INDIANAPOLIS – There should be no lack of individual motivation as everyone strives for collective success.
Two words: contract year.
Stay on the field and make a difference for a team that’s made significant personnel moves aimed returning to the postseason, and perhaps the Indianapolis Colts will consider you part of their future.
That was the case with left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who opted to return for at least a 10th season and was rewarded with a two-year, $33 million extension in March.
“It would really hurt to lose a player like him, not just a player but such an incredible teammate,’’ center Ryan Kelly said during a Wednesday Zoom conference call. “A 10-year vet in the offensive line room is so crucial.
“Having 74 at the left tackle position is going to give us the best edge to win games. I couldn’t be happier he’s back.’’
That checked off just one item on Chris Ballard’s “To Do’’ list in regards to dealing with his own. However, another was added earlier this month when the Colts declined to pick up the fifth-year option of 2017 first-round draft pick Malik Hooker.
While so much of the COVID-19 pandemic-impacted offseason is about using a virtual platform to prepare for the 2020 season, several players – significant players – can be excused for occasionally wondering if the upcoming season will be their last in Indy, or if there’s more to come.
The list of players who’ll be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season includes Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, T.Y. Hilton, Marlon Mack, Justin Houston, Denico Autry, Zach Pascal, Grover Stewart, Sheldon Day, Xavier Rhodes, T.Y. Carrie and Trey Burton.
And it includes Kelly and Anthony Walker.
Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Last week, Hilton addressed the issue.
“I mean, I want to be a Colt for life, but it takes two sides,’’ he said. “It is up to Mr. (Jim) Irsay and Chris to get the job done.
“So for me, I want to be a Colt. You heard it from me.’’
Wednesday, we heard it from Kelly and Walker.
Each echoed Hilton’s sentiments.
“I would like to play my entire career in Indianapolis,’’ Kelly said.
Added Walker: “I’d love to play in Indy forever, but that’s not up to me.’’
Kelly said his agent, Jimmy Sexton – he also happens to represent Rivers – has had “a few conversations with Chris so far. I don’t know if any numbers have been thrown around yet.’’
Kelly, a 2016 first-round pick who turns 27 May 30, is the anchor for one of the NFL’s premier offensive lines. He started all 16 games for the first time in his career last season, and the Colts followed his lead by starting the same five linemen for the first time since 2000.
Kelly has a guaranteed 2020 base salary of $10.35 million. A multi-year contract paying him commensurate to a top-10 center would average $10-11 million annually.
He could do worse than use Frank Reich as a positive influence in contract negotiations.
“Ryan’s been great,’’ Reich said Monday. “When I first got the job here a couple of years ago, he was one of the first players I met, and I remember talking to Chris Ballard afterwards saying . . . ‘If we are going to go where we want to go as an offense, then Ryan Kelly is going to have to step up and be an alpha dog.’
“Man, I didn’t realize how much of an alpha dog he is. He has been top-notch. I mean this guy has taken complete control of the offensive line room as far as the calls, what we do in the protection world and the run game.
“I think Ryan breeds confidence. Everyone talks about Quenton (Nelson), and Quenton, he is our inspirational leader in many respects. But don’t underestimate the kind of leadership Ryan is bringing. It is really several of those guys bringing that kind of leadership that is going to take us where we want to go.’’
Kelly is in line to work with a third different primary starting QB: Andrew Luck in 2016 and ’18, Jacoby Brissett in ’17 and ’19, and now Rivers. He’s doing as much as possible to acclimate himself with Rivers during the Colts’ virtual offseason.
“When I first got here working with Andrew, I got thrown in day 1 to a guy who knew cadence like the back of his hand,’’ Kelly said. “Obviously working with Jacoby throughout the years, too, you just kind of adapt to that over time.
“That’s the hard part about this corona thing is not being able to get out there and get live reps with (Rivers’) certain cadences that he likes to do.’’
As much as possible, Reich has been using Zoom to simulate the calling of a play and its execution.
“If you visualize it enough over and over, you get used to it,’’ Kelly said. “As far as his cadence and his presence in the huddle, it’s obviously going to be paramount that we get that down and I think we’re doing a good job.’’
No sooner had Ballard signed Rivers to a one-year, $25 million contract than Kelly began getting feedback from friends who had played with Rivers in San Diego and Los Angeles.
“My phone was blowing up,’’ he said. “Like, ‘Dude, you’re going to love him. He’s a great guy, great teammate.’ Obviously you don’t play this long at such a high level in this league without being a smart player and knowing certain defenses and how to be successful.
“In just the little interaction we’ve had via Zoom or text message, he just seems like he’s all-in, and that’s an incredible feeling to have.’’
Walker’s offseason approach mirrors Kelly’s. He’s maximizing the Colts’ Zoom meetings and working out in Florida with new teammate Xavier Rhodes.
Everything is being done with the 2020 season in mind. Walker has started 30 games the last two seasons and piled up a career-best and team-high 123 tackles in 2019. He topped close friend Darius Leonard by 2 tackles.
But Walker also is aware another solid season with a still-developing defense could increase the possibility of him returning for 2021 and beyond.
“That’s not up to me,’’ he said of an extension. “I’d love to be in Indy forever, but that’s not up to me. I’ll go out there, execute and do my job and hopefully it all works out that way.’’
What’s in a number?
Walker has switched from No. 50 to No. 54, which allowed normalcy for Houston and Buckner. Houston wore 99 in his first season with the Colts, but is back to the familiar 50 he wore for eight seasons in Kansas City. That enabled Buckner to claim 99, his number in San Francisco.
“I was happy to see those guys get the numbers they’ve always had in their careers,’’ Walker said. “It’s cool. I love guys feeling comfortable with their numbers.
“I like being 54 now.’’
Normally, a veteran player is compensated when he gives up his number.
“We’ll keep that in-house between us three, so that’s cool,’’ Walker said with a smile.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.