The Indianapolis Colts started free agency with the lowest cap space number they’ve had in the past few years. However, after the release of Matt Ryan this week, the team has freed up some additional cap space — $17.2 million to be exact. Their available cap space is fluid as the team has made some signings and could make further cuts, or trades.
Thus far, the Indianapolis Colts have been much more active early in free agency than in years past. But, even with all of the activity they still have a few holes to fill at guard, cornerback, wide receiver, and most importantly quarterback. Now, the expectation is that the team will draft a new QB with the fourth overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft.
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It should be noted that only one time has general manager Chris Ballard made the pick that everyone expected of him in the draft, and that was Quenton Nelson in 2018. So, while the prevailing thought is that the team will take a quarterback, the idea of a different draft selection shouldn’t be completely ruled out.
With that being said, here are four ways the Indianapolis Colts should use their expanded cap space.
Indianapolis Colts must invest long-term in homegrown talent
One of the staples during the Ballard administration is developing and retaining their own. Also, extending rookies they want to keep before their contract expires. For example, prior to Quenton Nelson and Shaquille Leonard’s rookie contracts expiring the team was able to work out a contract extension.
The next group of players whose rookie deals are set to expire is cornerback Isaiah Rodgers, wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., and running back Jonathan Taylor. Rodgers has slowly been ascending over his time with the Colts. Which is exactly what everyone wants to see. And considering the team just traded away Stephon Gilmore their need at cornerback is even greater.
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The other two are a little bit more divisive. The NFL is now much more of a passing league and teams need play-making wide receivers. Pittman’s third season didn’t see the growth and development many had hoped for. While he set career highs in targets (141), catches (99), and catches-per-game (6.2). He took a step back in yards (925) and touchdowns (4) and set a career low in yards-per-catch (9.3).
As for Taylor, it has nothing to do with his production and everything to do with the position he plays. His play on the field absolutely warrants an extension. However, running backs just aren’t utilized the way they once were. Teams simply don’t need a dominant running back in order to win. They simply need a consistent rushing threat and those can be found every year in the draft or in free agency. But Taylor is special and worth being kept.
Target Lonnie Johnson Jr.
As previously mentioned, the Colts need another cornerback now that they traded away Gilmore. This year’s draft is very deep in this position. However, if the team wants to add some more proven veteran commodities they could turn to free agency.
There are some recognizable names out there and there are these players that could be subtly enticing, like Lonnie Johnson Jr. His name might be recognizable as he’s formerly played for Houston and Tennessee in the NFL and is from Gary, Indiana. He’s had some success playing corner but also is valuable on special teams. This ability to contribute on both defense and special teams is valuable on a 53-man roster.
He’s a former second-round selection in the 2019 draft by Houston and it’s fair to say he’s not lived up to the hype and expectation that comes with being a high draft choice. His best season is easily 2021 where he recorded three interceptions, six pass deflections, and allowed a completion percentage of 57.9. He’s had a lot of experience playing in zone coverage but it’s mostly been cover-2. When asked to play in cover-3 he’s faired and well and appears to be a better fit.
Add a starting guard in NFL free agency
Last season there were two positions along the offensive line that were replaced, left tackle and right guard. Neither of the initial replacements worked out. However, the team did draft their possible left tackle of the future, Bernhard Raimann. He started the season off in a rotation with Matt Pryor but ultimately became the starter about mid-season.
Then there’s Will Fries who became the starting right guard near the end of the season. A prevailing thought is the team would like to bring in some veterans to help compete against the youngsters. The left tackle market doesn’t have a lot of good options for the Colts. However, the guard market does have a few good men in Matt Feiler and Isaac Seumalo.
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Both of these guys have been in the NFL for a few seasons and have played a lot of snaps. This experience can help them either secure the starting guard spot for the Colts or provide valuable mentorship to Fries. Feiler and Seumalo could be the perfect type of veteran guard the team is looking for.
The Shane Steichen connection
Any time there is a new coach or GM on a team you can almost always count on the team acquiring some former players. For example, Eric Fisher signed with the Colts two years ago. This season the Colts hired Shane Steichen. He’s had previous offensive coordinator stops in Philadelphia and the LA Chargers.
Both of those teams have a laundry list of free agents that could be a part of Steichen’s new squad. One player that could be a good fit is wide receiver, Jalen Guyton. The Colts’ current group of wide receivers lacks high-end speed and the ability to separate. Guyton comes equipped with 4.35 speed and has been a big play threat for the Chargers. If the Colts decide to not bring back Parris Campbell, Guyton could be a good replacement option.
Then on the defensive side of the ball, there is C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Most recently it’s been reported that Philadelphia wants to re-sign him. However, if that isn’t able to happen Indianapolis would be a good landing spot for him. Last season, the Colts signed veteran Rodney McLeod. He turned out to be a good signing for the team as he was one of the starting safeties and provided some valuable leadership and mentorship to the other young safeties.
Considering the team was so high on their rookie third-round pick, it is a bit concerning that he lost valuable playing time to seventh-round rookie Rodney Thomas. Still, the Indianapolis Colts have liked to have at least three to four reliable safeties they can count on. Bringing in the veteran Gardner-Johnson would check that box.
His last season is a bit of a mixed bag as he had eight pass breakups, one sack, and led the league with six interceptions. However, he did allow a 73.1% pass completion rate and 11.7 yards-per-completion, which were both career worst. Considering his age, success, and the current contracts of safeties he’s unlikely to be the highest-paid safety in free agency.