The Way Too Early Top 5 Free Agents for Colts to Target

Mar 18, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay listens as retired quarterback Peyton Manning speaks during a press conference at Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis Colts are set to enter the 2017 free agency period as potentially a major player, as the team is projected to have around $50.8M of cap space–the 10th most among NFL teams during this year’s upcoming offseason.

With calculated cuts of veterans such as Art Jones ($5.15M) and D’Qwell Jackson ($5.5M), the Colts could free up even additional cap space to the tune of around $61.45M.

While free agency doesn’t officially begin until March 9th and a lot can change–particularly regarding these highly coveted free agents receiving the franchise tag from their current teams, here are 5 top potential free agents for the Colts to target (in alphabetical order):

Oct 23, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs strong safety Eric Berry (29) is introduced prior to a game against the New Orleans Saints at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won 27-21. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

5. Eric Berry, Safety, Kansas City Chiefs

Having applied a $10.806M franchise tag on star safety Eric Berry in 2016, the safety is due a 20% raise under the tag if a long-term deal can’t be reached with the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason. That inflated tag would place him at $12.96M for 2017, which would effectively make him the highest paid safety in all of football over the Arizona Cardinals Tyrann Mathieu.

Things could get trick salary cap wise for the Chiefs, who already have star nose tackle Dontari Poe as a potential franchise tag candidate as well with little wiggle room under the salary cap.

As the 5th overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, the 3x First-Team All-Pro, 5x Pro Bowler, and 2015 NFL Comeback Player of the Year has been nothing short of a superstar safety for the Kansas City Chiefs and is arguably the heart and soul of their vaunted defense–maybe the whole team.

Jan 1, 2017; San Diego, CA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs strong safety Eric Berry (29) looks on during the first quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

On the season, the 6’0″, 212 pound safety started all 16 games for the Chiefs, recording 77 total tackles, 1 forced fumbles, and 4 interceptions.

Per Pro Football Focus (subscription), the 28 year old was their 7th best rated safety overall with a +87.8 grade overall–showing no signs of slowing down.

While 2nd-year safety Clayton Geathers appears to be a rising star on the Colts defense, there’s no guarantee that he’ll actually stay at safety long-term–as he could eventually transition to inside linebacker.

Additionally, free agent veteran safety Mike Adams turns 36 years old in March and is no guarantee to return, while rookie T.J. Green remains a work in progress as a project–having had his fair share of struggles during his rookie season (including a number of bonehead mistakes).

Berry would theoretically provide the Colts a true ‘ballhawk’ safety in every sense of the word, as an All-Pro caliber player who’s adept at defending both the run and pass at a high level–while becoming a leader for the Indianapolis defense. He would easily be the most dynamic safety that the Colts have had since former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders infamously roamed from sideline-to-sideline for the Horseshoe.

Both Pagano and Monachino had success having future Hall of Famer Ed Reed at safety anchoring their secondary for their stingy Baltimore Ravens defenses, and Berry is really that same high caliber of defender to build around and should still have several ‘star’ years left.

It’s worth noting too that if he indeed returns, head coach Chuck Pagano already has shared a bond with Berry, as both are cancer survivors–as Pagano supported Berry throughout the young safety’s own cancer fight with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2014-15.

Oct 25, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram (54) takes the field before the game against the Oakland Raiders at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

4. Melvin Ingram, Outside Linebacker, San Diego Chargers

Having been taken 17 picks after Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in the 2012 NFL Draft, outside linebacker Melvin Ingram has developed into a proven pass rusher for the San Diego Chargers.

Ingram started all 16 games for the Bolts, recording 60 total tackles and 4 forced fumbles.

However, it’s pass rush that is Ingram’s calling card.

Nov 22, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram (54) attempts to tackle Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) during the first half of the game at Qualcomm Stadium. Kansas City won 33-3. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past two seasons, the 6’2″, 247 pound pass rusher has 18.5 combined total sacks–with 8.0 sacks coming recently this past season.

