If you asked me to describe the Ryan Grigson Era in one word, I'd choose "confused."
Grigson, whose first decisions – to cut Manning and the rest of the veterans, and to draft Luck – had been made for him, was lauded in his rookie season for his shrewd off-season signings – retaining Wayne and Mathis and signing UDFA Jerrell Freeman – and a 2012 draft class that borders on legendary.
Since the 2012 draft, Grigson's moves have been uneven at best.
He made trades to bring in Vontae Davis, a good, but inconsistent CB who is about to become a UFA and Trent Richardson, a horrible and inconsistent RB who we're stuck with for the rest of our adult lives.
He spent the GDP of a small European nation on free agents in the 2013 off-season, a vast majority of which could best be described as disappointing.
And he followed up his 2012 draft with a 2013 class that featured one starter – Hugh Thornton, due to injuries - two gentlemen who, despite the Colts having approximately 30% of their active roster on IR, spent the entire season on the inactive list (Montori Hughes and Khaled Holmes) and a guy with no knees who got cut after being arrested for public intoxication (John Boyett).
Despite some of his roster building mistakes, Grigson and the Colts have won 11 regular season games in each of their last two seasons and seem like a safe bet to own the AFC South for at least the next season or two. But if we learned anything during the Polian Era it's that regular season wins don't mean anything (unless people like you? I get confused about these things).
So now, Grigson enters what may prove to be the most vital off-season of his Indianapolis tenure. He will have approximately $40MM in cap space. He will have bad players with contracts ripe for cutting. And he will have a QB who is under a steal of a contract for two years. But Grigson must understand that the Contract Reaper will come calling when Andrew Luck's rookie deal expires and he'll be asking for – and rightfully so – a deal in the Joe Flacco Chicken Nugget Happy Meal™ range.
If you want to follow along in the cap/contract discussions, please refer to this website, which has done a marvelous job of collecting and publishing all of the relevant data.
Before we get into specifics, there are a couple of things I want to say about Grigson.
First, while it's an interesting, fun exercise, critiquing Grigson's acquisitions, especially his free agent signings, is a bit of a pointless endeavor. If we look at the men he brought in during the 2013 FA period:
Ricky Jean Francois
Sir Lawrence of Sidbury
We should notice a trend. Franklin, RJF, Walden, Cherilus and Thomas were all brought in because they fit with Irsay, Grigson and Pagano's torturous mantra of "Run the Ball, Stop the Run." The trades to bring in Stanley Havili and Trent Richardson were made because of their misguided desire to be a Power Running Team.
So criticizing Ryan Grigson for his FA signings and trades – while reasonable – is like criticizing an alcoholic for his choice in booze. It's not the who, it's the why. Until Grigson (and probably Irsay) are able to adjust their views on how to build a winning football team, the Colts will continue to make the same mistakes because their decisions are being guided by bad principles.
The second point I want to make on Grigson (and the reason I describe his tenure as confused) is this: for a man who wants to build a team that can run the ball and stop the run, all of his best acquisitions have been those which affect the passing offense: Andrew Luck, TY Hilton, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Donald Thomas (super small sample size, but he seemed good in his one+ regular season games plus the preseason) and Gosder Cherlius. In fact, if that was the entirety of his big name acquisition list, I'd view Grigson in a whole new light. Not only because he would have built the framework for a dominant offense, but because of the restraint he would have displayed in not spending a billion dollars on players such as Landry and Walden.
So looking back at those picks, I'd give them the following grades:
Aubrayo Franklin (C) – The Colts needed help along the DL and while Franklin wasn't bad, he wasn't special. Plus, the DL really got worse as the year went on. They couldn't attack the QB or the RB.
Ricky Jean Francois (D) – Along the same lines as Franklin, but with a twist: while Franklin signed a one-year deal, RJF signed a 4-year, 22-million contract. While the Colts could cut him and save all but $1,875,000, they still need bodies. Grigson was complemented for signing deals that didn't tie him down long term, but no one gave much thought to who he'd bring in if he cut these players.
