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Original Issue

Harrison’s Deal: What It Means


The salary-cap calculations for NFL teams can be more complex than postgrad mathematical theorems. But in the wake of wide receiver Marvin Harrison’s signing a seven-year, $67 million contract extension last week, here’s some simple math as it relates to the Colts’ cap situation: Through 2011 Indianapolis will have to prorate $59 million in guaranteed money to only two players--Harrison and quarterback Peyton Manning, who signed a seven-year, $98 million deal last March. Now, here are three burning questions about how these signings will affect the future of the franchise.

1. What does this mean for star running back Edgerrin James, who’s eligible for free agency after this season? The guess is that the Colts will put the franchise tag on the two-time rushing champ and club president Bill Polian will trade James for a first-round pick in the 2005 draft rather than sign him to a long-term contract as well. If the team doesn’t at least designate James as its franchise player, Indianapolis could lose him to free agency and get only a late-third-round draft choice as compensation. If they give up James, the Colts could get by with backup Dominic Rhodes or they could pick a back from a deep draft crop.

2. How do the Colts expect to build a well-balanced team that will contend for the Super Bowl if they spend so heavily on one side of the ball? A capologist for one NFL team said last week that Indy has allocated more cap dollars on offense than any other team in each of the past five years. And it shows. The Colts rank first in the league in total offense and 29th in defense. “You can only deal with the team you have, and we have a team that can be as good as it gets on offense,” Polian said last Friday. “We have a plan to build the defense, and I like where we are in that plan.” Polian and coach Tony Dungy believe they can find speed players to buttress the defense with relatively low-cost picks in the middle rounds of the draft (such as situational pass rusher Robert Mathis, a 2003 fifth-round pick who has 101⁄2 sacks this year) and lesser-light free agents (like productive defensive tackle Montae Reagor).

3. In three or four years will Indianapolis collapse under the weight of fat contracts, as the Cowboys did in the late ’90s and the 49ers have done this year? The Colts have reasonable cap numbers for Manning and Harrison over the next three years (most likely a combined $11.83 million in 2005, followed by $16.95 million and $16.59 million). But from ’08 through ’10, the duo’s cap figures will be $30.69 million, $34.59 million and $34.85 million. Yes, the contracts will probably be restructured before then, and yes, it’s likely the 32-year-old Harrison will see only four or five years of his deal. But new stars will emerge, namely defensive end Dwight Freeney, who will no doubt come calling in the next two years. “Assuming there’s a new collective bargaining agreement [when the current CBA expires after the 2007 season], I’d anticipate pretty significant jumps in the cap,” Polian says.

No one’s faulting Polian for locking up two players sure to be enshrined in Canton one day. But he and Dungy are going to have to manufacture a much better defense using mostly mid-level players if they don’t want the Colts to be linked in history with the Dan Fouts–era Chargers, who never made it to a Super Bowl.