It might not show it in the win/loss column, as the Colts have gone 11-5 in each of Andrew Luck’s first three seasons in the NFL, but the Colts have gotten significantly better in each of Luck’s first three seasons in the NFL. In Luck’s rookie year, they went 9-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less and, while they’ve done well in close games in every season, they’ve gotten progressively less reliant on eeking out close victories in each season, going 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2013 and 4-2 in 2014. This has been noticeable in the playoffs, as the Colts have gone from losing in the wild card round, to losing in the divisional round, to losing in the AFC Championship game, one win away from the Super Bowl, over the course of those 3 seasons, though there are other ways to tell that they’re improving as a team.
In 2014, much more so than the other two seasons, the Colts were an 11-5 team that deserved to be an 11-5 team. Far fewer of their victories were close games that could have gone either way. They finished the 2014 season 5th in rate of moving the chains differential, as the offense ranked 10th in rate of moving the chains, and their defense actually ranked 6th in rate of moving the chains allowed. It’s important to remember that the Colts play in a terrible division that has allowed them to go 12-0 in divisional games (as opposed to 10-10 in non-divisional games) over the past 2 seasons. The division should be better this season, but not to the point where the Colts will be an underdog in any divisional game, either home or away, this season. The Colts should also be better too, after having the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury last season. Even though they’ve been somewhat propped up by a bad division, this still looks like one of the most talented teams in the AFC.
So how have the Colts improved over the years? Well, they’ve spent a lot of money in free agency in recent off-seasons, with this off-season being no exception. They haven’t always spent that money wisely, but sometimes they have and they’ve had a lot of money to play with because many of their good players are under rookie contracts. That’s going to change rapidly over the next two off-seasons and it’s going to be impossible to keep everyone, so the Colts are largely in win now mode this season, but they have at least a decent chance to do exactly that.
And, of course, the biggest reason the Colts have improved is Andrew Luck. He might not be as “magical” in close games as he was when he was a rookie, but it’s much more important to be good in the NFL and Luck certainly has gotten better every season, grading out 16th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 12th in 2013, and 9th in 2014, completing 61.7% of his passes for an average of 7.73 YPA, 40 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions last season. He set career highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdowns with those numbers.
He’s not quite a top level elite quarterback, but he’s very close and, only going into his age 26 season, he could certainly keep getting better. He’s signed for about 19.5 million total over the next 2 seasons, but he’s expected to get a long-term extension sometime in the next 12 months or so, ahead of his 2016 contract year, and will probably set an NFL record for average salary. Right now, Aaron Rodgers’ 22 million dollar annual salary is the record and Luck reportedly could get 25 million. That’s going to make it hard for the Colts to keep talent around Luck, even with a rapidly increasing salary cap, but they won’t have much of a choice but to keep a guy who could be the best quarterback in the NFL in 2 or 3 years.
One of the players the Colts brought in through free agency this off-season is former 49er running back Frank Gore, who was signed to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. He was brought in to fix a running game that averaged just 3.88 yards per carry last season, 25th in the NFL. Their top-3 running backs last season in terms of carries were mega-bust Trent Richardson, veteran Ahmad Bradshaw, who broke his leg week 11 and missed the rest of the season, and the unproven Boom Herron. That being said, the Colts will probably live to regret giving Frank Gore a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal and guaranteeing him 6.5 million of the 7.5 million he’s scheduled to make over the next 2 seasons.
Gore’s rushing yards rank 20th all-time and he could be bound for Canton. However, he’s also going into his age 32 season with 2442 carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 career carries. He might not have looked it last year, when he rushed for 1106 yards and 4 touchdowns on 255 attempts (4.34 YPC), caught 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown, and graded only slightly below average, but he’s close to the end. This deal reminds me of when the Falcons signed an aging Steven Jackson two off-seasons ago, expecting him to be the missing piece to a Super Bowl team.
If Gore has a rapid decline or suffers an injury and another running back needs to step into a bigger role, the Colts don’t really have a good option. Ahmad Bradshaw wasn’t re-signed this off-season, going into his age 29 season, following an off-season marijuana arrest that got him suspended for the first week of the 2015 season, and the Colts next 4 running backs on the depth chart behind Gore right now are Herron, Vick Ballard, Zurlon Tipton, and Josh Robinson.
