As our 2018 Regular Season Preview continues, we stay in the AFC South where the Indianapolis Colts look to finally get back on track after a miserable 4-12 campaign saw them miss the Playoffs for a third consecutive year. Of course, you can’t have a discussion about the Colts without conversing over the health of one Andrew Luck, the former No. One Overall Pick and Franchise Quarterback, who before suffering a serious shoulder injury carried the team on his back to three straight Postseason appearances. The Three-Time Pro Bowler missed all of last season rehabbing from a torn labrum in his Right Shoulder, though while his presence was sorely missed, the Supporting Cast around him began eroding years beforehand, as a myriad of poor drafts and signings led to what began last year as a roster-wide rebuild. Heading into 2018, Indianapolis is now in the second term of what is proving to be quite an extensive rebuilding project, as erstwhile Owner Jim Irsay and General Manager Chris Ballard finally relieved Chuck Pagano of his duties, and replacing him with former Philadelphia Eagles’ Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich. However, even this hiring came under a proverbial cloud of controversy; the Colts had all but secured the services of longtime New England Patriots’ Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels to be their new skipper, only for the brilliant playcaller to perform an abrupt about-face, leaving them at the altar in the eleventh hour in favor of returning to Foxboro. With that said, Reich is far from a bad consolation prize, which coupled with the (hopefully) healthy return of the aforementioned Luck should help this team get their Offense in order at the very least. Now let’s take a look at three key storylines that will ultimately dictate whether or not the Colts will show significant improvement in this ambitious renovation, or if they are in fact a year away from competing again at a high level.
Over the past year and some change the most frequently asked question in regards to the Colts has been the health of their Franchise Quarterback Andrew Luck. The 2012 No. One Overall Pick was touted as the savior for a team that had just ushered Hall of Fame Quarterback Peyton Manning out the door, and was in need of rebuilding on the fly, as they also wanted desperately to hold on to their status as one of the league’s elite clubs. In his first three seasons, Luck certainly looked the part, completing 58.6% of his attempts for an average of 269.9 Yards on 6.44 Net Yards per Attempt, while tossing Eighty-Six Touchdowns to Forty-Three Interceptions (including an NFL-best 40 TDs in 2014), in route to guiding the Colts to three straight trips to the Playoffs, highlighted by an appearance in the 2014 AFC Championship Game. For a moment, it seemed possible that with this guy in town that Indianapolis would enjoy another dozen years of success just as they did with Manning. Unfortunately, in 2015 Luck suffered an injury to the same shoulder that has sidelined him for the past eighteen months, relegating him to just seven starts and serving as a precursor to the struggles ahead. Though he was able to bounce back and start in all but one contest in 2016, something clearly wasn’t right with the young Signal-Caller, with reported pain and weakness in his throwing shoulder frequently being cited as a reason for his diminishing performances on the field. In essence, instead of waltzing into the next stage of what was widely expected to be a Hall of Fame Career, Luck has regressed to the point of nearly being a pariah, as Irsay himself has been repeatedly coy when discussing the health of his biggest investment. So just what can we expect out of No. 12? Well, there are far worse people to guide him than Reich, who in addition to developing Carson Wentz and managing Nick Foles throughout the Eagles run to a Lombardi Trophy last season, also spent two seasons in Indianapolis serving as Manning’s Quarterback Coach (2009 to 2010). If there’s someone out that will be able to get Luck back on track, Reich is certainly on the short list. However, the rest of the Offense is a major concern; in 2016, the Colts were dreadful on this side of the football, averaging just 16.4 Points (30th Overall) on 284.6 Total Yards (31st Overall), including 201.6 through the air (30th Overall) on 5.3 Net Yards per Attempt (29th Overall), and another 103.8 on the ground (22nd Overall) on 3.7 Yards per Carry (26th Overall). And to give you an idea of just how poor the Offense performed last year, look no further than the fact that they scored so few points despite generally taking good care of the football, owning a Plus-5 Turnover Differential. Simply put, this is far from the same unit he left back at the end of the 2015 campaign, and though we can expect him to improve these numbers to a degree (for let’s face it, it shouldn’t be difficult), it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll be able to improve them enough to compensate for the numerous other weakness plaguing this team.
