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Indianapolis Colts 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Paradise, Nevada, USA; Indianapolis Colts guard Quenton Nelson (56) blocks for quarterback Philip Rivers (17) against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

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The Indianapolis Colts entered this offseason in need of a new quarterback following Philip Rivers’ retirement, but they’ve since found their man by reuniting Carson Wentz with former offensive coordinator Frank Reich. 

Indianapolis is in a good spot from a roster standpoint, with several key building blocks on both offense and defense to go along with the fourth-most projected cap space in the league. They should once again be postseason contenders in the AFC if they can get average play at the quarterback position and attack areas of need such as wide receiver, left tackle and defensive end this offseason. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $43,635,239 (4th in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 21, 54, 118, 149, 182, 213

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Carson Wentz 28 / 32 $25.4 million
RB Jonathan Taylor 10 / 70 $1.8 million
WR ?
WR Michael Pittman Jr. 96 / 127 $2.0 million
WR Parris Campbell N/A $1.3 million
TE Jack Doyle 13 / 71 $5.9 million
LT ?
LG Quenton Nelson 1 / 39 $7.8 million
C Ryan Kelly 13 / 37 $14.7 million
RG Mark Glowinski 15 / 40 $7.6 million
RT Braden Smith 4 / 38 $3.3 million

Wentz is the biggest name of note in this lineup following the trade that sent a 2021 third-round pick and a conditional 2022 second-round pick — that could become a first-round selection — back to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Colts will be hoping he can rebound from a disastrous 2020 campaign to at least the middle-of-the-pack starter we saw in 2018 and 2019. 

The two holes in the lineup were previously filled by two of the longer-tenured Colts — T.Y. Hilton and Anthony Castonzo. Hilton could return as an unrestricted free agent, but it all comes down to how much another team is willing to pay the 31-year-old wide receiver. Per Jim Ayello of the Indianapolis Star, Jim Irsay said of Hilton’s situation last month, “You want a guy (like Hilton) back, but it has to fit into what you view, what the marketplace dictates and what other teams and where someone’s value falls with the price tag.”

On the other hand, there is next to no chance that Castonzo returns following his retirement. Castonzo has been the Colts' starting left tackle for the last ten years, so his departure signals the end of an era. The silver lining for the Colts' future left tackle is that they get to step in and play next to arguably the best guard in football.

Are the Colts a better football team with Carson Wentz in 2021 than with Philip Rivers last season?

The opinion on Wentz is generally split two ways. The first points back to his near-MVP season in 2017 when he earned a career-high 84.9 PFF grade on the back of unsustainable third-down success; the second points to his disaster of a 2020 season in which he was one of the least accurate quarterbacks in the league and led the NFL in turnover-worthy plays despite being benched in Week 13. The truth falls somewhere in the middle, as it often does. 

The version of Wentz that the Colts will be getting will likely be a version of 2018 or 2019 Wentz. His PFF grade of 80.7 over those two years ranked 15th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks — just about at league average. That’s a quarterback that Indianapolis can win with, given the talent on the rest of their roster. 

However, it’s hard to say right now that Wentz is a legitimate upgrade over 2020 Rivers. The 79.2 overall grade Rivers recorded last season is a mark that Wentz has topped only twice in his five-year career. Additionally, Wentz's range of outcomes isn’t any better than several free agent quarterbacks Indianapolis could have had without giving up any trade compensation, as my colleague Timo Riske pointed out in a piece earlier this week. It’s a risk on the Colts' part in the hope that Wentz can right the ship in a more stable environment. 

How aggressive are the Colts in adding a true No. ` receiver to this offense?

This question could go a long way toward determining how much success Indianapolis has in 2021. As things stand right now, the three top wide receivers for the Colts next season would be Michael Pittman Jr., Zach Pascal and Parris Campbell. That’s not a disastrous group — particularly if Campbell can stay healthy and finally start to show why Indianapolis took him in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft — but it could use an alpha presence. 

That was T.Y. Hilton for many years, but there’s a decent chance he goes elsewhere for the late stages of his career. More than just about any team, I believe the Colts should target a player at the top of this year’s free agency class. Chris Godwin (89.9 PFF grade since 2018), Allen Robinson (89.5 grade) and Kenny Golladay (86.2 grade) are all guys who the Colts should target if they don’t get the franchise tag and hit the open market. 

Adding one of those three players not only gives the Colts a top-20-caliber wide receiver, but it improves the viability of players like Pittman, Campbell and Pascal in complementary roles.  

