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Colts Free Agency Primer: Ballard Ready to Make a Splash?

Free agency starts next week for the Indianapolis Colts. Is General Manager Chris Ballard ready to make a splash with the open market?
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The Indianapolis Colts are about to enter the 2024 free agency period with roughly $49 million in cap space (according to Over The Cap) and quite a few holes on the roster. While there are a few moves that the Colts could make to create even more space, 49M should be more than enough for what the team needs to accomplish in free agency.

As things stand right now, if the Colts don't sign any of their in-house players prior to the start of free agency, then the team has pressing needs at nose tackle, slot cornerback, outside cornerback, safety, and backup quarterback. Some of these concerns can be alleviated by re-signing a few of the in-house guys scheduled to hit the open market, but the Colts should be looking at other ways to add talent to the roster.

So today, let's dive into the key aspects of this upcoming free agency period for the Colts:

Chris Ballard's Free Agency Philosophy

Before we dive into available players on the market, it is always worth reminding people how general manager Chris Ballard actually views free agency. For Ballard, free agency is more of a stop-gap way of adding experience at positions of need rather than an avenue to add top-tier talent. The two most common phrases uttered by Ballard this time of year are:

"We're just not the biggest fans of, right out the gate in free agency, where you are paying B players A-plus money."


"I think our history has shown that we want to keep our guys."

These two quotes are synonymous with how Ballard views the free agency part of the offseason. He believes in rewarding the guys that are in the building and that he/the team has a relationship with while taking safeguarded risks in free agency. In Ballard's time as a GM, he has mostly given out one or two-year deals on the open market.

In the few times that he has gone beyond a two-year deal and gone up to three or four years, he has safeguarded himself with outs in the contract after the first or second season. Essentially, Ballard doesn't give out legit long-term deals to outside free agents, which does hinder his ability to attract players who want that long-term stability.

This method causes Ballard to miss out on those "top" players that hit the market, but it also protects him from the major ramifications of those deals falling apart. He has easy outs to avoid negative cap impact, and as a result, the Colts have kept a fairly clean book thus far in his tenure.

I'm saying all of this basically to preface the fact that the Colts will never be high-dollar spenders that chase the massive free agent. Ballard is more inclined to give short-term deals to mid-level free agents, and this method has landed them players such as Denico Autry, Samson Ebukam, and Xavier Rhodes over the years (and has kept their books relatively clean). I'd expect the Colts to keep the same course with free agency this offseason.

Key In-House Free Agents

Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus is one of the premier salary cap analysts in all of the media, and he put together a list of the Top 200 upcoming free agents along with contract predictions for each player. Below are the six Colts in-house players that made the cut for Spielberger:

42.) Kenny Moore II ~ 2 years, $13.5M ($8M guaranteed)

52.) Grover Stewart ~ 3 years, $33M ($21M guaranteed)

67.) Julian Blackmon ~ 2 years, $11.5M ($6M guaranteed)

92.) Gardner Minshew ~ 2 years, $17.5M ($9M guaranteed)

123.) Tyquan Lewis ~ 2 years, $12M ($6M guaranteed)

136.) Zack Moss ~ 2 years, $7.5M ($5M guaranteed)

The big three at the top of this list are obviously the Colts' top priority, as re-signing each of them to their respective contracts would leave the Colts with roughly $26M remaining in cap space. Moore is the most likely to return to the Colts, with Stewart closely behind him. I wouldn't rule out a Blackmon reunion either, but he seems the least likely of the bunch.

As for the remaining three players on this list, Moss could be a return candidate at that low per-year figure. He is a valuable backup running back who enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2023. Minshew and Lewis are likely too pricey for their roles with the Colts, especially with Minshew looking for a chance to start at his next destination.

Outside Free Agents to Keep an Eye On

We will also go back to Spielberger's list for contract values. The Colts have never been huge spenders in free agency, but I would expect to see a few more mid-level signings from Ballard to clean up the weak spots at safety and cornerback. There is a strong veteran market at both positions, so expect the Colts to pounce on players that they like at those spots.

Kendall Fuller, CB, Washington Commanders ~ 3 years, $40M ($25M guaranteed)

If the Colts spend big anywhere this offseason, it will be at cornerback. Kendall Fuller isn't the top player on the market, but he's pretty close to it. He's coming off a strong season in Washington despite playing on one of the worst defenses in football, and he has experience playing both outside and in the nickel.

