Choose Your Own Adventure: The Colts 2012 Off-Season

Greg Cowan lays out the Colts options for the 2012 off-season, tells us which option he would choose for the Colts, and which route he thinks the Colts will head.

The Indianapolis Colts may not have a General Manager, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the job that is facing Bill Polian’s (I’m contractually obligated to say his name at least once per article) eventual successor. Whoever ultimately fills the GM position will be faced with an interesting, and perhaps daunting, task: decide on a course of action for a team that had incredible success under the previous administration, while dealing with some potentially touchy contract situations.

Do they look at their roster and decide they have enough talent to take a run at winning championships with the current group of veterans? Or do they decide that, with the first overall pick in the draft in their back pocket, 2012 is the perfect time to start that rebuild they’ve been planning all these years? Or are they really not sure what they should do, and decide to do a little of both?

We’ll take a look at all of these options, what they entail, how the Colts could go about implementing each plan, and what the pros and cons of each situation would be. At the end of the exercise I’ll give you my opinion on what the Colts should do and also my read on what they will do.

 


Option 1: “One more run”

The word fan is short for fanatic. We would not shell out the money for tickets, TV packages, and apparel if we weren’t completely and hopelessly invested in our teams. Players, especially those who are “home grown” – drafted by, and developed by one organization – find their way into our hearts, and they become ours. Our players.

In the early part of the “aughts”, the Colts broke their fans hearts on more than one occasion: the loss to the Jets, the meltdowns against the Patriots, and a serving of Mike Vanderjagt casserole were all extremely tough, taxing losses for fans. But those were our Colts, our players, and we stood by them through each of those losses.

The payoff, of course, was grand. 2006 was special. Anytime “your” team wins the championship is special, of course, but these were our players. Players we had stuck with through the ups and the downs, through the tragedy that struck the family in 2005. Seeing the Colts raise the Lombardi will always be special, but to watch Manning, Dungy, Harrison, Wayne, Saturday, Bob, Freeney, Mathis, et al, raise it? For many, it was validation, the reward for sticking with the team no matter what.

In the minds of many, the end of this “era” with these players would be at the end of Manning’s career. The team would do whatever was necessary – pushing back cap hits, trades, and perhaps even the occasional free agent acquisition – to give this group of players as many shots at a championship as possible before it was time to “blow it up” and start over. If you’re one of those people, Option One is for you.

What does it entail?

In a perfect world, one in which Peyton Manning would be 100% healthy in 2012 and there was no salary cap, this would likely be the most attractive option. But this world is not perfect, so those are the two key issues the Colts must navigate as they chart their 2012 course.

Let’s actually take this opportunity to discuss Manning for a moment. Given his contract, the way it was structured and timed, and given the new CBA, there is absolutely no way the Colts can trade Peyton Manning.

He is due a $28MM Roster Bonus on March 8th, but player trading would not open up until the following week. So If Manning were on the roster on March 8th and the Colts traded him a week later, the Colts would be assessed an immediate cap hit of at least $28MM on their 2012 cap. If the Colts intend to keep Manning, they will simply pay him his $28MM Roster Bonus, and for cap purposes convert that $28MM from a “Roster Bonus” to a “Signing Bonus” and then prorate it over the term of the contract. So that $28MM would be spread over the remaining 4 years of the contract, resulting in a $7MM/year in cap hit for the next four seasons for just this bonus. Note: they cannot prorate the bonus and then trade him, the cap hit would be immediate. So with these details in mind, there are only three options for Peyton Manning and the Colts: retirement, release, roster.

In keeping with the “R” theme, here’s one more “R”: remember, the out-clause that Manning and the Colts have, which allows the Colts to get out from Manning’s contract without taking any additional cap hits or owing Manning any additional money, is good for this year and this year only. That is why the Colts must be 100% certain that Manning is healthy, because the cap implications of having an unfit Manning on the roster would be devastating.

With all that said, for this exercise we are going to assume that Manning is either at, or very close to, 100% by March 8th.

With a healthy Manning ready to go for 2012, the Colts would now turn their attention to retaining as many of their key vets as possible. This would start by approaching one vet under contract for 2012 – Dwight Freeney – and asking him to rework his deal. Freeney is due to make $19.5MM in 2012, which is also the final year of his contract. That would account for about 16% of next year’s total salary cap. A new contract would give Freeney more up front (bonus) money and provide the team with some much-needed cap relief, which they would then use for player retention.

