Now, that number is a bit misleading because the Colts have a number of key young core free agents due for lucrative extensions after 2021: Darius Leonard and Braden Smith, and after 2022, Quenton Nelson just a year later.
Therefore, the Colts have to be a bit prudent with how they spend the remainder of this offseason by saving enough cap space to safely retain their top young core players coming up on new contracts. Having seen how general manager Chris Ballard (and salary cap guru Mike Bluem) have operated in the recent past, there’s no doubt the team will be savvy.
Now, one way around this, could be that the Colts look to sign proven veteran players on short-term contracts (say 1-2 years), whose new deals will expire, and thus free up cap space when the franchise actually needs to re-sign Leonard, Smith, and Nelson (and it’s worth noting that Nyheim Hines is also a free agent after 2021).
These proven impact veterans could immediately complement the Colts’ young core on a ‘built to win’ now Indianapolis contending roster—without complicating their long-term salary cap flexibility. Thus, allowing Indianapolis to retain all of the franchise’s key cornerstones going forward.
Colts’ free agent cornerback Xavier Rhodes fits exactly this type of player as well, that Indianapolis should theoretically target—as a high-level starter, who may be willing to re-up on a 1-2 year contract again.
However, should the franchise aim ‘a little higher’ in terms of ‘big fish free agents’—particularly at starting veteran defensive end, then recently released Houston Texans former face of the franchise and 3x NFL Defensive MVP J.J. Watt also makes a whole lot of sense for Indianapolis in the immediate future.
The Colts would also be wise to monitor the uncertain future of former Denver Broncos 4x NFL First-Team All-Pro and Super Bowl MVP Von Miller—as Denver is expected to decline his $18M team option for 2021, making him an unrestricted free agent soon.
Now 31 years old, Watt recorded 52 tackles (36 solo), 14 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, 45 total QB pressures, an interception (returned for a touchdown), 7 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery in all 16 starts this past season for the Texans defense.
Per PFF (subscription), Watt was their 7th best edge overall with a +85.4 grade overall in 2020.
The issue with Watt is his lingering durability, as he’s still a great player wherever he plays all along the defensive line, but he’s only played two full 16 game seasons over the past 5 years—and he’s missed 32 games over that same span.
Still, he was fully healthy this past season for the Texans.
However, that’s something that can’t be said for veteran pass rusher Von Miller, who missed all of the 2020 season with a dislocated peroneal tendon in his ankle.
Miller had been consistently one of the best pass rushers of the past decade until that injury—and still is.
(In fact, Miller ranks tied for 25th in all-time career sacks with 106.0, while Watt is just behind him with 101.0 sacks at 31st overall respectively).
That being said, at age 31, Miller is just a season removed from recording 46 tackles (33 solo), 10 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks, a whopping 77 total QB pressures, and 2 passes defensed during 15 starts in 2019 for the Broncos defense.
Per PFF, Miller received a +79.3 grade overall during that 2019 campaign.
In a lot of ways, the Colts signing Miller at this stage of his esteemed career could be like when the Broncos signed his former teammate, ex-Dallas Cowboys All-Pro pass rushing great DeMarcus Ware in 2014 and eventually won the Super Bowl—as he was still a winning, highly productive veteran.
Now, the counter-argument here is going to be from someone—and presumably someone snarky, saying, “I remember when the Colts signed some big-named, past their prime veterans such as Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, and Trent Cole in the 2015 offseason and that team went a whole lot of nowhere.”
And you know what, they wouldn’t be wrong.
That Colts team finished 8-8 and failed to make the playoffs—after a lot of offseason hype.
But the issue isn’t that the Colts signed veterans to complement a young core, it’s that their underlying infrastructure wasn’t strong enough then—as an AFC Title Game appearance in 2014 misled the front office in believing that they were closer to a Super Bowl than the team really realistically was on a not-that-talented roster carried too often than not by former franchise quarterback Andrew Luck.
It would be incredibly short-sighted and simplistic to say “Signing veterans is bad” because of that one particular instance—especially when looking at that actual roster in retrospect.
The Colts also just chose the wrong veterans (aside from Gore) on a roster that was ‘fool’s gold’ on whether it could actually legitimately contend—outside of Luck’s usual heroics.
(Each of Johnson and Cole were pretty much done at that point of their playing careers—while to put in perspective, a 31 year old Brandon Marshall, signed by the New York Jets as a veteran free agent that same offseason, had 109 receptions, 1,502 receiving yards, and 14 touchdown receptions during 2015.)
Both Watt and Miller are two of the best defensive players to simply do it over the past decade and are undisputed future first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famers—whenever either decides to finally hang up the football cleats for good and head straight to Canton:
J.J. Watt grade/rank among DL since 2011:
Overall – 94.2 (3rd)
Pass-rush – 93.2 (3rd)
Run-defense – 92.8 (5th) pic.twitter.com/4SIqhA4mKW
— PFF (@PFF) February 22, 2021
Von Miller career grades/rank (’11-19):
94.6 PFF Grade (1st)
94.1 Run-Defense (1st)
93.9 Pass-Rush (1st) pic.twitter.com/pPxx3K3vaR
— PFF (@PFF) February 19, 2021
Most valuable EDGE/DI per PFF WAR since 2011:
♦️ J.J. Watt
♦️ Aaron Donald
♦️ Khalil Mack
♦️ Von Miller pic.twitter.com/N1X58X8sWL
— PFF (@PFF) February 16, 2021
Total Pressures since 2011:
Von Miller – 640
Cam Jordan – 623
J.J. Watt – 610 pic.twitter.com/JNHGo27LoJ
— PFF (@PFF) February 14, 2021
Most sacks + hits since 2010:
1. J.J. Watt – 315
2. Carlos Dunlap – 254
3. Cameron Wake – 247
4. Von Miller – 239
5. Calais Campbell- 220
6. Aaron Donald- 211 pic.twitter.com/6gQuH8I2ox
— PFF (@PFF) February 12, 2021
Now, the Colts shouldn’t overpay for past production, and there are obvious durability concerns—with Watt’s lengthy injury history over the past few seasons and Miller recovering from a serious ankle injury entering his early 30’s at a premium position which requires elite explosion and ‘juice’.
That being said, if either impactful veteran defensive end is seriously interested in joining a potential Colts’ contender on a short-term deal and teaming up with the likes of DeForest Buckner, Darius Leonard, and Kenny Moore defensively among others, then Indianapolis should definitely be in the market for both NFL superstars to push for a Lombardi Trophy.
Watt may be increasingly motivated to stick it to his former franchise by joining a contending divisional rival, and Miller could be looking to take a 1-year flyer to regain his full value fresh off of a significant injury—while simultaneously seriously vying for a Super Bowl.
Both proven impact veterans would be hungry for a championship and looking to complement a strong young Colts core—on a potential AFC contender, without jeopardizing Indianapolis’ foreseeable salary cap flexibility and ability to retain their own homegrown stars going forward.