Herron is almost definitely the favorite for the #2 job right now. Even though he was a 2012 6th round pick with 9 career carries going into last season, Herron ended up being the lead back for the Colts down the stretch and into the playoffs. He wasn’t terrible, but he graded out below average in the regular season and was horrible in the post-season. Between the regular season and the playoffs, he rushed for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns on 123 carries (4.24 YPC) and showed himself to be pretty good as a receiver, catching 41 passes for 301 yards. Those numbers aren’t bad, but they weren’t great either and he also fumbled 4 times, a really high rate for the number of carries he had and a serious problem. He’s a decent backup, but little else.
The rest of the bunch is even more uninspiring. Vick Ballard hasn’t played since week 1 of the 2013 season, thanks to a torn ACL that ended his 2013 season and a torn Achilles that ended his 2014 season before it even started. He’s reportedly a candidate to start this season on the physically unable to perform list and miss at least the first 6 games, if he can even make the roster. He hasn’t proven himself to be a very good runner even when healthy, rushing for 877 yards and 2 touchdowns on 224 carries, an average of 3.92 YPC, in his career, while adding just 18 catches for 147 yards and another touchdown through the air. The 2012 5th round pick’s career is still very much in jeopardy, almost a whole year after the Achilles tear.
Tipton, meanwhile, was a 2014 undrafted free agent who rushed for 86 yards and 1 touchdown on 28 carries, an average of 3.07 yards per carry, with 9 catches for 90 yards and another touchdown through the air, between the regular season and post-season as a rookie. Josh Robinson, a 6th round rookie, rounds out an uninspiring group of backup running backs behind a starting running back who is at the end of his line. The Colts could be better on the ground than they were last season, but they might not be and I don’t expect them to get their money’s worth out of free agent acquisition Frank Gore.
Sticking with the theme of overpaying over 30 veterans, the Colts signed Andre Johnson to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, after the Texans released him to save 8.5 million dollars. He’ll probably help the Colts more than Gore, but I thought he’d get something closer to what Anquan Boldin got from the 49ers last off-season, a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal with 6 million guaranteed.
Johnson is going into his age 34 season coming off the worst statistical season of his career, in terms of yards per game, since his rookie year. He caught 85 passes for 936 yards and 3 touchdowns on 141 targets (60.3%) and 487 routes run (1.92 yards per route run) and only graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked wide receiver. That’s not bad, but it’s worse than what we’ve come to expect from him. He’s currently #12 on the NFL’s all-time receiving yardage list and likely Hall-of-Fame bound someday, but 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. Johnson is a declining player who could soon become a rapidly declining player.
He could still be an asset to this team though, simply by being an upgrade over Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks, who played 881 and 602 snaps respectively last season and graded out 106th and 105th respectively out of 110 eligible wide receivers. Neither was brought back as a free agent and the former remains unsigned and will likely retire at some point, ahead of his age 37 season. The Colts have already ruled out bringing him back. His last 1000 yard season was in 2012 in his age 34 season, just another reminder of how quickly a wide receiver can lose it.
The Colts also have a pair of young wide receivers, 2014 3rd round pick Donte Moncrief and rookie 1st rounder Phillip Dorsett. Moncrief flashed on 421 snaps as a rookie, stealing snaps from Wayne and Nicks down the stretch. He was seen as a breakout candidate prior to the addition of Johnson in free agency and Dorsett through the draft, but now will only play a situational role this season at most, at least to start the season. Dorsett will also only play a situational role at most and was likely drafted with the future in mind. Dorsett is 5-10 185, ran a 4.33 at the combine, and has a skill set similar to TY Hilton did when the Colts drafted him in the 3rd round in 2012. Hilton is going into his contract year and is reportedly far apart with the Colts on a long-term deal. With a lot of talent and expensive players to keep under the cap long-term, the Colts likely see Hilton as expendable and Dorsett as his long-term replacement.
