Indianapolis Colts 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Given that they had gone 12-0 in division play in 2013 and 2014, winning the division both times, it looked inevitable that the Colts would win the division again in 2015. Instead, the Colts lost 2 divisional games and finished 8-8, in 2nd place in the AFC South. It wasn’t that the division got tougher as the trio of Houston, Jacksonville, and Tennessee was still not a formidable one. The Colts just had a much worse season overall, falling from 5th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2014 to 20th in 2015.

The biggest difference was on offense, where they fell from 10th to 24th, and the obvious reason why is the quarterback play. Franchise quarterback Andrew Luck missed 9 games and was limited in many others with a variety of injuries, including a bruised rotator cuff in his shoulder, broken ribs, and ultimately a lacerated kidney that ended his season. Even when on the field, Luck did not play well at all, completing 55.3% of his passes for an average of 6.42 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

In fact, when backup Matt Hasselbeck came in for the injured Luck, it seemed to stabilize the offense, as he completed 60.9% of his passes for an average of 6.60 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. However, the 39-year-old Hasselbeck was completely beat up by the end of the season, sapping his play, ending his season week 16, and ultimately ending his career, as the 18-year NFL veteran retired this off-season. Any way you look at it, it was a lost season for Andrew Luck in 2015 and, as a result, it was a lost season for the Colts in an otherwise completely winnable division.

However, there’s a ton of bounce back potential with Luck as well and, as a result, a ton of bounce back potential for the Colts in an improved, but still very winnable division. Luck is just going into his age 27 season and the 2012 #1 overall pick was a top-12 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including 9th in 2014. Going into the final year of his rookie contract, the Colts still have a ton of faith in him, making him the highest paid player in the league by giving him a 5-year, 123 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal this off-season.

The Colts are obviously betting heavily that Luck will stay healthy in 2016, so much so that they don’t really have a viable backup option. Hasselbeck was okay in 2015, but he retired, leaving the Colts with ex-Green Bay backup Scott Tolzien and 2014 undrafted free agent Stephen Morris. Morris has never thrown an NFL pass and is still regarded as very raw, only going into his age 24 season. He was so raw last season that the Colts brought in street free agents Ryan Lindley and Josh Freeman to play quarterback week 17 last season when Hasselbeck was hurt, with a possible playoff spot on the line.

Tolzien, meanwhile, struggled mightily in limited action as Rodgers’ backup in Green Bay, completing 61.5% of his passes for an average of 7.97 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 5 interceptions, since going undrafted out of the University of Wisconsin in 2011. He spent most of the past 2 seasons as the #3 quarterback in Green Bay, after struggling so much in Rodgers’ absence in 2013. The Colts will pray that Luck stays healthy this season and long-term, but he’s got a very good chance to have a bounce back year and potentially take the Colts back to the playoffs.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

With the idea of keeping Luck healthy long-term, the Colts prioritized the offensive line this off-season. They only allowed 37 sacks last season, but have consistently given up pressure and hits at too high of a rate throughout Luck’s 4-year career and have always struggled to open up holes in the running game. The Colts used a 1st round pick on Alabama center Ryan Kelly, a 3rd round pick on Texas Tech offensive tackle Le’Raven Clark, and a 5th round pick on North Dakota State’s Joe Haeg. Kelly will be plugged in immediately as a starter and, at the very least, should help open up holes in the running game. Center has been a big problem position for the Colts for years and Kelly has a good chance to be one of the best centers in the league in 2-4 years.

Clark, meanwhile, will compete for a starting job at right tackle, as could Haeg. Right tackle Joe Reitz wasn’t bad last season, grading out above average on 950 snaps, primarily playing at right tackle, but also playing at left and right guard in a few games. Prior to 2015, he had graded out above average in limited action as a reserve in 2013 and 2014, on 149 and 277 snaps respectively. The Colts re-signed him to a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, so they clearly value him as a starting option, but he’ll face competition and is not the long-term solution, going into his age 31 season.