The next step in this plan would likely be to approach three other veterans under contract in 2012 – running back Joseph Addai, tight end Dallas Clark, and linebacker Gary Brackett – and either restructure or release all 3. The trio’s salaries in 2012 will be: Clark – $8.0MM, Brackett – $5.0MM, and Addai – $4.67MM. Given their salaries, age, injury history and the performance of their backups, these three are the most likely candidates to be cut in an effort to provide additional cap relief. And while it’s impossible to know the exact savings the Colts would receive in 2012 from all 3 moves – the specific base salaries and bonus money is very hard to come by – their savings in 2013 and beyond would be significant.

From there, the Colts would likely identify which of their free agent veterans are vital to the team success. Their likely targets would be Jeff Saturday, Robert Mathis, Reggie Wayne, and Pierre Garcon. Saturday and Mathis are easy to explain – they either play a position that requires a special understanding with Manning that would be hard to instill in a rookie (Saturday) or they play a premium position that is not readily available in either free agency or the 2012 draft (Mathis).

Wayne and Garcon are a little trickier. Both play a position many deem fungible, and both are likely looking to be paid top dollar this off-season. While paying Garcon would be easier to swallow – he’s young, has a rare combination of size and speed, and seemed to mature as a receiver this year even in the absence of Manning – paying Wayne is a much riskier proposition. At 33, Wayne is looking for one final pay day, and he likely won’t be giving the Colts, or any other team for that matter, a discount. But Wayne showed in 2011 that he still has enough in the tank to be a contributor to a good offense, and locking both him and Garcon up would free up the Colts to use their assets – either money or draft picks – on other positions.

After locking up the most vital pieces, the Colts would likely look at the rest of their impending free agents and look for opportunities for cheaper signings that, like the Wayne and Garcon signings, would fill a starting spot and allow them to use draft picks on other needs. With that philosophy in mind, the Colts would likely target tight end Jacob Tamme – a player who has shown to be a more-than-capable starter (for a fraction of the cost) in Dallas Clark’s absence – and linebacker Philip Wheeler, a player that has been impressive in a starting capacity over the past two seasons.

Assuming the Colts locked up all six players – Saturday, Mathis, Wayne, Garcon, Wheeler, and Tamme – they would enter the 2012 draft with a focused vision: trade the top draft pick and turn the Colts defense into a dynamic unit that could help win championships. This would likely be the easiest of their off-season tasks, as the #1 pick has enormous value, and multiple teams would likely enter a hotly-contested bidding war in an effort to obtain the pick. While it’s hard to pinpoint the pick’s exact value – some have put its base value at four (4) 1st round picks (and that’s without a bidding war) – it is safe to suggest that the Colts would walk away with no fewer than 5 “first-day” (rounds 1-3) picks, or equal value, in this draft.

With those picks, the Colts would devote all of their attention to defense, looking for a player like CB Morris Claiborne, DB Dre Kirkpatrick, or DT Devon Still with their first round pick, and then looking for additional play-makers at S, CB, and DT where they can. The Colts could choose to be aggressive and package some of the picks they received for the #1 Overall and move up to grab two of those top-3 defensive players. Regardless of how they approach the draft, the result would be clear: a restocked defense that, under the right system, would be one of the driving forces – not a passenger – on the road to a championship.

PROs

Simply put – we, as fans, get closure. We watch our favorite players make one more run at the championship, and we get to watch them go out on their own terms. We aren’t fretting over awkward goodbyes due to nerve regeneration, or watching Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis suit up for the Miami Dolphins. We get to watch OUR PLAYERS play for, and perhaps win, another championship. Isn’t that what being a fan is all about?

CONs

We live in a salary cap world now, so even if the Colts decided to go the “One More Run” avenue, fans would likely be saying goodbye to some of their favorite players. While the fan movements to keep Manning, Wayne, and Mathis are honorable, they may not be realistic. The Colts have serious cap issues, and it would require a lot of “cap massaging” combined with a little assistance from players accepting new (or lower) deals. Simply put, we can’t always get what we want.

 


Option 2: “The Rebuild”

 

Before we get into this scenario I ask that, if you haven’t already, please read this article I wrote for Coltzilla back in September of 2011. I looked at what a rebuild entails, the number of seasons fans should expect a rebuild to last, and the key ingredients for completing the rebuild. It’s a good read (if I do say so myself) and should help alleviate some concerns fans may have.

Note that some of the factors in that article (most notably Bill and Chris Polian’s involvement) have changed, but the overriding theme remains: unless the Colts mess this up, they should be back to their contending ways sooner than later.

In section one we opened talking about our emotional attachment to specific players. In this segment we’ll discuss the fans on the opposite end of the spectrum: the ones who don’t care for the names on the back of jerseys, only those on the front. This section is for the cold, calculating business man, the one who identifies the path of sustained success, with the least transitional period, and swiftly moves towards it. For those fans we have Option Two, the rebuild.