As for 2015, Hilton is locked in as the #1 receiver. Like his fellow draft classmate Andrew Luck, Hilton has improved in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, leading to a 2014 season in which he caught 82 passes on 123 attempts (66.7%) for 1346 yards and 7 touchdowns on 572 routes run, an average of 2.35 yards per route run. He’s graded out 86th, 34th, and 10th in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively and should have another strong season this year, only his age 26 season. It’s definitely helped him to have played with Andrew Luck, but he’s a great receiver in his own right and someone who will make a lot of money on his next deal. That deal just might not come from the Colts.
With so much wide receiver depth, the Colts will probably use a bunch of 3-wide receiver sets this season, at the expense of two-tight end sets, which they ran a lot of last season, with Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Allen’s the better of the two and has the better all-around game, which should earn him more playing time than Fleener. The 2012 3rd round pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, including 2nd among tight ends as a rookie, thanks to great all-around play. Allen missed all but 1 game and 30 snaps with injury in 2013 and wasn’t as good in 2014 as he was as a rookie, but he still graded out 9th among tight ends on 633 snaps in 13 games. He’s never had more than 45 catches in a season, but he’s still a solid tight end with decent hands and great blocking abilities at 6-3 255.
Fleener, meanwhile, has 103 catches over the past 2 seasons, grading out above average as a pass catcher in both seasons, but grading out below average as a run blocker in both seasons at 6-6 247. He’ll still have a role this season, but he won’t play the 812 snaps he did last season most likely, barring another injury to Allen. He’ll primarily play as a #2 tight end, coming in for the #3 receiver in two-tight end sets, helping the Colts effectively pass out of two-tight end sets. With their wide receivers going 4 deep, their tight ends going 2 deep, Andrew Luck under center, and limited talent at running back, expect the Colts to pass a ton this season, even when they have a lead, and probably even more than last season, when they had 661 pass attempts (1st in the NFL) to 415 rushes (17th in the NFL). Their passing game is simply, by far, their most effective way of moving the football.
As I mentioned, the Colts had a lot of injuries last season, 3rd most in the NFL in terms of adjusted games lost. That was the case in 2013 as well and arguably their most injury prone player (other than Vick Ballard) over that time period has been Donald Thomas. The Colts signed Thomas to a 4-year, 14 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, which looked like a good idea at the time as Thomas graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked guard in 2012 in 7 starts with the Patriots and looked like a budding starter.
However, Thomas has played just 72 snaps in 2 seasons with the Colts, missing 30 games with injury, including all of last season. He’s already going into his age 30 season and who knows what kind of playing shape he will be in after two separate thigh tears, but he’s graded out above average in every season he’s played a snap since being drafted in the 6th round in 2008. He’s only made 21 starts in his career though and he’s not expected to be back until training camp at the earliest and, if he can’t nail down a starting job, the Colts could cut him to save 3.5 million in cash, 3.25 million of which will come off their cap immediately.
Thomas will be competing with Jack Mewhort and Joe Reitz for the starting job. The former is a 2014 2nd round pick who graded out slightly above average as a rookie, making 13 starts at left guard and 2 starts at right tackle, where he spent the majority of his time in college at Ohio State. Reitz, meanwhile, is a veteran journeyman who went undrafted in 2008 and who is going into his age 30 season. He didn’t play an offensive snap until the 2011 season and he graded out below average in both 2011 and 2012 on 544 and 479 snaps, but he graded out above average in both 2013 and 2014 on 149 and 277 snaps respectively. The Colts gave him a 3-year, 8 million dollar deal this off-season so they clearly value him and his ability to play both guard and tackle.
One of Mewhort or Reitz could start the season at right tackle in 2015 if oft injured right tackle Gosder Cherilus can’t get healthy in time for the start of the season, after off-season knee surgery. Cherilus has had some good seasons since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008 by the Lions, grading out above average in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013, including 12th in 2012 and 26th in 2013. There’s a reason the Colts gave him a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago.
However, he’s had major issues with his knees throughout his career, including microfracture surgery, and his recovery from this latest knee problem is taking a while. He’s also going into his age 31 season and coming off of a season in which he graded out 70th among 84 eligible offensive tackles. The Colts couldn’t cut him this off-season as it would have cost them 1.8 million on the cap, but he’ll need a very good season to justify a 7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016, 4.1 million of which the Colts would save on the cap immediately.
