Preparing for the Colts Future: Re-Signing the Veterans

Story brought to you by

When the Indianapolis Colts lost to the Kansas City Chiefs at home Sunday, the final nail may have been driven into the coffin of the team’s 2011 season. Even if the team manages to win a few games without Peyton Manning –something they’re talented enough to do if they can find some consistency — there is very little chance the Colts will finish with more than three wins.

In a funny way, a Manning return in 2011 may only serve to hurt the team’s chances to develop for their future by pushing them down the draft board. The number one pick in the draft has long been considered a blessing and a curse but regardless of which direction the team chooses to go with Andrew Luck, or trading the pick out to a handful of teams who would be willing to give up a lot to have the opportunity to draft Luck, a higher pick should work in the team’s advantage.

Before Colts fans can really take an educated look at who the team should draft with a much higher pick (even if they trade out), some bookkeeping needs to be done regarding current players. Who is up for a new contract, and how much available cap space Indianapolis will have in 2012 before new contracts are offered?

To serve this effort, I took the time to update the Coltzilla salary cap page as best I could on Monday. Please feel free to check out the numbers and offer any insights, advice, or corrections if any of the information is incorrect. Tracking down contract specifics is rather difficult.

The following players, listed by position, are set to be unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2011 season:

Quarterback – Dan Orlovsky

Wide Receiver – Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez

Tight End – Jacob Tamme

Tackle – Michael Toudouze

Guard – Ryan Diem, Mike Pollak

Center – Jeff Saturday

Defensive End – Robert Mathis, Jamaal Anderson, Tyler Brayton

Defensive Tackle – Eric Foster

Linebacker – A.J. Edds, Ernie Sims, Philip Wheeler

Cornerback – Jacob Lacey

Safety – Stevie Brown

Needless to say, the 2012 Indianapolis Colts could have significant turnover. Wide receiver will probably look different — it is unlikely that Anthony Gonzalez will return to the team (Wayne may not). Defensive end may look different because the team may not be able to re-sign all three veteran players. If Eric Foster is able to return from his gruesome injury, he may not take the field again for the Colts. Jeff Saturday? How much would it take to keep him with the team and would it be worth it at this point in his career?

My initial estimates place the Colts $17 million under the cap in 2012. Mathis, Wayne, Garcon, and one of the veteran free agents brought in for 2011 would likely take up a big chunk (or all) of that cap space if they are re-signed.

The good news is that the team will likely be able to free up some more cap space by cutting Kerry Collins. Releasing his contract should clear between $9 and $10 million from the cap. The new CBA rules also give Indianapolis the freedom to borrow $1.5 million from a future year. With Dwight Freeney entering his $19.5 million final year of his contract, it may make some sense to do so. Of course, the team could choose to make restructuring Freeney’s contract (read extending) a priority to free up more space in 2012.

In any case, with some finesse the team could retain most of the players they really want to retain — Diem, Saturday, Lacey, and Gonzalez could be obvious write-offs due to age, injuries, or failure to perform. Another $10+ million in cap space could make it possible to keep Anderson, Brayton, Wheeler, Sims, and Tamme (assuming all are willing to accept reasonable deals and want to stay in Indianapolis).

One thing the team may not have the luxury of doing in 2012 is setting the bar for player salaries at their positions — a habit they have had in the past. Wayne would not be able to ask for a $6-8 million per year contract. Mathis wants his pay to better reflect the impact he has on the team but he won’t be able to demand $12-15 million like Dwight Freeney did.

In many ways, what the players are willing to accept could have a significant impact on who the team will be able to retain. If Wayne, Mathis, Garcon, Anderson, Brayton, Sims, Wheeler, and Foster (health permitting) are able to return, the 2012 Indianapolis Colts will be a talent rich group who should be projected as Super Bowl contenders out of the gate. If only half of those players are able to be retained due to cap limitations, Manning may be missing out on a roster that is more talented than he has had since the 2006 championship season.

Look forward for an in-depth discussion about personnel at each position as this series continues.