While that’s 3.0 sacks less than the Colts sack leader Erik Walden, who finished with 11.0 sacks on the season, it was Ingram who graded out much more favorably as a pass rusher by Pro Football Focus.

Specifically, Ingram’s pass rush grade of +84.9 was the 9th best among all ‘edge defenders’. For perspective, Denver Broncos superstar Von Miller received a +86.5 pass rushing grade, which means Ingram found himself near some pretty elite pass rushing company.

Meanwhile, Walden received a +49.4 pass rushing grade–indicating that Ingram could be a significant upgrade despite what the sack output shows.

Ingram’s +88.1 grade overall was also the 6th best overall among all ‘edge defenders’ as well–meaning Melvin was much better than his stats seem to indicate at their face.

If he returns, head coach Chuck Pagano should have a ‘heads up’ on Ingram, as his brother John Pagano has been the defensive coordinator for Ingram for the 27 year old outside linebacker’s entire career–even though the younger Pagano may not want to actually lose one of his defensive captains.

The Colts signed cornerback Patrick Robinson from the Chargers last offseason, and Ingram could potentially be next–although Indianapolis would be theoretically hoping for a much more impressive debut season from Ingram than his former teammate.

October 16, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe (92) during the third quarter against the Oakland Raiders at Oakland Coliseum. The Chiefs defeated the Raiders 26-10. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

3. Dontari Poe, Nose Tackle, Kansas City Chiefs

Like Ingram, Poe was a member of the same draft class as Colts quarterback Andrew Luck–only he was selected 10 picks later in the 2012 NFL Draft.

[Admittedly, I was tempted to place Arizona Cardinals pass rusher Chandler Jones here instead, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely that he’ll avoid their franchise tag.]

As mentioned, the Kansas City Chiefs may be faced with a tough decision to make, as it relates to placing the franchise tag on either star safety Eric Berry or nose tackle Dontari Poe respectively–especially with limited cap space in the 2017 offseason.

The 6’3″, 346 pound Poe is a 2x Pro Bowler and 1x 2nd-Team All-Pro and would provide much needed size and an interior presence to the Colts defense–as the Colts saw firsthand this past season that he can consistently command a double-team:

The 5th-year veteran started all 16 games for the Chiefs this past season, recording 27 tackles, 1.5 sack, and a forced fumble.

For a Colts defense that ranked 25th against the run–allowing 120.4 rushing yards per game, Poe would provide an upgrade over incumbent starter David Parry.

There’s some buyer beware though, as the Chiefs actually ranked 26th against the run–raising the question of whether Poe is actually as good as advertised. His Pro Football Focus run-stopping grade of +49.1 wasn’t all that good this past season, but he’s just one year removed from earning a Top 12 run defense grade among all defensive tackles.

Don’t get me wrong though, Parry has been a nice find for the Colts as a 2015 5th round pick. However, at 6’2″, 310 pounds, the 2nd-year pro does not have the ideal size of a true nose tackle in a 3-4 system. Ideally, Parry may be better suited long-term as a rotational defensive lineman than starting nose tackle for the Colts going forward.

Specifically, when looking at every historically great 3-4 defense, whether it’s been the Pittsburgh Steelers Casey Hampton, the San Diego Chargers Jamal Williams, or the New England Patriots Vince Wilfork, there’s always been a dominant nose tackle anchoring the middle of their defense.

Still only 26 years old, Poe has the size, strength, and athleticism to be a true difference-maker for the Colts defense for years to come. He doesn’t always play up to his physical potential, but could be worth the long-term gamble for Indianapolis.

Dec 11, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (99) sacks San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) in the first quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

2. Kawann Short, Defensive Tackle, Carolina Panthers

Having lost shutdown cornerback Josh Norman after a franchise tag standstill last season, the Carolina Panthers could be faced with a similar situation regarding star defensive tackle Kawann Short–who doesn’t necessarily appear willing to accept the team’s franchise tag.

