Colts’ busy offseason shouldn’t impair future

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Colts GM Chris Ballard

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Chris Ballard shared the essence of his roster-building philosophy early, and his actions have served to reinforce his convictions.

All avenues will be traveled in returning the Indianapolis Colts’ roster to a championship-caliber level, the first-time general manager insisted. Including free agency.

However, Ballard emphasized, “You can’t buy a locker room. That has to be developed over time.’’

On the surface, the Colts haven’t exactly followed the script. They’ve spent the first two weeks of the NFL’s free-agent signing period on a signing/spending spree. Wide receiver Kamar Aiken, who agreed to a one-year contract Tuesday, is Ballard’s 10th veteran acquisition. Only the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers, with 12 free-agent signings each, have been busier.

But don’t let the daily influx of fresh faces camouflage what’s going on here.

Keep two numbers in mind: $25 million, and zero. We’ll get back to those.

Yes, Ballard is addressing an inherited roster that clearly was deficient.

Yes, he hasn’t been shy investing to address those deficiencies. The Colts entered free agency with nearly $60 million of cap space, and the first eight contracts Ballard doled out – details for Aiken and tight end Brandon Williams aren’t available yet – account for about $28 million of the cap.

Immediate bookkeeping aside, what’s important is the structure of the contracts. Remember: $25 million, and zero.

By all appearances, Ballard isn’t buying a locker room.

He’s buying time. In essence, he’s buying a bridge that will allow his approach – primarily build through the draft – to take root. Five of the 10 newbies agreed to one-year deals. Three others have two-year contracts. Only linebackers Jabaal Sheard and John Simon secured semi-security with three-year contracts.

But again, look a bit deeper.

The flurry of free-agent signings involve about $25 million in guarantees for the 2017 season, including $9.5 million for Sheard and $6 million for Simon.

And zero for 2018.

Unless we’re misreading things, while Ballard is restocking the roster, he’s doing so without compromising the future. Veterans with short-term deals – and zero liability after ’17 – hypothetically allow the Colts to be competitive this season while giving them another year, and another offseason and draft, to further address their personnel.

It’s safe to say this approach is in stark contrast to how the Colts dealt with free agency with former GM Ryan Grigson.

With management committed to striking quickly, the Colts routinely overpaid for high-profile talent. Often, that included ponying up hefty guaranteed money: $16.5 million to offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus, $16 million to defensive tackle Art Jones, $14 million to safety LaRon Landry and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, $10 million to wide receiver Andre Johnson, $8.5 million to defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois, $7.75 million to linebacker Trent Cole, $6.5 million to running back Frank Gore, $6 million to cornerback Patrick Robinson.

Sheard’s guaranteed cash pales by comparison. Of his $7 million base in 2018, $3.25 million becomes guaranteed on the fifth day of the new league year. But the Colts could walk away before that with no lingering damage.

Moreover, the Colts’ total in guarantees this offense – again, about $25 million – is less than three players have received on the open market: Buffalo cornerback Stephon Gilmore ($31 million from New England), Arizona defensive end Calais Campbell ($30 million from Jacksonville) and Houston cornerback A.J. Bouye ($26 million from Jacksonville).

The Colts still have approximately $28 million in cap space and probably aren’t finished shopping. Nose tackle Johnathan Hankins would address a major need on the defensive line and linebacker Zach Brown would represent another projected starter.

What’s clear, though, is Ballard has no intention of compromising the future for instant gratification.

Good for him, and the Colts.

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