With news swirling that a new CBA could be coming within a month, the outlook for the 2011 Indianapolis Colts radically changes.
Until now, many have been operating under the assumption that any restoration of football operations would like like either come from court intervention or in a hurried frenzy to start the season.
Now, with the loss of preseason games looming, it looks like the owners are suddenly keen to negotiate. It makes sense. The loss of preseason football games does not affect the individual players whose contracts don't pay them for preseason football. However, the loss of a week or two of preseason games would massively impact the bottom line for NFL owners. The oddball ruling of the 8th Circuit that gave a tactical but not philosophical win* to the owners coupled with the impending loss of 'free' revenue from the preseason has both sides talking.
*I have to hand it to the 8th Circuit. I don't think their position makes any legal sense at all (the dissenting judge agreed with me), but it seems to have been sufficiently scary to both sides to move forward with talks. I suppose that's the best end at any rate, so kudos to them.
A true resolution to the CBA crisis will have a profound impact on the Indianapolis Colts. It means three things will be true that were previously off the table:
1. The return of the salary cap.
A negotiated CBA almost assuredly means the salary cap will be back for 2011. What we don't know is how canceled contracts from 2010 will count. Will Bob Sanders' dead money hurt the Colts in 2011 or not? The ins and outs of how the cap will be calculated are up in the air, but there will almost definitely be a cap, and the Colts will almost definitely be up against it. The return of the cap could mean the instant departure of Ryan Diem and Kelvin Hayden.
I've been predicting these moves for months, and the word on the street is that only the labor uncertainty saved them last February. If the NFL returns in any kind of normal fashion, however, they will almost certainly be released. Diem's release would save the team over $5 million in cap space. Hayden's would be more complicated as he's slated to make $6.1 million, but still has $8.1 million in outstanding bonuses left to account for.
The salary cap would also create more pressure than ever on Indy to negotiate a long-term deal with Manning. They simply cannot afford to let him play under the franchise tag and eat up $23 million in cap space. A long term deal would free up significant money under the cap, and actually lower his cap number to its lowest total since 2007. The right deal with Manning could free up a lot of resources for the Colts.
2. The loss of restricted tags.
Several Colts were tagged as restricted free agents. Under previous CBAs, restricted rights tags could only be slapped on players who had three or four seasons in the league The 2010 rules (which were tacitly implied moving forward to 2011) called for players with five or fewer season in the league to become restricted rights players. This means that a pair of Colts who would otherwise be free agents were temporarily back in the mix for 2011 as restricted rights free agents: Joseph Addai and Charlie Johnson
The new CBA will almost certainly do away with the restricted tag for players in their fifth season. That renders the tagging of Addai and Johnson meaningless. The Colts could still choose to resign both of these players, however the loss of the restricted tag means they no longer have the right of first refusal nor do they receive any draft compensation from the team that signs them (though they could later get compensation in the form of compensatory picks to be awarded after the 2011 season).
Under 2010 rules, the Colts could have rested secure knowing these players would either be back at the right price or score a nice draft pick in return. Now, the Colts could well lose both players even if they want to retain them.
In the case of Addai, the Colts have serious questions about his neck and long term health. Signing him to long term free agent deal simply makes no sense. If he's an unrestricted free agent, I do not expect him to return to Indianapolis. The selection of Delone Carter in the 4th round makes retention of Addai a luxury.
Charlie Johnson is a quality player and backup, and could well be brought back for the right price. He's not a quality starting NFL tackle, however, so if he leaves in free agency, the compensatory pick could well be more valuable.
3. Potential Free Agents
The flip side of the loss of restricted tags is that suddenly other players that were once difficult for the Colts to target could suddenly be available. The Colts have never been particularly active in the free agent market, but in a shortened and chaotic market, Indy could well spot an opportunity to upgrade the team. The two areas to keep an eye on are offensive tackle (especially if Diem is released) and safety.
A veteran tackle could fill in until Ijalana is ready to start, and potentially give the Colts all the more reason to let Johnson walk.
Safety remains a need even if Melvin Bullitt is retained. A top option like Eric Weddle could prove to costly (in terms of draft picks and dollars) for Indianapolis, but someone will need to be brought in to help provide depth, even if he isn't a top line player.
With any luck at all, the month of July should be an exciting one for NFL fans. A new CBA just before training camps open will create a perfect storm of front office insanity. The Colts will have to sign Manning, sign all the draft picks, sign undrafted free agents, cut players like Hayden and Diem and sign players on the free agent market all in the span of two or three weeks. The resulting chaos will be an opportunity for the smartest, best organized clubs to pounce. There will be players who fall through the cracks and major mistakes will be made league wide.
If the Colts can manage to take advantage of a turbulent situation, they could find themselves ahead of the pack in 2011.