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Indianapolis Colts March Scouting Report
Hey there friends and fantasy fans! The Colts’ Corral has been among the busiest in the entire NFL during the start of free agency, so I will do my best to hit all of the changes that have already taken place with more then a few more expected even before making one of the top picks in the 2023 draft in April.
The team had to pay out a series of roster bonuses if certain players were still on the team as of the start of the new league year, March 19. CBV Kenny Moore had one for $500k and OC Ryan Kelly had $1 million, and both have been rumored to be cut or more likely trade candidates before the season starts. Neither of these two numbers are really deal breakers to swallow, so I would not yet say that these two guys are definitely going to be Colts as of opening day 2023. DE DeForest Buckner and LB Shaq Leonard ($1 million each) got chump change for guys that are the veteran leaders and best players on the defense. Along the underachieving offensive line, RT Braden Smith had $6 million of his salary guaranteed as of this weekend, and OG Quentin Nelson had all $19 million of his salary locked in as of the start of the league season. But none of these four guys were going anywhere, so even these big numbers for the line leaders are irrelevant.
The Colts lost at least three starters via free agency in the first 24 hours of the window opening up, although two of them were not really a surprise. Everyone expected LB Bobby Okereke to command a huge salary on the open market and with three other front-line starters at the position the odds of a re-signing here was always low. Okereke went to the linebacker-starved Giants on a massive 4-yr, $40 million deal with over half of it guaranteed. A little bit of a surprise was that WR Parris Campbell joined him there on a 1-year deal worth as much as $6.7 million but with $3 million guaranteed. After finally staying healthy and showing signs of being a factor offensively, most believed that he would stay in Indy on a team-friendly "prove it again" deal and bet on himself while rewarding the team that stuck with him, but the G-men made him a good offer. Finally, starting CB Brandon Facyson signed a surprisingly large 2-year $6.5 million deal with the Raiders after an inconsistent season in Indy. I believe the team thought they might get him to return to Indy more cheaply than that to provide depth at a thin position, but he chose otherwise.
PLAYERS SENT PACKING
Another reason that the position is thin is that CB Stephon Gilmore was traded to the Cowboys for only a 5th round selection. After a tremendous career and a 2022 season as arguably the best Colts’ defender, I was shocked that we did not get a bigger return on the trade. I am not surprised that they moved him to a contender, but surely they could have got more at the trade deadline last season or by holding out a little further into the free agency period. In any case, the trade does clear just under $10 million in cap space even if it does leave the team without both starting corners from last season’s opener. Maybe to no great surprise, the team also released veteran QB Matt Ryan as they are surely moving on to a new potential franchise quarterback with the 4th overall pick. The team will get $17.2 million in salary cap relief, even though they will carry a dead money total of $18 million to do so in 2023. After these moves, the Colts sit at around $20.5 million under the salary cap, although that is effectively only about $12.8 million as their current draft picks will slot in to account for about $7.7 million.
RESIGNING OUR OWN
The team has re-signed a handful of players that were set to hit free agency, and it is telling where they spent their money thus far. The big first signing was LB EJ Speed whose play in 2022 allowed them to let Okereke walk. Speed is locked in for two more years at $8 million total, and is a key special teams contributor as well as a starting outside linebacker. They also focused on the special teams by resigning key coverage guy and backup CB Tony Brown (1 year, 1.2 million) and more importantly special teams ace and backup WR Ashton Dulin (2 years, $9 million). Dulin not only is one of the NFL’s best gunners in kick coverage, but is a quality versatile backup receiver and an important downfield threat with Campbell out of the picture. Brown will be essential depth for a secondary unit that will be very young and that will be relying on a lot of new faces in 2023. A real feel-good story is DL Tyquan Lewis who has been very effective when healthy but who has suffered torn patellar tendons in consecutive seasons. He came back strong last year until blowing out the other leg, so if he comes back strong again his versatility and leadership will be a great bargain at his 1-year, $2 million price tag. Finally, they have given a two-year extension to former Canadian footballer interior OL Carter O’Donnell, who has spent the last two seasons on the practice squad for the Colts
WELCOME TO INDIANAPOLIS!
