The Colts made the 2nd biggest single season win improvement in NFL history, going from 2-14 to 11-5 last season. However, like the team who made the biggest single season win improvement in NFL history (the 2008 Miami Dolphins who went from 1-15 to 11-5 back down to 7-9 the following season), I expect the Colts to be significantly worse in 2013. In fact, teams with big win improvements generally regress about half the following season (and vice versa). There are two things about the Colts’ 2012 season that are unsustainable and that show they are an overrated team.
For one, they had a ridiculous record in games decided by a touchdown or less, going 9-1 in those types of games. In fact, they had just 2 wins by a touchdown or more, and one came against the 2-win Jaguars. Meanwhile, 3 of their 5 losses came by more than 20 points and only one of those teams made the playoffs. They lost 35-9 to the Jets! Overall, they were -30 on the season and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 7.2 wins. They made the playoffs because they were ridiculously good at pulling out close wins. Call it #ChuckStrong magic if you want, it’s not going to happen again this year. That type of stuff evens out in the long run.
All of those close wins would be more impressive if they weren’t against teams like Cleveland, Tennessee, Kansas City, and Buffalo. They had an incredibly easy schedule, playing just 6 games against teams that went 8-8 or better. While they went 3-3 in those 6 games, the wins were by 3, 3, and 12, while the losses were by 20, 35, and 12. Their season essentially consisted of them barely beating bad teams and getting blown out by good teams. They had just 1 win by more than a field goal against a team better than 6-10 and it was a week 17 game against the Texans. Once they got to the playoffs, they were just overmatched by the Baltimore Ravens, who beat them 24-9.
When you combine their ridiculous record in close games and their weak schedule, the advanced metrics do not like them. They ranked 25th in DVOA and had the lowest DVOA by an 11-win team in DVOA’s 22 year history, dating back to 1991. They had poor injury luck, ranking 29th in the league in adjusted games lost, but they weren’t really missing anyone who was a big time impact player, with the exception of maybe Vontae Davis. If they want to win 11 games this season or come close, they’ll have to play significantly better.
Fortunately for them, they had a good deal of cap room going into this off-season so they had a good chance to improve their roster. However, they completely bungled free agency, shelling out 3 years, 15 million for the oft injured Greg Toler, 4 years, 16 million the awful Erik Walden, 4 years, 24 million for the seen better days LaRon Landry, 4 years, 22 million for career backup Ricky Jean-Francois, and 5 years, 34.5 million for one year wonder Gosder Cherilus. Only a 4 year, 14 million dollar deal for promising career backup Donald Thomas represented a good deal among their 6 multiyear signings, while Ahmad Bradshaw and Darrius Heyward-Bey were added to the mix on reasonable one year contracts. I don’t know how much better the Colts really made their roster this off-season. It’s better, but not worth what they spent.
While the Colts had a very good off-season last year, drafting incredibly well, one off-season is not enough to rebuild this team into a permanent winner. While the Bill Polian era started out incredibly well, with Peyton Manning, Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Jeff Saturday, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Bob Sanders, all drafted by the Colts, among the best at their respective positions at one point or another with the Colts, the Polian-led front office failed to draft a future Pro-Bowler in any draft from 2006-2011. Their roster was completely barren when new GM Ryan Grigson took over. Peyton Manning’s injury exposed that in 2011, as they won just 2 games. While it’s better, it’s not where they appeared to be last season. This year, I expect them to play better, but have a significantly worse record.
Speaking of playing better but having a worse record, it’s Andrew Luck. Luck got a lot of credit for the Colts huge turnaround last season, but we’ve already established they weren’t as good as they seemed. Luck wasn’t either. Luck completed just 54.1% of his passes for an average of 7.0 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions, good for a QB rating of 76.5, 26th in the league among eligible quarterbacks, one spot behind Blaine Gabbert. He led the Colts’ offense to just 22.3 points per game, tied for 18th in the NFL.
