INDIANAPOLIS — Another important offseason for the Indianapolis Colts is about to officially kick off with NFL agency first on the docket. After addressing their massive need at quarterback following Philip Rivers’ retirement — trading a 2021 3rd-round pick and conditional 2022 2nd-round pick (it becomes becomes a first-round pick if Wentz plays more than 75 percent of the snaps, or more then 70 percent of the snaps and Indianapolis makes the playoffs) to Philadelphia for Carson Wentz, reuniting with his former offensive coordinator Frank Reich — there’s still plenty that needs to be addressed by Indianapolis in order to raise their ceiling for 2021-22 and beyond.
What needs to happen for the Colts to take the next step in becoming legitimate Super Bowl threats? Four positions are emphasized for Indianapolis to examine via free agency or the draft. Adding a top-flight pass rusher, more explosiveness to their offense, and another consistent piece in the secondary are at the top of the list.
Who makes sense for Indianapolis to target with $45.9 million in salary cap space according to Over The Cap?
After going undrafted out of Notre Dame in 2016, Okwara took awhile to refine his physical attributes and pass-rush acumen. Only registering one sack in two seasons with the New York Giants, Okwara was released and signed by the Detroit Lions in 2018. This past season, Okwara exploded onto the national scene being the only positive on a porous Lions defense. Okwara finished his 2020 campaign with 10 sacks and 61 quarterback pressures.
The sixth-year pro is the most realistic target for the Colts to find a resolution to their inconsistent pass-rush when you see all the boxes general manager Chris Ballard has prioritized since being hired in 2017.
Indianapolis has hoarded cap space, but it’s to rebuild their roster via the NFL Draft and re-sign their own homegrown players eventually. Ballard’s idea of a “splash” has been signing Justin Houston to a 2-year, $24 million deal in 2019. The Colts’ GM sets a limit on possible targets and never goes over that line. Expect that philosophy to stay in place for the long run in Indianapolis.
Okwara checks the financial box with emphasis. Compared to other pass rushers on the market, Okwara’s expected annual value will fall between $9-11 million. The former Fighting Irish defensive end also checks the physical box.
Ballard and Co. have established a longstanding measurement with pass rushers as it relates to arm length. Indianapolis has never drafted or signed an EDGE rusher in the Ballard era with arms under 33 inches long. Okwara’s length, measured at 34 1/8”, is how he wins more often than not against offensive tackles.
Pairing Okwara next to DeForest Buckner would combine two long-limbed defenders who rush with power on the same side. If we’re looking for the most realistic option for Indianapolis, watch out as it relates to Okwara.
Lawson, similarly to Okwara, has exploded onto the scene recently. A former 4th-round pick, Lawson has become one of the most underrated pass rushers in the NFL being on a lowly Cincinnati Bengals roster. Registering a gaudy 54 quarterback hits over the last two seasons, Lawson is poised to take the step to elite if paired next to another pass rush specialist.
Indianapolis has all the ingredients in place for Lawson to become a yearly double-digit sack producer. Playing next to Buckner would benefit any free agent, but Lawson’s power moves are very reminiscent of Houston.
Although Lawson’s 31.5” arms don’t check the prerequisite for Ballard, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Indianapolis make an exception to pursue him. The potential in Indianapolis’ scheme is sky-high for Lawson, and his price tag shouldn’t exactly break the bank either. A deal around $12-15 million per year should be the expectation for Lawson, which the Colts can easily absorb.
A former AFC South rival hopping over to Indianapolis could be a real possibility. After being traded from Jacksonville to Minnesota, then from Minnesota to Baltimore mid-season, Ngakoue has proven along the way he still has tantalizing pass-rush talent. Ngakoue, who doesn’t turn 26-years-old until the end of this month, fits the Colts’ defensive timeline as well.
From a stylistic standpoint, Ngakoue is what everyone hopes Kemoko Turay can eventually become. The soon-to-be sixth-year pro is quick off the snap, very bendy, and would be hidden playing in Indianapolis’ scheme as it relates to subpar run defense.
