All-Pro DeForest Buckner: ‘Last time we’ll have the 2020 Colts’

Colts

Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (99) and Indianapolis Colts defensive end Denico Autry (96) stand in the defensive huddle during an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

INDIANAPOLIS – The sting of the loss that sent him into the offseason still was fresh. So was a harsh reality.

Change, perhaps significant change, awaits an Indianapolis Colts franchise that DeForest Buckner now calls home.

“This is the last time we’ll have the 2020 Colts,’’ he said shortly after Saturday’s 27-24 wild-card playoff loss at Buffalo. “This team won’t be here next year. We’ll have some moving parts.

“Yeah, we’ll have some guys back, but there will be some guys that’ll move on and go to other teams. We’ll never get this opportunity with this team ever again.’’

That’s life in the NFL. It’s a cruel business. A competent general manager must define his core players and do everything possible to retain them. And he must determine how best to surround that core with a solid supporting cast that’s capable of making a serious run to the Super Bowl and a world championship.

Listen to Mo Alie-Cox, who’ll be a restricted free agent.

“I was telling one of our rookies (Saturday), ‘Just look around. It’s not going to be the same next year,’’’ he said on a Sunday Zoom conference call. “I said, ‘I’ve been here for four years now, and there’s only like four or five players here from my first day in the building.’’’

The turnover hasn’t been that dramatic – there are about a dozen Colts who were in the building at the time – but Alie-Cox’s point was clear.

Things change.

As general manager Chris Ballard, coach Frank Reich and their personnel staff sift through what contributed to an 11-5 season that was good enough to earn a wild-card berth but still resulted in a one-and-done playoff experience, they’ll have to deal with that complicated question that dominates every offseason.

Who stays? Who goes? How do the Colts budget their projected cap space – roughly $58 million, according to Overthecap.com, which is 4th-most in the league – to position themselves for a more successful 2021? A reduced salary cap because of the COVID-19 pandemic further complicates things.

Consider:

  • nine starters from Saturday’s game have expiring contracts, including five on defense. The latter group: ends Justin Houston and Denico Autry, linebacker Anthony Walker and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie.
  • the only QB under roster for 2021: Jacob Eason. Philip Rivers is working on a one-year, $25 million contract. Backup Jacoby Brissett is in the final year of that $30 million extension he was given on the aftermath of Andrew Luck’s retirement.
  • Rivers and the Colts have approached their relationship as a likely two-year affair, but Ballard and Reich must explore if there are better options. If there is, it won’t be a cheap option. For his part, an emotional Rivers made it clear after his 17th season ended in Orchard Park, N.Y. that he and his family will pray over the best course moving forward.
  • free agency looms for T.Y. Hilton. The third-most prolific wideout in team history sought an extension prior to the season, but that never materialized. Now, he’s a 31-year old coming off a 56-catch, 762-yard season during which he largely was healthy. Is even a modest extension worth it?
  • might left tackle Anthony Castonzo mull retirement for a second straight offseason? He signed a two-year, $33 million extension in March, but the fact he considered walking away once should have everyone on alert. Castonzo, 32, saw his 10th season end with surgery on his right ankle in late December.
  • will Ballard be able to massage the cap enough to work out extensions for All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard and perhaps right tackle Braden Smith? Each has out-performed his rookie contract. Neither extension would be cheap.
  • if we’re prioritizing personnel with a team that values being stout on the offensive and defensive lines, what to do with Autry and Houston? The interior of the d-line is in the hands of DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart, but the outside pass rush is sketchy at best if Houston and Autry don’t return. Houston has a team-high 19 sacks and 30 QB hits in two seasons, but turns 32 on Tuesday. Autry has generated 20 sacks, 31 QB hits and 26 tackles for loss in three seasons.
  • other players with expiring contracts who saw action against the Bills include Walker, Alie-Cox, left tackle Jared Veldheer, Zach Pascal, All-Pro special teams standout George Odom, tight end Trey Burton and end Al-Quadin Muhammad.
  • then there are Colts on the mend from serious injury: running back Marlon Mack, safety Malik Hooker, backup tackle Le’Raven Clark. Their leverage heading into free agency was severely lessened by season-ending Achilles injuries.

Walker has been a defensive mainstay. The 2017 fifth-round pick has started 50 of a possible 51 games the past three seasons and led the team with 123 tackles in ‘19, but his playing time ebbed a bit this season with the emergence of Bobby Okereke.

He wants to return but understands difficult decisions loom.

“Definitely the business we’re in,’’ Walker said. “It’s a tough business, but I’ve made some great relationships over here in Indy. Love these guys to death.’’

His preference is to remain with the franchise that drafted him.

“I’ve created a great group of friends here, great dynamic in the locker room with pretty much everybody, the coaches, everybody,’’ he said. “Again, that’s not my decision or anything like that.

“We’ll see how everything goes and cross that bridge when we get there.’’

Roster moves

The team signed wideout Ashton Dulin and defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth to one-year extensions.

Signed to reserve/future contracts: running back Darius Anderson, safety Ibraheim Campbell, cornerback Andre Chachere, defensive tackle Kameron Cline, wideout Quartney Davis, guard Jake Eldrenkamp, tight end Farrod Green, guard Sam Jones, offensive tackle Carter O’Donnell, running back Paul Perkins, punter Austin Rehkow, cornerback Will Sunderland, cornerback Roderic Teamer, tight end Andrew Vollert, defensive tackle Chris Williams and defensive tackle Rob Windsor.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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