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Smalstig: Quiet free agency means Colts are not contenders yet

| Friday, April 23, 2021

Tom Brady, Leonard Fournette, Rob Gronkowski, Tristan Wirfs, Antoine Winfield Jr. That’s the haul of starters that it took to push the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into Super Bowl contention, where they would ultimately emerge victorious. That is the result of a very busy free agency, accompanied by one of the better draft classes in the league.

Carson Wentz. That’s the only projected starter that the Indianapolis Colts have added so far this offseason.

I can already hear the groans of the more optimistic fans, hoping to take the next step into Super Bowl contention. Yes, I know, there’s at least a possibility that we got an upgrade at quarterback. Yes, I know, we still haven’t drafted yet and Chris Ballard has had a great track record when it comes to talent evaluation. Yes, I know, we are waiting to spend money on the likes of Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith and Darius Leonard. But, looking at it now, that all just sounds like a bunch of bad excuses.

To start, Carson Wentz is still one of the biggest question marks in the league. I’d like to think that I believe in him more than most, knowing how early I recognized his playmaking abilities and how I drool over his multiple seasons with a 100+ passer rating, but at heart I am a realist. Anyone who turned on a single Eagles game last year knows how bad Carson Wentz looked. Not only was his confidence and chemistry with the team a wreck — two things that could hopefully be rectified with some new scenery and a trusted coach in Frank Reich — but his decision making and accuracy were also more than suspect. If the Colts are leaning on Wentz to take them to the top, it could be a bumpy ride.

The draft is also an awfully shaky system to rely on. I am more than willing to admit that Chris Ballard and the Colts’ scouting system have done a great job since they have arrived, but it’s silly to think that another top 5 draft class is a sure thing. Who is to say whether this year’s first and second round picks will turn out to be more like Malik Hooker and Rock Ya-Sin than Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard? Even if you think you have got the talent that you wanted, who is to say they won’t be plagued by injuries like Parris Campbell? If you ask me, the Colts are taking a gamble on a part of the game that has long been marked by luck.

While I understand that the Colts will have to shell out big money soon, the teams that are winning now are manipulating the cap space in ways that make it obvious that saving money is a thing of the past if you want to win Super Bowls. Two offseasons ago, the Kansas City Chiefs signed Patrick Mahomes to a contract worth more than a half a billion dollars and still saved space for Chris Jones, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. This past offseason, the Buccaneers were even able to bring back every single starter from their Super Bowl winning roster. With the use of up-front bonuses and other tricks of the trade, there is no reason that money should have been a problem for the Colts in free agency.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say things turn out well. Carson Wentz returns to at least his 2019 form, posting around 4000 passing yards and a 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio, and they are able to fill the holes at edge rusher and left tackle in the draft, getting prospects similar to Chase Young and Tristan Wirfs. That would be near hitting the ceiling in terms of potential outcomes. Yet, Philip Rivers posted a better passer rating with the Colts in 2020 than Wentz did in 2019, Chase Young posted less sacks than Justin Houston, and you would be hard pressed to find someone who would prefer a rookie tackle to an All-Pro like Anthony Castonzo. As the 2021 NFL Draft quickly approaches, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Colts might still have a ways to go.

Will the Colts be a bad team? No. They should make the playoffs. But, they’re still a ways away from competing with teams like the Chiefs or the Bucs come playoff time and, considering the massive amount of cap space there was to work with, I think that an inactive free agency should be a large target for the blame. 

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