Unlike Okwara and Lawson, though, Ngakoue’s price tag will be hefty. Spotrac values Ngakoue around $18 million annually, which could be out of Indianapolis’ preferred price range. However, if the Colts decide to splurge, Ngakoue’s talent on Lucas Oil Stadium’s fast turf could be a nightmare for opposing defenses off the edge.
Coming off a torn ACL, Dupree’s market could be slightly diminished. This shouldn’t deter the Colts from making a run at the former Kentucky Wildcat. Dupree’s athletic profile fits Indianapolis’ preferred play style off the edge, and his above-average ability to set the edge in rushing situations is a huge plus.
Registering 19.5 sacks in his last 27 games, the 28-year-old pass rusher looks to be entering his prime years. If Indianapolis were to sign Dupree to a three or four-year deal, it fits a win-now move entering their expected years with Wentz under center.
Dupree’s market value likely will be out of Indianapolis’ range. But, if not, don’t be surprised to see them make an aggressive push early on.
A very under-the-radar option, keep an eye on New England’s versatile edge rusher Deatrich Wise as a fit in Indianapolis. Wise checks the aforementioned pass rush boxes the Colts’ front office looks for, but he hasn’t produced gaudy numbers. More known as run-stuffing edge who has inside-out versatility along the defensive line, Wise could be the replacement for upcoming unrestricted free agent Denico Autry.
Wise was never a full-time starter with the Patriots, producing only 16 sacks in 67 games, but he fits the Autry mold where he could see career-best numbers in Indianapolis. The former Arkansas Razorback checks the measurable box for Indianapolis with 35 5’8” arms and a 93rd percentile broad jump, per mockdraftable.com.
Also, Wise will come nowhere close to the annual average value of the four players mentioned above him. Expect Wise to earn around $6-7 million per year, which is right in the Colts’ wheelhouse.
If the Colts want to go bargain shopping for a versatile pass rusher, Wise certainly fits.
First off, what does the future hold for Xavier Rhodes? After a resurgent season in Indianapolis’ zone-heavy scheme, Rhodes looked like the former All-Pro version of himself than one who was deemed “washed up” less than one year ago.
Rhodes signed a 1-year deal worth $3 million with the Colts, a massive pay cut, but it paid huge dividends for both sides. The Colts saw Rhodes outperform his contract, while Rhodes re-enters the free agency market with a completely different perception around the NFL.
With little to no talks between Indianapolis and Rhodes, according to The Athletic’s Stephen Holder, prepare for Rhodes to move on. As one of the top cornerbacks on the open market, expect a robust list of teams ready to offer Rhodes way more than what Indianapolis would be willing to.
With that being said, who makes sense to replace Rhodes? Three options stand out from the rest.
Colts Assistant GM Ed Dodds was in Seattle’s front office when the Seahawks drafted Shaquill Griffin in the third-round in 2017. Griffin has become one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL since then. His length and speed have flourished within Seattle’s scheme, which would make for an easy transition in Indianapolis.
However, Griffin is going to be one of the highest paid cornerbacks in free agency. Griffin’s value on Spotrac is set at $11 million per year, which more likely than not will be way out of the Colts’ price range.
Cornerback is one of the least valued positions within the Colts’ defense. Kenny Moore playing in the slot, though, is a different discussion when you see how Indianapolis uses him as a Swiss army knife.
Unless Dodds pounds the table for his former Seahawk in the Colts’ headquarters, expect Griffin to reset the CB market elsewhere in free agency.
In the Ballard era, another physical trait trend I’ve picked up is how arm length is valued supremely for boundary cornerbacks. If a prospect's arms don’t measure 32 inches, they won’t be coming to Indianapolis.
From this aspect, Ahkello Witherspoon fits this criteria like a glove. Standing at 6’3” with 33” arms, Witherspoon has all the makings of a Colts free agency target who could replace Rhodes.
According to Pro Football Focus, Witherspoon is coming off a career-best season in San Francisco. Witherspoon’s 80.2 PFF grade was actually higher than Rhodes (76.3).
