With Colts, a look at what might help fix this mess

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 03: Jacoby Brissett #7 of the Indianapolis Colts throws the football in the second half of their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on December 3, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Soon, it all will be over.

You know what we’re talking about. Blowing second-half leads. Testing the mettle of a 24-year old quarterback on a weekly basis. Making Blake Bortles look like the second coming of Joe Montana.

Soon, ownership, management, players and an Indianapolis Colts fan base whose demeanor seemingly has digressed from frustration to anger to indifference can reflect on this forgettable season rather than endure it.

In one month, we’ll write the postscript on a franchise that suffered its first losing season since 2011 and has posted three consecutive non-winning records for the first time in more than a quarter-century.

Until then, the Colts will carry on. The alternatives are not acceptable.

“What are you going to do? Lay down?’’ Chuck Pagano asked after Sunday’s 30-10 loss to Bortles and Jacksonville Sunday.

But while everyone inside the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center has tunnel vision – that would be Sunday’s road test against the Buffalo Bills – we’ll take a different approach.

We’re looking ahead. As bad as things are, general manager Chris Ballard should have the resources to address much of what ails the roster.

We purposely are avoiding the elephant in the room – Andrew Luck’s status – because we misplaced our crystal ball. If the right shoulder issues that kept him out this year spill into ’18, the struggles in all likelihood will continue. If Luck returns to form, we would expect a quick turnaround.

Also, there’s the possibility/likelihood owner Jim Irsay and Ballard will cut ties with Pagano at the end of the season. Pagano was kept when Irsay fired general manager Ryan Grigson in January and is under contract through 2019. However, Irsay made it clear he and Ballard would evaluate Pagano throughout the season.

A look at some of the non-Luck/Pagano factors that will impact whether the Colts can put this frustrating season behind them, regain the trust of their fan base and return to playoff contender.

2018 opponents

Fourteen of next season’s 16 opponents are set, and the pre-set divisional rotation has the Colts dealing with the AFC East and NFC East.

Along with their AFC South meetings with Jacksonville, Houston and Tennessee, the home portion of the Colts’ schedule features Dallas, the New York Giants, Buffalo, Miami and the AFC North opponent that finishes in the same position in the standings (currently Cleveland).

The road opponents, along with the AFC South: the New York Jets, New England, Philadelphia, Washington and the AFC West opponent that aligns with the Colts’ finish in the division (currently Denver).

The 2018 NFL Draft

While more than half of the NFL is jockeying for playoff positioning in December – 19 teams are .500 or better – a handful is dealing with the opposite end of the spectrum. The final month of the season will determine the pecking order at the top of next April’s draft.

That includes the Colts. At 3-9, they’re tied with Chicago and Denver, but are situated No. 4 based on having faced a weaker schedule. The top three: Cleveland (0-11), San Francisco (2-10) and the New York Giants (2-10).

Everyone should circle Dec. 14 on their calendar. That’s when the Broncos visit Lucas Oil Stadium for a Thursday prime-time game. It figures to be a very winnable game for Indy, but would come at a cost in the draft process.

Since 1994, the Colts have “earned’’ a top-4 pick four times. On each occasion, they nailed it: 2012, Andrew Luck (No. 1); ’99, Edgerrin James (No. 4); ’98, Peyton Manning (No. 1); ’94, Marshall Faulk (No. 4).

In case Ballard is paying attention, we’ll suggest he make every effort to find a pass rusher worthy of a top 4-5 pick. Difference-making pass rushers seldom find their way to free agency, and it’s critical for management to add a legitimate pass rusher to the defense.

Cap space

This is a moving target, but all signs point toward Ballard having more than enough cap space in the upcoming offseason to make major renovations. According to overthecap.com, the Colts are projected to have approximately $87 million in cap space, and that could increase. That’s third-most in the league, behind San Francisco ($117 million) and Cleveland ($108 million).

The Colts were one of the heaviest investors in the free agent market last year as Ballard signed a dozen veterans. However, the investments were relatively modest and most essentially were one-year deals.

No one should be surprised if Ballard, backed by owner Jim Irsay’s willingness to pay/overpay for talent, again is ultra-active. And this time, we expect he’ll be more receptive to offering more lucrative contracts to selective free agents.

Our wish list on the free-agent market: 1. Offensive line, 2. Offensive line, 3. Offensive line. Maybe a legit receiver. And an inside linebacker or two. And a running back.

We’re still expecting the draft to add a pass rusher to the mix.

Free agents

The list of Colts whose contracts expire at the end of the season includes Adam Vinatieri, Frank Gore, Rashaan Melvin, Darius Butler, Jack Mewhort, Donte Moncrief, Jon Bostic, Barkevious Mingo, Pierre Desir and Kamar Aiken.

Gore confirmed Monday he has every intention of playing a 14th season, but it’s hard to imagine Ballard including a running back who turns 35 in May in his future plans. Gore wants to finish his Hall of Fame-worth career with a team in position to challenge for a Super Bowl. That isn’t the Colts.

Vinatieri? Why hasn’t management already offered him an extension? He’s 22-of-23 on the season and has converted 92.9 percent of his field goal attempts since 2014 (104-of-112). That’s the best in the league among active players.

Again, if Ballard is open to suggestions, we’re in favor of giving Melvin his big payday and re-signing Desir and Mingo. We’d let Moncrief walk, but bring back Mewhort with a short-term contract that reflects his injury history. Give him a modest base salary and the ability to earn a ton more through per-game incentives.

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