Colts release QB Matt Ryan, freeing up $17 million in salary cap space

INDIANAPOLIS — For the third consecutive offseason, the Colts are saying goodbye to a starting quarterback long before originally planned, underscoring the futility of the franchise’s prior approach and the need to find a long-term solution at the game’s most important position.

Indianapolis is releasing Matt Ryan after just one disastrous season, a league source told IndyStar Tuesday, in a move that frees up $17,205,882 of cap space and takes on $18 million in dead cap.

The Colts had days left to make the move; Ryan’s salary would have become fully guaranteed on March 17, eliminating the possibility of any cap savings for Indianapolis.

Releasing Ryan has long been expected.

The Colts hold the No. 4 pick in April's NFL draft, and the team's top three decision-makers — owner Jim Irsay, general manager Chris Ballard and head coach Shane Steichen — haven't shied away from the suggestion that the franchise plans to draft its quarterback of the future. Indianapolis will also likely need to sign a veteran quarterback who can start in case a rookie is not ready; Marcus Mariota is among the possibilities for that role, according to a source.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan (2) walks on the field Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, before a game against the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan (2) walks on the field Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, before a game against the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

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Brought in to stabilize the Colts quarterback position, Ryan instead wilted behind an Indianapolis offensive line that was awful in the first half of the season. The 37-year-old threw 13 interceptions, lost five fumbles, coughed up another 10 fumbles that Indianapolis recovered and took 38 sacks.

By the time the season ended, Ryan had suffered a separated throwing shoulder, been benched once by Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay for second-year quarterback Sam Ehlinger and then was benched again by interim head coach Jeff Saturday.

“It was a tough year,” Ryan said. “Personally, for the team, I think all of us, it was hard and disappointing. I think we came into the season with high expectations, just didn’t work out the way we thought it would.”

But it’s important to remember the Colts never saw Ryan’s collapse coming.

When Indianapolis traded a third-round pick for Ryan last season and added guaranteed money to the contract, Colts general manager Chris Ballard said publicly that the team planned to stick with Ryan for at least two seasons, and Irsay later expanded that, saying he thought Ryan could be the team’s quarterback for three or four seasons.

Indianapolis then pulled the plug on Ryan after just seven games, right around the time previous Colts teams found a rhythm under former head coach Frank Reich.

When Ryan was benched the first time, Reich told the veteran quarterback that Indianapolis hadn’t held up its end of the bargain, failing to provide him the pass blocking and running game that was supposed to protect the long-time Falcon from the poundings he’d taken in his last couple of seasons in Atlanta.

Even after the way the season ended, Ballard agreed with that assessment.

“I mean, it’s not an indictment on Matt Ryan,” Ballard said in January. “Matt Ryan is as professional a guy, player that I’ve ever been around. I still think he’s got something left in his body to play. He’s smart, knows how to play the game.”

The Colts’ next move at the quarterback position seems obvious.

Even if Indianapolis signs a veteran placeholder in the early days of free agency, the Colts are expected to select a quarterback in April’s NFL Draft, although the task got a little tougher when Carolina traded into the No. 1 spot late last week.

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Indianapolis holds the No. 4 pick, and even though two quarterback-needy teams now sit at No. 1 and No. 2, the draft class is expected to produce four first-rounders at the position: Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Kentucky’s Will Levis.

What’s next for Ryan is less clear.

The day after the season, Ryan indicated he might want to keep playing.

“I still love playing, and I think, obviously, not committed to anything,” Ryan said in January. “Here, wherever, I have to see how it shakes out, but I still love playing and still feel like, honestly, there’s a lot of good football in my body. We’ll see what happens."

But Ryan, the best player in the history of the Atlanta Falcons, has always been a starter, and it’s unclear if he wants to play the role of backup or placeholder for an incoming rookie. Two weeks after the season ended, Ryan made broadcasting appearances on CBS, potentially setting up a post-playing career in football.

Whatever Ryan’s next step may be, he won’t be taking it in a Colts uniform.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts release QB Matt Ryan, freeing up $17 million in salary cap space