Indianapolis Colts 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For years, the Colts have had great quarterback play. They had Peyton Manning as the starter for 13 straight seasons and then when he missed a year with injury they got the #1 pick in the draft with the clearest #1 choice since Manning and drafted his replacement in Andrew Luck. Luck has not been as good as Manning, but, much like Manning towards the end of his tenure in Indianapolis, Luck has been able to mask a lot of problems on this roster. He even brought them to the post-season in his first 3 seasons, although that was largely because they had a 18-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and went 16-2 against a division that was the worst in football back then.

When Luck missed the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury, the Colts bottomed out, much like they did when Manning was out. The Colts won 4 games, but those wins came against the Brian Hoyer led 49ers, the Tom Savage led Texans (twice), and the Deshone Kizer led Browns and none of those wins came by double digits. The Colts ranked 30th in point differential at -141 and were even worse than that suggests, as they did that despite having a +5 turnover margin. They lost a league high 5 games in which they won the turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis, so the Colts won’t be able to rely on that again in 2018, and, outside of their turnover margin, they were arguably the worst team in the league last season. They finished dead last in first down rate differential at -6.01%, despite a relatively easy schedule.

Offensively, they finished 31st in the NFL in first down rate. Backup Jacoby Brissett was obviously not great, but he wasn’t bad all things considered and he was far from the only problem. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked quarterback out of 40 eligible. The bigger problem was their lack of supporting cast, which has been an issue for years. It’s usually been masked by strong quarterback play, but the Colts have drafted a total of just 3 Pro-Bowlers since 2007. One of them was Luck, which was a no brainer pick. Another was punter Pat McAfee. And the third is TY Hilton, a 3rd round pick in 2012. In 11 years, they’ve drafted just one position player who exceeded his draft slot and made a Pro Bowl.

Given the players around him, Brissett had little chance. He completed 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.61 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, while rushing for 260 yards and 4 touchdowns on 63 carries (4.13 YPC). His worst attribute was that he held the football too long and took too many sacks. He averaged 2.68 seconds from snap to throw, 5th slowest in the NFL. The Colts had offensive line problems, but Brissett didn’t help matters, taking a sack on 23.1% of his pressured drop backs, 3rd highest in the NFL. The Colts led the NFL with 56 sacks allowed, which stalled many drives.

Brissett’s interception rate of 1.49% is impressive and was arguably the biggest reason for their positive turnover margin, but interception rates tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis and it’s unlikely that Brissett would have continued what would have been the lowest interception rate of all-time for much longer. Luck is also unlikely to have an interception rate that low, as he’s thrown interceptions on 2.57% of his career passes.

Luck is also a major question mark after missing all of last season with a throwing shoulder injury. Luck originally suffered the injury in 2015, opted not to have surgery, played through it in 2016, and then had surgery on it in January 2017 in hopes of returning for training camp. Instead, Luck did not return at all in 2017 and did not even start throwing a football again until this summer, more than 500 days after the initial surgery. He’s expected to return week 1 and he’s definitely doing better this off-season than last off-season, but he’s considered questionable for training camp and nothing can be taken for granted with him.

Prior to the injury, Luck finished 14th, 8th, and 3rd on PFF among quarterbacks in his last 3 healthy seasons respectively (2013, 2014, and 2016). Despite a weak supporting cast, he’s completed 59.2% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 132 touchdowns, and 68 interceptions in his career and has added 1,442 yards and 14 touchdowns on 286 carries (5.04 YPC). He’s still only going into his age 29 season and the Colts will obviously be hoping he returns to form, but that’s far from a guarantee at this point.

The Colts were confident enough in him long-term to eschew drafting a quarterback at the top of what was one of the strongest quarterback classes in years. Rather than staying at 3 and taking a quarterback, they traded down to 6 with the Jets, who drafted USC quarterback Sam Darnold, and picked up a trio of second round picks in the process. They received picks 37 and 49 in 2018 and another second round pick in 2019, much needed for a team with holes across the depth chart. Even if Luck returns to form, they’ll need their supporting cast to be better for the Colts to contend for a playoff spot in an improved division.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

After trading down, the Colts used the 6th pick on Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. Nelson was arguably the top player in the draft and would not have been a bad pick at 3, but fell out of the top-5 because of his position. At the very least, he’s probably the safest and most NFL ready pick in the draft. He’ll plug in as an immediate starter at a major position of need and could be one of the better guards in the league in a few years. He’ll be an obvious upgrade over Jeremy Vujnovich, who started 16 games at left guard last season and ranked dead last out of 80 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus.

