NFL Free Agency 2014: 5 Players the Indianapolis Colts Should Pursue
The 2014 NFL offseason is still far down the road, but it’s never too early to look at what some organizations might be looking to do to improve on the field.
The Indianapolis Colts are projected to have close to $30 million in cap room heading into the offseason. They have some players with expiring contracts that they could consider inking to long-term deals. These players include punter Pat McAfee, safety Antoine Bethea, cornerback Vontae Davis, inside linebacker Pat Angerer and running back Donald Brown.
There are three specific things that the Colts need to address in free agency.
The most important issue the Colts need to address is the interior of the offensive line. Colts owner Jim Irsay took to Twitter earlier this season and stated that there needs to be better protection in place for quarterback Andrew Luck.
Due to the injury of guard Donald Thomas early in the year, the coaching staff was unable to get a grasp for what he can do as a starter. Rookie Hugh Thornton appears to have the potential to develop into a solid member of the line next season.
The backup to Thomas, Mike McGlynn, has continued to be a weak link in pass protection this season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), McGlynn is statistically one of the least efficient pass blocking guards in the league. He has allowed 36 total quarterback pressures and has posted efficiency rating of 92.7, which is the fourth-lowest rating among guards who have played a minimum of 50 percent of the Colts' pass-blocking snaps.
Starting center Samson Satele has performed decent in pass protection, but he continues to struggle against the run. With the Colts running a power-run offense (for now), they need to look to upgrade over Satele.
The Colts also have center/guard Khaled Holmes, a fourth-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. It is hard to tell if Holmes can be a long-term solution on the offensive line, because he hasn’t played a single snap during the regular season.
The second issue that needs to be addressed is bringing in another reliable wide receiver for Andrew Luck.
After the injury to Reggie Wayne, the Colts' passing attack has begun to struggle because of the absence of the team’s leader and most talented receiver.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, who signed a one-year contract last offseason, has struggled to play efficiently. According to Pro Football Focus, he has caught just 51 percent of the passes that have been thrown his way.
Another thing that the Colts will look to improve is in acquiring players to better stop the run.
Coach Chuck Pagano has said that he wants his defense to be one that shuts down opposing rushing attacks. Unfortunately for the Colts, they have been unable to do that this season, allowing 125.5 yards on the ground per game.
Ricky Jean-Francois has shown flashes of being a run-stuffing defensive lineman, but he has been unable to do so on a consistent basis. Cory Redding has provided leadership and also has produced against the run consistently. The only issue with Redding is that he is 33. He has slowly improved as his career has progressed, but the Colts could opt to go younger and the 3-4 defensive end position. Starting nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin is scheduled to be a free agent at the end of 2013, and he will also be 34 at the start of the 2014 season.
There aren’t many viable nose tackle options in this class so it wouldn’t be surprised to see the Colts address this position in the draft.
After examining the Colts’ biggest needs, I went through the potential free-agent class of 2014. I examine each potential signing and compare how their strengths, production in certain spots on the field and schematic fit line up with the Colts’ biggest weaknesses and schematic needs.
The following five players are the best potential signings for the Colts, ranked in order of who would fill the designated need the most.
1. Alex Mack, Center, Cleveland Browns
The Indianapolis Colts would be ecstatic to see a player of Alex Mack’s caliber enter the free-agent market.
The 28-year-old Mack, currently the starting center for the Cleveland Browns, is believed to have Pro Bowl potential. His size (6’4”, 311 pounds) and versatility are extremely appealing to his possible suitors.
In comparing Mack with current Colts starting center Samson Satele, the difference is night and day. Mack appears to be more athletic and has the versatility to be a solid blocker both in run-blocking and in pass protection. He also doesn’t seem to struggle much with holding his blocks, something that Satele has trouble with on a consistent basis.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Mack has an overall player efficiency rating of 12.9 while Satele currently has a rating of minus-8.3.
The addition of Mack would give the Colts the best offensive line that they have had since the Manning era.
