Quarterback Peyton Manning watches as running back Joseph Addai carries the football in Denver. (Doug Pensinger | Getty Images)

Although the Colts are heading into the playoffs and will not have to worry about new contracts, free agency, and draft planning until after their playoff run ends, once it does things will start happening fast. With all of the players who have contracts ending this season, it will be important to make good choices in order to keep a very talented football team intact.

One thing about any off-season is the chance that difficult decisions will have to be made about players for whom fans have a great deal of loyalty. That is the unfortunate nature of the business of football and those kinds of decisions and observations will be included in what this writer believes is the best direction for the Colts leading up to the 2011 season.

The most important thing to do to start this process is to identify which players require new contracts in order to play football in 2011, and which players currently have contracts that are not reflective of their value to the team.

The players who will need new contracts in order to return to the Colts in 2011 are listed below, by position.

QB – Peyton Manning
RB – Joseph Addai, Javarris James, Dominic Rhodes
WR – Taj Smith
TE – Gijon Robinson
OT – Charlie Johnson, Michael Toudouze
G – Kyle DeVan
DT – Antonio Johnson, Daniel Muir, Eric Foster (RFA)
DE – Keyunta Dawson
LB – Clint Session, Tyjuan Hagler, Nate Triplett
CB – Mike Richardson
S – Melvin Bullitt, Jamie Silva, Al Afalava, Aaron Francisco, Ken Hamlin, Chip Vaughn
K – Adam Vinatieri

While I am not entirely sure on some of the players who were added during the season to replace injured players, I am relatively certain the team only signed them to one-year deals and they will be free to test free agency at the end of the year.

The most obvious priority is signing Manning to a five-year deal that will make him the highest paid player in NFL history. This contract sounds like something that will cause immediate salary cap concerns and make it more difficult to re-sign some of the players the front office would like to keep in Indianapolis. In reality, this new contract will likely reduce Manning’s short-term cap hit and create space to sign other players. Consider that in 2006 Manning’s cap hit was just over $10 million and in 2009 it was just over $21 million.

The second big-name that pops out on the list of free agents is Joseph Addai. As Donald Brown has not shown the ability to take over as the feature back in Indianapolis, he should get a good look from the Colts, even though most running backs in Indianapolis do not get long-term lucrative contracts as they approach 30 years old. The good news is that Addai is a very special running back in that he is perfect for the Colts system but not a feature back for most other teams who do not utilize backs in the same way Indianapolis does. A two-year deal worth around $7 million, which is what Cedric Benson signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009 could get the job done.

Charlie Johnson has been one of the Colts most versatile and dependable offensive linemen over the last three seasons and letting him go would be unwise. He will not receive starting left tackle money on the open market, should be retained as a right tackle or guard only, and still has not earned enough prestige in the NFL to demand really big figures. A three-year deal worth around $10 million may suffice.

Kyle DeVan is the Colts most consistent guard. While he is not overpowering at any one aspect of his job, he is able to do both well enough to keep around. A three-year deal worth around $6 million could lock him in long term.

With Antonio Johnson playing so well to end this 2010 season, he has made a strong push for a new deal. It is this writer’s opinion that the Colts current corps of defensive tackles is collectively an affordable unit and capable of doing what they need to do in the Indy’s scheme. Signing Mookie to a three-year $7 million extension should keep him around relatively cheap.

While Daniel Muir excelled much more in 2009 when he was playing in the under tackle role, where Fili Moala is now playing, he still has enough size, quickness off of the ball, and experience in the Colts system to maintain some value. A two-year $3 million contact may be appropriate to see how he bounces back in his new role in 2011.

Eric Foster is one player that has improved in each of his four seasons in Indianapolis. He has enough speed and versatility to replace a player like Raheem Brock but he does not deserve a salary approaching Brock’s final contract. Accordingly, the team may choose to give him a mid-level tender offer as a restricted free agent. In 2010 this tender was $1.68 million.

Clint Session has had a bigger role in each of his seasons with the Colts but his injury this season puts him in the worst possible position to head into contract negotiations. There is little doubt that Session is a capable linebacker but the Colts are in a position they have not been in for years at the position. They have more talent than they have spots. With Kavell Conner playing well, Pat Angerer playing in place of Philip Wheeler on the other side, and cheaper options like Tyjuan Hagler around, Session may find himself accepting a undervalued short-term contract or in a different jersey in 2011.