What does it entail?

Rebuilding, if done right, is a fairly straightforward process. The first step in that process is to identify which players – if any – are your young, “core” players, players who will still be in their prime in the three or so years when the team is ready to start contending for championships again. Once you have identified those players the only thing you must do with them is re-sign them if needed.

For a working example, let’s use Pierre Garcon. Garcon is a 25-year old wide receiver who possess all of the talent to be a true number one receiver in the NFL. By the time the Colts rebuild is complete, Garcon will still be in the middle of his prime, and ready to perform at a high level in the playoffs. The Colts will likely identify Garcon as a core player, and, depending on how high his salary demands are, pay him as such in the off-season.

Once the Colts have taken care of their young core, they will move on to the veterans. In a proper rebuild, very few, if any, veterans will survive the first off-season. The idea is to bottom out, both from an “older talent” perspective and a salary perspective. They may try to trade some of their veterans, but with the way trades work in the NFL, they will likely be forced to cut most of their veteran players.

Players like Manning, Addai, Clark, Brackett, Melvin Bullitt, as well as all of the previously mentioned unrestricted free agents, will be let go. Some may look at the minimal cap savings the Colts would get this year and ask, “what’s the point?”, but as we said in the previous section, these cuts are more about future cap savings than 2012 cap savings.

Dwight Freeney is once again an interesting topic in this scenario. He clearly still has enough gas in the tank to be a top tier defensive end – not only 2012, but beyond – but once again the issue is his $19MM base salary and the resulting cap hit. Perhaps the Colts would prefer to avoid parting ways with every great player of this era all at once, and would decide to eat the $19MM for no other reason than a gesture to the fans – this wouldn’t affect their future cap, and shouldn’t hinder the rebuilding process in any way.

Perhaps they even look at Freeney, who will only be 32 at the start of next season, and decide that he can still be an effective player through the end of the rebuild, and they try to sign him to a cap-friendly contract. Whichever route the Colts go this off-season, Dwight Freeney’s situation will be one of the most fascinating to watch.

After clearing the decks this off-season, the Colts’ first move towards actually restocking the roster with talent will be the 2012 draft. They will pick Andrew Luck. I’m not sure they will even try to be cute, to put up a song-and-dance to throw people off. However they play it, if the Colts go this route, I don’t see any scenario in which they don’t draft Andrew Luck.

Outside of that first pick, what will they do? After clearing the deck, they’ll be doing nothing but drafting the best available player, regardless of position (well, minus quarterback). They won’t need to focus solely on offense or defense, they’ll have plenty of holes to fill on both sides of the ball.

The only intrigue at the draft may come in the form of trade backs. This is a tactic that the Patriots have used – much to the delight of the media – in recent drafts. Looking at their success with those trade backs, however, would suggest that trading back is rarely the best course of action.

For the Colts, the focus should be on picking the best talent with highest upside, and those players are usually found with the higher picks. Sure, if some team knocks their socks off with an amazing offer, they should take it, otherwise, they should use the picks they have and not try to outsmart themselves.

The most interesting aspect of the 2012 off-season is how the new front office will treat free agency. With a rebuild, they should avoid signing veteran players to anything more than 1- or 2-year contracts, as they won’t be part of the core moving forward, but if any young players – especially at premium positions – become available, the new GM will likely be more aggressive in pursuing them than the previous front office was.

The 2012-2013 season will likely not be pretty from a win-loss standpoint – a team with a rookie quarterback surrounded by a lot of young, unproven talent is going to experience a few bumps in the round. Fear not, however, as another draft where the Colts pick in the top half of each round will go a long way towards restocking the roster.

How the team will perform beyond 2012-2013 is hard to predict, but the date to mark on your calendar for this process is the 2013 off-season (or just before the start of 2014). Why that date? Simple: with the newly signed CBA and TV contracts, the salary cap – which now sits at around $123MM per team, and shall do so for the 2012 and 2013 seasons – will shoot up to approximately $160MM per team.

If the Colts have played their cards right, if they cleaned off all of their bad contracts, if they made smart decisions with their draft picks and free agent acquisitions, they should have very little wasted cap. They can now use their glut of money and cap space to aggressively re-sign the young talent they have been stockpiling over the previous 3 seasons as well as go after any free agents they feel will help them win titles.