At right guard, Hugh Thornton played the most snaps last season, but was benched this off-season for 2nd year player Denzelle Good. That was probably the right decision, considering Good flashed on 274 snaps as a 7th round rookie in 2015, while Thornton has struggled in 3 seasons in the league. He’s made 32 starts in those 3 seasons, since being drafted by the Colts in the 3rd round in 2013, grading out below average in all 3 seasons, including 60th out of 81 eligible in 2015. Good, meanwhile, has upside, but is far from proven and could also struggle. He was just a 7th round pick in last year’s draft.

Fortunately, things are a lot better on the left side of the offensive line. Left guard Jack Mewhort had a breakout 2nd season in the league, finishing 9th among guards on Pro Football Focus. He wasn’t bad as a 2nd round rookie in 2014 either, grading out slightly above average, and has already made 30 starts in 2 seasons in the league. He’s seen some time at right tackle, but he seems to have settled in at left guard. He suffered a scare this off-season and it was originally reported he tore his ACL, but he seems to have escaped with a 2-4 week injury and is merely questionable for the start of the season. That’s obviously great news for the Colts.

Left tackle Anthony Castonzo, meanwhile, has been the constant on this offensive line since the Colts drafted him in the 1st round in the 2011 NFL Draft. He’s made 73 of a possible 80 starts at left tackle since then and remains there again in 2016. Despite the struggles of the Colts’ offensive line over that time period, Castonzo has actually played pretty well. He’s been a top-36 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 seasons, finishing last season 20th and maxing out at 12th in 2014. It’s an improved offensive line, but one that still has problems on the right side.

Grade: B

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the Colts have had issues opening up holes on the ground over the past few seasons. It’s part of why they struggled running the ball in 2015, averaging 3.63 YPC, 31st in the NFL, but lead back Frank Gore is also very much to blame. Spending the first 10 seasons of his career with the San Francisco 49ers, Gore came over to the Colts last off-season on a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. However, the aging back very much looked his age in 2015, turning 260 carries into just 967 yards and 6 touchdowns, an average of 3.75 YPC.

Gore’s 12,040 rushing yards rank 15th all-time and he could be bound for Canton. However, he’s also going into his age 33 season with 2702 career 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. It’s also worth noting that Gore’s worst football came at the end of the season, which could be a sign that Gore is just out of gas. In the final 8 games of the season, he averaged 3.22 yards per carry on 140 carries, after averaging 4.30 yards per carry on 120 carries in the first 8 games of the season.

Even when he was struggling, the Colts kept giving him the lion’s share of the carries, as no other Colts running back had more than 31 carries. At the very least, Gore needs to be part of a timeshare at this stage in his career, but the Colts inexplicably did not do anything to upgrade the backup running back situation. Veteran journeymen Robert Turbin and Jordan Todman will compete with rookie undrafted free agent Josh Ferguson for the #2 running back job, likely meaning they plan for Gore to get another 250+ carries. That seems like a mistake and should limit their offense.

Turbin has rushed for 1127 yards and 1 touchdown on 281 carries in his career (4.01 YPC), while adding 50 catches for 450 yards and another 2 touchdowns through the air. Todman, meanwhile, has rushed for 472 yards and 3 touchdowns on 115 carries in his career (4.10 YPC), while adding 40 catches for 314 yards and another 2 touchdowns through the air. The Colts like Ferguson and, with Gore as old as he is, there’s a very good chance that Ferguson is seeing a significant role by late in the season. That would probably not be a good thing for the Colts, considering the entire league just let him go undrafted. He’s not the type of guy you want to be relying on behind an out-of-gas veteran and two mediocre journeymen.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

Frank Gore is one aging veteran that the Colts signed last off-season that didn’t work out. Another is wide receiver Andre Johnson, who the Colts signed to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal, after he was released by divisional rival Houston. Like Gore, Johnson is a possible future Hall-of-Famer, but, like Gore, Johnson was an aging veteran who was out of gas in 2015. The Colts released him one-year and 7.5 million into that 3-year deal, ahead of his age 35 season in 2016.

Unlike with Gore, the Colts have a obvious internal replacement for him, as 2015 1st round pick Phillip Dorsett figures to have a much bigger role in his 2nd year in the league. Because of the addition of Johnson, Dorsett began the year as the #4 receiver and suffered a broken ankle mid-season that really hurt his chances of beating out Johnson for playing time, even as bad as Johnson was playing. Ultimately, Dorsett played just 215 nondescript snaps as a rookie, but he still has plenty of upside going into his 2nd year in the league.

