32 Teams in 32 Days: Indianapolis Colts
The 2011 Indianapolis Colts only won two games with Peyton Manning on injured reserve. That pitiful record allowed them to pick Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who many predict greatness from. There were plenty of glimpses of Luck’s skill in 2012, but there were numerous factors working against him. One of those factors was a defense that, like many units before them, struggled in a transition from the 4-3 to a 3-4. Yet Luck still managed to drag this team to 11 wins with only two division losses.
The Colts would falter in their Wild Card game on the road against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens. Though they would get blown out, they only trailed 6-10 at halftime. Furthermore, no one even expected the Colts to be in that position.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Andrew Luck
Andrew Luck may have been the most heavily praised college quarterback since Peyton Manning. While his intelligence, poise, and toughness were evident throughout his rookie year, the simple fact remains that he took over a team that only won two games the previous year. So given what he was working with (especially a poor offensive line and defense), his first year in the NFL has to be called a success. He overthrew more than a few passes, forced too many passes that helped result in 19 interceptions and fumbled 11 times (those two stats include the Wild Card loss). He also threw for over 4,000 yards, 23 TDs, ran for 290 yards and five TDs, and led seven comeback drives, all despite having a league-leading 50 drops from his pass-catchers and being hit 14 times as he threw (tied for most with Sam Bradford). It seems very probable that Luck will end up being one of the best signal-callers in the NFL, and that’s something so many other teams don’t have.
2. Ahmad Bradshaw
With a platoon of running backs (Donald Brown, Vick Ballard, Delone Carter, Mewelde Moore), the Colts only ran for 100 yards or more in seven of their 2012 contests. Luck rushed for one less TD (five) than those four RBs combined. Better production in this area is needed to keep the pressure off their prized QB, which is why the front office brought in ex-New York Giant Ahmad Bradshaw. While his health is a concern, Bradshaw should inject some energy into this ground attack. Bradshaw scored as many TDs on the ground as the four 2012 Colt RBs and is an upgrade in every area: his 4.6 yards-per-carry bested Brown and Ballard (3.9 YPC), dropped no passes (the Colts’ RBBC dropped 11), and, most important to Luck’s health, earned a +6.2 pass-blocking grade (Colts’ RBs combined for a -1.8 grade). Bradshaw won’t be an every-down back, but he will still lift up Indianapolis’ ground game.
3. Young Playmakers
Andrew Luck isn’t the only young talent on this roster. Third-round pick T.Y. Hilton backed up some promise he showed in the preseason with 927 yards and a team-leading seven TD catches. Hilton did drop 12 catchable passes, but some rookie growing pains are expected. With Donnie Avery leaving in free agency and Reggie Wayne fighting Father Time, Hilton should begin to assert himself even more this year. There’s also second and third-round tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. Despite being taken a round higher than Allen, Fleener saw 464 less snaps. Though he was not the best blocker, Fleener still compiled over 300 yards receiving and two scores. Meanwhile, Allen got nearly 575 yards, three scores, and was a very willing run blocker (+8.0 including the postseason). This trio of young talent will help Luck continue to grow.
4. Vontae Davis
The former first-round pick of the Miami Dolphins, Vontae Davis was traded to Indianapolis to help a porous secondary and he did. Davis did miss some time due to injuries and had a poor outing in his first game as a Colt versus the Bears (he conceded six of seven passes for over 100 yards, not including a PI penalty, and two TDs), but he would rebound. He would only allow one more TD pass (to Calvin Johnson, no shame in that) and had only one more negatively-graded coverage performance, which came against the rival Texans; Davis would get revenge in the second meeting with Houston, allowing only 53 yards with a pass defensed and two interceptions. In the Wild Card loss he was spectacular, preventing any of the six passes thrown into his coverage from being completed while knocking one down. The rest of the secondary is still questionable, but Davis is not.
5. Gosder Cherilus
The Colts’ whole offensive line was suspect last year, but especially troublesome was the right tackle position. Journeyman Winston Justice was the starter and ended up with a +1.0 pass-blocking grade, but this is an instance where the stats are deceiving: Justice was often hurt (he only lasted 29 snaps in the first game and 19 in the playoff loss, which are just two examples) though still managed four straight green-graded games in this area to start the year. However he would go on to have five red-graded games in the last eight games. He was also penalized seven times. They tried Jeff Linkenbach and Bradley Sowell here, but both were liabilities. So the Colts gave up on Justice and signed 2008 first-round pick Gosder Cherilus, an ex-Detroit Lion. Cherilus underwent off-season knee surgery, but otherwise has been reliable, missing only five games in four years. His lowest overall pass-blocking grade was +2.2 in 2009, while his best, +21.0, came last season. This is a step in the right direction for one of the worst offensive lines of 2012.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Protecting the Future
Andrew Luck took one of the worst beatings among QBs last season. The amount of sacks and knockdowns is alarming on paper, but there are many more hits invisible on stat sheets due to penalized plays. The fact that he never missed a snap only reiterates his grittiness, but can he survive years of this? Probably not, which has to worry the Colts’ fans and front office. The Cherilus signing was a good move, but there are leaks elsewhere also. 2011 first-round LT Anthony Costanzo performed well in his rookie year despite the terrible play all around him, but regressed last year when he finally had a top-notch QB to protect, allowing Luck to be hurried 35 times and put on the ground 23 times. Ex-Patriot’s guard Donald Thomas was signed, and while Thomas played well when called upon for the Patriots last year, it remains to be seen if he can continue to play well as a full-time starter this season. The other guard spot, as well as center, are still problematic. Mike McGlynn was our lowest-graded guard overall last year, and looks to be a starter once again. Meanwhile, Samson Satele ended up as our fourth-lowest graded center overall. These two combined to allow 10 sacks, 16 hits, and 40 hurries, not including penalized plays. New additions aside, others need to step up for Andrew Luck.
