Indianapolis Colts 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

A year ago, the Colts looked to be in one of the worst situations in the league. Franchise quarterback Andrew Luck’s long-term future was uncertain because of a lingering shoulder issue that kept him out for all of 2017. Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett didn’t play badly, but Luck’s absence exposed a supporting cast that was one of the worst in the league because of years of mismanagement and Brissett was only able to lead them to a 4-12 record in 2018 as a result. The Colts thought they were going to poach Josh McDaniels away from New England to replace Chuck Pagano as head coach, but he changed his mind at the last second and returning to New England, forcing the Colts to settle for Philadelphia offensive coordinator Frank Reich.

That looks to have been a blessing in disguise as now just a year later the Colts are in a great situation, coming off an improbable run to the post-season. The Colts started last season 1-5, but injuries were a big part of that and once they got healthy they went on to win 9 of their last 10 regular season games and a post-season game in Houston, before ultimately losing in Kansas City in the 2nd round. Even with the slow start included, the Colts finished the season 5th in first down rate differential at +4.56%.

Second year general manager Chris Ballard did a great job of rebuilding this roster in the fly with inexpensive additions last off-season (more on those later), but the biggest reason for their turnaround was Andrew Luck’s return to form in head coach Frank Reich’s offensive system. Luck understandably started slow after a year off, completing 64.6% of his passes for an average of 6.22 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions in their first 6 games, but he completed 69.5% of his passes for an average of 7.98 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in the final 10 games of the season and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked quarterback overall, his 2nd time finishing in the top-3 in his career. 

Most importantly, Luck played all 16 games, leaving backup Jacoby Brissett to only attempt 4 passes all season. Nonetheless, Brissett is still valuable insurance to have. The 2016 3rd round pick started 15 games in 2017 and had a 81.7 QB rating, despite little help around him. Brissett reportedly could have gotten the Colts a 2nd round pick via trade, but the Colts value him too much to let him go at that price, especially with Luck’s injury history. He’s arguably the best backup quarterback in the league and, still only in his age 27 season, he’ll likely end up getting a long-term starting job somewhere in the future. The Colts have a very enviable quarterback situation. 

Grade: A

Offensive Line

With Luck coming off of a serious injury, pass protection was paramount for the Colts in 2018. That also happens to be where the Colts made their biggest improvement from 2017 to 2018. Luck consistently played behind poor pass protection before the 2017 season, taking 156 sacks in 70 games, but last season he took just 18 sacks. Part of that was the offensive scheme getting the ball out of his hands quicker on average, but the offensive line deserves a lot of credit as well. 

Center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Anthony Castanzo were their only two returning starters from 2017 to 2018 and Kelly barely played in 2017, limited to 394 snaps in 7 games by foot and head injuries. Injuries have been a problem for Kelly the past two seasons and he missed another 4 games last season, but he took a big step forward in the field in 2018, finishing 11th among centers on Pro Football Focus. Durability remains a question, but he could remain a solid starting center for years to come, still only in his age 26 season.

Castonzo, meanwhile, has been starting since back when he was the only above average starter on this line. A first round pick in 2011, he’s made 116 starts in 8 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-23 among offensive tackles on PFF in 7 straight seasons, including two seasons in the top-8. He actually missed 5 games with injury early last season, part of why they got off to such a slow start, but he ended up finishing as PFF’s 17th ranked offensive tackle. He’s getting up there in age in his age 31 season, but could easily remain a reliable starting left tackle for at least another couple seasons. 