Fortifying the Trenches
As we just touched upon, the Indianapolis Offense was abysmal last year, with the play of Quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett (58.8%, 3,098 YDS, 5.36 NY/A, 13 TD, 7 INT, 37.9 QBR in 2017) and Scott Tolzien (50.0%, 128 YDS, 4.50 NY/A, 0 TD, 2 INT, 6.3 QBR in 1 Start in 2017) far from the only issues at hand. This is a unit that was depleted of talent, with a dearth to draw upon, thanks to previous General Manager Ryan Grigson missing on a number of Draft Picks, and signing a litany of underperforming Free Agents over the duration of his five years in office (2012 to 2016). Fixing his predecessor’s mistakes was Ballard’s chief responsibility a year ago, with a glaring lack of talent and depth in the trenches being the biggest eye-sore, particularly the Offensive Line. Even when Luck was at the height of his powers, the group protecting him was average at best, and in 2017 they completely collapsed; the Colts relinquished Fifty-Six Sacks last year, while struggling to create much room in the running game, with no Tailback on the roster averaging at least 4.0 Yards per Carry. Injuries and poor play mired this unit, with Starting Center Ryan Kelly and Right Guard Jack Mewhort missing a cumulative twenty games due to injury, while former First Round Pick, Anthony Castonzo became increasingly inconsistent at Left Tackle. Right Tackle Denzelle Good missed ten games last year to boot, leaving the trenches in flux as we head into the Season Opener against Cincinnati. While the rest of the Line is a question mark, one spot is cement in stone, and that is Left Guard where Sixth Overall Pick Quenton Nelson is expected to stabilize matters. The Notre Dame product comes as highly-rated as you’ll find a player at his position, with his lofty selection being very rare for an Interior Lineman. However, the idea here is that by inserting Nelson, who excels in both Pass Protection and Run Blocking, all the while sporting a nasty, physical presence, will be able to mediate what has been ailing Castonzo, while partnering with Kelly, who was solid as a rookie back in 2016, to form an impenetrable barrier on the interior. Ballard also used one of his four picks inside the top fifty-two selections to draft another Guard, the highly decorated Braden Davis out of Auburn, to push the aforementioned Mewhort for playing time. Clearly, the plan is to rebuild this attack from the inside-out, for as the Colts have found out, if the big guys in the trenches collapse, the rest of the Offense won’t be far behind.
Finally, the Offense wasn’t the only side of the football that had suffered under the previous regime, for the Defense also struggled mightily in 2017. Last year, the Colts allowed an average of 25.3 Points (30th Overall) on 367.1 Total Yards (30th Overall), including 246.6 against the Pass (28th Overall) on a league-worst 7.3 Net Yards per Attempt (32nd Overall), and another 120.4 against the Run (26th Overall) on 3.9 Yards per Carry (9th Overall). Furthermore, they were terrible on Third Down, allowing the opposition to convert on 44.7% of their attempts (31st Overall), while generating hardly any pressure to speak of, amassing just Twenty-Five Sacks (31st Overall). Ultimately, Ballard, Reich, and New Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus opted to clean house on a unit that for years wore the visage of a Defense featuring personnel that simply didn’t fit into former Head Coach Chuck Pagano’s 4-3 Hybrid Front, struggling with the transition for five years (again, blame Grigson). Under Eberflus, Indianapolis will be implementing a much more basic 4-3 Front with predominantly Tampa Two principles in coverage, which simplifies things for the players allowing them to simply read and react, which is ideal for the number of young players expected to be lining up this season. Of course, it would have helped immensely had their first two Draft Picks from last year, Safety Malik Hooker (21 TKL, 3 INT, 4 PD in 2017) and Cornerback Quincy Wilson (22 TKL, 1 INT, 6 PD in 2017) managed to stay healthy, with each Defensive Back missing nine games apiece. It was really unfortunate for Hooker looked like he may have been on his way to being named Defensive Rookie of the Year after ensnaring Three Interceptions in his first four outings alone. Needless to say, both players are expected to play a large role in this unit’s success moving forward. The Front Seven though is going to be a real work in progress, for with many of their Hybrid Edge Rushers becoming traditional Defensive Ends in this new scheme, most notably Jabaal Sheard (52 TKL, 5.5 SK, 3 PD, 2 FF in 2017), the remaining Linebacking Corps is dangerously thin. Traditionally, Linebackers who possess the speed and agility to cover large spaces are paramount in any version of the Tampa Two, which leads us to believe that we won’t be seeing too much of it given that Indianapolis is likely to play a season-long game of trial and error with numerous younger players at this position. Antonio Morrison (108 TKL, 1 PD in 2017) and Anthony Walker (19 TKL in 2017) are holdovers from the previous regime, while Second Round Picks Darius Leonard and Kemoko Tuary will likely be featured frequently after both Linebackers turned in excellent performances at the Senior Bowl. Look for this Defense to improve incrementally at best, though they should be far more stout by season’s end, provided they can avoid the injuries that beset them so a year ago.
2018 Outlook: 6-10
If last year was Year Zero of this arduous rebuilding project that has become the Indianapolis Colts, then 2018 should truly serve as Year One as they welcome Andrew Luck back onto the field, where he’s been absent for the better part of eighteen months. Management has taken many steps towards replenishing the talent on both sides of the football in each of the past two Drafts, though it appears that they will certainly need more time before all of these players develop into anything remotely close to reaching their potential. Though he’s been viewed as their second (or was it third?) choice for the job, we have a feeling that Indianapolis will ultimately be better off with Frank Reich steering the ship, with no better hands to reassemble Luck, as the Franchise Quarterback looks to return to health and transition into the next stage of his career. With that said, there is still a TON of work to be done on both Offense and Defense, with the latter appearing to be well behind the former at this point in time. This unit still needs to manufacture a Pass Rush, and needs someone to step up at Linebacker, while a young Secondary matures. Fortunately, the schedule doesn’t look overly difficult, and while the AFC South looks to be more balanced than it’s been in recent years, there is hardly a dominant team to be found. Our opinion is that the Colts will surprise from time to time in 2018, upsetting some opponents they shouldn’t, but ultimately lack enough talent, depth, and experience on both sides of the football to truly return to contention. They simply need to become relevant again first, which with Luck leading the way, isn’t a whole lot to ask.