The Indianapolis Colts will enter the 2020 offseason with the most projected salary cap space of all 32 NFL teams and that includes the $6.4 million in dead cap tied to Andrew Luck. With a general manager who found the 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year in round two and one of the most talented (and youthful) rosters in the NFL, the Colts will once again be a force to be reckoned with in the post-Luck era — and it won’t take long.
We’ll break down how Chris Ballard — Colts general manager — has the roster in an excellent position to rebound fast. We’ll take a deep dive into their future cap situation, Indianapolis’ options at quarterback during the 2020 offseason, and further break down why this roster is close to being perfectly positioned to welcome aboard a new franchise quarterback.
2020 Salary Cap Space
The Colts are currently projected to have approximately $85 million in 2020 cap space — the most in the NFL. That number will rise once the NFL announces its annual rise in the overall salary cap ceiling later in 2020. The Colts are projected to have nearly double what the Oakland Raiders ($45 million) — with the 14th-most cap space — will have. The Colts only have one player projected to take up “dead cap” space on their roster and that’s Luck. The dead cap is the salary that counts against a team’s cap for players who are no longer on the roster.
Free-agent spending sprees have tested poorly over time but calculated big moves have reshaped rosters. For example, during the 2017 offseason, the New England Patriots made cornerback Stephon Gilmore the highest-paid player at his position (annually, at the time) by signing him to a five-year, $65 million contract. Since then, Gilmore has emerged as arguably the NFL’s premier shutdown coverage cornerback ( ). He has transformed the Patriots’ defense — already heavy in its reliance and usage of extra defensive backs. As the Patriots have transitioned from a pass-first team to a ball-control offense that relies heavily on the defense, Gilmore has become one of the most important players on their entire 2019 Super Bowl-winning roster.
Most successful free-agent splashes have in common a player who just finished his rookie contract (in the 25-27 age-range). However, not all free-agent wins come at top dollar. Ballard is familiar with this. During the 2018 offseason, the Colts nabbed tight end Eric Ebron on a two-year, $15 million contract after the end of his rookie deal. Ebron had a breakout season with Indianapolis in 2018. The tight end revived his career and emerged as one of the NFL’s most dominant red-zone threats — he finished with the second-most touchdowns (13) in the NFL.
You can also find value in free agency by targeting veterans who have played more seasons. The Los Angeles Rams‘ borderline dominant two-year stint would not be possible if they hadn’t signed left tackle Andrew Whitworth during the 2017 offseason. The veteran offensive lineman was 35-years-old at the time and has remained one of the highest-graded players at his position for the past two seasons.
The Colts will have options to continue to build up their roster for their next franchise quarterback with the most flexibility from a cap standpoint of any NFL team plus a general manager who is quickly emerging as one of the league’s most savvy.
Options at Quarterback
The Colts will most likely attempt to see if they have a future with projected starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett during the 2019 regular season. However, if they instead look to aggressively attack the trade market in search of a veteran quarterback in the next two weeks, If Brissett is not the answer, while the Colts most likely won’t have an opportunity to draft another they will have a surprisingly strong contingent of future franchise faces in free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft.
Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees are all set to become unrestricted free agents, but we’ll take them off the table. The Colts roster is built for a player like that to come in and compete to win a Super Bowl right away in 2020, but let’s be real — none of their respective teams will let them hit the open market.
However, former No. 1 and 2 draft picks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are also set to hit the open free agent market if their respective teams do not use the franchise tag. Both Winston and Mariota have flashed brilliance and inconsistency thus far in their careers. However, a change of scenery, joining Frank Reich’s offensive system (see: Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl run with Nick Foles), and an improvement in the supporting roster surrounding them could make all the difference when it comes to tapping into their upside. Players with skill sets like Winston and Mariota are rarely available on the open market which makes the 2020 free-agent class a unique one for the Colts and any other team that needs a quarterback.
Teddy Bridgewater is also set to become an unrestricted free agent after his second year learning behind Drew Brees. Those who just chase box-score stats tend to be nonbelievers in Bridgewater, but his ability to throw off-platform (from different arm angles when the pocket is not always clean) and accurately in the short-to-intermediate range makes him a strong fit for Reich’s offensive system. With a seal of approval from both Saints head coach Sean Payton and Brees, signing Bridgewater to a one-year prove-it deal would be a decision with upside baked into the flexibility it affords the Colts from a roster-building standpoint.
Brissett will also be an unrestricted free agent this coming offseason. If the Colts like what they see from Brissett, but they don’t want to get themselves into a Jimmy Garoppolo-like long-term contract situation, they can place the franchise tag on him. This will buy them another year and give them a larger sample size to make the long-term Brissett decision.
A Young and Talented Core
Luck isn’t the sole reason the Colts bounced back in such a strong way during the 2018 season. Ballard absolutely nailed his first three draft picks after already nailing the decision to trade back with the New York Jets — this added multiple second-round draft picks to Indianapolis’ arsenal.
