Immediate reaction couldn’t have been more obvious Friday as news spread that Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Arthur Jones was suspended four games without pay for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Cut him. Now.
It’s true Jones hasn’t lived up to being overpaid $33 million over five years with $10 million guaranteed in 2014 — a lot of money for a guy who prior to his Indy arrival had started just 20 games in four years.
It’s also painfully true ankle injuries have derailed his career the past two seasons, including all of 2015 after he got hurt in the third preseason game on a chop block.
Just when he’s expected to return healthy and ready to be a core defensive player, now this. Gone four games for something that just doesn’t make any sense, considering all NFL players are made well aware of what they can and can’t put into their bodies.
But here’s why the Colts should probably keep him, at least for this season.
Jones, 30, agreed to restructure his contract for 2016, which meant reducing his base salary $2 million to $2.5 million. So he’s not costing them as much for this year after he serves his suspension.
The Colts wouldn’t be blamed for cutting their losses on Jones sooner as opposed to later -- although there's no cap benefit to doing it now -- but the smart move would be to part ways after this season. Unless he comes back and plays like a Pro Bowl defender, there’s no reason to keep paying him millions to disappoint. The Colts get what they can out of a guy who has played in just 12 games counting the playoffs in two seasons, then move on, which would save $5.15 million in cap space. He’ll still count $2.2 million in dead cap money in 2017 and another $1.1 million in dead cap money in 2018.
Then there’s perhaps the more pressing reality — they need him. The Colts are thin at his position because second-year pro Henry Anderson likely won’t be fully recovered from knee surgery until after this season starts. He was lost in the ninth game last year.
The competition to fill his spot for four games is likely between rookie fourth-round pick Hassan Ridgeway, nose tackle Zach Kerr and second-year pro T.Y. McGill. That the Colts drafted Ridgeway could have been an indication they were thinking long term without Jones. If Ridgeway proves to be a player, that makes jettisoning Jones an easier decision. But until the rookie is tested in preseason games, the Colts don’t know what they have with him.
They do know about Kerr, a former undrafted overachiever, and McGill, claimed off waivers from Seattle at the end of preseason last year. Both have made a few plays in limited roles. Both have three sacks, which suggests they can get after the passer at times. But unless they take advantage of this opportunity and really impress, they’ll be viewed as just role players capable of filling in as reserves.
This position in the Colts’ 3-4 defense requires a long-term answer, not short-term solutions. And Jones has started just six games, counting three in the playoffs, so it’s not like the franchise can expect him to finally perform as expected.
Sure, injuries happen. It’s not like he wanted to suffer ankle injuries, especially the latter on a block that has since been outlawed by the league. But there’s a breaking point on patience for guys making a lot of money. And the hunch is the Colts have reached that position with Jones.
Perhaps the best-case scenario would be if Anderson can regain his health to play by October or November. He was a solid run stuffer as a rookie, including nine tackles in his season-opening debut. If Anderson returns to form eventually, again, that makes the decision on Jones easier.
NFL players often say it takes a full year to recover from knee surgery, which would put Anderson’s timetable to be healthy at November. It’s also often said players who have mended don’t truly trust the knee until that second season back. So maybe Anderson needs more time to regain that form.
It’s unquestionably disappointing for a defense with some aging leaders to lose a player before a season even starts. The biggest question marks about the Colts are on defense, and Jones being suspended qualifies as a significant setback if he can’t be replaced with reliable production, which seems a bit unlikely.
Colts general manager Ryan Grigson has made his share of mistakes in overspending on unworthy free agents. Nobody was hoping for a healthy Jones more than Grigson.
There's another negative factor to be considered in how parting with Jones sets the team back. It’s not just about money. When the Colts commit millions to a player, they don’t anticipate needing to address that spot again. If they do, it’s at the expense of drafting or signing a player needed at another position.
This Colts defense needs more edge rushers. If something would happen to all-time franchise sack leader Robert Mathis, now 35, that predicament becomes a crisis. It’s fair to say the Colts must address that position next offseason. They might also need a running back if 33-year-old Frank Gore shows his age and can no longer be the go-to guy.
Settling on a defensive tackle somehow, someway takes on more importance because you don’t want to see the Colts use a pick on that spot when it’s needed for another pressing need.
For now, the Colts just have to hope they can get something out of Jones this season. Seriously, something is better than nothing if the team has to pay him anyway.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.