The Colts already have two solid tackles in Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus, a promising young guard in Hugh Thornton and a possible starting guard in Donald Thomas, assuming he comes back and still plays at a high level next season.
Adding Mack into the mix would surely give the Colts not only one of the best offensive lines in the league, but the move would make the offense as a whole more efficient.
There are two reasons that I don’t think that this deal gets done.
First, the Browns likely won’t let Mack walk, no matter what his contract demands are. He is one of the best centers in football, and the Browns have solid pieces in place for the future of their offensive line, Mack being one of them.
Secondly, with Mack set to turn 29 next season, the Colts might not want to invest long-term money in him, despite his talent level.
2. Hakeem Nicks, Wide Receiver, New York Giants
Reggie Wayne will be returning next year coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered Week 7 against the Denver Broncos.
Wayne will turn 36 midway through next season. Despite his age, he has continued to produce at a high level, bringing in 38 receptions for 503 yards and two touchdowns in seven games before the injury.
Other than Wayne, the Colts have only one true receiver on the roster who can produce on a consistent basis, T.Y. Hilton.
Like I said earlier, the Colts signed Darrius Heyward-Bey to a one-year contract, but he hasn’t produced like some hoped he would.
These factors make the possibility of acquiring Hakeem Nicks very interesting for the Colts.
Nicks hasn’t put up the numbers this season that he has in the past, accumulating just 42 receptions for 620 yards and zero touchdowns for the New York Giants. The inconsistency of Eli Manning and the rest of the New York Giants offense has been the main reason that Nicks has failed to put up the numbers most top-tier receivers do.
Bringing in Nicks would make sense for a number of reasons.
First, Nicks is just 25 years old, which means he would be a reliable weapon for quarterback Andrew Luck for the next few seasons. Even before the injury to Wayne, the Colts were going to have to look at players who will be able to contribute in the passing game after Wayne eventually retires.
The addition of Nicks would give Luck a strong group of weapons that already includes tight ends Dwayne Allen, who has missed the 2013 season due to a hip injury, Coby Fleener, running backs Trent Richardson and Vick Ballard and Hilton.
Another benefit of adding Nicks is his production between 0-19 yards in the middle and the left side of the field. According to Luck’s passes-by-direction chart on Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Luck has a lot of success throwing into Nicks’ hot zones.
On passes thrown between 10-19 yards in the center of the field, Nicks has been targeted 11 times, bringing in eight receptions for 193 yards. On his short-to-intermediate routes to the left side of the field, he has 10 receptions for 108 yards.
Acquiring players who can produce in areas of the field where Luck finds the most success will contribute to building Indy's passing attack into the team’s strong suit.
I think that Nicks will opt to sign with the Colts if the price is right. The move makes too much sense in the long term for both Nicks and Indianapolis.
3. Randy Starks, Defensive Lineman, Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins defensive lineman Randy Starks could be an interesting fit for the Colts' defense.
Starks, who signed with the Dolphins in 2008, was believed to have the versatility to play both 3-4 defensive end and nose tackle when he initially signed in South Beach. Due to the productivity of Paul Soliai and the change of the Dolphins’ defensive scheme from the 3-4 to the 4-3, Starks hasn’t received much playing time in the middle of the line.
If Starks does in fact have the ability to play in the middle of the line, he could receive serious consideration from the Colts.
Another aspect to consider is his play in comparison to current Colt defensive linemen Cory Redding. As I said earlier, Redding has played exceptionally well against the run all season. Where Redding hasn’t made a large impact is in the pass rush. Starks has been a consistent threat in stopping the run and rushing the passer in 2013.
Also, Starks has been responsible for 9.8 percent of the Dolphins' defensive stops, which ranks eighth among defensive tackles in the NFL, while Redding has been responsible for only 4.8 percent of the Indianapolis' defensive stops.
Finally, take into consideration the direct comparison of the players. Starks turns 30 in December while Redding turned 33 in November.