ProFootballFocus didn’t like him too much either, grading him 24th among all quarterbacks throwing the ball on tape, right behind Jake Locker, though he saved his grade somewhat with his running ability (255 yards and 5 touchdowns on 61 carries). He also ranked just 25th in adjusted QB rating, which takes into account drops, yards after catch, throw aways, hit as throwns, and spikes.
You can say his 9-1 record in close games and league leading 7 game winning drives were impressive and make up for the raw statistics, but consider the level of competition he was doing it against. Is a game winning drive against Kansas City or Tennessee really that impressive? It’s not like his 4th quarter numbers were really that much better, as he completed 53.4% of his passes for an average of 7.2 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. His 4th quarter QB rating of 75.3 was actually worse than his overall QB rating. He’s not nearly in the neighborhood of Robert Griffin or Russell Wilson.
That being said, there are 3 reasons why Luck will play better this season. The first is that he’s just too talented. Rookie struggles hardly doom a career, especially for a talent like Luck. Peyton Manning had an even lower rookie QB rating, at 71.2, with 56.7% completion, 6.5 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions, but he bounced back with a 90.7 QB rating in the following season, completing 62.1% of his passes for 7.8 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. Luck might not be that good next season and he certainly might not have quite the same career Manning has had, but you can’t place too much value on his rookie year.
The second reason is he’ll fit the offensive scheme better. Bruce Arians is a great offensive coordinator and did a phenomenal job keeping this team together as Interim Head Coach after Chuck Pagano’s diagnosis. However, Luck was always a weird fit for his offense because his arm strength isn’t his best attribute and he very rarely played with 3-wide receivers in college. He was not meant to lead the league with 101 throws 20+ yards downfield or more, like he did last season. This season he gets back Pep Hamilton, his old offensive coordinator at Stanford, and he’ll install a more two-tight end, short to intermediate throw heavy offense that Luck will suit much better.
The 3rd is that he’ll be better protected. They may have not have allowed a ton of sacks last season, but that’s because Luck’s incredible pocket presence made them look better than they were as he took a sack on just 14.9% of pressured drop backs, 7th best in the NFL. When hits and hurries are taken into account, they ranked dead last in pass block efficiency and Luck was pressured in 38.1% of his drop backs, 5th most in the NFL. He completed just 39.9% of throws under pressure, 5th worst in the NFL. Gosder Cherilus might have been an overpay, but he and Donald Thomas will upgrade this offensive line. They won’t be great or anything, but they won’t be the worst again. I can definitely see Luck playing better, his team doing worse, and everyone asking what’s wrong with Andrew Luck.
In addition to being dead last in pass block efficiency, the Colts also were ProFootballFocus’ 31st ranked pass blocking team and 24th ranked run blocking team. Only Arizona was also in the bottom-10 in both. Donald Thomas was the smart free agent signing on the offensive line. He’s a career backup, but he was ProFootballFocus’ 20th ranked guard last season, despite making just 7 starts in place of injured guards with the Patriots. He also graded out above average in 13 starts in 2 seasons from 2008-2009 earlier in his career with the Steelers. He’s a projection as a full-time starter, but at just 14 million over 4 years, he’s worth the minor risk and the Colts very well may have found themselves an above average starting interior offensive linemen, a huge need of their off-season. He’s a better run blocker than pass protector.
Gosder Cherilus was the not so smart free agent signing on the offensive line. He was ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle last season, but he hadn’t done anything that good before. At 34.5 million over 5 years, the Colts are paying him hoping that he can keep up his elite 2012 performance and ignoring his only average to above average 2008-2011 performance. He was an older rookie too so the 2008 1st round pick is already going into his age 29 season.
He’s also just a right tackle, which is a less important position for the Colts and he has a history of knee problems. He’s had microfracture surgery in the past and had to go to Germany for treatment. It was so concerning that the Lions didn’t seem to want anything to do with bringing him back as a free agent this off-season, even though he’s only missed 4 games in 5 seasons. The upside, best case scenario is that the Colts have an appropriately paid elite right tackle, but there’s also a good chance they’ve wound up with a lemon. He’ll probably be an upgrade at right tackle, though incumbent Winston Justice wasn’t bad. Justice is gone so it’s unclear who would fill in should Cherilus get hurt.