Seeking Fletcher Cox money at $17M per year, the 1x Pro Bowler and 1x 2nd-Team All-Pro could push the limits of his next contract. While the Panthers are armed with $62.7M of cap space in 2017, it remains to be seen whether they’re willing to go to that level with Short.

Jan 17, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (99) sacks Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) in the first quarter during the NFC Divisional round playoff game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The former Purdue Boilermaker 2x All-Big Ten selection and East Chicago (IN) Central High School standout could have a homecoming of sorts by signing a lucrative mega-contract with the Colts.

Having started in all 16 games for the Panthers, the former 2013 2nd round pick recorded 55.0 tackles, 6.0 sacks, and a forced fumble this past season.

Per Pro Football Focus (subscription), Short’s overall grade of +87.7 was the 5th best among all ‘interior defenders’, whereas his run defense grade of +85.4 was the 3rd best at his defensive classification respectively.

There is an issue of whether Short, as a 4-3 defensive tackle with the Carolina Panthers, would have the same caliber of success with the Colts. However, the 6’3″, 315 pound defensive lineman has more than enough size, strength, and athleticism to make a smooth transition to being a successful 3-4 defensive lineman.

With veteran Art Jones likely a cap casualty as mentioned, Short could replace his role as the defensive tackle/defensive end of the Colts defense, while providing Indianapolis with an immediate upgrade. Not to mention, added depth should veteran Kendall Langford not return to his prior form–coming off a lingering knee injury that ended his season.

Sep 29, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler (68) against the Miami Dolphins at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 22-7. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

1. Kevin Zeitler, Offensive Guard, Cincinnati Bengals

With both offensive guard Kevin Zeitler and longtime veteran offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth as free agents, the Cincinnati Bengals could have a tough decision to make in regards to keeping only one of its two talented trench mainstays.

As a former 2012 1st round pick of the Bengals (also in Andrew Luck‘s draft class), Zeitler has started all 32 games for the Bengals over the past two seasons and has only missed 8 games over his 5 year career–having started in 71 career games.

Oct 18, 2015; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler (68) during the game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s worth noting that Zeitler was a standout with the University of Wisconsin, where he was a 1x First-Team All-Big Ten selection and 2x Big Ten Champion–having clear familiarity with the Midwest already.

The 6’4″, 320 pound offensive guard is apparently seeking prized Oakland Raiders offensive guard ‘Kelechi Osemele money’ at around $11.7M per year in this year’s free agency.

However, he could be worth the long-term investment for the Colts, as per Pro Football Focus (subscription), the 26 year old ranked as their 7th best offensive guard overall with a +87.1 grade overall–including a pass blocking grade of +89.4 which was the 5th best at his position in the entire league. He subsequently made the PFF 2nd All-Pro team at right guard for his exceptional play.

Going forward, the Colts have to do a much better job of protecting their franchise quarterback Andrew Luck–as Indianapolis finished 2nd in allowing the most QB hits with 128 total QB hits, as well as 5th in total sacks with 44 total sacks. Likewise, Luck was the 3rd most pressured passer in the entire NFL–keeping up with the shoddy status quo since his arrival in 2012.

There’s no question that rookie 5th round pick Joe Haeg has shown some initial promise in his debut season at right guard, as well as fellow rookie right tackle Le’Raven Clark–although in much more limited action in the latter’s case late in the season.

However, Zietler appears to be one of those prized free agents, who the Colts could plug in on the right side of their starting offensive line and not worry about for the next 5 years. He would be an exclamation point of sorts that shows that general manager Ryan Grigson is indeed serious about fixing the Colts pass protection woes once and for all–no questions asked.

Plug Zeitler in and done–let one of Haeg, Clark, Denzelle Good, or Joe Reitz win the remaining starting spot along the offensive line.

That being said, the Colts may not want to displace the promising Haeg from what appears to be his most natural position at right guard–although he can play right tackle as well. Clark still appears to be more of a project and is further away in his development, so he could be better served by continuing to improve his blocking on the side before assuming a full-time starting role in the short-term.

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