As Colts consider free agency, two words of advice: ‘caveat emptor’

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Colts GM Chris Ballard

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Two words as the NFL’s quick-fix option opened for business Monday: caveat emptor.

Let the buyer beware.

Yes, there are attractive, high-profile names on the veteran free-agent market as the Indianapolis Colts and 31 other teams look to spend, spend and spend some more to address roster deficiencies. Andrew Norwell. Allen Robinson. Jimmy Graham. Malcolm Butler. Muhammad Wilkerson. Dion Lewis. Sammy Watkins. And then there’s the potential pick-your-QB category: Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, etc.

But again, caveat emptor.

As the Colts have discovered, too often the veteran free-agent market is a modern-day Siren’s song. It lures a team – and its checkbook – only to leave it smashed against the rocks.

Among the deserved criticisms of former general manager Ryan Grigson was investing heavily in other teams’ castoffs only to be left with a shell of the player(s) he anticipated. From 2012-16, the Colts doled out more than $140 million in guarantees to more than two dozen veteran free agents.

Let’s just say owner Jim Irsay didn’t receive the expected and required returns on his massive investments. There were some quality acquisitions (Erik Walden, Frank Gore, D’Qwell Jackson, Cory Redding, Matt Hasselbeck). But there were too many busts, especially from players who received the heftiest contracts (Art Jones, LaRon Landry, Andre Johnson, Gosder Cherilus).

Here’s where we remind you the deals for Jones, Landry, Johnson and Cherilus included a staggering $56.6 million in guarantees.

Will that change with Chris Ballard sitting in the GM’s office? We’ll see. But the early returns not only are encouraging, but also seem to offer a template for how he views free agency.

Last January, Ballard inherited a depleted roster that forced him to be a heavy participant on the open market. He signed 12 veterans to contracts that included roughly $35 million in guarantees, but the vast majority of the deals were front-loaded. The only guaranteed money for 2018 went to defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins — $4.5 million of his $7.5 million base becomes guaranteed within the week – to limit the damage on any misses.

If the mood struck him or the on-field performance warranted, Ballard could walk away from each of last offseason’s free agents with no lingering impact.

However, nine of his 12 free-agent pickups contributed, many at a high level: Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, Hankins, Jon Bostic, Barkevious Mingo, Margus Hunt, Al Woods, Brandon Williams, Kamar Aikens.

That brings us to round two for Ballard.

Again, he’s overseeing a roster that needs help at virtually every position: Wide receiver. Offensive line. Inside linebacker. Running back. Tight end. Cornerback.

And he knows it.

“At every position we have work to do,’’ Ballard said at the team’s recent town hall with season ticket holders.

He added the plan is to “supplement’’ roster building through free agency. But Ballard also has made it clear he has little or no interest in overpaying for talent.

The Colts won’t “pay a mid-level player ‘blue’ money…top-of-the line, high dollars for a guy that is not going to give us that type of production,’’ he said.

Where does that leave the franchise with free agency once again upon us? Teams are allowed to negotiate with pending free agents, but deals cannot be finalized until 4 p.m. Wednesday.

The Colts have the resources to fix a lot of what ails them. They have the third-most cap space heading into free agency – approximately $72 million – and an owner more than willing to sign checks.

We don’t expect Ballard to be the heavy shopper he was 12 months ago, and it would be totally out of character for him to offer over-the-top money to a guard (Andrew Norwell might command $13-14 million per season) or wide receiver (Allen Robinson might get $12-13 million annually).

During the Grigson years, the Colts were one of those teams that did whatever it took to keep a visiting free agent from leaving the building to make that next trip. That generally meant overpaying.

Ballard showed restraint last year. Dontari Poe visited and left without a deal, and subsequently signed a one-year, $8 million deal with Atlanta.

We’re in favor of Ballard aggressively going after more mid-level talent. Dallas linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who developed under first-time coordinator Matt Eberflus, would step in immediately as the starting inside ‘backer. Cowboys defensive end Benson Mayowa also should be explored. With Robinson and Sammy Watkins in the “blue’’ money category, how about Seattle wideout Paul Richardson or Jacksonville’s Marqise Lee?

But as Ballard wades into the free-agent market, some unsolicited advice:

Caveat emptor.

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