INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – As a Season That Could Have Been So Much More was reaching its disappointing end, players roamed the Indianapolis Colts locker room. They carried footballs, jerseys and a Sharpie.
That was especially true Dec. 30, or Exit Day.
It was 24 hours after the numbing 38-20 loss at Jacksonville that ended the death spiral. The 7-9 Colts, the one-time 5-2 Colts, were sharing hugs and goodbyes. The offseason beckoned.
The last bit of business was having this teammate or that teammate sign that football or that jersey. As everyone knew, things wouldn’t be the same when the team reconvened in mid-April for the start of the 2020 offseason workouts.
That was reinforced when Chris Ballard addressed the players on Exit Day.
“Like I told our team,’’ he said a few days later, “when time’s like this happen, change occurs. It’s going to be the last time when we met the other day that this team is going to be together because there’s change every year.’’
Case in point: of the 68 players on the roster at the end of 2018, including 15 on injured reserve, 21 were not around for the ’19 opener. That’s a turnover rate of 30.1 percent, which probably is the norm across the NFL.
“To sit here and say that and act like we’re not going to have turnover on the roster, that would have been being dishonest to them because that’s not where we’re at right now,’’ Ballard said.
Right now, the Colts aren’t good enough. And that goes well beyond quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
Ballard’s head dropped when he considered the personnel shortcomings that contributed to the unsuccessful season.
“It guts me. It pissed me off to be honest with you,’’ he said. “I’m pissed at myself for not giving our coaching staff enough depth during this season because we had a real opportunity to do some pretty cool things this year and I didn’t do my job good enough to give them enough depth for us to succeed.
“That bothers me.’’
Here’s where it must be noted there’s only so much a GM can do in building a playoff-worthy roster. On Sept. 1, no one was doubting the top-to-bottom integrity of the wide receivers room or the cornerback group. Of course, that changed when injuries ravaged both positions.
To us, the most glaring omission was not having the required depth at pass rush when an ankle injury ended Kemoko Turay’s season in week 5 in Kansas City. But again, there are limits to how a GM can prepare for the unexpected.
Having said that, the first order of business for Ballard, Frank Reich and their support staff is bolstering the roster and dealing with the inevitable changes.
The Colts already addressed a few players by signing wideout Zach Pascal, placekicker Chase McLaughlin and tight end Mo Alie-Cox to one-year extensions. Ballard also signed 14 players to reserve/future contracts, including defensive end Gerri Green, a 2019 sixth-round draft pick.
Next up: which veterans with expiring contracts merit re-signing. Here’s a look at the major free-agents-to-be:
- Age: 47
- Experience: 24 seasons; 365 regular-season games, 2,673 points, most in NFL history.
Vinatieri not only is coming off the worst season of his decorated career – 14 missed kicks, several that were game-changers – but also underwent surgery on his left knee to repair meniscus and patellar tendon issues that contributed to his erratic kicking. At this point, his future is uncertain.
“Hopefully we’ve got another chapter left,’’ he said. “I’m not going to say I’m, done. I’m not going to say I’m not. We’ll cross that road when we get there.’’
Ballard already has Vinatieri’s possible heir apparent in place. McLaughlin, a rookie, converted 16-of-17 kicks, including 5-of-7 field goals, over the final three games. The Colts have signed Vinatieri to six contracts since 2006, but it’s hard to imagine a seventh.
“We’ll let him rehab his knee and see where he’s at,’’ Ballard said.
LT ANTHONY CASTONZO
- Age: 31
- Experience: 9 seasons; 140 starts, including the postseason.
Castonzo offered up a humongous curveball when he revealed he’s considering retirement rather than re-upping with the Colts. “Personal reasons,’’ he said. Trust us, this is not a negotiations ploy. Castonzo had shared his retirement thoughts with teammates. This has been on his mind.
If he decides to continue to playing, the Colts will pay whatever it takes. That might be something in the $14-16 million per season range. If not, well, Ballard suddenly has another major offseason issue staring him in the face.
Naturally, he hopes Castonzo opts to return.