The rest of this starting offensive line consisted of a pair of draft picks, 6th overall pick left guard Quenton Nelson, PFF’s 6th ranked guard as a rookie, and 37th overall pick right tackle Braden Smith, PFF’s 27th ranked offensive tackle as a rookie, as well as free agent addition Mark Glowinski, who struggled mightily in the first 3 seasons of his career with Seattle and didn’t even make it into the starting lineup last season until week 7, but ended up finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked guard on the season. Glowinski is a complete one-year wonder, but the Colts brought him back on a 3-year, 16.2 million dollar deal this off-season, ensuring complete continuity on this offensive line that played so well down the stretch last season. It’s possible we see some regression from an offensive line that had 4 out of 5 starters have career years in 2018, but this offensive line has a very bright future.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Colts were also much improved on the ground last season, after finishing below 4 yards per carry in 4 straight seasons prior to last season. Part of that was the improved offensive line play, but they also had improved running back play as well, with lead back Marlon Mack leading the way. Mack missed 4 of the first 5 games with injury, but was a big part of their turnaround down the stretch, rushing for 908 yards and 9 touchdowns on 195 carries (4.66 YPC) and finishing 8th in carry success rate at 54%. A 4th round pick in 2017, Mack is a one-year wonder who averaged just 3.85 yards per carry on 93 rookie year carries, but he’s still only in his age 23 season and could easily be one of the better runners in the league for years to come if he can stay healthy.

Mack doesn’t do much in the passing game, catching just 17 of 26 targets for an average of 3.96 yards per target and 3 drops last season, but they have Nyheim Hines to play in obvious passing situations. A 4th round rookie last season, Hines caught 63 passes for 425 yards and 2 touchdowns and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked running back in pass catching grade. He also received 85 carries, but just 4.7 per game in the 12 games Mack played and was not terribly effective, averaging 3.69 yards per carry. He’ll likely still see a change of pace role to in addition to his passing game role, but he’s much more valuable as a receiver than as a runner.

Jordan Wilkins also saw his playing time drop dramatically with Mack in the lineup last season. He had 60 carries on the season and averaged an impressive 5.60 yards per carry, but he saw just 2.2 carries per game with Mack active and will likely see a similar role in 2019 as long as Mack is healthy. Unlike Hines, he doesn’t do much in the passing game (16 catches for 85 yards last season), but he’s good insurance to have in case Mack gets hurt again. He’s also very young, going in the 5th round in 2018. The Colts have done a great job of turning around the running back position in the past couple off-seasons with just a few mid round picks. 

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

It’s impressive that the Colts were able to have such a strong offensive performance last year (8th in first down rate) without a consistent #2 receiver. Ryan Grant, Chester Rogers, Zach Pascal, and Dontrelle Inman all saw starts, but none of them topped 485 yards. The Colts made addressing this position a priority this off-season, using the 59th overall pick on Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell and signing ex-Panther Devin Funchess to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency.

Campbell was a good value at that spot and will likely open the season as the 3rd receiver, but Funchess’ contract is kind of head scratching. Funchess definitely has upside, as the 2015 2nd round pick is still only in his age 25 season and had a 63/840/8 slash line in 2017, but that fell to 44/549/4 in 2018 and he played just 94 snaps in his final 4 games last season, effectively being benched. He could prove to be worth his salary, but that’s far from a guarantee and even if he does he’ll likely cost even more to keep long-term beyond 2019. It would have made more sense if the Colts could have gotten him on a 3-year deal with minimal guaranteed money beyond the first year, giving them option years if Funchess pans out, but this contract doesn’t have much long-term upside. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him exceed his career highs with Andrew Luck throwing him the ball though. His salary likely locks him in to the #2 receiver role.

Funchess figures to see plenty of single coverage opposite TY Hilton, who was by far their leading receiver among wideouts in 2018, with a 76/1270/6 slash line. Hilton underwhelmed with a 57/966/4 slash line without Luck in 2017, but he’s averaged a 87/1430/7 slash line per 16 games in his past 51 games with Luck under center. Hilton is going into his age 30 season, but shows no signs of slowing down and has only missed 4 games with injury in 7 seasons in the league. He dealt with a serious ankle injury down the stretch last season, but he showed incredible toughness, not just playing through it, but arguably having his best stretch of the season after getting hurt. As long as Luck is healthy, Hilton should remain among the most productive pass catchers in the league in 2019.