The Colts have made an uncharacteristic splash in free agency in the early days, although one might question if all the moves were good and necessary. No move fits both halves of this description better than signing veteran PK Matt Gay to a shocking four-year deal worth up to $22.5 million, giving him the richest free agent kicker deal in NFL history and making him the league’s second highest paid kicker behind only the great Justin Tucker. Gay has been magnificent in his short career, being the league’s most accurate kicker in his three seasons with the Rams and even having a very solid rookie season with the Buccaneers. He also has a great record of touchbacks on nearly 2/3 of his kickoffs and has been money from long distance with 17-22 in his career from over 50 yards. A great stabilizing addition to a special teams unit, but my only concern is that they had a poor man’s version of his already under contract in PK Chase McLaughlin for a fraction of the price. He is inarguably better than McLaughlin, but is he four times better to justify the salary cap hit? Time will tell.
The team also signed two defensive lineman, true to Chris Ballard’s belief in beefing up the trenches with talent and depth. They signed DT Taven Bryan on a 1-year deal for $4.5 million; Bryan is a former 1st rounder who has had a mediocre career thus far after three seasons in Jacksonville and last year in Cleveland. He has been a solid rotational contributor, but has not lived up to his draft position so he will have to do that to earn a bigger deal after this season. The biggest signing is DE Samson Ekubam from the 49ers to a whopping 3-year $27 million deal with $11 million in the first season. A lot of people are saying that this was a bargain and a great get for a team that desperately needed an additional edge rusher to team with the two young guys DE Kwity Paye and DE Dayo Odenigbo. This basically assured that the team would not resign DE Yannick Ngakuoe -- who has outproduced Ekubam in his career for sure but who would command a bigger price tag and more snaps. Ekubam can be a rotational and situational player and still be worth the investment here, allowing all three young guys to develop together.
The intrigue soared with the signing of the "Jock Strap King" QB Gardner Minshew to a 1-year deal guaranteed at $3.5 million but with incentives that could bring it up to $5.5 million. Minshew is ostensibly being brought in as a veteran backup and as an insurance policy for a new draft pick in case they draft one that is not quite NFL ready out of the gate. Presumably the incentives are in case he earns or gets the starting role for a length of time, but there is no guarantee here that this means the team is still not going after Lamar Jackson as many have suggested. Minshew could be a good backup for either one of those guys, so I am curious to see where things go in the next few weeks; my money is on the Colts targeting the uber-athletic and less-experienced Anthony Richardson and his upside as their franchise passer, but Kentucky’s Will Levis might need some work as well which could be benefitted by sharing a locker room with a guy like Minshew. I love this signing no matter what they do with the starting quarterback position, including trading the #4 pick as a part of a Lamar Jackson move that would give Coach Steichen the mobile field general that he thrived with in Philly last season.
WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN
The trade this week of Brandin Cooks to the Cowboys for a 5th and 6th round pick was infuriating to me. The Colts know Cooks well, and he is a proven Pro Bowl caliber commodity. He has always done great on a plethora of new teams, in many repeated new situations and with new teammates. He is always is a solid high-volume guy as well as a big play threat. And with the need for a reliable and explosive target across from WR Michael Pittman that could command top corner attention, this was a price that they should have paid. In the same way, they passed on former Cowboy Amari Cooper last year in just this same way when he was traded for a pittance in draft capital. They clearly have shown that they have been unable to draft a difference maker at receiver for well over a decade….so if Cooks was available for this price, they were silly not to offer it. I will admit in the case this season the division-rival Texans may have been unwilling to deal with the Colts, so that may be a mitigating factor. Perennial Pro Bowler Darren Waller was also traded for only a 5th round pick this week; the Colts clearly have been searching for tight end for years now with so many picks being spent searching for one, so not getting into those negotiations doesn’t make sense to me.
All in all, this has been one of the most active months in recent years for the Colts, so let’s see what the rest of March and April have in store!I will be back next month to preview what the Colts could be doing in their 2023 draft, especially with the 4th overall selection (at least they still own it, as of this writing). There are a lot of rumors and potential avenues out there, so I can help break down what could happen and what should happen for you.
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2023 Madness NFL Rookie Draft Reference Guide
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