“I hold Anthony Castonzo in high, high regard,’’ he said. “Since I walked in the door, Anthony Castonzo has played at a really high level at left tackle. I can’t believe people are just now starting to recognize it.
“We’ll see. Anthony and I will be in touch here over the next two or three weeks and he’ll make a decision . . . if he decides to retire, then it’s our job to find an answer.’’
TE ERIC EBRON
- Age: 26
- Experience: 6 seasons; 83 games, 47 as a starter . . . 283 receptions, 3,195 yards, 27 touchdowns.
Ballard offered more than 10,000 words in last week’s State of the Colts. Four words summed up Ebron’s future with the Colts: “We’ll probably move on.’’
Spin it however you like, but the Colts weren’t happy with Ebron’s decision to undergo season-ending ankle surgery after the Nov. 21 loss at Houston. It probably was a business decision for him, but left the team hanging.
DE JABAAL SHEARD
- Age: 30
- Experience: 9 seasons, the last 3 in Indy; 45 games, 44 starts with the Colts . . . 127 tackles, 15.5 sacks, 36 QB hits, 27 tackles for loss.
This is a tough one. Give us a vote, and Sheard returns even though he turns 31 in March. Ballard lamented the lack of veteran leadership in the locker room last season. He mentioned the absence of Al Woods and Mike Mitchell. Sheard is veteran leadership personified. Also, he’s been a solid, albeit under-the-radar player.
It was hard to determine if Ballard was offering a parting Atta Boy to Sheard last week, or evidence why he should return.
“What a pro. What a pro,’’ he said. “He’s everything you want a player to be in terms of being a pro. We haven’t made any decisions yet on who we’re bringing back and who we’re not. But I hold Jabaal Sheard – wherever his future may be – in high regard.’’
WR DEVIN FUNCHESS
- Age: 25
- Experience: 5 seasons; 62 games . . . First season with Colts ended in 4th quarter of opener against the Chargers . . . had three catches for 32 yards.
This could be interesting. The Colts clearly liked what they saw with Inman when they signed him to a one-year, $10 million deal. He’s got intriguing size at 6-4, 232 pounds. Any chance of him being a suitable complement to T.Y. Hilton ended in the opener when he shattered his left clavicle. The injury never healed sufficiently.
“We’ll have some visits,’’ Ballard said. “He cares. We’ll see how it works out.’
S CLAYTON GEATHERS
- Age: 27
- Experience: 5 seasons; 54 games, 32 as a starter.
The Colts brought him back with a one-year, $2.75 million deal that reflected his inability to stay on the field in his first four seasons. Geathers was available this year – 15 games, 10 starts – but this might have been his least impactful season. The team clearly likes Khari Willis and George Odom is a solid rotational player to go with Malik Hooker.
We aren’t ruling out Geathers returning, especially after Ballard stressed the importance of a veteran presence in the locker room. If that occurs, the new deal would be very Colts-friendly.
OL JOE HAEG
- Age: 26
- Experience: 4 seasons; 55 games, 35 starts
The 2016 fifth-round draft pick was on the field for just 75 of 1,077 offensive plays, and 35 came against Carolina when Quenton Nelson was sidelined with a concussion. But Haeg brings value as a reliable backup. He started 29 games his first two seasons and has the versatility to play all five positions.
The Colts’ starting offensive line was intact for all 16 games for the first time since 2000, but we don’t anticipate Ballard allowing the depth to deteriorate.
OT LE’RAVEN CLARK
- Age: 26
- Experience: 4 seasons; 35 games, 12 starts.
Clark was inactive 13 games, active but did not play in the other three. But again, he brings value as a backup. Maybe Ballard finds someone he likes better. Until then, you stick with Clark.
WR CHESTER ROGERS
- Age: 26
- Experience: 4 seasons; 53 games, 22 starts.
The knee-jerk reaction has Ballard moving on from Rogers, wanting an upgrade on Rogers, especially after Rogers suffered a season-ending fractured knee. And especially after Nyheim Hines replaced Rogers on punt returns and set the world on fire. It’s doubtful Rogers would have made the final roster cut last season had it not been for him earning the punt return duties.
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