The safety position will be in a state of complete disarray when the 2010 season comes to a close. Bob Sanders is coming off of missing his second full season due to a biceps tear, Melvin Bullitt has always been dependable but missed three-quarters of the season with a shoulder injury, and former back-up Jamie Silva was unable to enter the regular season healthy. With Sanders in line to earn $5 million in 2011 and $7 million in 2012 there is very little chance that he returns to the team, unless he takes a massive pay cut. This would free up some money to retain Melvin Bullitt, who is probably worth a four-year $5 million offer.

Kicker Adam Vinatieri made it seem relatively clear this season that his health is not a short-term concern. This makes retaining him a much higher possibility than his last two seasons with the Colts would have suggested. A three-year $7 million contract may fulfill Vinny’s desires and keep him around while the Colts search for a placekicker as he approaches the end of his career. This salary would keep him around for just about the same value as the Colts signed him in 2006.

The two other Colts players who are in a position to either accept significant pay cuts or potentially all out releases from the team are cornerback Kelvin Hayden and offensive tackle Ryan Diem. In Hayden’s situation, team president Bill Polian masterfully acquired Justin Tryon in a trade with the Washington Redskins prior to Week 1. Tryon has looked good this year and has improved enough that he may be the second best cornerback on the team, worthy of a starting position opposite Jerraud Powers in 2011. If Hayden is no longer a starter, he is not worth his salary. Cornelius Brown and Jacob Lacey are both players who could excel in the nickel role with the Colts so Hayden’s negotiating ground lies with experience alone.

The problems for Ryan Diem are made even more complicated by the fact that he has proven over the last two seasons that he is no longer capable of fulfilling his responsibilities at right tackle. This means the only way he should be retained is with a drastic pay decrease and move inside to guard for off-season activities. At that time, if he is unable to make a successful transition, he should be released.

It may be hard to believe but if Indianapolis manages the difficult decisions well, more than enough money could be available to retain nearly all of the team’s starters and primary role players. The money saved through the release or aggressive renegotiation of Diem, Sanders, and Hayden — along with the new long-term deal for Manning — should make it possible to sign all of the players mentioned above and maybe even a meaningful trade or free agent acquisition for the offensive line.

The remaining players on the list of likely free agents in 2011 are less cap demanding. If Dominic Rhodes expects to stay in the NFL he will have to do so at the vet minimum, regardless of his performance to this point or in the playoffs because of his age if nothing else. Javarris James has done some nice things but probably does not demand a contract paying him much more than $750k a year for three years. Right now, Taj Smith is just happy to be around and is making his waves as a special teams receiver. Generally speaking, the price demands for special teams receivers will be minimal.

Gijon Robinson will likely be released at the end of the year with Jacob Tamme’s performance, Dallas Clark’s return, Tom Santi still on the roster, and Brody Eldridge entering his second season. There is very little legitimate need for another tight end and it makes more sense for the team to give a look to other players in the summer than a player they know very well in Robinson.

Michael Toudouze is likely a quick release at the end of the year as well. Keyunta Dawson has not shown enough value in his time with the Colts at the defensive end position to justify a future roster spot. It is likely that John Chick and other prospects will get a close look. If Dawson did return it would be both disappointing and probably only at the vet minimum.

Tyjuan Hagler is an interesting case in that most fans in Indianapolis were shocked that the team did not make a move to sign him much earlier. While he will never be a Pro Bowl talent and has had a penchant for injuries, Hagler has always played solid football for the Colts and fits very well into its system. His fate may be tied to the development of players like Ramon Humber, Cody Glenn, Nate Triplett, and how the team manages negotiations with Clint Session.

It is also hard to tell which of the Colts many safety prospects that have been acquired from all around the league, and quickly placed on the injured reserve, take priority in Indy’s front office. This writer had high hopes for Chip Vaughn, thought Al Afalava was a draft day prospect for the Colts, and knows that Ken Hamlin is one of the bigger name free agent signing Indianapolis has made in recent years. Hamlin has done little to differentiate himself, Vaughn got hurt shortly after joining the team, and Al Afalava will be returning from injury to make an impact on special teams in Saturday’s divisional playoff game against the New York Jets.

How the team approaches its free agents, and how much Jim Caldwell, Bill Polian, and Jim Irsay show loyalty to players who are not worth their high salaries will make a big difference in the Colts future. If they do things right, which may be something similar to what is outlined in this story, Indianapolis will enter 2011 as one of the NFL’s most talented and deepest teams. If not, the team will be looking for more than just starters for the offensive line and depth in the secondary.