Jeff Saturday has been with the Colts almost as long as Peyton Manning has been with the team. He was signed as an undrafted free agent following the 1999 NFL draft, started two games his rookie season, and has started the bulk of the games since, missing only six starts since 2000.
However, he missed four of those six games during the 2008 season, so it stands to reason that Indianapolis should take the recentness of his injury history under consideration when they make their decision on whether or not to bring him back for 2009 (and possibly beyond).
Saturday has proved his worth to the Colts, but can they afford him?
The interesting thing about the four games that Saturday missed last season is that they made a bigger statement about his value to the offensive line — and the team in general — than any of the 12 games he suited up for and played.
With Jamey Richard or Steve Justice in the lineup — the Colts moved the two men in and out, since they couldn't find a suitable replacement for Saturday — Indianapolis struggled to run the ball and were less effective in pass protection.
Saturday often works in concert with Manning when the offense comes to the line of scrimmage, changing blocking assignments and making line adjustments once the opposing defense has been assessed.
As a former Pro Bowler and someone who still rates as one of the five best players at his position, Saturday still has the skill, strength, and fire to be effective, even at the age of 34.
As was clearly evident during the early part of last season, the offense simply isn't as effective without him anchoring the line — Manning is obviously the most important person in the offense, but Saturday is on the next tier along with Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark as players the unit can ill-afford to lose for extended periods of time and remain at peak performance.
Given all that, the only acceptable reason for Saturday leaving the team is if he retires. If he has decided to play another year (or two), then the Colts need to make it their top priority to keep him on the team. His salary for the 2008 season was $3.5 million. With the increase in the cap limit from year to year and the fact that Indianapolis will probably be saving some cap dollars by releasing some underperforming veterans, it's not unreasonable to think that the Colts can offer Saturday a two year deal in the $6-7 million range.
At 34 years old, not playing a premium position, and having far more value for Indianapolis than any other team in the league that might sign him, that should be more than enough to get a deal done and keep Saturday on the team for the next couple of seasons.
At that point he'll be 36, Richard and Justice will be further along in their development, and they'll be in a more advantageous negotiating position then they currently find themselves in.
If they can find the cap room, a one-year deal would probably be best for Indianapolis, but Saturday might take that as a sign of a lack of faith and commitment on their part, so it's a smarter move to sign him for two seasons, then release him after 2009 or ask him to restructure if absolutely necessary.
At this point, though, Saturday is too valuable to the team and does not have a suitable replacement. Richard or Justice is the future for the Colts at center, but it would be nice to put that future off for another year or two.