Colts’ personnel decisions follow steady progression

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Jack Doyle #84 of the Indianapolis Colts carries the ball against the New York Jets in the first half during their game at MetLife Stadium on December 5, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The personnel dominoes already have started falling, and will pick up steam as the NFL’s new league year begins March 9.

The Indianapolis Colts’ main move thus far has been to part ways with leading tackler D’Qwell Jackson. Jettisoning the veteran linebacker, though, was just the first step in what promises to be a busy offseason that must strengthen a roster that has too many holes.

To refresh everyone’s memory on the natural progression of the NFL’s personnel calendar:

Addition by subtraction:

Step 1 involves taking a long, hard look at the roster and determining which players no longer are worth their contracts, whether that’s due to age, injury issues or declining performance. Jackson led the Colts in tackles in each of his three seasons, including last year when he was suspended for the final four games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substances policy. But he turns 33 in September and would have counted $5.75 million against the ’17 cap. His release freed up $5.5 million in cap space.

It’s hard to imagine Jackson being the only casualty. The team can free up another $5.15 million by cutting defensive tackle Art Jones, an expensive free-agent acquisition in 2014 who has failed to approach expectations. Cornerback Patrick Robinson ($2.5 million savings), linebacker Akeem Ayers ($2.1 million) and offensive lineman Joe Reitz ($2.4 million) are other possibilities. Even though Reitz’s age (31) and the presence of so many young linemen weigh against him, his experience and ability to start at four spots are serious pluses to keep him.

Re-sign your own: 

The Colts have more than a dozen players whose contracts expire March 9, including six who played integral roles last season. They will make every effort to re-sign their own before veteran free agency opens March 9. Teams can start negotiating with free-agents-to-be March 7.

Over the past five seasons, the Colts have identified their priorities and kept them: Dwayne Allen and Adam Vinatieri last offseason; Darius Butler, Mike Adams and Reitz in ’15; Vontae Davis, Pat McAfee and Vinatieri in ’14; Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis in ’12.

One thing’s a given: if a player hits the open market, there’s little chance of him returning.

From our vantage point, the Colts’ in-house priorities should be: 1) tight end Jack Doyle, 2) Adams or Butler, whichever is considered the better veteran option at safety; neither should be that expensive to retain, 3) running back Robert Turbin, 4) Erik Walden. Doyle will command a fat contract, perhaps in the $6 million per year neighborhood, while Walden will want to cash in on his career-best 11-sack season. The trouble with Walden is the Colts want to get younger on defense, he turns 32 in August and some team probably will be willing to overpay when it looks at his double-digit sack total.

Veteran free agency: 

Again, the market opens March 9 and a pending free agent can begin negotiating with other teams two days earlier. General manager Chris Ballard made it clear he’s not a big fan of veteran free agency.

“You can’t buy a locker room and you have to be very careful when you enter free agency,’’ he said.

However, the defense Ballard inherited is void of difference-making talent and every level – line, linebackers, secondary – must be addressed. Owner Jim Irsay never has shied away from investing in veteran free agents, and while that remains a risky proposition, it’s the quickest way to upgrade the defense.

And here’s where we remind you the Colts have approximately $54 million in cap space, a figure that will grow with every veteran that’s released.

The draft:

The Colts have six picks in the April 27-29 draft, and could pick up a couple of compensatory picks. They shipped their seventh-round pick to Cleveland in 2015 for defensive lineman Billy Winn.

A March 3 coin flip during the NFL Scouting Combine will determine whether the Colts have the 14th or 15th overall pick in the first round. They’re in a deadlock with the Philadelphia Eagles.

College free agents:

This is the mad scramble that follows the seven-round, 256-player draft. As the draft is winding down, teams reach out to players who were on their draft board but weren’t selected for whatever reason.

The Colts have been adept at finding a gem or three, most notably Gary Brackett, Melvin Bullitt, Dominic Rhodes, Terrence Wilkins, Justin Snow, Jon Harrison, Zach Kerr, Chester Rogers.

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