Wilson's Word: Colts must be smart spenders

While Colts will have money to spend in free agency, several cornerstone players are going to command large contracts in the near future. Managing the salary cap wisely is essential.

Thanks to Indianapolis Colts fans for reminding me it’s important sometimes to offer insight on complicated issues that can be easily miscalculated.

When it comes to the NFL, there might not be anything more complicated than the salary cap.

Social media and, well, certain members of the media would have you believe Colts general manager Ryan Grigson is preparing for a spending spree in free agency after the recent releases of safety LaRon Landry and defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, among others.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but let’s take a stab at explaining some numbers and looking at the big picture, shall we?

Let’s start with where the Colts stand in cap space. According to overthecap.com, the Colts are at $107.6 million in cap money spent. And let’s go ahead and subtract running back Trent Richardson’s $3.1 million salary for 2015 because I’ve heard it’s only a matter of time before he gets released. That puts the Colts at $104.5 million.

The latest on the projected salary cap for next season is between $140-143 million. So the Colts are looking at anywhere from $36-39 million to spend.

That sure sounds like a lot, which is why many expect the team to make a big splash in free agency. But don’t be surprised if Grigson is more inclined to look for sensible buys as opposed to throwing bags of cash at one or two big names.

Quarterback Andrew Luck is entering the fourth year of his contract, with an option for 2016. The Colts probably won’t let him get to that option year. It makes sense to secure your franchise quarterback and pay him market value, which in his case, is going to be a significant increase from what he’s making now.

Whether that’s this season or in 2016, it will be a lot. Luck is scheduled to count $7 million against the cap in 2015 before that option year. When the Colts decide to reward their three-time Pro Bowl passer, it’s fair to expect one of if not the highest salary at the position. Right now, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers makes an average of $22 million per season. Because of how his contract is set up, his cap hit ranges from $18 million to $21.1 million per season through 2019.

So Luck will be at or near that $20-million range, if not more. Count on it.

Who else on the Colts will command a decent pay increase? How about offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton?

Castonzo is set to count $7.4 million in the final year of his contract next season. That ranks 28th at the position. The top 10 left tackles are set to make between $8.5 million and $12.2 million per season in 2015. Presuming Castonzo falls into that category, let’s split the middle and say his new contract will cost at least $10 million per season.

Hilton has earned a bigger paycheck than the $796,850 he will count against the cap in 2015, the final year of his rookie deal. He just made his first Pro Bowl and is the Colts’ No. 1 receiver. That doesn’t mean he gets Calvin Johnson money ($16.2 million per year), but it seems reasonable to expect his salary to jump to the top 20 at the position, which means at least $6 million per year and probably closer to $7 million to $8 million per year, if not more.

Add the Luck, Castonzo and Hilton contracts together and the Colts are looking at anywhere between $36 million and $40 million per year.

All of a sudden, the future looks rather expensive, doesn’t it?

There are other guys to consider, too. The Colts might want to re-sign tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, among others.

While Grigson says he always wants to be aggressive in free agency, he also realizes spending too much this offseason will impact how this team is situated for 2016, by which time the three cornerstones should have new deals, unless you think it’s wise to wait until the end of that year before Luck is paid market value. And doing that raises the price because contracts continually increase each year. That’s how the market works.

This is why paying Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh $16 million to $17 million per year doesn’t add up in the grand scheme of things. That’s probably how much it would take to land him. That salary puts him in the range of Houston star J.J. Watt as one of the highest paid at his position.

Some suggest the Minnesota Vikings will look to deal disgruntled running back Adrian Peterson and the Colts should make a play for arguably the best back in the game. Peterson’s contract pays him an average of $14.3 million per year through 2017, with a cap number of $15.4 million next season and it increases to $17 million by 2017.

Again, that’s a huge number. Pay it and that will impact how much can be spent elsewhere in the next few years.

Sure, the Colts will have some contracts come off the payroll after 2015 and the projected salary cap could jump to as high as $160 million by 2016, as some have suggested.

But we also know that spending too much too soon gets teams in trouble. That’s where the Colts were with the salary cap when Grigson was hired in 2012.

So remember this when reading salary cap stories regarding the Colts: How much Grigson spends now will impact his flexibility in the near future.

Maybe there will be a splash or two coming up, but don’t be surprised if many of the deals are for cap-acceptable amounts. Free agency typically demands overpaying for talent, but we’ve seen recently that such deals don’t always pan out, which translates to dead money.

The Colts can’t afford too much dead money in the future. It’s a reality of dealing with the cap, but it’s perhaps more vitally important to avoid this considering how much will need to be spent in a year or two.

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.


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