When it comes to NFL salary cap, Colts have tons of space and noticeable imbalance


Colts GM Chris Ballard

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – We’ve beaten the drum so often, you undoubtedly know the refrain by heart.

Sing along.

The Colts have the most cap space in the NFL heading into free agency.

We’ve got nothing to rhyme it with, but it’s still catchy. And true.

With the NFL’s veteran free-agent market set to open Wednesday, general manager Chris Ballard is sitting with a league-high $102 million in salary cap space. The New York Jets are next at $92.9 million, according to the NFLPA.

We’re not here to counsel Ballard on how best to invest owner Jim Irsay’s money. We’ve already dabbled in that (legitimate pass rush threat, suitable sidekick for Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton, help at cornerback and maybe safety).

What’s interesting is scanning the Colts’ salary cap structure and realizing they’ve got some work to do in terms of balancing their cap budget. Because of the roster he inherited in January 2017, Ballard is dealing with one of the NFL’s most lopsided salary structures.

Consider the offense vs. defense split the Colts have invested in talent under contract for 2019: $96.6 million on offense, $38.8 million on defense.

That’s a direct byproduct of the Colts possessing top-end talent at marquee positions who are operating under second contracts, and fielding a young defense. The top three players on the cap hit list are quarterback Andrew Luck ($27 million), Hilton ($15 million) and left tackle Anthony Castonzo ($11 million).

It’s worth noting Castonzo, who turns 31 in August, is entering the final year of the four-year, $43.8 million extension he signed in 2015. Another mega-deal is in his future.

That will be the first of the monster dominoes to fall. Hilton is signed through 2020 and Luck through 2021. Ballard also must plan ahead for possible new deals for tight end Jack Doyle, signed through ’19, and center Ryan Kelly, whose four-year rookie deal includes an option that takes him through ’20.

Even though Luck, Hilton and Castonzo should continue to reside at the top-end of Indy’s pay scale, the offense vs. defense gap needs to narrow. And it should providing Ballard and his personnel staff have been on target with some of their draft picks (Malik Hooker, Quincy Wilson, Anthony Walker, Darius Leonard, Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay).

That’s the key to cap balance: hitting on draft picks, re-signing them to second contracts and using the free-agent market to address short-term issues. The Colts’ inability to bring in adequate defensive talent through the draft has been glaring and contributed to the offense vs. defense financial disparity.

One of the team’s free-agents-to-be is safety Clayton Geathers, a 2015 fifth-round draft. Ballard wants to re-sign him, but it’s not a given and Geathers might test his value on the open market next week.

The last Colts’ draft pick to sign a second deal? Fili Moala, a 2009 second-rounder, who signed a pair of one-year deals after his rookie contract expired.

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