PHOENIX – The Indianapolis Colts signed 10 free agents this month and have begun an extensive overhaul of their defense.
Even so, the most consequential player personnel move they’ve made this offseason remains the trade of tight end Dwayne Allen to the New England Patriots on March 9.
The decision to part with a cornerstone player who had been re-signed to a second contract just one year, earlier was a dramatic climax to Allen’s five seasons in Indianapolis. During his stint, his performance ranged from tantalizing to confounding and everything in between.
But only now, during the NFL’s owners meetings this week, did we finally begin to get more context on the Allen trade.
Among the things we’ve learned: The variables that went into the decision and the difficulty the Colts faced in pulling the trigger.
At its core, this trade was about accountability. Allen had been paid handsomely and his performance was not always commensurate with his contract. General Manager Chris Ballard is trying to establish standards in his first year on the job, and this was part of that effort – though the fourth-round pick they got in exchange was nice, too.
But there was more to this, Ballard said. Removing Allen from the equation will, perhaps, allow those behind him to flourish. That means Jack Doyle and, in particular, Erik Swoope.
“Look, Dwayne Allen was a great pro and a good guy,” Ballard said. “That was a really hard decision to make because he’s a great person. But sometimes to let a player take another step, you have to move on from a guy. And I think Swoope’s got a lot of talent. We’ll see. I thought we saw signs of progression last year that were exciting to see. He’s got to take another step. And we’ll see if he does it or not.”
Doyle and Swoope possess a quality the Colts are prioritizing, consistent ascension. Doyle continues to progress on a yearly basis, while Swoope – a recent convert from basketball to football – is growing by leaps and bounds and might still be scratching the surface of his potential.
“The good thing is that Jack was a Colt,” said Ballard, who re-signed Doyle to a three-year contract extension on March 8. “Even though he didn’t start his career here, they brought him in (off waivers as a rookie). Your core group of players you’d like to be all guys you drafted or got at an early age. You got them and train them the way you want them to be.”
With Allen out of the picture, the Colts are hoping Swoope can follow suit with a development track similar to Doyle’s.
“The physical traits are there,” coach Chuck Pagano said. “He will continue to develop as a route runner, as a blocker. He just needs to play.”
Ballard added: “I think Swoope is really talented. I want to see Swoope get to his ceiling. He’s a very talented athlete and can be a mismatch player. The only way guys like that are going to ascend is by competing every day to get better. That’s the only way.”
But it wasn’t just the Colts’ remaining tight ends that made trading Allen possible. An attractive class of tight ends in the 2017 NFL draft also played a role.
The tight end position is not being de-emphasized with Allen’s departure, not with offensive coordinator and former tight end Rob Chudzinski still onboard, and with Ballard’s past experience with elite tight ends.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The Colts are searching for more.
“It’s a great tight end class,” Ballard said. “And there’s guys who can really block, there’s mismatch tight ends. … After being a part of Travis Kelce (in Kansas City) and, in Chicago, we had Greg Olson, they are tremendous weapons to have and add to your offense. They’re hard to match up against. I don’t ever want to discount a playmaker at that position.”
But don’t think for a moment trading Allen wasn’t bittersweet. Even Ballard, who only recently arrived, knew Allen represented a player who stood for the right things and had made significant contributions on the field and off it. To effectively make an example of a player like that was not exactly Ballard’s idea of good time.
For Pagano, the ties to Allen run much deeper. Asked his reaction when Ballard told him about the trade proposal, Pagano declined to go there.
“I’m not going to go into great detail about those conversations,” he said. “We’re just going to do what’s best for the team.”
But you could almost hear the wistfulness in Pagano’s voice when he said, “We lost a great player in Dwayne and a staple in our offense for the last five years. We came in together in 2012.”
In addition to discussing the trade itself, the Colts also addressed its fallout. Love him or hate him, Allen was an important part of the offense. Life will have to go on, and games must be won without him.
Pagano issued a very specific challenge to Doyle as he goes about replacing Allen.
“From a leadership standpoint, it’s his room now,” Pagano said. “And he’s earned that. He will continue to come in every single day. I don’t ever have to worry about Jack Doyle. … But from a leadership standpoint, I think he’s going to need to be a little bit more vocal. That will be my challenge to him. He’s a very bright guy, but he’s a lead-by-example type of guy. He’s been very quiet. He goes about his business, does his job.
“From a vocal standpoint, I think he can take it to the next level.”
The Colts also signed free-agent tight end Brandon Williams, meaning the roles will have to be redistributed this season as Chudzinski works to integrate all his tight ends.
Yes, life after Dwayne Allen is well underway.