For a player who looks to be ascending at the right time, don’t be surprised if the Colts pursue Witherspoon as their replacement for Rhodes. Taking a short-term gamble on a one or two-year deal around $5-6 million per year makes way too much sense for both sides here.
There is another connection to the Colts here with Chidobe Awuzie. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus was on the Dallas Cowboys’ coaching staff when Awuzie was drafted in the second round back in 2017. Awuzie doesn’t check the arm length trait, but he’s an explosive athlete who excels in zone coverage.
It’s fair to say Awuzie has been misused during his four years in Dallas. Not having a true position, either placed inside or outside for some possessions, Awuzie was never comfortable in his role with the Cowboys.
Awuzie’s fit within the Colts’ zone-heavy scheme is perfect. He could come in as a cheaper replacement to Rhodes who has an extremely high upside to pan out. There’s a chance Eberflus could put in a word for Awuzie as well. If that’s the case, I would expect the former Colorado Buffalo to become an Indianapolis Colt here very soon.
Will the Colts actually find their Anthony Castonzo replacement via free agency, the draft, or both? The smart investment would be both where Indianapolis can sign a veteran stopgap option while a prospect develops.
But, there’s a big name fish in play here.
It’s highly unlikely the Colts pursue Trent Williams due to future extensions looming for right tackle Braden Smith and left guard Quenton Nelson. Both of these 2018 draft picks could reset the market at their position, which means tying up a significant portion of their future salary cap space on the offensive line.
If the 49ers allow Williams to test free agency, Indianapolis should at least check in. Williams will be looking for a deal paying around $20 million per year, but what if he’s open to the idea of a one or two-year deal? If the answer is yes, then this becomes an intriguing possibility. Williams’ short-term contract would not impact the long-term salary cap of Indianapolis, while easily giving Wentz the best offensive line in the NFL.
Williams, Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski, and Braden Smith would be a fortified wall up front that would destroy defenses in the trenches every game. The question is, how realistic is this option? If Williams wants to come to Indianapolis then re-enter free agency in a year or two, why wouldn’t the Colts inquire?
Reiff, a former team captain in Minnesota, was recently released by the Minnesota Vikings. If the Colts were to sign Reiff, his signing would not count against the compensatory pick formula.
For any veteran Indianapolis would sign, their play would be boosted thanks to playing alongside Nelson and Kelly on the left side. Reiff is a candidate for a major bounce back should he land with the Colts.
Reiff only allowed one sack for the Vikings in 2020, a number that trumped Castonzo’s this past season. Also, being the same age as the Colts’ former left tackle since 2011, Reiff would be a true plug-and-play option.
If Indianapolis explores the left tackle market, Reiff is the most realistic option.
Ballard was in the Chiefs’ front office when Kansas City drafted Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher No. 1 overall. The Ballard connection is apparent on the surface, but Fisher is coming off a very significant injury.
After tearing his Achilles tendon in the AFC Championship game two months ago, a long and grueling rehab is ahead for Fisher. More likely than not, Fisher won’t play at all in 2021. Signing Fisher could be a multi-year pact where Year 1 is spent rehabbing in the team’s facility.
Is Indianapolis willing to wait for a possible huge payoff in 2022 with Fisher?
Due to the Steelers’ cap crunch, Alejandro Villanueva is walking in free agency. Being one of the top tackles on the market at age 32, Villanueva will be paid in a big-time way. Will Indianapolis explore the option of adding Villanueva as their starting left tackle in 2021?
When you compare Villanueva’s cumulative PFF grade to Castonzo over the last three seasons, they’ve had very similar production.
- PFF Grade (2018-2020): Villanueva = 76.6; Castonzo = 77.5
- Sacks Allowed (2018-2020): Villanueva = 11; Castonzo = 7
Villanueva’s PFF grade is 0.9 less than Castonzo since 2018 and allowed four more sacks over that span, but his number should improve next to a three-time First Team All-Pro in Nelson.
The market for Villanueva will be between $12-15 million annually. Will the Colts be comfortable going this direction to address their immediate need at left tackle?
After addressing the quarterback question with Wentz last month, T.Y. Hilton’s uncertain future tops the list of hot topics for the Colts. Will Hilton stay in Indianapolis or find a better opportunity elsewhere in free agency?