The only returning starter who graded out above average last season is left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Castonzo, a 2011 1st round pick, improved on an average rookie season with an above average 2nd season and even better is that he had some of his best performances in the 2nd half of the season. He allowed just 3 sacks, 4 hits, and 11 hurries in the 2nd half of the season, while committing just 2 penalties, as opposed to 6 sacks, 7 hits, and 24 hurries, while committing 3 penalties, in the first half of the season, all while run blocking well throughout. Going into his 3rd year in the league, he could take another leap forward.
That’s where the good news ends for the Colts on the offensive line. Samson Satele graded out 4th worst among eligible centers last season, despite being limited to 642 snaps by injuries and AQ Shipley, who played well in his absence last year, is gone, replaced by 4th round rookie Khaled Holmes. Satele was better in 2011, but graded out below average in every season from 2008-2010, so he looks like one of the worst starting centers in the NFL.
Right guard Mike McGlynn was even worse, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ absolute worst guard last season by a good amount. He started 15 games there and was equally bad in his one game at center. He’s been pretty bad throughout his career and should not be expected to play much better this season. The Colts will have to hope that 3rd round rookie Hugh Thornton can push for playing time at some point this season, but it’s unclear how much of an upgrade he can be as a rookie. Jeff Linkenbach and Joe Reitz are other options at guard and they’ll probably be their top two reserve offensive linemen, but both were awful last season as well. Right guard is one of the reasons why this remains a below average offensive line, though they’ll protect Luck better than they did last season.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
I mentioned earlier that the Colts drafted really well in 2012. It wasn’t just Andrew Luck. It would have been pretty hard to mess that one up. But they found good values in the later rounds. Nowhere is that more evident than in your young receiving corps, as they wisely made building the skill positions around Luck a priority of their first draft. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in the 2nd and 3rd round respectively give them two young tight ends and 3rd rounder TY Hilton showed well as a rookie wide receiver. They also got a nice value with Lavon Brazill in the 6th round, as he flashed as a rookie, though his roster spot is currently in jeopardy after a 4 game suspension for marijuana.
Fleener and Allen will be a big part of the Colts’ new two-tight end heavier offense. Allen was a later draft pick, but because he was an NFL ready blocker, he saw more snaps than Fleener, which should continue to be the case this season, with Allen playing in-line and Fleener functioning more as a move tight end. Allen showed very well as a rookie, blocking very well (both run and pass) and adding 45 catches for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns on 368 routes run (1.41 yards per route run).
Because of his all-around game, he was actually ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked tight end last season. He also played the 12th most snaps of any player at his position, so he had a really big role as a rookie, playing 925 snaps. It only got bigger as the season went on as he played at least 73% of his team’s snaps in every game from week 7 on, after doing so just once in his first 5 games. He also played some fullback from time to time.
Fleener played about half the snaps that Allen did, playing 461 snaps, but in his 2nd year in the league, in Pep Hamilton’s new offense, he should see that number increase. He was pretty mediocre as a rookie and disappointed as a pass catcher, catching just 26 passes for 281 yards and 2 touchdowns on 252 routes run (1.12 yards per route run). Still, he’s a natural pass catcher who should have an improved 2nd season in the league. Having his old offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton should help. Even with the Colts’ running more two-tight end sets, I still do expect them to pass often. Luck might not attempt 627 passes again, but he’s very comfortable throwing out of two-tight end sets and Allen and Fleener are both comfortable catching passes.
