Colts hang onto Mathis

The Sports Xchange

NFL Team Report -Indianapolis Colts - INSIDE SLANT

The Colts opted to use the franchise tag on defensive endRobert Mathis but the two sides are near a long-term extension, the Indianapolis Star reported.

APro Bowl left defensive end often overshadowed by Dwight Freeney, Mathis was expected to be the Colts' franchise player as negotiations were at a near stand-still as of Friday afternoon, sources told The Sports Xchange.

The Star reports details couldn't be hammered out by the 4 p.m. deadline Monday, necessitating the use of the tag.

Mathis, 31, has 83.5 career sacks.

By using the tag the Colts have guaranteed that Mathis, a pending free agent, wouldn't become an unrestricted free agent if talks break down before the start of the signing period at 4:01 p.m. on March 13.

If they do not work out a long-term deal, the Colts could be hard-pressed to retain Freeney, who is due a $14.035 million base salary and has a $19 million-plus salary cap charge, and wide receiverPierre Garcon. Garcon turned down a five-year, $35 million deal.

But in the franchise facelift to which owner Jim Irsay and general manager Ryan Grigson have clearly committed, the Colts do seem dedicated to their younger difference-makers.

If the Colts switch to a 3-4 front - a transition that could be dicey given their defensive personnel, but one with which new coachChuck Pagano is most familiar - Mathis and Freeney are poor fits. Neither has the bulk to play 3-4 end, and neither has played much in space, so the conversion to 3-4 linebacker would be tough.

Indianapolis could reduce Freeney's cap hit with an extension, but he's going to be 32 later this month, and how much can a club commit to a player of that vintage, and one who might not fit very snugly with future plans?

Of the team's pending free agents, Irsay specifically cited Mathis and Garcon as priorities before theNFL Scouting Combine.

--Whatever decision the Indianapolis Colts ultimately make on who will be the team's starting quarterback in 2012, the job will ultimately be in good hands.

The Colts can opt to re-sign four-time National Football League MVPPeyton Manning when his $28 million team bonus comes due on March 8.

Conversely, Indianapolis officials can also release Manning and then choose between Stanford'sAndrew Luck or Baylor's Robert Griffin III when it comes time to use the No. 1 pick in April's NFL Draft.

Or the team can have the best of both worlds by keeping the franchise's iconic signal-caller around a while longer and selecting one of the two highly-rated prospects. The possibilities are interesting, to say the least.

Conventional wisdom has the Colts and Manning -- who has undergone four medical procedures on his neck over the past 19 months -- parting ways after 14 very successful seasons. And if there ever was a time for a split to occur, this would appear to be the perfect situation. Luck and Griffin are both considered to be "can't miss" candidates.

Which is why all eyes were on the two former college quarterbacks at the National Football League Scouting Combine. They didn't disappoint.

Griffin, the 2011Heisman Trophy winner, was loose and relaxed. He was impressive, composed and sure of himself. Luck, on the other hand, was a little more reserved, but answered questions confidently. Both were imminently likeable and said the right things.