LaRon Landry ( F++) – Nagging injuries, horrible in pass coverage, and an inconsistent tackler. I famously defended Landry on our New Year's Eve podcast, saying that he had a place in a well-constructed defense. He then proceeded to miss 100 tackles against the Chiefs and Patriots. Landry is supposed to be the big hitter, the enforcer. He's bad. The Colts would be better off cutting him and re-signing Bethea as their SS. But they won't, because that's not how they roll.
Sir Lawrence of Sidbury (INC) – Cool name tho
Greg Toler (D) – Didn't like it when he was signed, like it less now. Injured far too often and not all that good when he's healthy.
Erik Walden (C) – Not as bad as we thought he'd be, but ONLY because he, ironically, made contributions with his pass rush. Horrible "setting the edge" against the run.
Gosder Cherilus (B) – Not crazy about the money (5-year, $35-million), but he played all 18 games and was consistent. He and Castonzo combine to form one of the better OT duos in the league.
Matt Hasselbeck (F) – Hasselbeck will have a cap hit of 3,750,000, and he can't even get in in blow-outs. The Colts backup QB will have the 11th-highest cap hit on the team. Matt Hasselbeck had the 24th-highest cap hit among QBs in 2013 and the Colts were the only team to have two QBs in the top-25 QB cap hits this past season. OK?
Donald Thomas (INC) – Too hard to judge due to injury
(SERIOUSLY, THE COLTS ARE PAYING THEIR BACKUP 3,750,000 TO SIT ON THE BENCH! No team needs to spend that much money on a damn backup. There is absolutely no justification for it. In fact, spending that much money on a backup QB is like trying to intentionally negate the advantage that Andrew Luck's contract is affording the team. It's a waste of cap money. If he's good in the locker room, leave him there. People the Colts have on their roster that make equal to or less than Hasselbeck: Donald Thomas, Anthony Castonzo, Darius Butler, Trent Richardson, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Jerrell Freeman. If you want to include 2013 players, okay: Vinatieri, McAfee, Donald Brown, to name a few. You can look at Hasselbeck's deal and say $3.75MM is nothing, but in a cap world, EVERY penny counts. It's about spending efficiently. Spending 3% of the cap on someone you hope never plays a meaningful snap is not efficient)
My only other criticism of this group is that some – RJF, Toler, Thomas and Walden – were players who were playing smaller roles with their old teams but the Colts felt would do better in more prominent roles. That's fine, but the Colts paid these "hidden gems" premium prices. That's not how "hidden gems" are supposed to work, and that's part of the problem with building your team through free agency.
So let's look forward to 2014. What are the Colts needs? I'd say their needs (not just filling roster slots, like, for example, they have to sign a RB or two, but I don't consider that a need) are: a legitimate FS, CB, ILB, OLB, DL, interior OL, and WR.
I find that list interesting. Why? Because last year, the Colts spent the majority of their money on: S, CB, OLB, DL, OL and, while not a big contract, they did sign DHB to be a starting WR. So basically, the Colts needs this season are the same ones Grigson threw gobs of money at last season. That's probably a problem.
Making matters worse for the Colts is the fact that, while they have all these holes, they only have three (maybe four, depending on the AQ Shipley trade) draft picks: 2nd, 3rd and 5th round selections. If they get a pick for AQ Shipley, it'll be in the 7th round. Where did the rest of the Colts picks go? Their 1st round pick was spent on Trent Richardson, their 4th on Montori Hughes, their 6th on Josh Gordy and their 7th on Cam Johnson. (Thanks to CA's Kyle Rodriguez for the specifics)
I'm a big believer in building through the draft. Not only is it the best way to find young players who can be "molded" for your specific systems, but it's the best way to find cost-controlled talent. That's pretty important for a team who, in the next 2 years, is going to have to pay Andrew Luck, TY Hilton, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, etc…
But, because of their lack of picks, the Colts won't be able to go down that road, which means they'll have to take another trip to Market De La Free Agency.
