2014 Preview: Indianapolis Colts
The 2013 Colts were a popular pick for regression after their 2012 iteration became the first team in NFL history to win 11 games with a negative point differential (-30, to be exact). Yet instead of falling off, they put together another surprising 11-5 season. Along the way, they became the only team to beat both Super Bowl participants and recorded the second-biggest playoff comeback in NFL history in a 45-44 Wild Card win over the Chiefs.
Those glorious moments were tempered with some ugly ones. The Colts suffered three blowout losses in five games in one stretch, and their season ended with a 43-22 loss to the Patriots. Minus a first-round pick due to the Trent Richardson trade, and facing the specter of upcoming contract extensions for several important players, general manager Ryan Grigson was limited in his ability to re-tool the roster. Indy will instead look to the development of their young players and the return of a few key contributors from injury to keep them atop the AFC South and in the hunt for the Super Bowl. Here are some areas to watch for the 2014 team.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Andrew Luck
When we called Andrew Luck merely a “good starter” in our depth chart series, the Indianapolis faithful were displeased. Yet any unbiased observer would say that Luck has not consistently played up to his talent level. Witness his seven interceptions in two playoff games this January, or the seven times he’s completed less than 50% of his passes in a game. He started 2013 with a bang, earning a +17.2 grade in the first seven weeks. He then slowed down considerably after Reggie Wayne went out with a torn ACL, grading out at -5.6 over the next seven games, before recovering to put up a +5.6 in the last three.
Despite having ample room for improvement, Luck has led a flawed roster to a 22-10 record, an AFC South title and a playoff win as unquestionably the most important player on the roster. If he can capture the form of his first seven weeks of 2013, or most of the second half of the Chiefs playoff game, on a regular basis then he could join the league’s elite quarterbacks.
2. Targets, Targets, Everywhere (and No More Drops…They Think)
By the end of 2013, wide receivers LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen, and Da’Rick Rogers and tight ends Weslye Saunders and Jack Doyle were all important figures in the Colts’ passing game. T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener had strong seasons, but Luck was often left forcing the ball to receivers who couldn’t free themselves.
This season should be different. Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen both return from injured reserve. The mercurial but gifted Hakeem Nicks also arrived in free agency. The third round of the draft brought Ole Miss speedster Donte Moncrief. Hilton, meanwhile, looks set to break out after compiling an excellent +9.7 pass grade, tied for 13th among wide receivers, and piling up 13 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns in the playoff win. Luck will have a far better group of targets than he had in his first two years.
3. Dwayne Allen
Speaking of Allen, he was a monster in his 2012 rookie season, finishing as the third-rated tight end overall (+26.4), including 11th in the passing game, second in Pass Blocking, and first in Run Blocking. He injured his hip in Week 1 last year and wound up on injured reserve. It was a devastating loss, as it forced Fleener (-6.2 run blocking grade) to play a part that didn’t fit his style. Allen’s return should be a boon to the running game, while also giving Luck back a dependable short-yardage target.
4. A Pass-Rushing Beast
Calling 2013 a career year for Robert Mathis would be an understatement. He led the league with 19.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles, and his +37.3 overall grade smashed his previous career best of +26.7 in 2009 and earned him a 14th-place ranking in our PFF 101. At 33 years old, Mathis is bound to start slipping eventually and he is serving a four-game suspension to start the year. Still, he has adjusted well to the move from defensive end to linebacker and is one of the league’s most disruptive pass rushers.
Whatever shortcomings the Colts might have, their division should be winnable. Blake Bortles has impressed in the preseason, but he’ll start the games that count on the bench behind Chad Henne in Jacksonville. The equally unmemorable Ryan Fitzpatrick will start in Houston, while the Titans enter their fourth year of trying to figure out whether Jake Locker is any good. The gap between Luck and those three at the game’s most important position is significant. The Colts play six games against those teams, all of which finished 2013 below .500, and they will face only four 2013 playoff teams (the Broncos, Eagles, Bengals and Patriots), with three of the four games at home.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Can the Center Hold, Or Will Things Fall Apart?
Once again, the inside of the Colts’ offensive line is a problem. The team jettisoned two of the worst interior linemen in the NFL, releasing center Samson Satele (-9.4) and allowing guard Mike McGlynn (-28.5) to sign elsewhere. But sophomore Hugh Thornton (-18.3) will need to take huge strides in his move from left guard to right to become even average. With veteran left guard Donald Thomas already on injured reserve, rookie Jack Mewhort and second-year center Khaled Holmes, the latter of whom played only a handful of snaps in his rookie year, are expected to start.
Further complicating the situation, Holmes sprained his ankle in the Colts’ first preseason game. He’s expected back for the regular season and undrafted rookie Jonotthan Harrison has been respectable replacing him. But if the line loses any more of its depth, mere anarchy could once again be loosed upon Luck, who has been hit more than any other quarterback over the past two seasons.
2. A Pass-Rushing Beast Shelved
Mathis is suspended for the first four games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy. Without him, the Colts’ pass rushing outlook is bleak. Erik Walden (-5.4) and Bjoern Werner (-7.3) compiled two of the league’s worst 3-4 outside linebacker pass rush scores in 2013, ranking 35th and 37th, respectively, out of 42. Werner has looked frisky in the preseason, and rookie Jonathan Newsome has shown promise. Even in a best-case scenario, however, they won’t come close to matching Mathis’ production. Meanwhile, matchups with Peyton Manning’s Broncos and Chip Kelly’s Eagles loom in the first two weeks.
3. Safety Danger
LaRon Landry disappointed in his first season in Indy, tying for 61st at his position with a -4.7 overall grade. Running mate Antoine Bethea left for San Francisco, and the Colts have done little to fill the void. Holdover Delano Howell was the presumed starter, but he’s dealing with a neck injury and is out indefinitely. Veteran Mike Adams, special teams star Sergio Brown, undrafted rookie Dewey McDonald and the aptly named Colt Anderson are the main competitors to start next to Landry. The group does not inspire confidence. Adams has the most experience, having started for the Broncos much of the past two seasons, but he’s 33. None of the other three has seen significant time as a starter.
The Colts have been among the league’s most-injured teams for years, and this preseason has been no different. They already have five players on injured reserve, including Thomas (who, following Allen, continues the jinx on players we’ve named as Colts Secret Superstar) and defensive ends Fili Moala and Jeris Pendleton, all of whom were expected to contribute. Running back Vick Ballard was also lost for the season early in training camp, along with long-term prospects Ulrick John and Daniel Adongo. All NFL teams deal with injuries, but the Colts have seen key players drop at an abnormal rate, and it’s already taken a toll this year.
5. Running Backs
While it might still be too early to give up on Trent Richardson, the buzzards are circling. Richardson looked slow and indecisive in his first season in Indianapolis. He finished 46th in Breakaway Percentage (yardage gained on runs of 15 yards or more) at 8.3% and eventually lost the starting job to Donald Brown. Brown left for San Diego in free agency, and Ballard’s injury leaves Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw as the primary backs. Bradshaw has earned positive grades in his last four seasons, but he’s coming off a neck injury that limited him to three games in 2013, and he missed six total games in 2011 and 2012. As with safety and the interior of the offensive line, injuries have turned a decent position group into a perilously thin one.