With the Colts playing fewer 3-wide receiver sets this season, TY Hilton will have to win the starting job opposite Reggie Wayne if he wants to have the breakout season he’s capable of. I predict he will. As a rookie in 2012, TY Hilton put up some pretty impressive stats for the Colts, catching 50 passes for 861 yards and 7 touchdowns. He did this on 88 targets and while his catch rate of 56.8% is not very impressive, he caught so many deep balls and had so many big plays that he managed a very impressive 9.8 YPA. He also had the 7th highest catch rate (10 of 20) on balls that traveled at least 20 yards in the air among receivers who caught at least 10 such passes. In terms of quarterback rating when thrown to, he ranked 21st, as Andrew Luck had a 102.5 QB rating when throwing to him, nearly 30 points higher than Luck’s overall QB rating.
In his 2nd year in 2013, I have reason to believe he’ll be even more productive. For starters, he’ll obviously be more experienced. He doesn’t turn 24 until November and the 2012 3rd round pick has hardly peaked. What he did as a rookie was not only above average for a rookie receiver, but significantly above average when compared to rookie receivers drafted in the 1st round.
Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. I don’t have the numbers for the descending rounds, but they are almost definitely lower. And Hilton, a 3rd round rookie, greatly exceeded these first round numbers. In his 2nd year in the league, he should improve on those numbers. One area that can be cleaned up is drops, as he dropped 10 passes last year. Just looking at his game 9-16 splits, you can see that Hilton became a better player as the season when on, catching 26 passes for 506 yards and 5 touchdowns in his final 8 games, 52 catches for 1012 yards and 10 touchdowns over 16 games.
The second reason I expect more production from him this year is that he’ll play more snaps. Last year, he worked as the 3rd receiver behind Reggie Wayne and Donnie Avery and only played 49 total snaps in his first 3 games. This year, Avery is gone and, while they’ve added Darrius Heyward-Bey, he figures to be a backup and depth receiver with Hilton serving as the #2 receiver. Avery played 687 pass snaps to Hilton’s 508. If Hilton had played, say, 650 pass snaps last year, extrapolation off his rookie numbers alone gets him to 64 catches for 1102 yards and 9 touchdowns.
The third reason is that he figures, in addition to playing more snaps, to become a bigger part of the offense and get more targets per pass snap. That goes hand and hand with being a year more experienced, but he also has an aging Reggie Wayne opposite him. Wayne also had a huge season catching 106 passes for 1355 yards and 5 touchdowns, but he also received 179 targets and had the 6th highest targets per routes run in the NFL (TY Hilton was a modest 27th among 45 qualifying receivers).
Wayne also turns 35 this November. Over the next 2-4 years, Wayne can be expected to go from top flight receiver to complementary player to gone. That’s just what happens to receivers around this age. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37.
Wayne already showed some signs of slowing down in the 2nd half of last season, catching “just” 45 passes for 520 yards and 2 touchdowns, meaning Hilton almost out produced him in the 2nd half of last year. Going into 2013, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Hilton were this team’s leading receiver and even if he isn’t, he should still have a 1000 yard breakout year and he looks like a Pro-Bowl sleeper, again, assuming he wins the starting job.
With Wayne aging, Andrew Luck’s receiving corps still appear to be in good hands for the future with Hilton having the profile of a future #1 receiver. He’s one of the fastest players in the NFL, flashing 4.34 speed at The Combine, and is developing the rest of his game. His size (5-10 183) could be the one thing that holds him back, but receivers such as Steve Smith (5-9 185), Antonio Brown (5-10 186) and DeSean Jackson (5-10 175) have all developed as #1 receivers in spite of their lack of size. Hilton has a similar skill set. There’s a reason he was one of my favorite sleeper prospects of the 2012 draft class. At the very least, he’ll serve as a downfield complement to aging possession receiver Reggie Wayne this year. Darrius Heyward-Bey, a marginal receiver, will provide depth and play on 3-wide receiver sets, moving Wayne to the slot.
In addition to all of the good skill position players they added in the receiving corps in the 2012 NFL Draft, they also found a good value with Vick Ballard at running back in the 5th round. Ballard took over the starting job from Polian-era 1st round bust Donald Brown week 5 and averaged 15.8 carries a game from that point on, rushing for 814 yards and 2 touchdowns on 211 carries with 17 catches for 152 yards and a touchdown. He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, but you can blame his offensive line for that somewhat (he averaged a decent 2.5 yards per carry after contact) and he’s the type of back who would be better in tandem with another back.
