each are coming up on the end of their rookie deals, and both have outplayed them, so extensions may be in order this season to avoid competing with free agent money next season or losing them. Any serious shuttling of this stable unit could wreak havoc on the effectiveness of the run game though. OT LeRaven Clark is a free agent too, and definitely will not be back.
The front line was good and deep, but they did not generate a lot of quarterback pressure, so a pass rusher is definitely in the cards for free agency and /or the draft. If not for the needs at tackle and quarterback, I would say that the Colts were nearly guaranteed to look this way high in the draft but it may not be a luxury they can afford to do. Some additional pass rush would be preferred, but they simply may not be able to prioritize that in 2021. Starters DE Justin Houston and DE Denico Autry are each free agents, as is valuable rotation guy Al-Quadin Muhammad. Houston was our highest paid defender last season at $12 million; he is no longer dominant at his age but is explosive in spurts, so I suspect they will bring him back for a one year deal (maybe even incentive laden to be more cap friendly). Autry could command as high a price on the open market, and probably is the odd man out unless he gives Indy a huge hometown discount. With DeForest Buckner and a bunch of solid young guys with upside, this unit will be at least solid (if not above-average) no matter what happens in free agency or the draft.
This is very deep unit led by the Maniac LB Darius Leonard. One big loss could be second leading tackler LB Anthony Walker who is a team leader as well as very productive. They have him real cheap on his rookie deal in 2020, but he is likely to land a huge payday from someone. With the money coming due on Leonard and the two studs on the O-line, Walker like Autry might also be an odd-man out in a really deep and young linebacking crew. His loss might be felt more off the field than on, as he is a real friend to Leonard and a calming and stabilizing force on the field.
Obviously top guy CB Xavier Rhodes resurrected his career with a very solid season among the top 10 in the NFL according to the analytics as a true #1 corner. The question is will he bolt for big money somewhere after betting on himself in 2020? If they can get him back for not much more than they paid him this year, I think the Colts would be fools not to sign him for 2 years. There are a few younger guys with upside looking for a new beginning like Dallas' ChidobeAwuzie and Green Bay's Kevin King, but they might prefer the veteran savvy and leadership of Rhodes if the prices are similar. Veteran slot man CB TJ Carrie is also a much-needed resigning if the back end is to remain no worse than last year. Even with these two signing, or of two similar veterans, I think the team still looks for at least depth in the free agent market of the draft. Having addressed a passer ahead of the draft and based on the expected draft values at #21, I could see them taking a top corner at that pick just as well. At safety, someone will offer S Malik Hooker big money that the Colts likely will not match for a guy that has fallen short of his potential and draft status, and who has been bitten by the injury bug too often. This is another position that likely needs mid-round draft infusion as well, and a young veteran performer could be a mid-range spend here as a free agent too.
No real needs here. They have young punter and kicker and a solid young return guy so I expect no changes. Keep and eye on young P Rigoberto Sanchez though; his kickoff depth really suffered after he returned from cancer surgery. If this was more than just a rehab thing and is indicative of a larger issue, then this could be a wear-and-tear issue for PK Rodrigo Blankenship in the long run or a thing to watch if Sanchez struggles out of the gate in 2021.
That is all for this month from the Crossroads of America. I will be back in March to recap the start of free agency, and start to hone in on the remaining roster needs and how it will impact the Colts' draft plans. Until then friends... stay warm and safe and remember to SUPPORT THE SHOE!!!
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