Hilton’s production has been inconsistent following Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement before the 2019 season opener. It’s fair to question whether Hilton can be a true No. 1 wide receiver on his next contract. With Jacoby Brissett and Philip Rivers as the Colts’ starting quarterbacks, Hilton had one 100-yard game over the last two seasons. Hilton has also battled nagging injuries over this stretch.
However, Hilton did have a very solid close to his 2020 campaign with five touchdowns in the Colts’ final six regular season games.
What will the market value be for Hilton? That’s the multi-million dollar question Indianapolis and Hilton have to find out. The Colts and Hilton had little traction on a deal before free agency opened, so there’s a real chance No. 13 has played his final game in Indianapolis.
If Hilton stays, it won’t break the bank. If Hilton leaves, he will have found a team willing to pay him what he wants. Now, we all wait to find out what happens next.
Corey Davis is the most logical fit to replace Hilton if he leaves in free agency. The former top-10 pick blossomed in 2020 after his fifth-year option was declined by the Tennessee Titans.
Playing as the 1-B to A.J. Brown’s 1-A, Davis excelled as a bigger Z receiver. Davis had 65 receptions for 984 yards and five touchdowns for the Titans.
Davis is very reliable with sure hands, isn’t afraid to get dirty with blocking in the run game, and can be a threat on all levels of the field as a short or vertical threat. He’s a more refined and higher upside version of Zach Pascal, who’s carved out a real niche within the Colts’ offense.
Now, imagine Michael Pittman Jr. and Davis on the outside with a healthy Parris Campbell in the slot. That’s a trio of wideouts who fit perfectly together for new quarterback Carson Wentz.
Personally, I would feel very comfortable paying Davis $11-13 million per year and not having any regrets about it. A deal for Davis falling in at four years, $50 million is a win-win for both sides.
Curtis Samuel is a mismatch nightmare who’s entering the prime of his career. In Carolina he was used as a threat mostly out of the slot, plus saw more looks even in the backfield. Samuel’s game-breaking speed would fill the Hilton-esque role opposite Pittman Jr.
Samuel’s market is expected to be very robust with many teams expected to pursue him. Although it’s fun to imagine Samuel within Frank Reich’s offense, the internal feeling around Campbell makes me believe the Colts would pass on the former Carolina Panther.
However, if the Colts believe there’s more upside to Samuel’s repertoire, I’m all aboard bringing in another speed demon to help assist Wentz’s transition in Indianapolis.
Arguably the most realistic option for the Colts if Hilton leaves, John Brown could fill this role to perfection. Playing as a Z receiver with deep threat capabilities for Arizona, Baltimore, and Buffalo, Brown would provide a vertical punch to the Colts’ offensive attack.
Brown even mentioned on SiriusXM last week after he was released by Buffalo that the Colts are one of his preferred destinations.
“The Indianapolis Colts,” Brown said. “The way they use T.Y. Hilton and when we played those guys in the playoffs, I walked off and I’m like, this team, they’re up and coming, they’re going to be a problem in the next few years.”
If the interest is mutual, Indianapolis could bring Brown aboard as a cheaper alternative to Hilton who wouldn’t count against the compensatory pick formula.
The Philadelphia connection is strong with Nelson Agholor as a possible Colts fit. From head coach Frank Reich, wide receiver coach Mike Groh, senior offensive analyst Press Taylor, and new starting quarterback Carson Wentz, Agholor has crossed paths with many faces in the Colts’ organization.
This past season in Las Vegas, Agholor flashed true potential as a three-level threat. Agholor finished 2020 with 48 receptions for 896 yards and eight touchdowns. Averaging 18.7 yards per reception for the Raiders, Agholor’s playmaking potential would add a much-needed element in Indianapolis’ offense.
In 2017, Agholor flashed intriguing potential during Carson Wentz’s near-MVP season within Reich’s system: 62 receptions, 768 yards, 8 touchdowns. If he signs in Indianapolis, can Agholor recapture his chemistry with Reich and Wentz?