That’s where Ahmad Bradshaw comes in. Bradshaw was cut by the Giants this off-season going into just his age 27 season because they grew tired of his laundry list of injury problems, after he had a 4th foot surgery this off-season (to go with 2 career ankle surgeries). It took him a while to get picked up this off-season, settling for a 1-year deal with the Colts, but he’s one of the toughest running backs in the NFL, missing just 7 games in 4 years (the last 3 as a starter) despite all the injury problems.
He’s rushed for 3687 yards and 30 touchdowns on 831 carries in those 4 seasons, a 4.4 yards per carry clip, and he’s added 125 catches for 1033 yards and 2 touchdowns in the air. He’s also averaged 15.9 carries per game over the past 3 years as a starter, so being able to work in tandem with another back will help him. He’ll probably split early down work with Ballard and handle most of the passing down work, which is his strength at this point in his career.
While the Colts averaged just 22.3 points per game last season, 18th in the NFL, defense was the bigger issue. While they had young talent on offense, they had mostly replacement level talent on defense, a unit that ranked 21st in the NFL, allowing 24.2 points per game. There wasn’t really a thing they were good at last season other than winning close games against bad teams. In effort to fix their defense, the Colts spent a lot of money this off-season, signing 4 players to multi-year contracts. They could be better as they’ll likely force more turnovers (more on that in a second), but I don’t know if they’re significantly more talented.
Onto turnovers, the Colts forced just 15 of them last season, as opposed to 27 turnovers offensively (not a huge number). Still, they were -12 in turnovers on the season. Fortunately, that type of thing tends to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.
Turnovers and takeaways are incredibly hard to predict on year-to-year and even a game-to-game basis (teams with a turnover differential of +4 or higher and teams with a turnover differential of -4 or lower both average a turnover differential of +0.0 in the following game). I don’t know if they’ll cut down on their turnovers offensively (Luck’s development will help), because that’s not an unreasonable amount, but their defense should force at least 20 takeaways next season to get them to a more even turnover margin. So for that reason, they should be better defensively, but not by much. In terms of pure yardage, they were actually 26th in the NFL, allowing 5988 yards (23rd in YPA allowed and 31st in YPC allowed) and their off-season additions won’t help much. A return to form for cornerback Vontae Davis could be their biggest potential boost.
On the defensive line, their big off-season addition was Ricky Jean-Francois, who got 22 million over 4 years coming over from San Francisco. It’s a lot of money for a former 7th round pick who has played just 715 snaps in 4 seasons and hasn’t been all that remarkable on them. It wouldn’t be the first time a San Francisco player went from backup to above average starter with no indication in his past that a higher level was possible (Alex Boone, Ray McDonald, NaVorro Bowman, Dashon Goldson, Tarell Brown, etc), but all of those players did so with the 49ers. If Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke had felt Jean-Francois was capable of much bigger things, they probably would have shown more interest in trying to keep him around behind an aging Justin Smith, instead of signing Glenn Dorsey.
He could be an average starter (though he could be worse) and he’ll probably be an upgrade over the mess they had on the defensive line last season, but they’re paying him to be an above average starter and I don’t think they’ll get that. Opposite him, the Colts have Cory Redding, once an above average starter, but he struggled last season and going into his age 33 season, it’s very possible his best days are behind him.
In between them, Josh Chapman will probably start. The Alabama product fell to the 5th round in the 2012 NFL Draft because of injuries, but he’s healthy and ready to start now so it looks like another smart draft move from the Colts. He didn’t play a snap as a rookie though, so it’s unclear what kind of player he’ll be. He’ll face competition for the job from off-season addition Aubrayo Franklin, who hasn’t been the same player in 2 seasons since leaving the 49ers. He’d be a marginal starter at best if he wins the job. They’ll probably get better play than what they got from Antonio Johnson last year. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 80th ranked defensive tackle out of 85 eligible.
