Analysis: Why Colts Can't Afford To Spend Much In Free Agency

No big splashes have fans wondering what the Colts are doing.

Anyone who expected the Indianapolis Colts to make big splashes in free agency hasn’t been paying close attention to the team’s contracts.

Granted, it’s going to become increasingly popular to criticize every move the Colts make after the team faltered to 8-8 last season and, despite reports predicting their demises, general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano were given contract extensions.

Put all of that aside and let’s just look at numbers.

The Colts are $20.9 million under the salary cap right now. That’s after new contracts were given to tight end Dwayne Allen (four years, $29.4 million), kicker Adam Vinatieri (two years, $6 million) and tight end Jack Doyle (one year, $1.6 million).

It’s not that the Colts don’t have any money left. But as Grigson said during the recent NFL Combine, they’re going to have to be careful how they spend with an eye toward the future.

Quite honestly, the less this team participates in the first few days of this bookoo bucks giveaway, the better. A strong argument could be made the Colts have already overpaid Allen and Vinatieri, but it’s not the same as throwing $72 million at Brock Osweiler, who despite just seven career starts is now the Houston Texans’ franchise quarterback after walking away from the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos and the NFL’s best defense. (Doesn’t that seem beyond wrong?)

Colts fans see the money spent by other AFC South teams and ask, “Why aren’t we doing anything?”

Again, look at the Colts’ contracts. Go to or, please.

When you see guys like center Alex Mack land a five-year deal that will pay him $9 million per year in Atlanta, keep in mind why the Colts didn’t ante up those kind of dollars for an obvious need position. And this is coming from someone who is high on Mack and wouldn’t have minded seeing the guy in Indy.

What, however, would that do to the Colts’ salary cap situation? As teams pay big money for these guys, the Colts have already spent a lot of their future on quarterback Andrew Luck ($16 million this season), wide receiver T.Y. Hilton ($11 million this year, $65 million for five years), offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo ($9.8 million this year, $43,812,000 for four years), Allen ($8.906,250 this year, $29.4 million for four years), and cornerback Vontae Davis ($8.375,000 this year, $18,625,000 for this year and next combined).

It’s just like in the Peyton Manning days, folks. The quarterback and several key players are going to make most of the money. The trick is figuring out how to fill the rest of the roster with enough capable players who aren’t going to cost nearly as much.

What the Colts have to keep foremost in their mind is Luck, who is about to score a contract that will be among the NFL’s richest. Owner Jim Irsay has expressed optimism about getting a deal done before the 2016 season. And while that extension won’t hit until 2017, it changes the landscape of how the Colts can spend for years to come because Luck is going to make probably $25 million per year, if not more.

While I’m not a cap expert, the math isn’t that difficult to understand. The more guaranteed money tied up to top players for years, the less the team can spend elsewhere. And that’s obviously even more true after Luck gets paid.

That’s why the Colts are smart to look for guys who can contribute on mid-range deals or even maybe a few players who settle for short-term contracts to prove their worth. That’s why, as much as it probably even pains the Colts, they restructured the numbers for underwhelming outside linebacker Trent Cole (three sacks), to knock off $2.25 million in base salary this year, because the team isn’t confident in the pass rushers who are out there and depth at perhaps the most important position in this defense is lacking.

We could waste a lot of time criticizing Grigson for spending too much on the future already, be it on Hilton, Castonzo and Davis or especially Allen, who had just 16 catches last season and was basically turned into a blocker. But complaining about how much has been spent isn’t changing the reality.

We’ve seen some big free-agent splashes in the Colts’ recent past, and too many haven’t worked out. Making Gosder Cherilus the highest-paid right tackle in the league and then cutting him after two years comes to mind. But there have been plenty of other mistakes.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather those missteps not be repeated, even if it means adding a few players who don’t cost much for 2016 so the Colts have a better grip on 2017 and beyond.

What also seems clear is the Colts can’t miss on draft picks this year. The guys taken in the early rounds need to contribute, especially if one or two offensive linemen are drafted.

As almost everyone knows, the draft history since 2013 hasn’t been overly encouraging, either. Grigson and his scouting staff are on the spot to deliver. When mistakes are made in free agency, it magnifies the importance of improving the team through the draft. The Colts are still paying for some of those mistakes, and flushing them by eating dead cap money for Cherilus ($5.8 million), Andre Johnson ($2.5 million) and Bjoern Werner ($1,030,709).

It’s understandable to be frustrated about the situation, wanting to see needs addressed and the roster firmed up while so many other teams add lucrative pieces, but the Colts can’t afford to be big spenders now.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.


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