If the Colts allow Redding to walk, they will give Starks serious consideration as his replacement. Doing so would allow them to draft a young nose tackle and groom him behind Starks, who could potentially double as a nose tackle and defensive end.
4. Kenny Britt, Wide Receiver, Tennessee Titans
After spending most of 2013 in coach Mike Munchak’s doghouse, Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kenny Britt is finally set to hit the free agent market. Britt has made it clear that he has no intention of returning to Tennessee beyond this season.
Britt, a 6’3”, 218-pound Rutgers product has the potential to be a top-tier receiver if given the chance in a better offensive system.
To get a better understanding of what Britt can do, you must first take a look at his numbers from the 2012 season, the last season in which he received meaningful playing time.
Britt is multidimensional, and he also addresses the biggest weakness in the Colts passing game.
Luck’s biggest issue is completing passes within 0-9 yards to the center and the right side of the field. According to PFF (subscription required), Britt not only excels in these areas—catching 20 of these passes in 2012 for 150 yards and a touchdown—but he also has the size and ability to be a downfield target.
Another thing to consider with Britt is the overall risk that comes with signing him. Britt has been labeled as an underachiever due to expectations that come with being a first-round selection.
Also, Britt was accused in July 2012 of driving under the influence, though he was found not guilty of the charges. Still, the incident has raised questions about his character.
Britt’s situation is not unlike that of former Titan teammate Jared Cook.
In 2013, Cook's last year with the Titans, the tight end struggled to produce at a high level, catching just 44 passes for 523 yards and four touchdowns. After the Titans failed to re-sign him, Cook joined the St. Louis Rams via free agency.
In 2013, Cook is on track to have one of the best seasons of his career. Through 11 games, Cook has 37 receptions for 508 yards and four touchdowns.
Players rarely play well when they are in a toxic situation with an organization. After seeing Cook elevate his game due to a change of scenery, Britt might be thinking a new team could produce a similar resurgence. His potential, combined with a team in need of his specific talent, Britt could resurrect his career with the Colts.
There is a real possibility that this move could happen. I actually like the move better for the Colts from a financial standpoint than a potential Hakeem Nicks deal. Britt likely won’t demand a large contract which makes the reward of giving him a chance that much larger.
5. Brent Grimes, Cornerback, Miami Dolphins
After a season-ending injury ultimately led to his departure from the Atlanta Falcons, Grimes signed with the Miami Dolphins.
The veteran cornerback has exhibited the same high level of play that he did while in Atlanta.
Although I feel that Grimes will get a nice contract when the season ends, whether in Miami or elsewhere, I believe he is an option for the Colts if they choose to not bring back starting cornerback Vontae Davis. After trading a second-round pick last season to acquire Davis, it is very unlikely the Colts will allow him to leave, although nothing is ever set in stone when it comes to forming an NFL roster.
Since there is a slim chance Davis could depart, the Colts will need to have a backup plan in place, and Grimes would be a very solid addition if Davis walks.
The first thing that jumped off the page to me was that Grimes has yet to give up a touchdown this season despite playing 449 snaps in coverage, the eighth most in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Of all of the cornerbacks to play at least 50 percent of their team’s plays in pass coverage, only five players have yet to allow a touchdown. Aside from Grimes, the only player of that group to play over 300 snaps and not allow a score is Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner, who has played in coverage on 389 snaps.
Furthermore, when quarterbacks throw into Grimes coverage area, they have an average quarterback rating of 69.9 according to Pro Football Focus (Subscription Required).
The addition of Grimes would bring consistency to the Colts defensive secondary, something that they’ve only seen a glimpse of this year.
Unless the Colts lose Davis, this move won’t happen. They have a lot invested in Greg Toler, the cornerback who starts opposite Davis, as he signed a three-year, $15 million deal last offseason.
Their faith in Toler and the probability of them re-signing Davis don’t bode well for this potential move.