In year one, Ballard’s first three picks went on to win Defensive Rookie of the Year (Darius Leonard), emerge as arguably the next elite interior offensive lineman (Quenton Nelson), and settle in as a plus-starter at the NFL’s scarcest position (Braden Smith, offensive tackle). This three-man core is 24, 23, and 23 years old, respectively.
The Colts’ talented and young core roster goes beyond their slam-dunk 2018 draft picks. On the offensive side of the ball, center Ryan Kelly (26), running backs Marlon Mack (23) and Nyheim Hines (22) are all on the upswings of their careers and under contract cheap. On the defensive side of the ball, Malik Hooker (23), Pierre Desir (28), and Quincy Wilson (23) all emerged in a massive way for Indianapolis’ pass defense in 2018. These three defensive backs led the secondary and they are instrumental in the defensive system. The Colts also have to love what they got from Kemeko Turay (24) in a rotational role as an edge pass rusher.
Andrew Luck’s retirement shocked the world, so Will Brinson, John Breech, Ryan Wilson and Sean Wagner-McGough fired up an emergency Pick Six NFL Podcast to break down every conceivable angle from the news. Can Luck be considered a bust? Who is to blame here? What does this mean for the Colts in fantasy and their win total for 2019? Listen in the player below and subscribe to the podcast here.
A Dominant and Young Offensive Line
The pride and joy of Ballard’s impressive roster revival in Indianapolis is his offensive line. You would be hard-pressed to find a general manager who turned around an offensive line so drastically, and in such a short period of time, as Ballard did.
In a league where it’s almost as difficult to find an offensive tackle as it is a quarterback, Ballard’s duo has exceeded expectations. Anthony Castonzo has mostly finished in the top-10 of Pro Football Focus’ left tackle grades over the last few seasons with the Colts, although he ranked No. 12 in 2018. As a rookie, Smith graded out as a top-10 right tackle (No. 9 overall).
You probably didn’t need game charting to notice, but Nelson was PFF’s No. 2 left guard. Mark Glowinski was No. 6 overall at right guard. The Colts also had another top-10 starter on the offensive line in Kelly (No. 8 center overall).
In his short time on the job, Ballard put together an offensive line with four-of-five starters in the top-10 at their respective positions, a left guard who looks like a future Hall of Famer, and no one who graded outside of the top-12 at their position in 2018.
Flexibility at the Skill Positions
The Colts have shifted to an inside-out roster-building approach — also known as the correct one — under Ballard. In other words, they have shifted assets to the trenches (offensive line, defensive line) and played the temporary game at the skill positions. The Colts have assembled a one-two punch at running back with Day 2 draft picks in consecutive drafts (2017, 2018). They have also assembled a group of pass-catchers who fit Reich’s offensive system and Luck’s skill set. After nailing the Ebron signing, the Colts went back to the well to sign wide receiver Devin Funchess this past offseason — both players have the size that fits the system and Luck’s skill set.
With Luck gone, the Colts may want to alter their plan at the skill positions and their roster construction makes it possible. Both Ebron and Funchess will be free agents this offseason. Mack and Hines — their 1-2 at running back — are under team control for less than $1 million (annually) each.
Next offseason, Ballard has the flexibility and cap space to pursue the skill positions in free agency however he chooses. Knowing his roster-building approach, we doubt he will pour big money into the wide receiver, tight end, or running back positions. That’s a good thing.
For those concerned with how Luck’s retirement impacts the fantasy football landscape for 2019, CBS Sports fantasy analyst Chris Towers offered analysis of the injury’s impact on fantasy football teams:
The last time the Colts played without Andrew Luck, things fell apart. It won’t be that bad this time around, with Jacoby Brissett having spent a few more years in the system and by all accounts developing into a solid option. Still, you have to downgrade the likes of T.Y. Hilton and Marlon Mack, who fall into the No. 2 range at their respective positions. Eric Ebron, already a regression candidate, joins the crew of touchdown-or-bust options at the end of the No. 1 tier at tight end, with a quarterback who isn’t going to get the team into the end zone nearly as much. As for the rest of the supporting cast? There probably isn’t much reason to worry about Devin Funchess, Parris Campbell, or Jack Doyle outside of deeper leagues.
While it obviously still stings Colts fans to see Luck go, ironically after the team finally established an elite offensive line for him, the addition of Ballard has turned Indianapolis into a team that is quite literally a quarterback away. The 2020 offseason will be flush with quarterback possibilities — both in free agency and the draft — which we didn’t get to today — but Ryan Wilson did an excellent job breaking down earlier in August in hisThe future is bright for the Colts even if it might not look that way less than 24 hours after Luck’s retirement.
*All salary cap numbers are courtesy of the fine work Jason Fitzgerald does at OverTheCap.com.