Looking over the list of 2014 Free Agents is like perusing Justin Bieber's discography: a lot of overpriced, overrated names that will wind up giving you a headache.
In fact, looking at the free agents at the positions of need for the Colts yields very few names of interest: S Jairus Byrd, Cs Alex Mack and Brian De La Puente, CBs Charles Tillman (older, overpriced and injured recently, but undeniable play-making ability, probably Grigson's first choice!), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Alterraun Verner, OLB Brian Orakpo, and, if the price is right, either WR Anquan Boldin or Eric Decker.
For me, that's the entire list of acceptable free agents. It's my belief that there are only two kinds of players who make it to free agency: 1) really good players who their current teams can no longer afford or 2) average-or-worse players who are looking to hit a big pay day, and their current teams know better.
So rather than taking the "fill every hole" approach to free agency, where you sign 8 guys to decent-sized long-term deals, I'd rather pick the 3-best available players at positions of need and sign them. Yes, you're overpaying, but you're doing that no matter who you sign. If you're going to overpay, you should be overpaying for people who will produce, not for people you HOPE produce.
Personally, I'd like to see the Colts sign Byrd (my #1 priority), Mack or De La Puente, and then one of the CBs (if they retain Vontae Davis, then I don't think you can sign either DRC or Verner, but you'll still need another CB at that point, because you can't rely on Toler to start 16 games, which means I'd probably cut Toler).
With their draft picks, I'd like to see them focus on WR, LB and DL. The Colts are in desperate need of a dynamic play-making DE, but you likely need a 1st-round pick to have a hope of finding one. It's going to be a struggle for the Colts 3-4 defense if they continue to field a mediocre DL.
There is one talent pool the Colts have to deal with, and that's their own set of departing FAs. Below is the list of players I'd like to see back, with my notes on each:
Antoine Bethea – I'd rather have Bethea back than Landry. But you can't have both. At this point, they are both SSs who are better against the run than pass. Bethea is the better player. I'll miss him.
Adam Vinatieri – The Colts could replace him, but the problem is, they don't have a lot of draft picks, and I'd rather not let it ride on an UDFA kicker. He was really good this year, so give him his last contract.
Pat McAfee – Along the same lines as Vinatieri. You could likely replace him, but you're not replacing a top-10 punter without using a draft pick to do it. The Colts have bigger needs in the draft.
Donald Brown or Ahmad Bradshaw – The Colts need to retain one of the two, in my opinion. I think going into the season with Vick Ballard and Trent Richardson as your RBs is a recipe for mediocrity.
Vontae Davis – Unless the plan is to let Davis walk and then throw gobs of cash at DRC or Verner, the Colts have to keep the only player in their secondary worth building around.
Sergio Brown – A special teams standout. The Colts have preached wanting to turn their STs around since Grigson arrived, and Brown is one of the few players who can help make that happen.
Kavell Conner – A good player who seems to have fallen out of favor with the coaches. Even if they aren't in love with him, they need depth at ILB. It's a pretty bare cupboard.
I guess, if you asked me to describe how I wanted this off-season to play out in one word, I'd say "restrained." Grigson will spend money. He has to. The Colts are on the edge of being legitimate contenders, they think they are close, and I can't see them suddenly choosing now as the time to exercise patience. But he cannot approach this off-season in the same manner he approached 2013. He has to spend wisely, cautiously. Spending big in a few key areas will pay more dividends than spending moderately in every area. Yes, it will leave the Colts with more holes in the immediate future. But Andrew Luck has proven himself a productive "patcher," and we should understand that a few more holes now will give the Colts a better chance of filling all their holes in the future.
That, and ditch this whole Run the Ball, Stop the Run ********.