Can a rookie left tackle step in and find success right away?

Look no further than Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs to see that a rookie tackle can come in and have legitimate success early in their NFL career. That isn’t the most transparent way to start this section, though. Most tackles — even talented first-round selections at the position — struggle in their first year in the NFL. As always, I’ll refer to this article by PFF’s Timo Riske last offseason that looked at the different learning curves associated with varying positions upon entering the league. 

If Indianapolis does go the rookie route at left tackle to replace Anthony Castonzo, then they’ll need to target their guy by the second round at the latest to get a realistic starting-caliber prospect. 

The good news for the Colts is two-fold. First, this is a deep offensive tackle draft class. There are three tackles inside the top 25 on PFF’s Big Board, but more importantly, there are seven tackles from slots 25 to 55. That kind of depth is rare at the position. Second, the Colts will stick any new starter next to the highest-graded guard in the NFL since 2018 in Quenton Nelson. As far as situations go, it doesn’t get much better than that, and that could help a rookie beat the odds and have success in their first season. 

Potential targets at open spots

Wide receiver: Allen Robinson/Kenny Golladay/Chris Godwin if available, Sage Surratt

I listed the three top free agents together because it really comes down to whichever player ends up becoming available. There is a relatively good chance that all three players draw the franchise tag, but each of Robinson, Golladay and Godwin are capable of being legitimate No. 1 options in the passing game for Indianapolis, and that is the kind of player they should be targeting this offseason.

In the draft, Surratt is a bigger receiver in the mold of guys who Wentz had success targeting at times in Philadelphia. He’s one of the more physical wide receivers in the class and is excellent at the catch point. Once he hits the NFL, the biggest concern is that he’ll have to win almost exclusively with physicality at the catch point without the speed needed to gain separation consistently.  

Tackle: Christian Darrisaw, Dillon Radunz

If the Colts expect to find their Week 1 starting left tackle in the 2021 NFL Draft, they’ll likely need to target their man in the first round. 

If Darrisaw were available at the 21st overall pick, that would be an ideal outcome for the Colts. The 15th-ranked player on PFF’s Big Board is coming off a massive junior season where he recorded a 95.6 PFF grade, showing people-moving ability on the ground that should intrigue the Colts next to Quenton Nelson. He combined that prowess in the run game with a clean slate in pass protection when it came to quarterback hits and sacks allowed.

Radunz would be an alternative option if Darrisaw was off the board and could be a target if the Colts had an interest in trading back towards the back end of the first round or top of the second round. His performance at the Senior Bowl went a long way toward solidifying his spot near the top of the draft, and his athleticism is a plus coming out of North Dakota State.       

Projected 2021 defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
EDGE ?
DI DeForest Buckner 5 / 126 $17.0 million
DI Grover Stewart 53 / 126 $8.3 million
EDGE ?
LB Darius Leonard 10 / 83 $4.3 million
LB Bobby Okereke 64 / 83 $1.0 million
LB ?
CB ?
CB Rock Ya-Sin 103 / 121 $2.2 million
CB Kenny Moore 16 / 121 $6.4 million
S Julian Blackmon 64 / 94 $1.1 million
S Khari Willis 24 / 94 $1.0 million

There may be no bigger need on this Colts roster than at defensive end, where Justin Houston, Denico Autry and Al-Quadin Muhammad will all be free agents this offseason. That leaves Kemoko Turay (608 snaps across three seasons) and Ben Banogu (372 snaps across two seasons) as the two best options currently on the roster. It’s not unreasonable to expect the Colts to look for upgrades at both starting spots this offseason. 

Anthony Walker joins those three defensive linemen as a key contributor who will hit free agency this offseason. Walker has earned a 54.3 PFF grade on over 2,000 defensive snaps as a starter at linebacker over the last three seasons for Indianapolis, but the Colts will return both Leonard and Okereke, who both have plenty of experience. That makes it unlikely that Indianapolis makes Walker a priority with how rarely defenses utilize three off-ball linebackers. 

The big domino in the secondary is Xavier Rhodes after the former Viking revived his career with the Colts in 2020 on a one-year deal. I expect they’ll be reluctant to let him walk, leading to Indianapolis running back the starting trio of Rhodes, Ya-Sin and Moore. 

Blackmon and Willis figure to remain the starting safety tandem with Malik Hooker entering free agency off an injury, as well.  

Do the Colts bring back any of their free agent edge defenders or start fresh at the position?