At center, mediocre linemen Khaled Holmes and Jonotthan Holmes will battle it out for the starting job. AQ Shipley actually started last season at center for the Colts, making the first 4 starts of the season and grading out 3rd among centers over that time period before being inexplicably benched for the rookie undrafted free agent Harrison, who made 10 starts and graded out 35th among 41 eligible centers. Holmes finished out the season there, making the final 2 starts, and is reportedly seen as the favorite to start there this season. However, the 2013 4th round pick has played just 193 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and likely wouldn’t be an upgrade. He struggled in those 2 starts last season. Shipley, their only competent center last year, was let go and could start in Arizona this season.
The other two spots, right guard and left tackle, seem pretty settled. At right guard, Todd Herremans should start, after signing a 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal this off-season, coming over from Philadelphia. Herremans is an accomplished veteran who has made 124 starts for the Eagles over the past 10 years since they drafted him in the 4th round in 2005, but he missed 8 games with injury in 2014 (making it 16 games missed over the last 3 seasons) and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 57th ranked guard out of 78 eligible.
Herremans was Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked guard in 2013, so he could bounce back in 2015, but he’s also going into his age 33 season. Also, the only reason Herremans graded out so high overall in 2013 was because he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked guard in run blocking. He struggled mightily in pass protection, grading out 79th out of 81 eligible in that aspect. In fact, Herremans hasn’t graded out above average in pass protection since 2009. He’s still a capable run blocker, but pass protection is more important in today’s NFL and it’s an area that Herremans has major issues in, especially at this stage of his career. The Colts are hoping he can at least be an upgrade over Hugh Thornton and Lance Louis, who played 584 and 543 snaps respectively and graded out 48th and 62nd among 78 eligible guards respectively.
Meanwhile at left tackle, Anthony Costanzo is locked into the spot where he’s been since the Colts drafted him in the 1st round in 2011, making 60 of 64 starts in 4 seasons in the league and grading out above average in each of the last 3 seasons. In 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, he ranked 36th, 27th, and 12th among offensive tackles and should have a similar season in 2015. Assuming Cherilus misses some time with injury, I expect their offensive line to be (from left to right) Castonzo, Mewhort/Reitz, Holmes/Harrison, Herremans, and Reitz/Mewhort to start the season, with Reitz moving into a super-sub 6th offensive lineman role when Cherilus returns. Reitz could still see significant action at either right tackle or right guard if Herremans or Cherilus get hurt again or struggle more. It’s a below average offensive line overall I think.
On the defensive line in the Colts 3-4 defense, Cory Redding and Ricky Jean-Francois led the way in snaps played with 757 and 647 respectively last season. Both graded out above average, even if only slightly, but both are gone, the former signing in Arizona as a free agent and the latter getting cut ahead of a 5.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and signing in Washington. The Colts brought Kendall Langford in as a free agent on a 4-year, 17.2 million dollar deal, coming over from St. Louis, to replace Redding.
Langford was cut by the Rams this off-season, but it wasn’t because he played badly last season. They cut him because his 6 million dollar salary was too much to pay for a 3rd defensive tackle. Langford graded out about average last season, but only saw 494 snaps as he was stuck behind recent 1st round picks Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers. The Colts get him at less than 6 million annually and he’s still a starting caliber player, only going into his age 29 season. I like Langford in a 3-4 more than a 4-3 anyway. He had some success in St. Louis’ 4-3, but graded out below average twice in three seasons. In a 3-4 to start his career in Miami, he graded out above average in 2 of 4 seasons, including 7th at his position in 2009 and then 7th again in 2010. He might not be an upgrade over what Redding was last season, but he’s a lot younger than Redding so he’s better long-term.
