Will the Colts alter their conservative free agent approach?

INDIANAPOLIS – The yearly frenzy that will overtake the NFL in the coming days, when free agents begin agreeing to terms on sizable contracts, tends to be less of a story in these parts.

The Indianapolis Colts have been more than happy to watch other teams dole out the big-dollar contracts while they wait for the second (or third) wave of free agency when more moderate prices can be found.

The theory is simple: Take a slow-and-steady approach to free agency while relying heavily on skillful draft selections to build a winner.

But entering Year 7 under general manager Chris Ballard, the Colts have precious little to show in terms of results. They’ve missed the playoffs three of the past four years, and in 2022 matched their fewest wins in the past 11 seasons at 4-12-1. With free-agent negotiations opening on Monday, does this suggest Ballard’s style isn’t working? And should the Colts take a more aggressive approach to this offseason?

Ballard takes some issue with the idea that he hasn’t been bold. He points to audacious trades like the one that landed All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner in 2019. He even highlights a couple that didn’t achieve the intended results, like the moves to land quarterbacks Carson Wentz in 2021 and Matt Ryan in 2022.

“It doesn’t mean we were right on the trades,” he said, “but … it’s not like we haven’t done anything. Like we just sat on our heels and we were going to draft every player. We’ve made some aggressive moves. They weren’t always free agent moves.”

At the same time, it’s notable that seven of the 10 players with the largest cap charges on the Colts’ roster are players they drafted. Of the other three, just one – cornerback Stephon Gilmore – was acquired in free agency.

As we enter the free agency phase of the offseason, here’s a look at the variables that will affect whether the Colts take a more aggressive posture in free agency.

A rookie quarterback

The Colts have not made any pretense about their intentions in the NFL draft. They need a quarterback and intend to acquire one with their fourth overall selection. They might even trade up if necessary.

This is one of the chief reasons to rethink their free agency strategy.

Rookie quarterbacks who are not surrounded by sufficient talent can -- and do -- become overwhelmed by the weight on their shoulders. If veteran quarterbacks like Ryan and Nick Foles were unable to make a concerted difference with last season’s supporting cast, why wouldn’t a rookie quarterback also suffer because of it?

One area where there is some disagreement within the organization, according to a team source, is whether the Colts need a truly elite wide receiver to take their passing game to a higher level. There is arguably no such receiver available in free agency, but it’s just one example of an area where the Colts need to do some introspection.

New head coach

Shane Steichen has a newly signed six-year contract to lead the Colts and likely won’t be judged on his results for a while.

But if Steichen is smart, he’ll learn from the missteps of his predecessor, Frank Reich. There were times when Reich privately admitted concerns about the talent level in certain areas, particularly on offense. But he rarely forcefully demanded more resources to improve those areas. Perhaps Steichen should do just that.

Steichen is still learning the team’s personnel, as he admitted at last week’s scouting combine. But the Colts’ abysmal offensive performance in 2022 -- the Colts ranked 31st in scoring -- cannot solely be blamed on quarterback play (although it was poor).

If the production fails to pick up in 2023, Steichen will shoulder part of the blame. The Colts should equip him in a way that prevents this from happening.

Ballard is on the clock

The idea that this is a make-or-break year for Ballard is speculative, at best. Certainly, he is under some heat after a 4-12-1 season. But he also was just allowed to hire a new coach and is preparing to draft a quarterback. Both of those moves represent major shifts for an organization that take time to pan out.

At the same time, owner Jim Irsay arguably displayed more impatience last season than at any time in his nearly three decades of ownership. Is the slow-and-steady approach going to be enough to show tangible progress at this critical juncture for the Colts?

The spending philosophy

Now, here’s a reason why the Colts would be less likely to shift gears in free agency.

Yes, there is a football philosophy that guides Ballard here; he prefers to build his team with homegrown pieces, as is common throughout the NFL. But there’s another reality here: The Colts are careful spenders by design.

This is something that director of football administration Mike Bluem has previously discussed. Bluem, who handles contract negotiations and manages the salary cap, explained that he is given a predetermined spending limit each year by ownership. We don’t know what that number is, but there certainly are limitations on it.

The Colts’ status as a smaller-market team is a factor. It is more difficult for Indianapolis to generate as much local revenue as teams in larger markets. That would include any revenue not subject to the NFL’s revenue-sharing system, such as sponsorships and naming rights. Local revenue is not shared by teams.

So, when Irsay says he’s willing to spend any amount of money necessary to achieve wins, that’s not entirely true. There are limits to what he can -- or will -- spend, especially when it comes to deals with large guarantees (for which guaranteed payments must be escrowed). And those limits are different for a team like the Colts than, say, the Dallas Cowboys.

Cap space

The Colts’ conservative approach to free agency and their avoidance of dead money charges has helped them annually rank among the teams with the most available cap space in recent years. Case in point: After agreeing to a trade of Wentz last year, the Colts entered the signing period with roughly $70 million in salary-cap space -- most in the league.

This year, contract extensions for players like linebacker Shaquille Leonard and guard Quenton Nelson are catching up with the Colts. They currently are projected to have just less than $12 million in space available when the signing period begins on Wednesday.

They can create another $17 million by releasing Ryan before March 17. But even if the Colts were inclined to break with their past approach, they aren’t as well positioned as in recent years.