Steven Nelson, CB, Houston Texans ~ 2 years, $14.5M ($8.5M guaranteed)

A more realistic option at outside cornerback could be veteran Steven Nelson on the open market. Nelson, 31, is an iron man at the position, logging over 950 snaps in each of the last six seasons. His experience and play style would be a massive boost to a Colts secondary that simply needs reliability and health at the cornerback position.

Jordan Whitehead, Safety, New York Jets ~ 2 years, $12M ($6.5M guaranteed)

Whitehead is an experienced starting safety with the flexibility to play either deep or in the box. He has been a playmaker in his time with the Jets, hauling in 6 total interceptions over the past two seasons. His versatility and durability would be an excellent add to the Colts' safety room.

Javon Kinlaw, DT, San Francisco 49ers ~ 1 year, $5.5M ($2.5M guaranteed)

If the Colts hadn't traded their first-round pick in the 2020 draft for DeForest Buckner, Kinlaw almost certainly would have been a Colt. Now, just four years later, the Colts can unite the pair that was once traded for the other. Kinlaw hasn't amounted to much in the NFL, but his athletic ability did flash enough last season to give him a shot in free agency.

Darrell Taylor, DE, Seattle Seahawks ~ 2 years, $9M ($5M guaranteed)

Like Kinlaw, the Colts were once very interested in Taylor during his draft year. He ended up heading to the Seahawks, where he underwhelmed on his rookie contract. He's a pure speed rusher who could potentially succeed in a change of scenery and more of a reserve role.

Jeremy Chinn, Safety, Carolina Panthers ~ 1 year, $3M ($2M guaranteed)

Chinn was once a defensive rookie of the year runner-up but has fallen from grace in recent seasons. This young safety could use a change of scenery, and what better place to return to form than in his home state of Indiana? I believe both sides will have a mutual interest in bringing Chinn home.

Tyrod Taylor, QB, New York Giants ~ 2 years, $9M ($6.5M guaranteed)

With Minshew likely pricing himself out of the Colts' range this offseason, Shane Steichen could pivot to another one of his former players in Tyrod Taylor. Taylor was named the day-one starter under Steichen with the Chargers back in 2020 before an unfortunate injury derailed his season. This reunion makes too much sense as long as Taylor holds no ill will toward Steichen for that debacle.

Rock Ya-Sin, CB, Baltimore Ravens ~ Unlisted Contract Details by Spielberger

This one is just for me... please bring him back.

Yosh Nijman, LT, Green Bay Packers ~ Unlisted Contract Details by Spielberger

Is a hyper-athletic left tackle hitting the market? C'mon now, Ballard is going to love this.

Quez Watkins, WR, Philadelphia Eagles ~ Unlisted Contract Details by Spielberger

A speed threat receiver that Steichen had success with in Philadelphia. This would likely be close to the league minimum to bring him in.

L'Jarius Sneed Trade Rumors

If Ballard is going to make a big splash move this offseason, it would be on the trade market. Ballard is much more comfortable trading for blue-chip players than signing them off the open market, so there are a few options for him to consider. Among the potential trade options are players such as Tee Higgins, Brian Burns, and L'Jarius Sneed.

Sneed appears to be the most likely candidate for Ballard to pursue, as the Colts have already spoken with the Chiefs about the star corner, according to several reports. Those conversations have mostly been preliminary, however, and neither side has actually floated a realistic trade idea at this point (the Chiefs are trying to get the Lions to give up their first-round pick for Sneed at the moment). 

When it is all said and done, Sneed likely gets moved for the value of a mid-second-round pick (again, unless the Lions get desperate). Sneed, 27, is coming off a career year, but he dealt with knee injuries this past season and would command nearly $20M per season on an extension. There is a lot of risk involved with this type of move, but it could be one that essentially fixes the Colts' issues at cornerback. 

Ultimately, a move for Sneed likely doesn't happen anytime soon. The Chiefs can wait for contenders to get desperate after missing out on their free-agent targets, and teams like the Colts can pivot to cheaper options on the open market. If the Colts are patient and serious about acquiring Sneed, this could be a move that happens later in the offseason.

I don't know how aggressive the Colts will get in this conversation, but I certainly wouldn't rule them out in acquiring Sneed from the Chiefs.

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