Opposite Langford, the Colts are hoping to get more out of Arthur Jones, who they signed to a 5-year, 33 million dollar deal last off-season. Jones was limited to 371 snaps in 9 games by an ankle injury last season and really struggled when on the field, grading out 40th among 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends, despite the limited playing time. Now healthy, he has some bounce back potential, but he’s also a one-year wonder. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out above average just once in his career, the contract year of his rookie deal in 2013, which is why the Colts gave him such a large contract. He graded out 12th among 3-4 defensive ends that season, but it’s very possible the Colts made a big financial mistake giving that much money to a one-year wonder. We’ll see if he can come close to replicating that season in 2015. He’ll start opposite Langford, with 3rd round rookie Henry Anderson seeing a decent amount of action as a reserve.
Starting between them at nose tackle will be the 6-1 316 pound Josh Chapman, purely a two-down player. The 2012 5th round pick didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but played 243 in 2013 and 385 in 2014. He graded out above average against the run in each of those 2 seasons, but below average overall because of his complete incompetence as a pass rusher. He’s good in his current role, but is a limited player. The Colts also have a pair of big defensive linemen, Montori Hughes and Zach Kerr, who will see limited action across the defensive line in base packages. Hughes, 6-4 335, has seen 272 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 5th round in 2013, while Kerr, 6-2 335, graded out below average on 289 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2014. Like on offense, they’re mediocre in the trenches defensively.
Sticking with their theme of adding 30+ veterans, the Colts signed Trent Cole to a 2-year, 14 million dollar deal this off-season, after the Eagles cut him to avoid paying him a non-guaranteed 10.025 million dollar salary for 2015. However, unlike Johnson and Gore, Cole was still playing at a high level last season and has a good chance to continue at least solid play this season. Cole has still graded out above average in every season of Pro Football Focus’ 8-year existence, including 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and 19th in 2014. He’s going into his age 33 season, but he could still be the best edge rusher on a team that really needed help there.
Bjoern Werner (762 snaps) and Erik Walden (669 snaps) led the team in snaps at the 3-4 outside linebacker position last season and both struggled. Werner was a 1st round pick by the Colts in 2013, but has largely been a bust thus far, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the NFL, culminating in him being a healthy scratch in the AFC Championship game last season. There’s still time for him to turn it around and he’s probably the favorite to start opposite Cole, but he’s unclear if he can do that. A better run stopper than pass rusher, he’s someone who could benefit from seeing only base package snaps, something the Colts have the outside linebacker depth to do.
Walden, meanwhile, is a 2008 6th round pick who hasn’t graded out above average once in 7 seasons in the league. He hasn’t been as bad in Indianapolis as he was in his final 2 seasons in Green Bay in 2011 and 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in both seasons, but he hasn’t been worth the undeserved 4-year, 16 million dollar deal the Colts gave him two off-seasons ago. Going into his age 30 season, he’s not going to get better going forward.
Like Werner, Walden also probably won’t have to play as many snaps this season as he did last season and could be purely a rotational reserve. There are three reasons for that and the first and most obvious one is the arrival of Cole. The second reason is that Jonathan Newsome, a 2014 5th round pick, flashed on 397 snaps as a rookie and deserves a bigger role, especially on passing downs. He should siphon off a fair amount of pass rush snaps that previously went to Walden and Werner.
The third reason is that the Colts expect to get more out of Robert Mathis this season than they did last season. Of course, that’s not going to be hard, considering Mathis missed all of last season with a torn Achilles. What’s still unclear is how much they’re going to get out of him and how good he’s going to be. Mathis was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker the last time he played in 2013 and he graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons from 2007-2013, but he’s now going into his age 34 season, coming off of a serious injury and, as good as he was in 2013, he did grade out below average in 2012, so he had shown some signs of aging even prior to the injury.
His recovery from the injury reportedly hasn’t been going great, not a surprise considering his age, and he’s unlikely to be ready for training camp, which would put him in a race to play week 1 and make him a candidate to start the season on the physically unable to perform list and miss the first 6 games of the season. The addition of Cole suggests that they aren’t too confident in him. Even before the injury, he was never a very good player against the run, grading out below average against the run in 4 of 7 seasons from 2007-2013, so, when he returns, he should be limited to pass rush snaps in sub packages. If the Colts can get 10 games of above average pass rush from him in a situational role, they should consider that a win.