Dorsett isn’t the only young wide receiver the Colts have, as Donte Moncrief was a 3rd round pick in 2014. Even with the additions of Johnson and Dorsett in the off-season, Moncrief played 836 snaps in his 2nd year in the league in 2015, after flashing on 421 snaps as a rookie. Moncrief’s numbers weren’t great or anything, but part of that was because of the Colts’ quarterback situation and he still graded out above average for the 2nd straight season, finishing 40th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Now going into his 3rd year in the league, Moncrief could have his best year in the league. He and Dorsett will battle for the #2 job behind veteran TY Hilton, but Moncrief appears the clear favorite right now, pushing Dorsett into the #3 role.

Hilton is also coming off of a less than stellar statistical year, at least by his standards, as a result of the Colts’ quarterback situation. However, he still caught 69 passes for 1124 yards and 5 touchdowns. The fact that that’s a quiet year from him just shows you how good he is when he’s at his best. The 2012 3rd round pick has topped 1000+ yards in 3 straight seasons, maxing out with 82 catches for 1345 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2014. He’s graded out 34th, 10th, and 17th among wide receivers in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively. He was well worth the 5-year, 65 million dollar extension the Colts gave him last off-season, ahead of what would have been his contract year, and he could have another 1300+ yard year with Luck healthy in 2016.

Hilton isn’t the only pass catcher the Colts added in that 2012 draft (the same one in which they added Luck), as they used a 2nd round pick on tight end Coby Fleener and a 3rd round pick on tight end Dwayne Allen as well. Unlike Hilton, the Colts did not lock their two tight ends up ahead of their contract years. The Colts brought Allen back on a 4-year, 29.4 million dollar deal this off-season, but watched Fleener sign a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal with the Saints. It’s was always assumed that the Colts would not be able to re-sign both of them, but it’s very surprising that Allen got as much money as he did, considering he was coming off of a down year in 2015.

Allen was Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked tight end as a rookie in 2012, their 9th ranked tight end in 2014, and had graded out above average in each of the first 3 seasons of his career prior to 2015, excelling as a run blocker at 6-3 265. However, he’s missed 21 games with injury over the past 3 seasons and injuries really seemed to take a toll on his play in 2015, as he fell to 62nd out of 67 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus. The Colts are obviously betting on a bounce back year and he definitely has bounce back potential if he can stay healthy. With Fleener gone, Jack Doyle will be the #2 tight end. The 2013 undrafted free agent flashed on 341 snaps last season with Allen hurt. WIth a young, talented group of wide receivers, the Colts’ receiving corps is still solid despite losing Fleener.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

In addition to a significant drop-off offensively from 2014 to 2015, the Colts also saw a significant drop-off defensively from 2014 to 2015, falling from 6th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2014 to 14th. The fix on defense is not nearly as easy as the fix on offense is, as the Colts’ defense doesn’t have an Andrew Luck caliber player returning from injury to save them. Their drop-off from 2014 to 2015 was largely because this is an aging, veteran-led defense that had several players show significant decline from 2014 to 2015. With the focus of their draft being the offensive line, the Colts didn’t add much defensively through the draft and still have very few promising young defensive players.

One promising young player is 2015 3rd round pick Henry Anderson out of Stanford, who finished 12th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus on 453 snaps, before his promising rookie year was cut short by a torn ACL suffered in November, ending his season after 9 games. He’s reportedly not a lock to return by week 1 and might have to wait until his 3rd year in the league in 2017 to break out as an every down defensive end in the Colts 3-4, as he flashed the ability to do as a rookie.

