It’s time to assess the Indianapolis Colts’ flurry of free-agent activity this week.
Two constants jump out. They’re all older players with NFL experience and the Colts didn’t go long term on any of the contracts. If someone doesn’t pan out, general manager Ryan Grigson can cut his losses down the road.
The Colts still have holes to fill on defense and will look to address team needs in the NFL Draft. They’re about $7 million under the salary cap (when factoring in $7 million in rollover cap money), so if Grigson decides to add more free agents, he might need to cut some salaries.
For now, it’s fair to say the Colts have made their share of splashes and created a lot of buzz for fans.
Let’s look at what each newcomer means to the roster:
Wide receiver Andre Johnson — An experienced receiver with size will take pressure off receivers T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief, who are speedy deep threats. The Houston Texans’ all-time receiving leader turns 34 in July but is driven to win a Super Bowl after 12 seasons with just two playoff wins in the Lone Star State. No NFL player has more receptions (1,012) or receiving yards (13,597) than Johnson since he entered the league in 2003. Quarterback Andrew Luck gets a proven talent with great hands, a receiver who can’t be jammed, gets open on the short routes and will go over the middle without fear as well as stretch the field with decent speed. Luck likes to go to his tight ends in the end zone, but Johnson gives him a great jump-ball target. Like his old friend Reggie Wayne before him, Johnson provides the locker room with a veteran presence who leads by example. He’s more understated than Wayne, but when he talks, teammates listen. The Colts didn’t overpay by agreeing to a three-year, $21-million contract (according to ESPN’s Josina Anderson). Johnson’s $6.5 million in guaranteed money is in the first two years, so there’s cap flexibility by 2017.
Running back Frank Gore — The San Francisco 49ers’ all-time leading rusher preferred to be in an offense where his power running was needed. The Colts ranked 22nd in rushing offense last season, although Ahmad Bradshaw (4.7 yards per carry) and Dan Herron (4.5 yards per carry) proved yards can be gained with a ground game. Gore, who turns 32 in May, has rushed for more than 1,100 yards in each of the last four seasons. Adding an older running back is somewhat of a risk, but his 11,073 rushing yards and 64 touchdowns make him worth taking a chance. The Colts’ No. 1 passing offense will have defenses busy, which should translate to running lanes for Gore. Defenses can’t stack the box against him with so many other weapons to worry about. Gore has said he liked the Colts because he thought he could provide the missing link to this offense. If he’s able to continue his production, that’s a given. The Colts have often struggled to convert short-yardage situations and convert in the red zone, so having Gore and a ground game should be a huge benefit. And the Colts don’t have to wear him out. Expect him to get spelled by at least one other running back, either Herron, Vick Ballard, Zurlon Tipton or perhaps another added through the draft. It’s important to keep him fresh so he’s still running strong come playoff time. Gore agreed to a three-year, $12-million deal that’s somewhat front-loaded, if his play diminishes the Colts can cut him and save $3.5 million entering 2017.
Outside linebacker Trent Cole — If Grigson overpaid for anyone, it was Cole, although according to OverTheCap.com, he agreed to a two-year, $14-million deal, not $8 million per season as was reported. Cole’s numbers declined the past three seasons, but he’s still a proven pass rusher with 88.5 career sacks in 10 seasons, and that’s precisely what this defense needed. Outside linebacker Robert Mathis and Cole should be a nightmare for opposing tackles. While the Colts generated 41 sacks without Mathis last season, that was as much about scheme as anything. At key times, they lacked individual pass rushers who could consistently win one-on-one matchups, or in the case of Mathis, demand double teams. Opponents will have to account for both pass rushers and adjust accordingly. That will free up linebackers and others to blitz, too. It’s possible Cole will be used more specifically in pass-rush situations and the Colts will count on Erik Walden on run downs because they like how Walden sets the edge. Grigson is familiar with Cole based on the GM’s days in Philadelphia’s organization, so this wasn’t a hard sell. Because so many other teams were interested, the Colts had to pay a bit more than they probably wanted, but the deal isn’t staggering. Cole turns 33 in October. Should he not produce next season, Grigson could cut him before June 1, 2016, and save $6.25 million.
Defensive end Kendall Langford — Critics will question why the Colts would pay $17.2 million over four years for a guy who was a backup for the St. Louis Rams. Because he’s still a solid player who just happened to lose his starting spot to Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald. At 6-6 and 313, he has the size and speed to play end or tackle. He should fit nicely at end with Arthur Jones demanding double teams at tackle. He turned 29 in January and he’s never missed a game in 112 appearances over seven seasons with the Rams and Miami Dolphins. He’s started 90 of those games, but just four last season, when his numbers dipped to 25 tackles and one sack. That said, he’s considered a tough interior player and another high-character guy who will be motivated by playing for his first Super Bowl contender. The Colts have Josh Chapman at nose tackle, although they will still be adding defensive linemen either via free agency and most likely in the draft. The idea is to have a six-man rotation up front to keep guys fresh. The Colts opted not to re-sign Cory Redding, who signed Wednesday with Arizona, and they released Ricky Jean Francois, who signed with Washington. It was important to add an experienced defensive lineman who can handle the position. While details of his contract have not yet been disclosed, Grigson probably stuck to the trend of giving him an out later on should Langford not live up to expectations, as was the case when the team overspent on Jean Francois.
Offensive guard Todd Herremans — Right guard has been a continual problem. The Colts drafted Hugh Thornton in the third round in 2013 but have not seen him develop as hoped. Thornton finished last season on injured reserve. Herremans, 6-6 and 321, started 124 of 127 games with the Eagles, lining up at right guard last season. Grigson is familiar with him from their days in Philadelphia. Herremans is also versatile. He can play guard or tackle and has lined up at every O-line position except center in his 10-year career. He turns 33 in October, but the contract is just one year for $2.25 million. If he plays well, the team could re-sign him, but this is all about addressing an ongoing issue for 2015. The Colts used 11 different starting combinations on the O-line last year. Continuity is key. Luck has been sacked 100 times in three seasons. While Herremans might not be a long-term solution, he’s at least a reliable short-term fix. And don't be surprised if the Colts use another draft pick on an offensive lineman or two as they look toward the future.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.