And voilà, your rebuild is complete. With a new core of players signed to long term deals, the Colts are ready to contend for the foreseeable future. All it cost their fans was the pain of watching their favorite players being cut and a couple of bad seasons. Some would say that’s a small price to pay for never suffering through the fate of the Lions, Buccaneers, or, well, the Colts.

PROs

With Luck available, and with the opportunity to make these moves now with an eye towards 2014, the Colts could seamlessly transition from one era of dominance to the next. Every team has suffered through lean years, and watching the Colts transition from the Manning Era to the Luck Era without paper bags, moving trucks, or tarps would certainly draw the envy of a lot of fans. 

CONs

First, the obvious: watching players like Manning, Mathis, Wayne, Addai, Clark, etc… not only leave the Colts, but put on another uniform? That will be a pain that doesn’t subside easily. While it may be antiquated, the idea of players playing for one team and one team only is something that most fans want to experience. We don’t want to see our favorite players succeed with another team, we don’t want to have to cheer against them, boo them, or wish ill on them in any way. It may not be the most efficient way to run a franchise, but if you remove all of the emotion from the equation, what’s the point?

Next, the seamless rebuild requires a lot of Luck, and that’s more than just a cute play on words that will be more overused than “Tim Tebow just wins” over the next 4 months. In order to go from rebuild to contender in 3 years, the Colts would need Luck to be the player everyone is saying he will be. More than that, however, they would have to be successful with a high percentage of the rest of their draft picks, as well. Quarterback is the most important position in football, but it’s not the only position, and with the kind of roster turnover the Colts would have in this scenario, they will need to be producing draft classes akin to the ones they produced in 2000-2006.

It’s one thing to miss on a first round draft choice when your average draft position is 27th, it’s another situation entirely to miss on top-15 draft picks. These are the lifeblood of any franchise – the young, dynamic players who anchor your roster for years – missing on those picks can have devastating repercussions.

 


Option 3: “The Best of Both Worlds?”

 

So, you don’t really want to pass up on the guy many experts are calling best college prospect in the past decade, Andrew Luck, but you don’t really want to cut a healthy Peyton Manning, either? If so, Option Three is for you.

If the Colts were to go this route, they would likely part ways with a good portion of their veterans as they would in a rebuilding scenario. The only exceptions would likely be Robert Mathis and perhaps, in the unlikely event that he could be convinced to take a short term deal, Reggie Wayne.

The combined cap hit for Manning and Luck would be right around $22MM in 2012. The math is pretty easy, Peyton Manning’s cap hit will be approximately $17MM and Andrew Luck’s contract, if you take Cam Newton’s rookie contract signed in 2011 and adjust for inflation, will be right around 4 years and $22MM, for an approximate cap hit of $5MM.

While $5MM doesn’t seem like a lot, remember, Jim Irsay has stated multiple times that the Colts have real salary cap issues. They were over the cap in 2011 and, under this scenario, would likely be over it again in 2012. To become cap compliant, the Colts would likely have to cut players, and, as stated, doing so would result in very little cap relief in 2012, meaning multiple players would likely have to be let go to make room for Luck’s salary.

PROs

You wouldn’t have to say that you cut perhaps the greatest player in the history of the NFL. You also wouldn’t be on the hook for passing up what may be one of the best prospects in recent memory. This route is basically the one that covers you on a public relations front. There is no tough decision to be made in 2011.

You also have the hope that Luck can learn something by studying under Peyton Manning, though Curtis Painter and Jim Sorgi would like to have a word with you. One CON for this PRO: if Luck were to “study under Manning” and then struggle when he finally did take over the starting job, we would be forced to listen to another round of announcers tell us, “this guy would be so much better if Peyton Manning hadn’t hogged all of the first team reps in practice.”

CONs

First, you’re not picking a course and going with it, you’re trying to “have your cake and eat it, too.” In reality, you are putting the franchise in a tough position by refusing to make a tough decision. As we’ve discussed in the previous sections, with the Colts salary concerns, they either need to be all in on clearing those salaries, or all in on pushing them back as long as possible before the cap bomb blows up on the Colts.

In this scenario they are doing some of each. They are cutting as many veteran salaries as needed to make room for Luck, but at the same time they have to re-sign some veterans so that Manning isn’t surrounded by a high school team.

This would put the Colts in the absolute worst situation you can be in in sports: the mediocre middle. They would be just good enough to miss out on the high draft picks they would need to restock the roster with young, dynamic talent, while being just bad enough to not be Super Bowl contenders. The point of bringing Manning back is to win, and doing what is necessary to keep Luck, just from a financial standpoint, would hamper their ability to win.

