A year ago, the Indianapolis Colts won the March Lombardi Trophy. Actually, it’s a Baby Lombardi, like the Baby Borg, given to the team who is perceived to have done the best in free agency. It was really a very nice ceremony; you should have been there.
Now, it’s March, one year later and one day after the annual free-agent grab bag, and the Colts have done next to nothing. It’s as if the ghost of Bill Polian re-entered the 56th Street premises, insisting free agency was a fool’s errand while retaining his best players.
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Fans are undoubtedly freaking out, having spent all of Wednesday monitoring Adam Schefter’s Twitter timeline, all the while noting how the Titans, Jaguars and Texans improved themselves while the Colts stood still. But that, folks, was the plan all along. The Colts don’t have a massive amount of cap room to go shopping on the first day of free agency. And after taking several mighty swings and whiffing in previous years, they’ve chosen to play it a bit more conservatively.
They are waiting on sales. They are waiting on bargains. They are waiting until the dust clears and the prices come down before diving into the free agency waters.
And that’s fine.
As long as, you know, they do SOMETHING to improve a team that needs help in several areas.
What I’m saying is, this column is a daily snapshot, and the picture will likely look a lot different when we get together a few weeks, or even a few days, from now.
One day into it – and a whole lot may still happen by the time I’m done crafting this sentence – the Colts are largely the same team they were last season. They kept Adam Vinatieri (great). They kept Dwayne Allen (hmmm…more on that later). They re-structured the deals of Trent Cole and Art Jones (necessary). They are negotiating with inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman (get…it…done). They lost Dwight Lowery (are you ready, Clayton Geathers?) and let Coby Fleener, their most productive tight end, walk out the door (questionable…more on that later).
Colts agree to contract extension with Adam Vinatieri
Colts reach deal on contract extension with TE Dwayne Allen
I am not anti-free agency, understand. Free agents work out sometimes. Look at the Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos, who went heavy into free agency and got a championship out of it. Free agency isn’t bad; picking lousy free agents is bad. And the Colts have had mixed results, to be charitable, when picking free agents.
People look at the Eagles’ Dream Team from a few years back or the Colts last year or Washington virtually any year, and conclude that free agency as a concept is wrong-headed. Not necessarily. While only four of last year’s league-wide free agents made the Pro Bowl, some players produce and make an impact at a need position.
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Again: the Denver Broncos.
The key – and stop me when this gets too obvious – is grabbing the right middle- or lower-tier free agents and then drafting extraordinarily well. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of this upcoming draft, when the Colts will have (you hope) one of their very few chances to select before playoff teams. There can’t be any Bjoern Werners in this draft. There can’t be any Khaled Holmes or Hugh Thorntons in this draft. There can’t be any terrible misses in this draft. This, ultimately, has to be Ryan Grigson’s best draft, better even than the 2012 draft, because this team needs to get younger and cheaper very quickly.
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Said this before and going to say it again: The best and worst thing ever to happen to the Colts is, they got good so fast. Instead of making a steady climb out of 2-14 and building with youth, they operated with the understandable belief they could make a run at the Super Bowl in Andrew Luck’s early years. Well, that clearly didn’t work, leaving them with a team of older players who made lots of money and underperformed terribly. See: Andre Johnson.
Before the stores close on free agency, it’s fair to hope the Colts address at least one or two of their needs. They need some interior offensive linemen. They need a pass rusher. They need a cornerback. They need a backup quarterback. If they come away with nothing, then feel free to scream. But save your vocal chords for the time being. There’s a long way to go.
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So back to the tight-end decision: I’m not a huge Fleener fan, at least as far as a player. He drops too many easy passes. He rarely wins 50-50 balls. He’s not a great blocker. He’s never broken a tackle in his natural life. That said, though, he’s remained healthy and he’s caught roughly 50 balls every season. He’s not Gronk (who is?) but he’s not a bum, either.
RELATED: Coby Fleener signs five-year deal with New Orleans Saints
As for Allen, believe me, this is tough to write: We’re talking about one of the best guys in that locker room, a guy who does a ton in the community and oh, by the way, is the best quote on the team (because, like, that really matters to fans, right?). But I haven’t seen it on the field. There have been a few glimpses, especially in the blocking game and in the red zone, but he misses game with injuries and has not yet shown he can be an integral part of the passing game.
I mean, that’s a lot of money for a guy who was targeted 29 times all of last year, and as Allen has said previously, some of them were on throwaways.
The Colts must have reached the conclusion that Allen has greater potential, that he will be used more frequently in the passing game by offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski in the years to come. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Because on the face of it, this fails to make sense. Let’s just say, they better be right.
There’s another very compelling reason why the Colts need to be right about all or at least both of these moves: The AFC South is getting a lot better. I mean, A LOT. All three teams now have promising young quarterbacks: Blake Bortles (Jacksonville), Marcus Mariota (Tennessee) and Houston (Brock Osweiler). All three AFC South opponents improved significantly Wednesday – at least they improved on paper – adding potential difference makers on both sides of the ball. That was not unexpected. Tennessee and Jacksonville have mega-millions to spend under the cap, and Houston was bound by law to provide its excellent defense with a solid quarterback. The days of the easy walkover in the AFC South are over.
For now, though, I would tell Colts fans to take a deep breath and relax. You don’t have to win the Baby Lombardi on March 9 in order to win the real Lombardi in early February. Sure, it makes for a boring day, watching Schefter’s Twitter feed and seeing all the other teams wheeling and dealing. But for now, this mostly makes sense. Get back to me a few weeks from now, and we’ll have a much more complete picture.
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