The Colts also used one of their 2nd round picks on Auburn’s Braden Smith, who can play offensive tackle, but most project to guard because he has just 32 1/4 inch arms at 6-6 315. He’s unlikely to start at guard as a rookie though, with Jack Mewhort returning from injury. Mewhort has missed 17 games with knee injuries in the past 2 seasons, so they need good insurance for him, but he’s been great for them when healthy and will be given another shot in 2018, in only his age 27 season.

Prior to the injuries, he finished 14th among guards in 2015 and he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league. The Colts re-signed the 2014 2nd round pick to a one-year deal worth just 1.5 million this off-season, an absolute steal given Mewhort’s age and upside. Smith, meanwhile, could play right tackle. Mewhort also has experience at right tackle and could also move out there at some point, though he’s been a lot better at guard.

Joe Haeg, Denzelle Good, and Le’Raven Clark all made starts at right tackle last season, but all three struggled. The Colts also added veteran right tackle Austin Howard and he has a good shot to earn the starting job. He has 88 starts in the past 6 seasons and signed a one-year deal that pays him low end starters money at 3.75 million this off-season, after spending 2017 with the Ravens. Howard has been inconsistent in his career and he’s going into his age 31 season, but he was about a league average starter in Baltimore last season and could give the Colts much needed veteran stability at right tackle.

Along with Jack Mewhort, the Colts also get center Ryan Kelly back from injury, after he was limited to 394 snaps in 7 games by foot and head injuries. A first round selection in 2016, Kelly was seen as one of the safer picks in the draft, but he was underwhelming in 16 starts as a rookie and struggled through injuries in 2017, finishing 28th among 38 eligible centers on PFF. Kelly could be much better in his 3rd season in the league if he’s healthy, but his career has gotten off to a disappointing start and he’s no guarantee to ever improve.

Left tackle Anthony Castonzo was their only starting offensive lineman to earn a positive grade in 2018. A first round selection in 2011, Castonzo has made 105 starts in 7 seasons in the league and has been one of their few good high draft picks. He’s never made a Pro Bowl, but he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in 6 straight seasons and could have easily made at least a couple Pro Bowls. He finished a career best 6th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2017, but he also finished 16th in 2016 and 9th in 2014. His age is becoming a minor concern in his age 30 season in 2018, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down and he’s rarely had major injuries, playing all 16 games in 5 of 7 seasons in the league. He should remain a good blindside protector in 2018 and the rest of the offensive line should be much improved as well, with Kelly and Mewhort returning and Nelson, Howard, and Smith added to the mix.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

An improved offensive line should be good for Luck, especially returning from a major injury, but the Colts don’t have a ton of skill position talent around Luck, especially at running back. The Colts ranked just 28th in the NFL in yards per carry in 2017 with 3.68, led by lead back Frank Gore, who averaged 3.68 yards per carry on 261 carries. Gore was better than that suggests though, earning a positive grade from Pro Football Focus and ranking 23rd with a carry success rate of 44%, pretty good considering the lack of talent around him on offense. Gore left as a free agent this off-season though and the Colts did not do much to replace him, only using 4th and 5th round picks on North Carolina State’s Nyheim Hines and Mississippi’s Jordan Wilkins.

Second year running back Marlon Mack is likely to be the lead back, but he was pretty underwhelming as a rookie. The 2017 4th round pick averaged just 3.85 yards per carry despite having 7 of his 93 carries go for 15+ yards. He had 45.8% of his 358 yards on those 7 carries and averaged just 2.26 yards per carry on his other 86 carries, consistently getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. He flashed as a receiver, with a 21/225/1 slash line on 33 targets on 169 routes run, but he allowed 3 sacks as a pass protector and needs to improve his blocking technique. He has some upside, but he’s a weak starting option.

Hines, meanwhile, is an 5-8 198 scatback who reminds of Tarik Cohen, while Wilkins was a late round prospect who doesn’t have a huge upside. Hines will probably be limited to change of pace/passing down work, while Wilkins does not project as a lead back in the NFL. The Colts also have veteran Robert Turbin, but he’s been suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs and has averaged just 3.83 yards per carry and 4.44 carries per game in 6 seasons in the league. He’s a capable passing down back and is probably their pass protector, but his career high is 80 carries in a season and he’s unlikely to surpass that in 2018, even in a wide open backfield like this. The Colts arguably have the weakest running back group in the NFL.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

The one key skill position player they have is #1 receiver TY Hilton. Hilton did not have good chemistry with Jacoby Brissett and also was not as good himself, possibly not giving as much effort on a last place team. After averaging a 81/1250/6 slash line in 4 seasons as a starter from 2013-2016 and finishing in the top-31 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, Hilton had just a 57/966/5 slash line in 2017, finishing under 1000 yards since his rookie season in 2012, and was about a league average receiver on PFF.

Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, Hilton has obvious bounce back potential if Luck can return to form. In 2016, he and Luck connected for 91 catches for 1448 yards and 6 touchdowns and he was PFF’s 4th ranked wide receiver, the highest he’s ranked in his career. He’ll face plenty of double teams with the Colts lacking other good options at wide receiver, but he should be Luck’s go to receiver and could be one of the league’s leaders in targets.

Donte Moncrief and Kamar Aiken were their #2 and #3 receiver last season in terms of snaps with 614 and 587 respectively, but neither is with the team anymore. Neither played well, but they didn’t really do much to replace them. Chester Rogers has been their #4 receiver the past 2 seasons and the 2016 undrafted free agent has not been great, struggling on 447 snaps as a rookie and 429 snaps last season, but, for lack of a better option, he’ll compete with free agent acquisition Ryan Grant for the week 1 starting job opposite Hilton, with the loser of that battle likely playing as the 3rd receiver.

Grant originally signed with the Ravens on a 4-year, 29 million dollar deal, but the deal did not go through because the Ravens failed him on his physical. That will likely prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Ravens, as that contract would have guaranteed him 14.5 million over the next 2 seasons. Instead, he gets 5 million on a one-year deal from the Colts and he may not even be worth that. After being drafted by the Redskins in the 5th round in 2014, Grant was only a depth receiver until last season, when he played a career high 613 snaps, but he posted an underwhelming 45/573/4 slash line and has never earned a positive grade for a season from PFF in 4 seasons in the league. He was a desperation signing for a team with a thin receiving corps and money to spend.

With several high picks, I expected the Colts to draft a wide receiver early, but instead they only used 5th and 6th round picks, taking Northern Iowa’s Daurice Fountain and Clemson’s Deon Cain. Cain has had a strong off-season, but it’s too early to tell if that will translate to the field. It’s possible neither would be an upgrade as rookie if they saw action. Fellow rookie Nyheim Hines is also an option as a receiver because he’s a good pass catcher and has the versatility to move around the formation.The Colts could also pursue Dez Bryant or another veteran receiver on the free agent market to help one of the thinnest wide receiver groups in the NFL.

The Colts did add talent at tight end, signing ex-Lion Eric Ebron to a 2-year deal worth 13 million. Incumbent starter Jack Doyle remains, so the Colts could run a lot more two tight end sets this season to offset their lack of depth at tight end. Doyle had an impressive 80/690/4 slash line in 2017, despite the quarterback situation, but that was largely because he received 107 targets and played 910 snaps (3rd most among tight ends). In 2016, he played 748 snaps and had a 59/584/5 slash line on 75 targets in his first season as a starter. He’ll play significantly fewer snaps in 2018 with Ebron coming in, so his 2016 numbers are probably a more reasonable expectation. The 6-6 262 pounder is not that explosive and averages just 8.52 yards per catch in his career, but he’s good at finding soft spots in the underneath coverage, he has reliable hands, and he’s a good blocker.

Ebron, meanwhile, is an athletic freak that ran a 4.60 40 at 6-4 250 at the combine and went 10th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, but he did not pan out in 4 seasons with the Lions and they released him ahead of his 5th year option for 2018, which would have paid him 8.25 million. Ebron was considered a matchup nightmare coming out of college and has showed flashes of it, but he’s averaged just a 47/518/3 slash line thus far in his career, topping out at a 61/711/1 slash line in 2016, and he never developed as a blocker either. Still only 25, the Colts are taking a flyer on him and hoping he can put it all together, but he hasn’t been the most reliable player thus far in his career. In a thin receiving corps, Doyle and Ebron could easily be 2nd and 3rd on the team in receiving.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Colts were not quite as bad defensively as they were offensively in 2017, finishing 22nd in first down rate allowed at 35.28%. Their defensive line was actually pretty good, particularly against the run (3.95 YPC allowed, 8th in the NFL), but they are transitioning from a bigger 3-4 defense to a more athletic 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, whose recent experience was with a Tampa 2 defense in Dallas with Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli, and they are making major changes on the defensive line as a result. Johnathan Hankins, Margus Hunt, Al Woods, and Henry Anderson all excelled against the run on 686 snaps, 576 snaps, 563 snaps, and 380 snaps respectively last season, but Hankins was let go, owed 8.5 million non-guaranteed in 2018, while Anderson was traded to the Jets for a late round pick ahead of the final year of his rookie deal.

