Although Indianapolis does not have a history of signing numerous outside free agents in the off-season, this year could be different. With the very real possibility that veterans like safety Melvin Bullitt, tackle/guard Charlie Johnson, defensive tackles Daniel Muir, Eric Foster, and Antonio Johnson, and running back Joseph Addai could all depart via free agency, uncharacteristic off-season choices may become the rule.
Although rumors have been relatively meaningless during the lockout they may take a step closer to reality in the coming weeks.
The number of players the Colts should have legitimate interest in at each position have increased with the news that unrestricted free agency eligibility will return to four years in the new CBA.
DT: Tommie Harris, Brandon Mebane, Barry Cofield
Each of the defensive tackles who could be potential starters or primary contributors brings something different to the table.
I think Brandon Mebane is the best fit — a tough defensive tackle with the strength to hold his own against the run and the speed and quickness to collapse the pocket and get penetration. The problem is that rookie Drake Nevis is also a 6-foot 1-inch defensive tackle with a similar skill-set. The two together could give Indianapolis a great deal of talent and depth on the defensive interior, or their talents could overlap so much that adding Mebane would waste a roster spot and cap room.
Barry Cofield is the type of big bodied space filler Colts fans have been clamoring for. He may be prohibitively expensive but if the Colts choose to let Antonio Johnson, Daniel Muir, and Eric Foster all go in free agency, he could tie the unit together. Cofield, Moala, Nevis, and Mathews would cover all of the bases for Indy’s defensive interior, but the depth would not be as strong.
It was rumored that the Colts could be interested in signing Tommie Harris once the lockout ends. He used to be one of the league’s most dominant defensive linemen, though he was particularly adept in an under tackle role. With Moala entering his third season, Harris would likely be depth only. As such, the only way he works out is if he 1) comes very cheap and 2) proves that he is fully healthy before final roster cut downs. Only if Harris returns to his old form will he realistically challenge for a starting spot.
S: Quintin Mikell, Eric Weddle, Dawan Landry
If the Colts are unable to retain strong safety Melvin Bullitt, there is a very real chance that they will have to make a strong play for another free agent safety.
Quinton Mickell is starting to age and may be willing to join a contender for less. He is the run-stopping hard-nosed kind of player the Colts lost with the departure of Bob Sanders. It is not likely that he is a long-term solution but for 2011 and possibly 2012 he could buy the Colts time.
Ravens safety Dawan Landry is also the kind of player that would adapt quickly to the Colts defensive scheme. With Baltimore’s emphasis on defense though, the likelihood that Landry will become available is relatively low.
San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle is a superior player to Melvin Bullitt and would provide a bit more range in pass defense. It is rather likely that the Chargers will make a strong play to re-sign him before they let him go to Indianapolis though.
G: Justin Blalock, Harvey Dahl, Logan Mankins
Justin Blaylock and Harvey Dahl were the starting guards for the Atlanta Falcons in 2010 and were easily one of the top guard pairings in the NFL. Now both of the former Falcons guards are free agents — Atlanta tackle Tyson Clabo is also going to need to be re-signed. Smart money is that the Falcons will focus most of their early energy on Clabo. If Blaylock or Dahl are available the Colts could choose to sign one of them and let a player like Charlie Johnson or Mike Pollak go to make room.
Logan Mankins does not need much of an introduction. He is unhappy with New England and should be thrilled with the opportunity to block for Peyton Manning late in his career. The question is whether Mankins is heavily influenced by going to a contender or if he is more concerned with money. If he is looking for a monster payday, the Colts are less likely to give him any attention.
OT: Jared Gaither, Jermon Bushrod
For the second year in a row, Jared Gaither has been discussed as a player the Colts should potentially consider. The difference between 2011 and 2010 is that Indianapolis just drafted two offensive tackles in the first two rounds of the draft. This will make Gaither an option under two circumstances only. The first is a release and sign, effectively replacing right tackle Ryan Diem with Gaither. The other is if he is willing to join the team as cheap quality depth until he can prove that he is healthy and deserving of a more substantial contract.
Saints offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod is in a similar situation. Although his health is not in question, his performance in 2010 was not as impressive as 2009. He would still be a front-runner for starting right tackle and he would probably sign for less than what Ryan Diem has been slated to make over the term of his contract.
RB: John Kuhn
Although the Colts may lose starting running back Joseph Addai to free agency in 2011, there are only a few running backs that make a lot of sense for the team and could be within its financial means. While John Kuhn had a very impressive season for the Packers, and while Green Bay tends to aggressively protect their own free agents, his career to this point may not demand a yearly salary that is entirely out of the picture. With the Colts changing emphasis on size in the running game and on the offensive line, and with his blue collar hard-working mentality, he could be a solid option for the team’s new rotation.
What could make it unlikely that the Colts are able to sign any of these players is the way the team has long operated. If Indy spends all of its time and energy focusing first on re-signing their own players, many of the high profile free agents will likely be deep in discussions with other teams who take a more outward look early in free agency. Either way, the off-season and brief free agency period will happen in a flurry, and surprise moves by teams like the Colts could be in store.