The upcoming NFL season will have added importance for several key Indianapolis Colts in contract years.
That includes head coach Chuck Pagano, who has been a part of three consecutive 11-win seasons with a 3-3 playoff record.
How the Colts handle the player question marks could be impacted by a new contract for quarterback Andrew Luck next offseason. The team exercised a fifth-year team option, which means the three-time Pro Bowl passer might not get a new deal until the end or just after the 2016 season.
Regardless of how it plays out with Luck — the Colts surely aren’t letting him go anywhere — what will the team decide with this list of players seeking long-term deals:
Offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo — The 2011 first-round draft pick has been the Colts’ best blocker and protects Luck’s blind side. He continually goes up against the NFL’s best pass rushers. While Castonzo hasn’t been to a Pro Bowl, he’s been solid. It would be surprising if the Colts allowed him to become a free agent.
Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton — While the Colts have boosted his position with free-agent addition Andre Johnson and rookie first-round pick Phillip Dorsett, Hilton turns 26 in November and is coming off his first Pro Bowl. General manager Ryan Grigson traded up in the third round to draft him and it’s been one of his better decisions. The team has some leverage with such a stocked position, but keeping Hilton would be a move for the future. Johnson, 33, is signed for three years, but it’s front-weighted to the first two seasons, so if his play drops off the team could save $6 million by cutting him one year early. Second-year pro Donte Moncrief and Dorsett are young with a lot to prove. One season could change that, but the Colts sure seem committed to giving Luck as many capable targets as possible. That should include Hilton.
Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman — The team is committed to inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson for three more seasons but if Freeman puts up numbers like he did in the playoffs, when he led the NFL with 32 tackles, expect his salary to double from the $2.356 million he’ll earn this season as a restricted free agent. Question is, will the Colts be paying for that new deal? He wants to stay in Indy and after missing one week of voluntary offseason training activities — an unsuccessful bid to land a long-term contract — he’s been focused and talking team in workouts. “Free” deserves to get paid. How he and the defense perform this season could determine if the Colts are writing the checks.
Tight end Dwayne Allen — He’s caught 12 touchdown passes in 30 NFL games, so when the 2012 third-round pick is healthy, he’s productive. A 2013 hip injury that required surgery and ended his second season after one game slowed his progression, not just that year but in 2014, when knee and ankle issues slowed him down. Allen said those were the result of spending the previous offseason in rehab for the hip. He spent eight weeks in Arizona working out with a personal trainer on specialized training. Allen is primed for a big year, which he might need to stick around in the future.
Tight end Coby Fleener — The 2012 second-round draft choice has gradually improved in three seasons, catching 52 passes for 608 yards and four TDs in 2013, then having 51 catches for 774 yards and eight TDs last season. He has 129 receptions for 1,663 yards and 14 TDs, which compares favorably to Allen’s 75 receptions for 936 yards and 12 TDs. The Colts would like to keep both Allen and Fleener, but what if they can’t? Do they go with the guy who has put up more consistent numbers or the one who has been injured but shown potential as an impact player? This might be the most compelling question that needs to be answered after this season, especially if the defense isn’t fixed and Grigson needs to invest more in building the other side of the ball.
Tight end Jack Doyle — Everybody forgets about the local kid, but the Colts love him. And the former undrafted free agent from Indianapolis won’t cost nearly as much as Allen or Fleener. Doyle earns $585,000 this season. He’s a decent blocker and has been effective as a pass catcher, although he hasn’t been targeted much in 31 games the past two seasons (23 catches, 137 yards, 2 TDs). Still, as Pagano said last season, a football team can’t have enough unselfish, hard-working guys like Doyle. While many will wonder what happens with Allen and Fleener, don’t be surprised if Doyle is re-signed regardless of other decisions.
Cornerback Greg Toler — He’s about to count $5.83 million against the salary cap, which ranks ninth on the team. He’s made 66 tackles with 16 passes defended and three interceptions in 24 games since joining the Colts from Arizona. Because Vontae Davis is on the other side, Toler gets much more of the action. The Colts’ third-round selection of D’Joun Smith on May 1 coupled with re-signing nickel cornerback Darius Butler for two seasons suggests this could be it for Toler unless he has a superb season.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri — The ageless “Mr. Clutch” is coming off the best season of his 19-year career with only one field-goal miss in 31 attempts. The four-time Super Bowl winner turns 43 on Dec. 28, which means everyone will be wondering just how long can he keep on kicking until it’s time to retire. He’ll make $2.75 million this season. If he has another exceptional season, the Colts wouldn’t be crazy to keep him. He’s in excellent shape, takes care of himself and has said he’s confident he can kick 50-yard field goals well into his 40s. And he’s been backing that up.
Running back Dan Herron — “Boom” has made the most of his opportunities, eventually earning the starting job over underachieving Trent Richardson last season. That the team kept the restricted free agent for $660,000 and jettisoned Richardson is testament to how Herron has proved his worth. But the other reality is the Colts signed Frank Gore in free agency, which means they wanted a more proven veteran to be the No. 1 back. Herron should be a reliable backup, but the Colts have liked what they’ve seen from sixth-round pick Josh Robinson. If the rookie proves himself worthy, or if Vick Ballard can return from back-to-back stints on injured reserve, Herron will probably be testing free agency next March.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck — The team’s insurance policy as Luck’s backup turns 40 in September, so it won’t be surprising if this season is his last shot at an elusive Super Bowl ring. The Colts will pay him well, $3 million, to be ready in case of emergency in 2015. At some point, especially if Luck gets a new deal sooner as opposed to later, Hasselbeck is probably a luxury the team can no longer afford.
Running back Vick Ballard — A promising fifth-round pick as a rookie in 2012, he's played only one game in two seasons. First, he tore an ACL, then last season's comeback ended in training camp with an Achilles tendon tear. He's worked hard to return and turns 25 in July, which means he's young enough to bounce back so don't count him out just yet. As difficult as it is to come back from one serious injury, let alone two, Ballard has to make the most of this season. If he can't stay healthy and be productive as a reserve, the Colts will have no choice but to move on. But for now, there's no shortage of people pulling for him.
Pagano — As much as the head coach and Grigson receive criticism from demanding fans who will only be satisfied by a Super Bowl win, Pagano expects to stick around for a long time and there’s no reason to think the Colts won’t re-sign him. That he appears to have tied his future to one season seems risky, but the Colts are legitimate Super Bowl contenders and could have the best team he’s coached since his 2012 arrival. Another bad playoff loss to New England would hurt his leverage, but the Colts reportedly offered him a modest raise to prevent him from reaching lame-duck status after January’s 45-7 AFC Championship Game loss at New England. Maybe he was offended by the offer or not, but expect Pagano to get retained in 2016 unless everything suddenly goes awry.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.