The Colts could also have Fili Moala, Ricardo Matthews, Drake Nevis, and Lawrence Guy in the mix depending on how the starters do. They used a lot of rotation on the defensive line last season, though a lot of that had to do with how little talent they had. I think the Colts would prefer not to have those guys play a bunch of snaps again because only Nevis and Guy graded out above average, doing so just barely and on 264 and 189 snaps respectively. It’s not as bad of a unit as it was last year, but not by much.
In their linebacking corps, the big addition was Erik Walden, who signed for 16 million over 4 years. He’s essentially been a starter for the past 2 seasons, playing opposite Clay Matthews in 2011 with the Packers, getting replaced in the starting lineup by 1st round pick Nick Perry in 2012, but coming back into the lineup when Perry got hurt early in the year. He was absolutely awful in both seasons, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ worst rated 3-4 outside linebacker in both seasons. He especially struggled as a pass rusher last season, managing just 3 sacks, 9 hits, and 12 hurries on 390 pass rush snaps, a 6.2% pass rush rate.
He won’t start in Indianapolis, thankfully, because of the addition of Bjoern Warner in the first round of the draft, but he’ll still have a big role as the top reserve behind the rookie and aging veteran Robert Mathis. Werner is a very refined pass rusher for his age, but he doesn’t appear to have the natural athleticism to be a good fit to play rush linebacker in Indianapolis’ 3-4. We’ll see what he can do as a rookie.
Mathis, meanwhile, is an overrated player at this point in his career, making the Pro-Bowl last season. He did have 8 sacks, but he managed just 5 sacks and 16 hurries to go with those 8 sacks on 301 pass rush snaps, a 9.6% pass rush rate. He ranked just 16th out of 32 eligible in pass rush productivity at his position and, while he graded out above average rushing the passer, he struggled mightily against the run and in coverage and graded out below average overall. He also was limited to just 642 snaps due to injury. He’s heading into his age 32 season and doesn’t seem to be a good fit for the Colts’ new 3-4, after playing in a 4-3 for his whole career. His best days are probably behind him.
Things are better at middle linebacker, but not by much. Jerrell Freeman took the starting job and ran with it in his first season over from the CFL. He was among the tops in the NFL in tackles, though a lot of that was just mopping up messes. Only 55 of his tackles were for a stop (sack or tackle within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, or the full distance on 3rd or 4th down) and overall he graded out as just about an average starter.
Freeman became the starter because Pat Angerer missed a lot of time with injury. When Angerer returned, he cut into the playing time of Kavell Conner, rather than Freeman. Angerer and Conner will compete for the starting job opposite Freeman this season. Conner struggled mightily in 2011 at outside linebacker, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 43rd ranked middle linebacker out of 45 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. The 2010 7th round pick played much better inside in Indianapolis’ 3-4 in 2012 on 326 snaps. Angerer, meanwhile, has struggled mightily throughout his career since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010. The best case scenario is that Conner can win the job and play as well as an every down starter as he did last year in a more limited role. It’s a big time projection.
One of the free agent additions in the secondary was Greg Toler, who was signed to a 3 year deal worth 15 million, a serious overpay considering injuries have limited him to 308 snaps last season and caused him to miss the entirety of the 2011 season. He played very well last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 27th ranked cornerback and 15th ranked cover cornerback despite his limited playing time, as he allowed 17 catches on 41 attempts for 266 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 3 penalties. There’s upside with him, if he can ever stay healthy, but the Colts are taking a big risk.
Toler will start opposite Vontae Davis, who has his own injury history. They acquired him from the Dolphins for a 2nd and 5th round pick before last season, expecting the 2009 1st round pick to bounce back to 2010 levels, when he was ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked cornerback. However, he was also coming off an injury riddled 2011 season in which he played just 699 snaps and because of durability and work ethic issues, the Dolphins actually demoted him out of the starting unit in Training Camp. It was a risk and it didn’t really pay off, as he graded out below average on 606 snaps. In 4 years in the league, he’s only made 16 starts once and he’s missed 10 games over the past 2 seasons. He played really well in 2010 and he could be a bounce back candidate going into his contract year, but there’s no guarantee.