There is every reason to expect that the Colts will be aggressive in improving the defensive end position over the next few months. General manager Chris Ballard has shown that he emphasizes play in the trenches. It’s hard to see them going into next season with either Kemoko Turay or Ben Banogu starting at defensive end, given that philosophy. 

Of Justin Houston, Denico Autry and Al-Quadin Muhammad, Muhammad seems the most likely player for the Colts to try to bring back given his age and starting experience. 

This is a relatively strong free agent crop of edge defenders. Indianapolis could be aggressive in pursuing some of the higher-end options out there in what will be a buyer’s market as other teams attempt to cut costs to get under the 2021 salary cap. Edge defender is also a real option for the Colts in the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft. I’d be surprised if they don’t add competition through both the draft and in free agency. 

Why is it unlikely that Xavier Rhodes leaves Indianapolis?

Before the 2020 season, I explored why the Colts were one of the best landing spots for Rhodes to get his career back on track. That’s exactly what he did with Indianapolis in 2020, earning a 78.9 coverage grade and allowing just 51% of the passes into his coverage to be completed. He’s a strong fit for the kind of coverages that Indianapolis wants to run while showing a willingness to mix it up in the run game and tackle.

Following that season, it’s hard to see the Colts deciding to part ways with the eight-year vet. Outside of Kenny Moore, there aren’t many “sure things” at the cornerback position for Indianapolis. Even though the Colts have the cap space to explore other options, why mess with a good thing?

Can Rock Ya-Sin rebound from a disappointing 2020 season?

Ya-Sin’s second season in the NFL is another reason why the Colts need to re-sign Rhodes. It was far from a campaign that provides promise for the former second-round pick heading into Year 3. Ya-Sin saw his overall grade drop from 65.3 as a rookie to 49.9 in 2020, taking hits to each of his run-defense, tackling and coverage grades.

Ya-Sin missed time with both illness and a concussion last season, but he also found himself in reduced roles at times due to poor play. Penalties have been a big problem for the Temple product. Ya-Sin’s 15 penalties over the past two years are a top-10 mark among all cornerbacks, and he hasn’t shown the playmaking ability to offset those mistakes. Indianapolis will be hoping for more from him in 2021.   

Potential targets at open spots

Edge defender: Jadeveon Clowney, Carl Lawson, Patrick Jones

This would be the third AFC South stop for Clowney should he sign with Indianapolis after multiple years spent with the Houston Texans and several games with the Tennessee Titans last season. He may actually be undervalued this offseason given injuries in recent years and a lack of sack production. Clowney profiles as a high-end run defender off the edge while still getting to the quarterback on a regular basis with pressure. 

Lawson is much more of a pure pass-rushing option for Indianapolis with subpar play against the run throughout his career. That said, he may be the best pass-rusher available this offseason. Lawson earned a career-high 84.9 pass-rushing grade in 2020, and he’s graded above 75.0 as a pass-rusher in three of his first four NFL seasons. 

Jones is a potential Day 2 edge target for Indianapolis, coming off a second-team all-American performance this past season. He earned PFF grades of at least 75.0 in each of the past three years and has an ideal frame to play the position. Jones just has to get stronger once he gets to the NFL to make the most of his pass-rushing repertoire.

Linebacker: Anthony Walker, Ernest Jones 

As I touched on earlier, linebacker shouldn’t be a priority for Indianapolis. Walker could come back on a cheaper deal, or the Colts could look to add depth later in the draft. Jones is one player in the latter category. He is the kind of sure tackler with the length that the Colts like to target off-ball, and his ability to close on players in pursuit makes him a solid fit as a depth piece for Indianapolis behind Leonard and Okereke. 

Cornerback: Xavier Rhodes, Quinton Dunbar, Ifeatu Melifonwu

There is no reason for Indianapolis not to bring back Rhodes this offseason after the year he had in 2020. However, two other names to monitor are Dunbar and Melifonwu. 

Dunbar is the type of long zone cornerback who would fit well in Indianapolis, and he could be had at a discount after a disappointing year with the Seattle Seahawks. Another bonus to this fit is that Dunbar has missed just 13 tackles in 188 opportunities throughout his six-year career.  

Similarly, Melifonwu does not lack for size, length or athleticism. His bottom line in the PFF Draft Guide reads, “Melifonwu has unicorn physical ability. Can you coach him to be a little more domineering?” With the right coaching, he could be a decent bet on the part of Indianapolis at the cornerback position.  

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