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Colts have issues, and adequate salary-cap room to address them

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Tackle Anthony Castonzo #74 of the Indianapolis Colts looks on against the New York Jets during a preseason game at MetLife Stadium on August 7, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (February 16, 2016) – A projected bump in the NFL’s salary cap had to be met with an approving nod at the Indianapolis Colts’ northwest side headquarters.

The team heads into the offseason with several significant personnel decisions that will require owner Jim Irsay to be generous with his checkbook – a new deal for Andrew Luck, retaining a few players whose contracts expire March 9, doing some selective shopping on the veteran free-agent market – and any increase in the salary cap would have been welcomed.

According to NFL Network, the salary cap for 2016 is expected to be approximately $155 million, an increase of $12 million from ’15. Teams will be informed of the firm number in early March.

Using the $155 million figure and not taking into account any possible adjustments based on salary cap space room from 2015 that wasn’t used, the Colts have about $24.6 million in cap space, according to Overthecap.com.

That cap space ranks in the middle of the pack. The Jacksonville Jaguars ($79.8 million) and Oakland Raiders ($76.9 million) are lavish with cap space, while the New England Patriots ($5.8 million), New Orleans Saints ($2.9 million) and Buffalo Bills ($209,715) have serious budget issues.

Of course, all of that can and will change.

We expect the Colts to create additional cap space by lopping off several veterans who haven’t lived up to their existing contracts. They would free up more than $12 million by parting ways with wide receiver Andre Johnson ($5 million) and linebackers Trent Cole ($6.125 million) and Bjoern Werner ($1.48 million).

If the Colts want to go to the extreme – we would advise against it – they could add more cap space by terminating the contracts of linebackers Erik Walden ($4 million) and D’Qwell Jackson ($5.25 million). And just so it’s out there, jettisoning linebacker Robert Mathis – again, we would strongly protest such a move – would free up another $5 million.

One factor armchair GMs must keep in mind when rearranging the roster by getting rid of aging/high-priced players: it might be more expensive to replace them, and there’s no guarantee it would result in the desired upgrade.

Regardless how the Colts’ cap situation plays out, they will have the wherewithal to improve a roster that desperately needs it. The offensive line remains a mess, there’s no legitimate pass-rush threat besides Mathis, Vontae Davis needs help at cornerback and linebacker becomes a priority if Jerrell Freeman doesn’t return and Jackson is let go.

The Colts have been active in the pricey free-agent market the past three seasons. There were a few hits (Walden, Jackson, Frank Gore, Kendall Langford), but too many costly misses (Gosder Cherilus, LaRon Landry, Donald Thomas, Johnson, Cole).

Contracts for Cherilus, Landry, Thomas, Johnson and Cole involved more than $58 million in guarantees. And while Cherilus was released last July, he’ll still count $5.8 million in dead money against the ’16 cap. Ouch.

Look for the Colts’ approach this offseason to change. After talking with Irsay, we’re expecting them to be more selective in their shopping. He mentioned the expected restrictions created last year when the team signed wide receiver T.Y. Hilton to a five-year, $65 million extension and offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo to a four-year, $43.6 million extension.

And let’s not forget the priority of signing Luck to an extension that likely will make him the NFL’s highest-paid player. He currently carries the team’s heftiest cap number at $16.155 million. A new deal undoubtedly will average at least $20 million per season and involve – pick a number – $50-60 million in guarantees.

“The first aspect is who can you retain on your own football team,’’ Irsay said. “Once you get that answered, that changes your thinking some.

“But with T.Y.’s contract, with Castonzo’s contract, with Andrew’s contract potentially coming in… this is going to be a little more difficult. When you look at those restraints that start coming on you more, it’s a different atmosphere.’’

Irsay emphasized it’s going to be imperative for general manager Ryan Grigson, coach Chuck Pagnao and the team’s personnel staff to effectively evaluate the free-agent market.

“If we can fill some needs, get a key starter or get someone that’s a key backup on either side of the ball, it’s really going to be that,’’ he said.

“When we look at free agency, there will be two phases. The (first) is right when the doors open and targeting some guys that we think are critical. Then after the draft when we realize who we have . . . (it’s adding) guys late that still have been important contributors, guys like Mike Adams and (Dwight) Lowery.’’

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