On the slot, Darius Butler returns. A flameout as a 2nd round pick of the Patriots in 2009, Butler actually played well down the stretch once taking over as their slot back with the Colts, the 3rd team he’s played for in his short career. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 31st ranked cornerback and 24th ranked coverage cornerback, doing so on just 380 snaps. He allowed 27 catches on 50 attempts for 309 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 2 passes and not committing a penalty. He ranked 2nd in the NFL among eligible cornerbacks in QB rating allowed and 4th in the NFL among eligible cornerbacks in QB rating allowed while on the slot. Of course, that was very limited playing time and he has never been dependable in the past. It’s going to be hard to count on him.
Given that it’s going to be very hard to count on any of their top-3 cornerbacks, it’s very possible #4 cornerback Cassius Vaughn could see serious playing time again. He actually led the team in snaps played by a cornerback, playing 840 last season and he was awful, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ absolute worst ranked cornerback, allowing 66 catches on 106 attempts for 794 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 9 penalties.
The other free agent addition in the secondary was LaRon Landry, who was signed to a 4 year deal worth 24 million. He was once one of the best safeties in the NFL, grading out 5th in 2008 and 15th in 2010 (with a 83rd out of 88 eligible ranked season in between), but those days could be gone because of injuries, going into just his age 29 season. Achilles problems limited him to 512 snaps in 2011 and forced him to settle for a one year deal with the Jets last off-season, where he graded out significantly below average, ranking 65th out of 88 eligible safeties.
He’ll play opposite Antoine Bethea, the Colts’ 3rd longest tenured player behind Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis. He’s been better in the past, grading out slightly above average in every season from 2008-2011, but last year graded slightly below average. It’s possible he could bounce back, but he’s never really had a great season. He’s an average to above average starter, going into his age 29 season. He hasn’t missed a game since 2007 and he’s an incredibly reliable starter, which makes him pretty much the opposite of the rest of this secondary.
Bruce Arians won Coach of the Year for his work filling in as Interim Head Coach for Chuck Pagano last season and while Pagano coached just 4 games due to his leukemia diagnosis, he was a huge off the field inspiration to this team and locker room presence when his body allowed for it. On top of that, he put in all the work with this team before the season. You don’t just roll out of bed week 1 much improved team. He was their coach for 4 months from rookie camp to week 1 before he was even diagnosed with cancer and laid the framework for Arians to take over and have the kind of success they did. I argued the two of them should have split the Coach of the Year award. That being said, we’ve yet to see how he can do as the Head Coach of a team for a full year, so it’s tough to grade him. As I do with 1st year Head Coaches, it’s important to temper expectations.
Andrew Luck will take a leap forward offensively and they have added talent defensively, so the Colts will probably play better this season, but they only played about as well as a 7-win team last season, before you even take into account their schedule. Their schedule isn’t a ton tougher this year, but they are unlikely to make a 2nd straight playoff appearance, unless Luck takes a major leap forward.
In the division, they’ll probably take both games from Jacksonville, but they’re more likely to split with Tennessee (an improved team who they beat by a combined 10 points last season) than they are to beat Houston, a team who is on a higher level. I have them at 3-3 in the division. Outside the division, they do host Oakland, which should be a win, but Miami and St. Louis will be tougher and Denver and Seattle will both will very tough. I think they’ll win 2 or 3 of those games. On the road, they have to go to San Francisco, San Diego, Arizona, Cincinnati, and Kansas City. They were -61 on the road last season, so they’ll have a tough time winning more than a game or two of those. They’ll probably be between 6 and 8 wins, but for parity’s sake, I have them at 6-10.
Projection: 6-10 2nd in AFC South