Heading into the offseason, a number of questions surrounded the guard position for Indianapolis. With starters Ryan Lilja and Jake Scott due to become free agents and key backup Dylan Gandy on the books as a restricted free agent, Bill Polian and his negotiators must have known they had a lot of work to do, particularly with the premium that the rest of the league is starting to place on the position and the deference with which the Colts have given it throughout the past few years.
As ColtPower's Ed Thompson pointed out in this November article, there has been a revolving door policy for guards in the Polian administration, while he tends to place more value in the center and tackle positions.
No starter has lasted longer than four seasons with the Colts since 1998. Lilja will break that streak, but it seems unlikely that Scott will join him.
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With the contracts signed in the last two offseasons by Steve Hutchinson, Eric Steinbach, and Kris Diehlman, it is obvious that young, capable guards are in high demand. Though the star at the position this offseason is likely going to be Alan Faneca, Faneca is also 31, while Scott will turn 27 just before the 2008 NFL Draft.
Last year, Indianapolis was able to keep other teams at bay by assigning a second-round tender to Scott, they have no such option this year, given that they already used the franchise designation on Dallas Clark.
They could designate Scott as a transitional player, which would pay him the average of the ten highest-paid guards in the league for this season and would give the Colts the right of first refusal on any offer made to him, but, as the Seahawks learned with Hutchinson during the 2006 offseason, that would only invite another franchise to offer Scott a contract laden with "poison pills" — non-monetary clauses Indianapolis cannot possibly match — and would tie up cap space until such time as he signs with another team.
There is the possibility that Indianapolis could sign Scott to a similar deal as Lilja — in the neighborhood of five years, $20 million — but, since they already invested heavily in a low-priority position and also signed Clark to a lucrative six-year contract, it is highly unlikely that they will drop another $20 million into Scott's pockets, especially when they have Gandy waiting on the bench.
Now that Clark is signed, there was also the possibility that the Colts might use the franchise player designation on Scott. However, the deadline to tag a player was Thursday, and Polian gave no indication that the Colts did in fact do that yesterday during brief remarks to the media at the NFL Combine.
However, if the Colts were able to put the tag on Scott, the salary cap figure for an offensive lineman is $7.455 million, which would be the highest cap number of any player among the starting five. That seems to be a very risky move, but Indianapolis was able to tag Clark on a Tuesday and sign him that same Wednesday, so the franchise designation could be seen as the impetus for new deal.
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That leaves a question of what to do with Dylan Gandy. Though he has proven himself to be a capable backup, he has fewer starts (14) than Scott (41) or Lilja (27) had last offseason when the Colts signed both men to one-year contracts at the $1.3 million second round tender.
However, Indianapolis cannot afford to offer Gandy the $927,000 tender and have him depart to another team with only a fourth-round pick as compensation. If they tender him at $1.47, which is the number for compensation of a second round pick, they should be able to scare other teams away from signing him.
And, even if they don't, surely everyone will agree that Polian could find a more-than-suitable replacement if armed with an extra second-round selection.
In this situation, the Colts need to stick with the formula that made them successful — pay what is necessary to keep skill position players and vital defenders and count on the coaching staff to make serviceable starters out of everyone else that can be afforded.
The only gambles here are that allowing Scott to depart would strain the overall depth of the offensive line and place Gandy in an unfamiliar role — while he has started 14 games in his career, it should be pointed out that 11 of those starts came in 2006 when he was playing for the injured Lilja.
Gandy would most likely need to learn the right guard position to replace Scott, since it's readily apparent that Lilja isn't going anywhere for a long while.
But, as much as Polian has handed Tony Dungy and his staff a bunch of inexperienced athletes throughout the roster, the coaches have been able to deliver. With that in mind, it might be best to let Scott walk.