The Colts struggled at middle linebacker last season, as Jerrell Freeman and D’Qwell Jackson graded out 39th and 46th respectively among 60 eligible middle linebackers. The Colts signed Nate Irving to a 3-year, 7.25 million dollar deal this off-season and he should play at least a situational role at middle linebacker this season. A 2011 3rd round pick of the Broncos, Irving never played more than 353 snaps in a season in Denver, but graded out above average overall in each of the last 2 seasons and above average against the run in each of the last 3 seasons.
In 2014, he graded out 22nd among middle linebackers, including 12th against the run, on 353 snaps, before going down for the season with a torn ACL after week 9. Through 9 weeks, he ranked 4th against the run. His recovery is going well and he should be ready for week 1, 10 months removed from the injury. He should play at least a situational base package role against the run and, unless he struggles in his first year back from the torn ACL, he should be an asset for them in that role.
Irving’s snaps in base packages should come at the expense of Freeman, an undersized middle linebacker at 6-0 220 who graded out 2nd among middle linebackers in coverage last season, but 59th out of 60 eligible against the run. This isn’t anything new. In 3 seasons in the league since coming over from the CFL, he’s graded out above average in coverage twice, but he’s never graded out above average against the run. Going into his age 29 season, I expect more of the same from him this season, though in a role that better suits his skill set.
Jackson will remain an every down player, which could definitely be a problem again. Jackson was a solid player when he was younger, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, including 35th out of 55 eligible middle linebackers in his final season in Cleveland in 2013 and then 46th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers in his first season in Indianapolis in 2014. Things probably won’t get better as he enters his age 32 season in 2015 and he’ll need a strong season to justify a 5.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016. There’s depth in this linebacking corps and guys who can play roles, but they’re only an average linebacking unit at best.
While the front 7 struggled last season, the Colts still performed well overall defensively because of great play from their secondary (poor competition also helped). Cornerback Vontae Davis was their 2nd most important player last season, behind Andrew Luck and ahead of TY Hilton. Davis was drafted in the first round by the Dolphins in 2009, but, when Joe Philbin’s coaching staff came in before the 2012 season, they felt he was out of shape, benched him, and put him on the trade block. Even though Davis had graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league (29th, 13th, and 39th) and even though he was still very young (only going into his age 24 season in 2012), they shipped him to the Colts for a 2nd and a 6th round pick before the 2012 season.
It looked like the Dolphins had won the trade at first, as Davis graded out below average in his first season in Indianapolis and missed 6 games with injury, which seemed to give some truth to the accusations that he was out of shape. However, Davis has developed into one of the top few cornerbacks in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, grading out 4th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 2nd among cornerbacks in 2014. He joins Darrelle Revis as one of two cornerbacks to grade out in the top-4 in each of those 2 seasons.
The Colts signed him to a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal last off-season, risky considering his history of injuries (10 games missed from 2011-2012) and inconsistency, but now that deal looks like a steal after he backed up an incredible 2013 season by doing it again in 2014. He heads into his age 27 season having graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and as one of the best defensive players in the game, living up to his first round talent and then some. Still in the prime of his career, I expect nothing less than another dominant season from him again in 2015.
Mike Adams also had a dominant season in for the Colts in the secondary last season, but his was much more surprising. Adams graded out 7th among safeties in 2014 and made his first Pro Bowl, even though it looked like his career was over until the Colts signed him in June of last year. He wasn’t left unsigned because he played badly prior to last season, as he was a solid starter in 2011, 2012, and 2013, grading out above average in 2011 and 2012 and only slightly below average in 2013. He was left unsigned because of age, as he was going into his age 33 season. He was able to dominate in spite of that last season, but I think it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be able to repeat the best season of his career in his age 34 season in 2015. Still, there’s a good chance that he is an above average starter again and once again proves to be a good value. The Colts re-signed him to a very reasonable 2-year, 4.25 million dollar deal this off-season.
The Colts have another good value at the other safety spot, as they signed Dwight Lowery to a veteran’s minimum contract this off-season. Lowery has always been a solid starting safety when healthy. The Falcons signed Lowery cheap last off-season, but there was a reason he was available so cheap, even though he graded out above average in every season from 2008-2012, including 18th among safeties in 2012. Lowery missed 20 games in 2012-2013 combined and he hadn’t played all 16 games since his rookie year in 2008.