Next is the topic of production. Many have bemoaned the production from some of the Colts recent first round picks. All of these picks came at the end of the first round, a position from which, history shows, one shouldn’t expect to get a lot of production. If Jerry Hughes or Anthony Gonzalez’s production irritates you, the idea of Andrew Luck sitting on the bench for somewhere between one and four seasons should anger you.

The Colts need to get value and production from their first truly valuable draft pick since 2002 (Dwight Freeney), either by drafting and playing Andrew Luck or by trading the pick for immediate help for a Manning-led squad.

Third, there is the Andrew Luck angle. The first “Luck Issue” is that he may not, nor should he want, to sit on the bench for one, let alone as many as four seasons. If Andrew Luck is as good as everyone says he is, he should start from day one. Manning himself has said that starting from day one, taking his lumps immediately, was one of the biggest factors in his development. If the Colts draft Luck, it should be with the mindset of playing him immediately – allowing him to take his lumps early, with a rebuilding team – so that when the team is ready to win, his mind and body is already on NFL speed.

Let’s delve into the time table for a moment. We previously mentioned that the Colts only out in Manning’s deal is this off-season. So if they keep him, it is likely with the intention of keeping him for the remainder of the contract – four seasons – if for no other reason than an inability to absorb the resulting cap hit from cutting him. So Manning plays out those four seasons while Luck sits. At the end of Manning’s contract, the Colts will likely need to take some of the actions described in the rebuilding section. There will surely be some salaries that need to come off the book, some players that need to be moved, some tweaks to be made.

The point is, while the Colts may not need a full rebuild, they won’t be in a position to win immediately, either. Remember, with Manning at the helm, it is unlikely that the Colts would earn those high draft picks that they would have earned under the rebuild scenario, meaning there would likely be multiple starting positions in need of upgrading.

Now you’re telling Luck to not only wait four years behind Manning, but to now wait somewhere between one and three years while you tweak the rest of the roster to championship caliber. All told, you will have wasted the first two to seven years of your first overall pick before he’s finally contributing towards a contender.

The second “Luck Issue” is salary. While the new CBA allows the Colts to sign Luck to a cap-friendly deal, it only lasts four years. If Manning stays healthy and continues to play at a high level, Luck may be in a position to sign his second contract without having much – if any – game action. And while the Colts may want to use the lack of playing time as a reason to offer Luck a lower contract, the fact that he would have been forced to sit on the bench for so long will likely result in a hostile contract negotiation. The Colts would have leverage – they could franchise him – but by 2015, the franchise number for quarterbacks may be prohibitive.

 


What should the Colts do?

I’ve gone back and forth on this quite a few times. During the season I was firmly in the “trade the pick, go all-in with Manning” camp. I then started to feel that Manning’s career was likely over, so I came to terms with the rebuild. With the constant rumors on Manning’s health – is he ready to retire? is he 90%? is he auditioning for “The Mummy: 18?” – it has become hard to know what to think. Prior to writing this article, I was firmly in the “rebuild” camp, but after writing the “One More Run” section combined with the rumored worth of the first overall pick – it’s too tempting to pass up.

If Manning is healthy, the Colts should trade the pick, restock the roster with as much young talent as possible – talent that will still serve them well after Manning retires – and go for the rings. This isn’t about sentimentality, either. I’m a championships kind of guy, and even with the most optimistic outlook on a rebuild, the Colts have a better chance of winning one or more championships under Option One than under a rebuild. The fact that they could win those championships with some of my favorite players of all time? Well, that wouldn’t disappoint me any.


What will the Colts do?

This is the tougher question to answer. It is possible that, with no GM in place, the Colts themselves don’t know the answer. After listening to every Jim Irsay press conference and interview over the past 4 months, however, I think I have an idea. I firmly believe that, if given the chance, Jim Irsay will go with Option Three. First, he loves Manning and does not want to be the man responsible for cutting him. At the same time, Irsay is likely hearing from everyone – both inside and outside of the Colts organization – that Andrew Luck is the greatest thing since sliced Vince Young, and he doesn’t want to be the guy who passed on the chance to draft him.

While it is my opinion, after looking at the situation from every angle, that this is the absolute worst decision the Colts can make, it certainly feels that this is the path Jim Irsay has his mind – and his heart – set on. Will a new GM be able to convince him that another path is optimal, or will Irsay be looking for a GM that will agree with his position and carry it out in the most efficient way possible?

The 2012 off-season will be full of crucial, tough, perhaps daunting decisions. Whichever path the Colts new general manager chooses will shape the future of the franchise. Will he be the guy who cuts Peyton Manning? Will he be the guy who passes on Andrew Luck? Or will he be the guy who did neither and finds a way to have both?

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