Woods and Hunt, meanwhile, are poor fits for the new scheme. Woods is a 6-4 330 pounder who has never earned a positive pass rush grade in 8 seasons in the league and is unlikely to improve, while Hunt is a bit of a tweener in a 4-3 system at 6-8 298 and earned negative grades from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in a 4-3 defense with the Bengals prior to arriving in Indianapolis last off-season. Both are also going into their age 31 season, so they’re highly unlikely to repeat the best seasons of their careers in a new system.They’ll likely be limited to base package snaps at defensive tackle and defensive end respectively, assuming they make the final roster, each owed 2.5 million non-guaranteed.

In sub packages, expect the Colts to regularly use 3 and 4 defensive ends at the same time, lining up a defensive end or two inside. Defensive end is where they have the most depth and they have a few defensive ends with the size to line up inside in passing situations. Margus Hunt is one option, even though he’s never been much of a pass rusher, and the Colts also have the 6-3 265 pound Jabaal Sheard and 6-3 269 pound Tyquan Lewis, who both have experience rushing the passer from the inside.

Sheard figures to lead this line in snaps, after finishing 3th among 3-4 outside linebackers on 900 snaps in 2017. He had just 5.5 sacks, but added 8 hits and 54 hurries and was a great run stuffer. A versatile player who has proven himself in multiple systems in his career, Sheard has earned positive grades from PFF in 6 of the past 7 seasons, including 5 straight seasons. His best seasons came in 2017 and in 2015, when he was PFF’s 4th ranked 4-3 defensive end as a hybrid defensive lineman with the Patriots. He figures to have a similar role in Indianapolis’ new 4-3 defense. Lewis should have a similar role too, but the 2nd round rookie probably won’t play a ton of snaps in his first season.

The Colts also selected Kemoko Turay in the 2nd round, another defensive end. He’s smaller than Lewis at 6-5 253 and is more of an edge rusher, but he should at least have an immediate role in sub packages on a reworked defensive line. The Colts also have last year’s 3rd round pick Tarell Basham, a 6-4 266 pounder who played 220 snaps as a rookie. He struggled against the run, but flashed as a pass rusher and is a better fit in their new 4-3 defense than their old 3-4. He should have a larger role in his 2nd season in the league.

The Colts also have John Simon, who has 11.5 sacks and 20 hits as a rotational 3-4 outside linebacker over the past 3 seasons, but he is not a great fit for their new scheme at 6-1 260. He’s currently penciled in as the third outside linebacker in base packages and may see some rotational snaps as an edge rusher in sub packages, but he’s also not considered a roster lock at a 3.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. His fit in the scheme is a concern, but he’s earned a positive run stopping grade in each of his first 4 seasons in the league on PFF and the Colts don’t need the cap space, so keeping him makes sense.

At defensive tackle, the Colts added ex-Raider Denico Autry on a 3-year, 17.8 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. Autry is undersized for a defensive tackle at 6-5 270, struggles against the run, and was probably an overpay, but he perfectly fits what this new coaching staff is looking for out of a defensive lineman. He’ll likely have a significant role as a sub package interior pass rusher. In 3 seasons as a heavy rotational player in Oakland, he totaled 10.5 sacks and 11 hits and he earned a positive pass rush grade from PFF in 2 of 3 seasons.

The Colts also have 2016 4th round pick Hassan Ridgeway and 2017 4th round pick Grover Stewart, but Ridgeway has played just 617 underwhelming snaps in 2 seasons in the league, while Stewart is purely a base package player at 6-4 333 and is not an ideal fit in this new scheme. The Colts have a lot of rotational options, but lack impact players on this defensive line outside of Sheard. This is line is unlikely to play as well as they did last season.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Colts also will look different in the linebacking corps this season. Jon Bostic and Antonio Morrison started 14 games and 15 games respectively for this team in 2017, but the former signed with the Steelers this off-season, while the latter finished 51st among 52 middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus and is not a lock to remain a starter. Bostic was a solid run stuffer, but struggled in coverage. His likely replacement is 2nd round rookie Darius Leonard, an athletic 6-2 234 pounder who is basically the opposite of Bostic. He comes from a small school (South Carolina State) and is a bit undersized, but he’s a perfect fit as a sideline to sideline linebacker in this defense. He’ll fill the Sean Lee role in this linebacking corps, though he’s obviously not as proven.