Anderson is not the only rookie who played a significant role on the Colts’ defensive line in 2015, as 5th round pick David Parry played 657 snaps, primarily serving as a nose tackle in base packages at 6-1 308. Parry was not nearly as good as his former Stanford teammate Anderson though. In fact, he was one of the worst interior defensive linemen in the league last season, finishing 117th out of 123 eligible on Pro Football Focus. Going into his 2nd year in the league, Parry will have plenty of competition for his job from 2014 undrafted free agent Zach Kerr, who flashed on 320 snaps last season, and 4th round rookie Hassan Ridgeway. The 6-1 326 pound Kerr has more of a traditional nose tackle’s build than Parry (6-1 308) or Ridgeway (6-3 303) and should be considered the early favorite at what should again be a position of weakness for the Colts on the nose.

Anderson is not the only Colts’ defensive lineman to be coming off of a significant injury either, as veteran 3-4 defensive end Arthur Jones is coming off of an ankle injury that cost him his entire 2015 season. Jones signed a 5-year, 33 million dollar deal with the Colts two off-seasons ago, but has been limited to just 9 games in 2 seasons by a variety of injuries. Jones also struggled mightily on 371 snaps in 2014 in the 9 games he did play, finishing 40th out of 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends. As a result, Jones had to take a 2 million dollar pay cut to keep his roster spot for 2016. Jones was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013, which is how he got such a big contract, but he’s graded out above average just once in 6 years in the league and isn’t going to get better, going into his age 30 season, coming off of a major injury. Making matters worse, he’s suspended for the first 4 games of the season after failing a drug test.

With Anderson and Jones up in the air with injuries and/or suspension, expect veteran Kendall Langford to lead this defensive line in snaps again, after grading out above average on 851 snaps making all 16 starts in 2015. Langford hasn’t missed a game in 8 years in the league, since going in the 3rd round in 2008, the longest active consecutive games streak by a defensive lineman. Langford has been an average starting defensive lineman more or less, grading out above average in 4 of 8 seasons in the league.

He’s spent 5 years of his career in a 3-4 and seems to be a better fit in that system, grading out above average in 3 of the 5 seasons in which he’s played 3-4 defensive end. He was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2009 and 2010 and finished 16th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2015. Going into his age 30 season, his best days are likely behind him, but he should have another solid season as a starter for a team that desperately needs him to. With Anderson and Jones dealing with injuries, Ridgeway, the 4th round rookie, could also see snaps at defensive end as a rookie. It’s a thin defensive line unless Anderson can come back healthy from his torn ACL.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Colts also have a trio of 30+ year old veterans at outside linebackers, as Trent Cole, Robert Mathis, and Erik Walden are going into their age 34, age 35, and age 31 seasons respectively. All three are also going in the final years of their contracts, so it’s surprising that the Colts didn’t use a higher pick on the position in the draft, just adding Maine’s Trevor Bates in the 7th round. 2014 6th round pick Jonathan Newsome flashed on 397 snaps as a rookie, but off-the-field issues limited him to 346 nondescript snaps in 2015 and he was let go this off-season, following a marijuana arrest. That leaves Bates as the only young edge player on the roster and he’s a clear #4 outside linebacker at the most.

Cole, Mathis, and Walden played 533, 558, and 796 snaps respectively in 2015 and should be around those snap totals again in 2015. Cole was the best of the bunch, grading out 34th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, but the other two graded out below average. Cole has graded out above average in all 9 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history and his 88.5 career sacks in 11 seasons in the league are 44th most all time, but he’s going into his age 34 season so the end is near for him. He’s likely going into his final season in Indianapolis and possibly his final season in the league.

Mathis has had a great career as well, as his 118 career sacks are 20th all-time and 5th among active players, giving him at least an outside shot at the Hall of Fame. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 9 seasons in Pro Football Focus history, but missed all of 2014 with a torn achilles and was not nearly the same in 2015. He’s also a year older than Cole, going into his age 35 season. Like Cole, he’s very possibly in his final season with the Colts and in the league.

Walden is the youngest of the trio and lead the position in snaps played last season, with Mathis and Cole best suited for situational work at this stage of their careers, but he’s also the worst of the trio and no spring chicken himself. He has never once graded out above average in 8 years in the league, since getting drafted by the Packers in the 6th round in 2008. He’s going into his age 31 season and is highly unlikely to be better going forward.