2. Defensive Line Woes
It’s difficult to transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and the 2012 Colts, like many teams before them, helped prove that statement, especially on their defensive line. Nose tackle Antonio Johnson, now a rival Titan, was the worst of the lineman against the run. Rookie Josh Chapman has impressed in camp, but camp obviously isn’t an actual game. The only member of this unit to make a significant contribution to run defense was 2011 third-round pick Drake Nevis, and he only played in nine games. The Colts signed NT/DE Ricky Jean-Francois to help, as he was successful in this area last year with 13 stops and a single missed tackle. They also signed journeyman NT Aubrayo Franklin, who was also an asset versus runners last year (16 stops, two missed tackles). Those mere two additions are nice and maybe Chapman can live up to the hype, but this is still a group that allowed 12 opponents to run for over 100 yards, including giving Shonn Greene a career day.
3. Erik Walden Signing
This was most likely the most maligned signing of the off-season. With Dwight Freeney moving on to San Diego, the Colts needed another 3-4 rusher opposite aging Robert Mathis… and they chose ex-Packer Erik Walden. Underwhelming to say the least, especially when you consider his off-field incident (domestic violence) and his horrid production – he finished last in Pass Rush Productivity among 3-4 OLBs who rushed at least 235 times last year, third-to-last the year before (193 pass-rushing snaps being the minimum), and he’s been our lowest overall-graded 3-4 OLB for both those years. Such little production despite working alongside Clay Matthews. He also played a large role in allowing the 49ers to run over Green Bay in the divisional playoffs. Baffling.
4. Secondary Depth
While Vontae Davis rewarded the Colts for trading for him last season, the rest of this secondary doesn’t inspire confidence. The Colts signed Greg Toler, an ex-Cardinal who has been solid when on the field, but has a list of injury issues, including missing the entire 2011 season with a torn ACL and has already suffered a concussion in training camp. 2010 undrafted free agent Cassius Vaughn will no doubt have to start at some point. In the 14 games Vaughn saw at least significant playing time last year, he had six red-graded coverage performances, as well as ending up our worst-graded CB overall. Ex-Patriot second-round pick Darius Butler contributed on mostly limited snaps in 2012 with two pick-sixes, but they were against Blaine Gabbert and Brady Quinn; what if Butler has to become a full-time starter? His performances year-by-year have been inconsistent. Long-tenured Colt Antoine Bethea is in a contract year so maybe he’ll play better than last year, which saw him contributing to the defense’s problems with opposing running games. Behind him is Joe Lefeged, who was not a liability when called upon, but saw less than 400 snaps in 2012. And there’s nicely-paid safety LaRon Landry, who earned a Pro Bowl last year with the Jets in the only season he’s started all 16 games in since 2008. Landry could certainly add some credibility to this secondary, but it’s very possible he’ll have to miss time at some point – and he’s already dealing with an at-least nagging knee injury in training camp. There are still concerns here.
5. Who’s The Other ILB?
Canadian football star Jerrell Freeman cemented his starting status as one of the ILBs in the Colts defense last season. Freeman actually scored the first Colts’ TD of 2012 on a pick-six from Jay Cutler. The only question is: who starts opposite him? Pat Angerer, a 2010 second-round pick, has struggled with injuries recently and missed at least OTAs and minicamp coming off foot surgery. In the 351 snaps he saw last season he may have been limited by injury, but he was a liability in every area. Veteran Moise Fokou, who played 405 snaps last year, was competent in run defense and coverage, but is now a Tennessee Titan. With a possibly not-100% Angerer, that leaves Kavell Connor and Kelvin Sheppard as possible starting inside linebackers. Sheppard was a third-round pick and MLB for Buffalo but, despite playing in every game in 2012, saw only 521 snaps. The former Bill struggled especially against the run, an area the Colts have had problems with for more than a few years. Connor on the other hand was very capable supporting the run last year while being a bit below-average in coverage, but will the Colts start him over newly-acquired Sheppard? Connor only played 330 snaps in 2012 so it remains to be seen how much confidence the Colts have in him going forward.
What To Expect
The Colts overachieved in 2012, but Andrew Luck was a big part of that. With the pieces around him and a defense with one year under its belt with the 3-4 scheme, Indianapolis should once again contend for a playoff spot. The AFC South isn’t one of the strongest – the Jaguars still have the maligned Blaine Gabbert while the Titans didn’t show much promise last year – so they may even be able to win the division. They’ll have to go through the defending division champion Texans, but they did split the season series last year so it doesn’t seem impossible. Even if they don’t do much this season, the Colts seem likely to become a contender for years to come.
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