Let the advanced salary cap bookkeeping begin for the Indianapolis Colts.
While the organization is understandably ecstatic to have quarterback Andrew Luck locked up for the next six years, the $140 million spent including $87 million guaranteed puts the Colts in a familiar situation.
And it’s not an easy one.
One day before the Colts defeated the Chicago Bears to win Super Bowl XLI in Miami in 2007, I caught up with former running back Edgerrin James to chat about his old team. “Edge” was sure the Colts would win and praised president Bill Polian for putting enough pieces in place while managing the salary cap effectively.
Specifically, Edge said Polian “figured out” how to pay quarterback Peyton Manning a huge chunk of the salary cap, then divide “the scraps” that remained for everyone else and get enough capable players on the roster.
That’s the same challenge the Colts face today, now that Luck has been given the NFL’s richest contract in history.
Make no mistake, Luck deserved to get paid. He’s a three-time Pro Bowl star with the potential to become one of the NFL’s best at his position. He turns 27 on Sept. 12, so he’s still young and, if the Colts can keep him healthy, should be entering the prime years of his NFL career.
Some might ask why the Colts paid him now, with one year remaining on his rookie deal. Because the price of NFL contracts goes up with each year. The sooner you get No. 12 locked up, the less money you spend on him in the long run.
Perhaps just as importantly, now the Colts have a better understanding of where the balance sheet starts each year. Just like in the Manning years, when the Colts were able to make it to two Super Bowls, Luck is going to be make a big chunk of the salary cap. His contract will average about $23 million per season, beginning this year. The NFL salary cap is $155.27 million this season. Do the quick math.
How general manager Ryan Grigson manages the salary cap and spends on other players likely determines if Luck fulfills a destiny owner Jim Irsay has been outspoken about. Irsay expects at least two Super Bowl wins in the Luck era.
To do that, the Colts can’t continually miss on expensive free agents. They have to hit on more of their draft picks than not, especially in the earlier rounds. Those guys are expected to able to play in the NFL. That’s why they are selected in the first three or four rounds. And should the Colts make a big trade, they can’t afford to whiff (I'm not even going to say the running back's name).
In other words, while locking up Luck ensures the most important position on any NFL team should be solidified for years to come, the margin for error on the rest of the roster shrinks.
The Colts still need a defense. It goes beyond echoing the old mantra of “defense wins championships.” This team needs defensive playmakers in the worst way. Nobody admires outside linebacker Robert Mathis more than me, but he’s 35 and not going to play forever. After him, there’s Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis, then a few other decent players like Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams (he’s 35), inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (he’s about to turn 33) and defensive end Kendall Langford.
Athlon Magazine asks NFL scouts for observations on opponents and one scout said of the Colts, “Indy doesn’t have one player on defense that scares anybody.”
I’m never shy about engaging in a debate, but that one can’t be won. Because it’s true.
What’s exciting about the Colts is not only do they have Luck signed, they’ve locked up offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo and Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. They added an O-line cornerstone by selecting center Ryan Kelly in the first round. Wide receiver Donte Moncrief is entering his third year and wide receiver Phillip Dorsett is looking to have a breakthrough year two. If tight end Dwayne Allen can stay healthy, he’ll earn every penny in his new four-year, $29.4-million contract, too.
So the Colts need a running back for the long haul — Frank Gore is 33. And beyond that, the priorities for free agency and the draft next year and beyond are as obvious as the need to manage the cap effectively: D-fense! D-fense! D-fense!
When Irsay committed himself to four more years with head coach Chuck Pagano after last season, he added three more years to Grigson’s contract, which means they’re a package deal.
Some will say it’s on Pagano to take this team where Irsay expects, but it’s on both the coach and GM.
And in the long run, don’t be surprised if the Colts’ level of success is as much a byproduct of how Grigson balances the books as anything else.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.