By Tom James
INDIANAPOLIS — Kelvin Hayden got his wish Wednesday evening.
Hours before the former University of Illinois cornerback was due to be designated as the Indianapolis Colts’ franchise player, Hayden — who had made it known that he wasn’t interested in playing anywhere else — signed a five-year, $43 million deal with the team.
The deal includes approximately $22 million in guarantees and will pay Hayden about $29 million in the first three years of the contract. It also carries a 2009 salary-cap number somewhere between $6 million and $7 million.
“I did not want to go anywhere else and I am excited it has ended this way,” Hayden said in a team-released statement Thursday. “I started my career here and, hopefully, I can finish here. It is going down that path right now. I want to finish where I started. I am excited and want to be around the guys I have played with here.
“I have grown a bond, a four-year bond, and I am happy this will continue. I think I still have room for improvement and I could not be with a better organization. The organization is committed to winning and it shows on the field. That’s why I want to be a part of it.”
First-year head coach Jim Caldwell is happy the deal got done as quickly as it did.
“I just think that when you look at [Hayden] and what he’s been able to do over the years for us, he’s just done an exceptional job and had an exceptional career,” Caldwell said Thursday at the National Football Scouting Combine. “He’s 26 years old, so he’s at the right age. And his overall play has been outstanding.”
• One down, more to go — Hayden’s signing allows team president Bill Polian, Caldwell and the rest of the Colts’ front-office staff to focus their attention on several other players who could become unrestricted free agents at the end of the month. That list includes center Jeff Saturday along with running back Dominic Rhodes, safety Matt Giordano and strong-side linebacker Tyjuan Hagler.
Saturday is the key. Indianapolis would like to bring the four-time Pro Bowl selection back if the right kind of deal can be worked out for the right amount of money. Indianapolis officials opted not to franchise him Thursday.
“He’s with us until otherwise indicated,” Caldwell said. “He’s been and [the Colts] certainly anticipate him to continue to be a very, very important part of our offense.”
Other potential unrestricted free agents are cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, defensive tackle Darrell Reid and defensive end Josh Thomas. Offensive guard/tackle Dan Federkeil will be a restricted free agent, while running back Lance Ball, middle linebacker Buster Davis and defensive tackle Daniel Muir are exclusive-rights free agents.
“Right now, we’re in the process of evaluating. We’re working our way through this free agency process. We’ll see. We’re all kind of looking at some things from kind of different vantage points, see if we can put together a package where we can get the guys back on the field that we certainly need and desire,” the Colts’ coach said.
• Don’t count on other team’s free agents — Indianapolis has not been a major player in the veteran free-agent market since Bill Polian took over as the team’s president in 1998. That is not expected to change this year. The Colts prefer to re-sign their own and develop personnel through the draft.
That’s not to say that Indianapolis won’t look at who’s available, but at this point — especially with the team’s salary-cap situation — looking is about all the Colts can afford to do. Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth had joked at the Pro Bowl about Peyton Manning’s attempts to have him consider Indianapolis as a potential destination for his services.
“Obviously, we have to be realistic too,” Caldwell admitted when asked about the possibility of adding a player like Haynesworth to the team’s smallish defensive-line rotation. “Just in terms in what we’re able to do, in terms of salary-cap issues and things of that nature. So we’re always kind of fiddling with them, tying to see where we can improve our squad, seeing where we have room to do certain things. But it’s also not fantasy land either.
“I think Bill, Chris [Polian] and Tom [Telesco] and those guys all do a great job in managing that aspect and letting us know what we’re able to do in those areas.”
• Marvin staying or going? — Rumors continue to swirl concerning wide receiver Marvin Harrison and his future with the Colts. NFL.com writer Adam Schefter wrote Wednesday that Indianapolis will “soon be parting ways” with Harrison due to the team’s tight salary-cap situation.
According to ProFootballTalk.com, Harrison has a $13.4 million salary-cap figure heading into the 2009 season. His base salary for next season will be $9 million. When a $2 million salary-cap acceleration for 2009 is included, the Colts could conceivably save $7 million in cap space with $6.4 million in dead money.
If Harrison is willing to reduce his 2009 base salary to $2 million, it would reduce his cap charge to $6.4 million and could create enough space that would allow him to remain in Indianapolis.
As far as on-the-field production, two members of the Colts coaching staff remain convinced that Harrison — who caught a career-low 60 passes for 636 yards and five touchdowns last season — can continue to be an important part of the team’s offense.
“He played pretty darn good [in 2008]. He played better, and I said this in the middle of the season, he was playing better than we were producing [as an offense],” Indianapolis assistant head coach/wide receivers coach Clyde Christensen said Wednesday.
“We were out of synch. A lot of things were out of synch [offensively]. He had some opportunities that could have been big days and they weren’t for one reason or the other. He’s an amazing guy. He was still humming pretty darn good. In my professional opinion, he was humming better than the [public] perception probably was. I didn’t see a huge dropoff skills-wise.”
For his part, Caldwell agrees with Christensen’s assessment.
“What I saw was a guy who’s as quick as he’s been. Still a guy with the outstanding hands that he’s always shown. Still with the ability to create some space for himself and get open,” Caldwell said. “I think it was just a couple of other things that happened during the course of the season. I think some looking from the outside in had a little different perception of that. But we did not see any diminishing in terms of his skills and ability.
“We certainly hope [that he remains with the team]. That’s what we anticipate. We’re not quite certain what’s going to happen, but we’d certainly love to have him back.”