As it stands, with the dust barely settling on the first wave of free agency, the Indianapolis Colts sit with the second-most salary-cap space in the NFL. With $40.868 million in available cap space, GM Chris Ballard has the ammunition to fill the Colts' most glaring roster holes before the NFL draft rolls around next month.
After all, the GMs around the league roundly considered to be the savviest and most successful exemplify the philosophy that free agency is for filling immediate roster holes while the draft is for setting up the team long-term. Teams who enter the draft without any glaring roster holes are much less likely to panic and reach for need, better positioned to take the best-player-available (BPA) approach.
Sitting on north of $40M in cap space would perhaps make more sense if the Colts didn't have any obvious roster needs. But that's not the case. There are some spots on this roster still, even after the few modest moves Ballard has made, that stand out like a sore thumb like edge rusher, wide receiver, and offensive tackle.
Thus the stage is set for Pro Football Focus' recent post crediting Ballard for his miserly ways. PFF's Ben Linsey identified the Colts' hoarded cap space, ostensibly earmarked for re-signing in-house free agents, as Indy's most positive takeaway of the offseason.
Indianapolis Colts: Colts Are Keeping Cap Space For Big In-House Extensions
The Colts were one of those few teams that came into the 2021 offseason with real money to spend, but so far they’ve been quiet in free agency after pulling off the big trade for Carson Wentz at quarterback.
Their strategy isn’t all that surprising when viewed through the lens of the in-house moves that will have to come shortly. In addition to free agents such as Xavier Rhodes and Marlon Mack, who Indianapolis did re-sign last week, extensions also loom for Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard, and Braden Smith.
It was quite the 2018 draft class for Indianapolis.
It’s hard to fault the Colts for wanting to leave space for those deals and potential reunions with players like T.Y. Hilton, even if it has led to an underwhelming start to free agency for one of the teams with the most money to spend this offseason.
Let's face it, the Colts' free-agent moves thus far have been underwhelming. There's a reason why PFF tabbed Ballard's offseason thus far as "average."
Holding onto that money, perhaps with an eye toward extending the likes of Nelson, Leonard, and Smith is understandable. But in today's NFL landscape where the most cap-strapped teams are able to structure contracts in a way that allows them to keep their most prized veterans and sign outside talent while staying under the cap, Ballard's frugal approach is eyebrow-raising.
Again, if the Colts didn't have any pressing roster needs, it'd be a different matter. The Denver Broncos re-signed Justin Simmons on a four-year, $61M deal and Shelby Harris on a three-year, $29M deal, while adding outside free-agent Ronald Darby on a three-year, $30M deal, totaling less than $14M on the 2021 cap.
The Broncos are right behind the Colts with the third-most cap space still in the NFL at $39.1M and have been players in free agency, without going headlong into overpaying early. In today's NFL, salary cap wizards can conjure up the right fiscal voodoo to massage their team under the cap, even if it means deferring cap hits into the future in order to compete in the now.
The New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs exemplify this cap sorcery. Perhaps Ballard could take his cues from them, one of which is his former employer. Maybe peel off a few of those shekels to get wideout T.Y. Hilton re-signed before some opportunistic GM swoops him up and Ballard lives to regret it if Wentz fails to launch in his new NFL environs.
Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen.