Before the start of free agency, new Colts general manager Chris Ballard warned that his first foray into the open market would be a careful one, saying his approach would be based on getting good value rather than seeking out blockbuster additions.
Few listened to Ballard’s proclamation, however, and the Colts – who were one of the most cap-flushed teams in the league – were expected to spend big to fix their 30th-ranked defense.
While the Colts showed interested in defensive stars like Dontari Poe, A.J. Bouye, and Nick Perry, as well as surprisingly making a run at wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, they ended up capturing none – and that’s a positive sign for Indy.
Gone are the days when former GM Ryan Grigson would overpay for questionable talents, big names, or players who didn’t fit the team’s scheme. Now, while it remains to be seen how successful it is, Ballard’s vision for the team has been made clear thanks to his host of under-the-radar free-agent signings.
In 2016, not only were the Colts bad on defense, they were old, too. Mike Adams, D’Qwell Jackson, Robert Mathis, Erik Walden, Darius Butler, and Trent Cole were all 30-plus, and all played significant roles.
All the above players were either cut, retired, or allowed to walk in free agency, with the exception of the versatile Butler, who was retained on a relatively small, one-year deal. Cornerback Patrick Robinson, last year’s big free-agent addition who will be 30 by the time the 2017 season begins, was also released. Injury-prone defensive lineman Arthur Jones, also past the 30 mark, will likely follow suit soon.
In short, Indy was just as focused on getting younger on defense as it was on getting better. Here are the defensive players the Colts have brought in so far:
|LB John Simon||26||3-year-$13.5M|
|LB Jabaal Sheard||27||3-year-$22.5M|
|LB Sean Spence||26||1-year-$3M|
|LB Barkevious Mingo||26||1-year-$2M|
|NT Al Woods||29||2-year-$5M|
|DE Margus Hunt||29||2-year-$4.1M|
The list definitely lacks standout stars, but what people arguing the Colts should sign Bouye or Perry to huge contracts missed is the fact that this defense isn’t one or two players away from being a good unit.
Aside from star cornerback Vontae Davis, who had a down year in 2016, and a few interesting pieces like defensive end Henry Anderson and safety Clayton Geathers, Indy’s cupboard is bare. There’s no depth, no base to build upon, no competition for spots, with the latter issue appearing to be behind Ballard’s motivation for these moves.
Ballard and the Colts recognized this defense isn’t a one- or two-year fix, so why overpay free agents who might not be productive when the team is ready to compete for Super Bowls? It’s clear the Colts attempted to see what the likes of Bouye were asking for, and then pulled out when the numbers exceeded what they were willing to pay.
None of the players brought in by the Colts carry any significant risk, and most have decent upsides and won’t have any issue fighting for their place. Simon, Sheard, and Spence are in line for starting jobs, and while none are game-changers, all are upgrades of their predecessors and solid additions that will improve both the Colts’ stagnant pass-rush and past issues covering running backs and tight ends. The others, once the draft is completed, should compete to be backups and rotational players.
And the draft is where the Colts will find their future stars.
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Andrew Luck is just 27 years old. Yes, enough of his prime has been wasted by the ill-advised trades and first-round picks of Grigson, but the Colts still have the time to build a team around him the right way.
Ballard comes over from a Kansas City Chiefs team that built its defense almost exclusively through the draft. The Colts, thanks to being awarded a compensatory selection and trading tight end Dwayne Allen, have five picks in the first 144 picks of the draft – enough ammunition to pair their free-agent signings with young blood.
Last season, the Falcons showed how far an elite offense can go when paired with defense that doesn’t try to play beyond its talents. Atlanta’s defense was a mixture of decent journeymen, exciting rookies, and one or two stars. They relied on organization and role players with specific skills to complement the high-flying offense, and the Colts appear to be following this model.
With Luck, there’s little doubt the Colts are capable of being a powerhouse offense. If all goes to plan, the star quarterback will finally have a defense he can rely on, but it isn’t going to happen overnight.
Finally, Indy has stopped building its roster like Luck is 40 years old and they must win now or never. It means less excitement in free agency, but the patient approach to the defense should make the Colts much less of a one-man show in 2017 and beyond.
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