The off season is here and we're ready to start looking at what the Indianapolis Colts need to do this off season to improve upon this year's 11-5 record and wild card playoff berth. It won't be easy. The Colts won't get the benefit of sneaking up on opponents next season with low expectations and will get a second place schedule instead of a last place schedule like they did this season.
Still, general manager Ryan Grigson did such a phenomenal job with very little to work with in terms of cap space last off season that fans can't help but be excited to see what he can do with almost $46 million in cap room this year. Don't expect Grigson to go on a spending spree a la the Washington Redskins, but Colts fans can depend on Grigson going after a few more players this off season that don't prompt the question, "Who?".
The first order of business for Grigson before jumping into the pool of other team's free agents in March is to decide which of his own players he wants to keep around for 2013. Here's our prioritized list of who we think the Colts should value.
Our list consists of three sub-lists with the following criteria:
"A" list: A player whom the Colts would have great difficulty replacing at that position this year or a player who has a big long-range upside. It's not quite "write a blank check and have him fill in the numbers," but pretty close.
"B" list: A player who can be a valuable contributor in a specific role, but not one the Colts want to break the bank over. Definitely make a fair offer, but if the player gets a better offer or opportunity elsewhere, shake hands and part friends.
"C" list: A player who shouldn't be offered. He didn't contribute this year and probably won't in the future. Not worth tying up any cap room.
"A" List Players
P Pat McAfee- The "Boomstick" is the only player to make our "must have back" list. It's odd that a punter, of all positions, would be on that list, but McAfee's value to the Colts is arguably the greatest of any special teams player in the NFL. He's a better than average punter, an outstanding kickoff man and reliable holder for placement kicks. Not only that, but anyone who watched McAfee in training camp knows that he would be more than an adequate replacement in the even of Adam Vinatieri's injury. You pay top dollar to keep McAfee not only because of his value at the position, but because having him opens up at least one other roster spot for a 1st-3rd down player.
"B" List Players
QB Drew Stanton- Stanton didn't see the field in the regular season, the dream of all NFL coaches and fans. Still, the Colts should never forget 2011 and the price they paid for not having an adequate backup behind Peyton Manning. Stanton is that. He probably would have started for the Jets this year had he not been traded to the Colts. He'll probably get some other offers, and if someone wants to give him the chance to start, let him go. He won't get that here without (God forbid) an injury to Andrew Luck.
WR Donnie Avery- Avery was a good veteran target to go along with Reggie Wayne to help Andrew Luck and the rookie receivers get acclimated to the NFL. His touchdown catch against the Lions will be one of the lasting memories of 2012. His role diminished, however, as the season wore on. TY Hilton has definitely proven his worth and LaVon Brazill showed flashes of being a good number three receiver. The Colts can make him a reasonable tender, but could replace Avery without much effort with another free agent.
OT Winston Justice- Justice was injured and inconsistent starting at right tackle. He's definitely not the answer there, and I wouldn't go into 2013 with him penciled in as a starter, but outside of a couple of players, the free agent market likely wont' yield a huge upgrade there. If the Colts go with a high draft pick there, Justice has enough veteran experience to be a stopgap solution and a good backup to either that player or Anthony Castonzo.
OL Jeff Linkenbach (RFA)- Linkenbach's versatility puts him up here. He struggled at tackle, but did a serviceable job filling in at both guard positions. The Colts should make him an offer based on that, and if for no other reason, ensure they get some draft compensation if he leaves.
OG Joe Reitz (RFA)- Reitz had a pretty good season when he was healthy, which was rare this year. It's that concern that keeps him off the "A" list. He too is a restricted free agent meaning the Colts have the right to match any offer and receive compensation if he leaves. That should keep him here in Indy, but I'd give him a raise just to let him know he's appreciated.
DE/LB Dwight Freeney- It's hard not to put arguably the franchise's greatest ever defensive player on the "A" list, but Freeney is at the end of his career and I just don't think he fits in this 3-4 defense. He struggled all season with a high ankle sprain which limited his effectiveness. He's a great locker room guy and team leader, but he may be looking for one last payday, one that the Colts would be unwise to offer. If he's willing to take a "hometown" discount to finish his career here, then I think it's worth it. It's not as if the Colts have someone groomed behind him. But if he's looking for major money, the Colts can go younger and with a player more suited for the position for what they would pay Freeney.
DT Fili Moala- Moala really seemed to be taking to his role as a 3-4 nose tackle, but he too struggled to stay on the field. What the Colts do with Moala may depend on whether or not they think last year's draft pick Josh Chapman is ready to go. Moala would be worth an offer, however, in any case.
DT Antonio Johnson- It's either/or with Moala and Johnson. Johnson has the better body type for the nose tackle role, but didn't fare as well as Moala or Drake Nevis when he was healthy. I'd offer Johnson backup money, but if he wants to test the waters, let him.
LB Moise Fouku- Fouku was an outstanding special teams performer and a better than average nickel linebacker. If someone wants to make him a starter, good for him, but the Colts should make a good effort to see if Moise will stay around.
CB Jerraud Powers- Powers plays well when he's able to play, but 2012 once again saw his season end prematurely with an injury. That takes him down to this list. Offer him a raise, but not a significant one. The draft isn't filled with a lot of great corners this year, so if the Colts don't pay Powers, they'll have to pay someone else.
CB Darius Butler- Butler's mid-season arrival gave the Colts some good depth at cornerback. He and Cassius Vaughn filled in fairly well when injuries forced them into the starter's role, but that's not their forte. If Butler is willing to stay for nickel back money, then keep him around.
CB Cassius Vaughn (RFA)- The same is true for Vaughn. He's a very good tackler, but not great in coverage. Still, he would be in the upper level of nickel backs in the league.
"C" List Players
RB Mewelde Moore- Moore was cut and then brought back when Donald Brown and Delone Carter were injured. He did a nice job mentoring Vick Ballard. Outside of that, he didn't bring much to the table. He's probably closer to retirement than re-signing.
WR Austin Collie- Sadly, Collie's career is probably over. In addition to the multiple concussions he's suffered, the torn patellar tendon in pre-season probably means he's finished as an NFL-caliber wide receiver. It's too bad he never got to play with Andrew Luck. I think those two would have made a great tandem.
CB Josh Gordy (RFA)- Gordy did a decent job on special teams, but was never able to crack the lineup as a cornerback. If he couldn't do that this year, he never will.
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