The other every down linebacker job is up for grabs. Morrison could remain the starter, for lack of a better option, but he’ll face competition from 2017 5th round pick Anthony Walker. He played just 117 snaps as a rookie, but is their best internal competition for Morrison. Morrison was a 4th round pick in 2016, so both he and Walker have some upside, but the other middle linebacker spot should remain a position of weakness in 2018. Leonard will need to step up big time as a rookie.

The Colts may mix safety Clayton Geathers in as a linebacker in sub packages, as the 6-2 220 pounder has experience in that role and could be a good fit in this new defense, but he has yet to practice this off-season and was limited to 112 snaps in 5 games by a neck injury in 2017. He earned a positive grade on 558 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2016, after going in the 4th round in 2015, but his neck injury threatens to derail his development. Consider him out indefinitely.

As mentioned, John Simon will be the 3rd linebacker unless he’s let go. He’s an odd fit for the scheme and will only play about half the snaps as a linebacker, either coming off the field or moving to the defensive line in sub packages when a 5th defensive back enters. He won’t elevate this linebacking corps much. With a 2nd round rookie as their top linebacker, the Colts have serious issues at linebacker. They completely lack proven starting 4-3 linebackers and are hoping for young players to step up.

Grade: C-

Secondary

Part of the reason they could use Geathers at linebacker is that they’re actually pretty deep at safety. Even if healthy, Geathers might not be any higher than their 4th safety on the depth chart. The Colts used a 1st round pick on Malik Hooker in 2017 and a 2nd round pick on TJ Green in 2016, but 2016 undrafted free agent Matthias Farley led this team in snaps by a safety with 927. Despite only playing 67 snaps as a rookie, Farley actually played pretty well in a mini breakout season, finishing 25th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Hooker is expected to be back for week 1 if not sooner, after tearing his ACL last October, but Farley is likely to remain a starter. He might not be quite as good and last season could prove to be a fluke for a player who was not highly thought of coming into the league, but he could also remain a capable starter.

His biggest competition will be TJ Green. Green was a relatively high pick, but has been a disappointment thus far in his career. He finished dead last among 90 eligible safeties on 477 snaps as a rookie and was limited to 381 underwhelming snaps last season, even with Hooker going down with injury. Only going into his age 23 season, he still has upside, but thus far he’s been a massive bust. Hooker, on the other hand, was having a solid rookie year before the injury. Just 22 years old, Hooker still has a huge upside, but the injury could set his development back a little bit. If he’s on the field, he should be a capable starter at least, but it could take a couple years for him to reach his potential.

Their safeties are not bad, but they have arguably the worst cornerbacks in the NFL. Cornerback was a problem last season and they lost Rashaan Melvin, PFF’s 19th ranked cornerback last season, to the Oakland Raiders in free agency. Despite that, they did basically nothing to address the position this off-season, aside from adding some undrafted free agents. Instead, they’ll go into 2018 with a trio of 2nd year cornerbacks, Quincy Wilson, Nate Hairston, and Kenny Moore, and journeyman Pierre Desir atop the depth chart.

Wilson has the most upside, after flashing on 402 snaps as a rookie, but he’s not somewhat you want as your de facto #1 cornerback. Hairston, meanwhile, went in the 5th round and struggled on 537 snaps as a rookie, while Moore played 382 nondescript snaps as an undrafted rookie. Neither profiles as a long-term starter. Desir does not either, already on his 4th team in 4 seasons in the league since the Browns drafted him in 2014. He’s never played more than 399 snaps in a season and would be a desperation play in a larger role than that in 2018. They have arguably the thinnest cornerback group in the NFL, which brings this whole secondary down significantly.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Colts should get Andrew Luck back from injury this season, but they have arguably the worst supporting league in the league. They’ve improved their offensive line, but they lack depth at wide receiver and running back and their defense could be the worst in the league, as they transition to a completely new defensive scheme. Johnathan Hankins and Rashaan Melvin were arguably two of their top-3 defensive players last season, but neither are with the team anymore, while players like Al Woods and Margus Hunt are coming off of career years that they likely won’t repeat and do not fit the new scheme. The Colts have the lowest active spending on their roster and it shows. It’ll take a career year from Andrew Luck to get them back into the post-season and I don’t see that happening.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: Andrew Luck will not solve all of the Colts’ problems, even if he is 100%, as the Colts have probably the worst supporting cast in the NFL. In a much improved AFC South, the Colts look likely to finish in last.

Prediction: 5-11 4th in AFC South

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s