Lowery proved to be a smart signing by the Falcons, as he graded out above average again and, more importantly, made all 16 starts. His health is still a concern long-term, but, if healthy, he should once again prove to be a smart signing, this time by the Colts. I expected him to draw more interest in the open market after he managed to stay healthy last season, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. The Colts will be the beneficiary of that. The Colts also used a 4th round pick on Clayton Geathers, who would see action at safety if Lowery gets hurt or Adams seriously declines. He’s also seen action in sub packages at middle linebacker this off-season and could see some action there this season in place of D’Qwell Jackson, who didn’t play well in coverage last season. The 6-2 218 pound Geathers has the size to play around the line of scrimmage in the right situation and could see a decent amount of action as a rookie (300-500 snaps) if everything goes right for him.
The rest of the secondary is a little bit more suspect as the Colts don’t have great cornerback depth behind Davis. Greg Toler figures to be their other starting cornerback again this season, but he graded out 99th among 108 eligible cornerbacks last season. The 2009 4th round pick has never played all 16 games in a season, has missed 34 games with injury in 6 seasons in the league, and has graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons, with his worst season coming last season. I don’t think he’ll get better, going into his age 30 season in 2015.
Darius Butler, meanwhile, will be the 3rd cornerback again. Butler was a 2nd round bust of the Patriots in 2009 and bounced around from the Patriots to the Panthers to the Colts by 2012. Butler graded out below average in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league, but had the best season of his career in 2012 with the Colts, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked cornerback on 380 snaps, earning a 2-year deal worth 4 million that off-season. Butler remained inconsistent though, grading out below average in each of the last 2 seasons. Butler has never played more than 704 snaps in a season, has averaged 501 snaps a season, and has graded out below average in 4 of 6 seasons in the NFL. The Colts re-signed him to a 2-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season, but he’s little more than a depth cornerback.
They also brought in D’Joun Smith in the 3rd round of the draft. He could push either Toler or Butler for playing time, but probably won’t see a significant role until 2016. As a rookie, I expect him to be the 4th cornerback. The Colts’ secondary is definitely the best part of this defense once again. It’s hard to figure out how the Colts’ defense had a strong performance overall last season from looking at the talent, except for they played such a bad schedule, and their defense doesn’t seem to be too much more talented this season. Their competition should be somewhat stronger this season, which will hurt them, and their defense should be closer to the middle of the pack this season.
It might not seem like it, but the Colts are in win now mode. With Luck’s impending record extension, impending free agency for guys like TY Hilton, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Anthony Castonzo, among others, 32 million in cap space for 2016 currently (at a projected cap of 150 million), and 10 key players going into their age 30+ season (Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, Todd Herremans, Gosder Cherilus, Joe Reitz, Trent Cole, Robert Mathis, D’Qwell Jackson, Mike Adams, Greg Toler), this season is probably going to be the best chance the Colts have at a Super Bowl victory for a few seasons.
They’re going to be very good in certain areas. They have a great quarterback and a talented receiving corps and secondary. Trent Cole is better than any pass rusher they had last season and they should have better health than they had last season. As a result, they should be good at moving the chains through the air and stopping the pass. However, they still will have major issues running the ball, blocking on the offensive line, and stopping the run.
They made it to the AFC Championship game last year, but that was because they lucked out and caught the Broncos at the right time, before getting crushed in the AFC Championship 45-7 in New England. New England, Baltimore, and Denver were all better than they were last season in terms of rate of moving the chains differential and I think that should continue this season, especially with the Colts’ division gaining on them at least somewhat. They’re on my Super Bowl short list, but I think they ultimately come up short. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Colts after I’ve done all team’s previews.
Final Update (9/9/15): I have the Colts getting the AFC’s #1 seed, but I actually think they’re like the 4th or 5th best team in the AFC (behind the likes of Baltimore, Miami, Denver, and maybe New England). They just have such an easy schedule. They could definitely be exposed in the playoffs again though, especially with Arthur Jones out for the season. They were counting on him to shore up this front 7 and this run defense.
Prediction: 12-4 1st in AFC South