Jonnu Smith is a perfect fit in the Colts’ scheme. Think of an upgraded version of Eric Ebron, because Smith can do everything at an above-average or elite level. Smith is an elite athlete for his position, and he’s only 25-years-old.
If the Colts decide to get aggressive in upgrading their explosiveness at tight end, Smith checks every box.
In Tennessee, Smith was never able to fully reach his potential due to Derrick Henry and emergence of Brown as their top receiving threat. With the Colts, Smith could become Wentz’s favorite go-to target in short order.
Smith will be an expensive option, around $8-10 million annually, but this is a player who could be a consistent double-digit touchdown threat every season in Indianapolis.
Gerald Everett would be the diet version of Smith, but similarly to Ebron, he struggled with drops during his tenure with the Los Angeles Rams. An explosive athlete, Everett would add a vertical threat at tight end without spending significant cash.
Everett is one of the most underrated tight ends when it comes to yards after catch. This past season, the 26-year-old former second-round pick finished sixth in YAC among tight ends.
A trio of Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox, and Everett is one that balances each other very well. Doyle and Alie-Cox would be the primary blocking threats who do damage in the short/intermediate areas. Everett would be the potent punch added to the mix as a vertical threat who can do damage after the catch.
If the Colts pursue a tight end, Everett looks like the most realistic option when it comes to upside and annual value on the free agent market.
The third and final option to explore is Arizona’s Dan Arnold. After a 2019 campaign where Kyler Murray utilized Arnold, a waiver claim from New Orleans at a high level, his play dropped off significantly once Deandre Hopkins arrived.
Could Arnold rebound in Indianapolis after a down 2020? I believe so, and he’s one of the best bargain bin options for the Colts to pursue at tight end.
Arnold’s 6’6”, 220 pound frame is an intriguing piece that could explode within Reich’s offense that favors athletic tight ends. Could Arnold be the new 2018 Ebron? Not exactly, but for $3-4 million he’s a solid piece for Indianapolis’ tight end position.
The time is now for the Indianapolis Colts to add the right pieces to their puzzle in order to take the next step forward in 2021. With the gamble Indy has taken on Wentz being molded back to a top 10-15 quarterback under Reich’s tutelage, what moves could be on the table in free agency?
Here are my predictions for what will happen for Indianapolis during a crucial offseason period. Hint: Don’t expect the Colts to make a major splash. If they do, it will not only shock me but everyone else out there as well.
Romeo Okwara, Edge, Lions - 3 years, $32 million
Okwara fits the profile of a Colts pass rusher. From the length, age timeline, and power moves displayed off the edge, the 26-year-old Okwara makes too much sense not to join Indianapolis’ formidable defensive line.
John Brown, WR, Bills - 2 years, $10 million
This shows what I believe will happen with T.Y. Hilton. Yes, at this point in time, I’m expecting Hilton to walk in free agency for a higher dollar amount than what the Colts are willing to match. Whether it’s the Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, or somewhere else, I lean 55-45 the Colts’ longtime No. 1 wideout doesn’t return in 2021.
Brown can play the Hilton role well, too. As a vertical threat who can do damage in the intermediate level of the field, Brown can be a cheaper alternative on a one or two-year deal.
Ahkello Witherspoon, CB, - 1 year, $6 million
Whether it be Pierre Desir or Xavier Rhodes, the Colts’ strategy at cornerback has always been short-term fliers with the best chance to exceed their contract value. Witherspoon makes the most sense as the next in line with this idea. It’s fair to say Witherspoon might have the highest upside here as well.
This would be a win-win deal for both sides. If Witherspoon outplays this one-year contract, he hits the market again in 2022 as a 26-year-old cornerback off a career-best season.
Gerald Everett, TE, Rams - 2 years, $10.5 million
I believe the Colts will address tight end this offseason. Whether it’s in free agency or early on in the draft is to be determined, but they shouldn’t expect Alie-Cox to take a massive leap in 2021.
If the free agency route is the way Indianapolis goes, Everett makes sense. As an athletic tight end who can be a versatile piece in Reich’s offense, he could produce great numbers on a short-term contract.