Starting middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is also in the over 30 club, as he’s going into his age 33 season. His age has really shown in recent years, as he’s graded out below average in 4 straight seasons, including 2015 season in which he finished 62nd out of 97 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Going into his 33 season in the league, Jackson simply isn’t a reliable starter anymore. Fellow starting middle linebacker Jerrell Freeman was easily the better of the two last season and was arguably the Colts’ best defensive player, finishing 2nd among linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but he signed with the Bears as a free agent, leaving the Colts with a big hole to fill next to the aging Jackson.

Sio Moore is penciled in as the starter. He played just 69 snaps last season, but looked like a future star as a rookie in 2013, as the 3rd round pick finished as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. However, he struggled in 2014 and then fell out of favor with a new coaching staff in Oakland, which got him traded to the Colts last off-season. The Colts then moved him inside to middle linebacker and never played him, but he’s still only going into his age 26 season and has bounce back potential this season. It’s a weak linebacking corps overall though.

Grade: C

Secondary

Cornerback Vontae Davis is the Colts’ best defensive player, but he had a down year last finishing, falling to 29th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, after finishing in the top-4 in both 2013 and 2014. He had bounce back potential going into 2015, as he’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 27 season, but he’s expected to miss the first month or so of the season with an ankle injury, which forced the Colts to bring in veteran free agent Antonio Cromartie in mid-August.

With Davis injured, Antonio Cromartie figures to take over his starting job and play every down at cornerback opposite fellow free agent acquisition Patrick Robinson. Cromartie is not the same player he used to be though, going into his age 32 season, and looked done last season, finishing 84th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’s also graded out below average in each of the past 3 seasons, a trend that figures to continue into 2016. There’s a reason he was available so late in the off-season. He’s a huge downgrade from Davis and makes this defense even older and less talented. They are going to have serious problems stopping anyone with Davis injured.

Patrick Robinson, meanwhile, comes over from San DIego on a very reasonable 3-year, 14 million dollar deal. A 2010 1st round pick, Robinson was largely a bust in 5 seasons in New Orleans, largely because of injuries, as he missed 22 games in those 5 seasons. He was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked cornerback in 2011, but that was not the norm for him in New Orleans, as he graded out above average just twice in 5 seasons in the league. However, in his one-year in San Diego, he played all 16 games (starting 10 of them) and finished 30th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’s a talented player when healthy and a solid pickup at a position of need for the Colts, but he’ll be overmatched as the #1 cornerback to start the season.

Darius Butler remains as the slot cornerback, despite struggling mightily in 2015, grading out 86th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 576 snaps. He’s graded out below average in 5 of 7 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, including each of the last 3 seasons. He’s already going into his age 30 season, so I don’t expect him to be any better this season. He saw some action at safety earlier this off-season, so if Cromartie plays well enough in Davis’ absence, the Colts could move Butler to safety mid-season.

Speaking of safety, the Colts did use one high pick on their defense this year, adding Clemson safety TJ Green in the 2nd round. He might not play right away, but should push both Clayton Geathers and Mike Adams for starting roles. Geathers was a 4th round pick in 2015 who struggled on 271 snaps as a rookie, but he is expected to take over for departed free agent Dwight Lowery, who was solid in 2015. Adams, meanwhile, wasn’t bad in 2015 either, but he graded out slightly below average and is going into his age 35 season. Also going into the final year of his deal, this is likely to be Adams’ final season in Indianapolis and possibly in the league, with Green taking over as the starter in 2017, or possibly sooner. Adams is one of 7 projected week 1 starter over-30 on the Colts’ defense, a defense that figures to take a major step back in 2016 as a result of age and injury.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Colts won 8 games even though Andrew Luck missed half of last season, but that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to win more games this season with him healthy. Even with Luck injured, the passing game was not the problem for the Colts last season, as backup Matt Hasselbeck played admirably and did a good job managing the game in Luck’s absence. They had serious issues running the ball, issues that won’t improve with Frank Gore going into his age 33 season. They’re also missing top defensive player Vontae Davis for the first month of the season with injury on a defense that figures to take a major step backwards anyway because of age and the loss of top linebacker Jerrell Freeman in free agency. They’ll win some shoot outs, but they’re not a lock to reclaim the AFC South.

Prediction: 7-9 2nd in AFC South

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