With depth problems at wide receiver, tight end Eric Ebron finished 2nd on the team with a 66/750/13 slash line on 110 targets, posting new career highs across the board. Ebron is unlikely to see quite as many targets this year though, after finishing 4th in the NFL among tight ends in targets last season. Not only did the Colts add talent at wide receiver this off-season, but they should also get more from #2 tight end Jack Doyle, who played just 331 snaps in 6 games last season. Doyle had slash lines of 59/584/5 and 80/690/4 in 2016 and 2017 respectively as the starter and was on a 69/653/5 pace in 6 games last season, even with Ebron added to the mix last off-season. Doyle is also the better blocker of the two and should have a big role.

Ebron averaged just a 47/518/3 slash line in his first 4 seasons in the league with Detroit and will likely be closer to that than his 2018 numbers. He’ll still be involved as a red zone threat because this is an explosive offense and because Luck likes targeting tight ends near the goal line, but he’s unlikely to approach 13 scores again, after just 11 in his first 4 seasons in the league combined, in a much deeper receiving corps. This will likely be a very tough offense to stop next season, if they can stay healthier, after losing the 7th most games to injury on offense in the league last season.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Colts also had a lot of injury problems on defense last season, also finishing with the 4th most games lost to injury on defense. Despite that, they finished 11th in first down rate allowed. After years of relying on Andrew Luck to carry them, the Colts finally were a balanced team in 2018. The front office deserves a lot of credit for assembling the unit, but a lot of the credit should go to the coaching staff, led by first year defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who successfully transitioned this defense from a bigger 3-4 to a 4-3 defense with more athleticism on the field. Eberflus was originally Josh McDaniels’ choice to be defensive coordinator and the Colts honored his contract even after McDaniels reneged, which proved to be a wise decision. He’s one of the best up and coming defensive coaches in the league and already received a couple head coaching interviews this off-season, after just one year as an NFL coordinator. 

In 2017, when the Colts ran a 3-4, their top two interior defenders in terms of snaps played were Johnathan Hankins and Al Woods, who tip the scales at about 325 and 330 pounds respectively. In transitioning to a 4-3, Hankins was cut ahead of an 8 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, while Woods saw his role scaled back significantly, playing just 375 snaps as a situational run stuffer last season. Instead, it was converted defensive end Margus Hunt and hybrid defensive lineman Denico Autry, signed to a 3-year, 17.8 million dollar deal last off-season, leading the way on the interior, at just 295 and 275 pounds respectively. 

Both players had breakout years in a scheme that fits their skill sets perfectly. Hunt was a late bloomer, making 15 starts in 2018 after starting just 5 games in the first 5 seasons of his career prior to last season and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked interior defender on a career high 724 snaps. Hunt didn’t get much pass rush, with 5 sacks, 2 hits, and a 5.1% pressure rate, but he excelled against the run, even though he isn’t a traditional 320-330 pound run stuffer. The only concern with Hunt is that he’s already going into his age 32 season. The Colts didn’t seem too concerned when they re-signed Hunt for 9 million over 2 years this off-season, but he’s always been a better run stuffer than pass rusher and it’s very possible they scale his pass rush snaps back a little bit this season so he can focus on stuffing the run. 

Autry was their best interior pass rusher, with 9 sacks, 3 hits, and a 10.1% pressure rate on the season, and he wasn’t bad against the run either, despite his lack of size. Autry is also a bit of a late bloomer, earning a career best PFF grade in his 5th season in the league in 2018, after earning middling grades at best in his first 4 seasons of his career in Oakland. Autry is going into his age 29 season, but he should continue giving them solid play from the interior, now in a defense that seems to fit his skillset better. 

Tyquan Lewis played primarily defensive end last season, but he’s expected to see more snaps on the interior this season and could be their primary interior pass rusher inside with Autry. A 2nd round pick out of Ohio State in 2018, Lewis was limited to an underwhelming 337 snaps in 8 games by injury last season, but still has a good upside. Weighing in at 269 pounds at the combine, Lewis will likely have to put on about 10 pounds this off-season to move inside, even in this undersized scheme, but that’s definitely doable and he could prove to be a better fit at his new position.

Al Woods is no longer with the team, leaving 6-4 333 pound Grover Stewart as the only situational run stuffer on their bench. The 2017 4th round pick struggled on a career high 292 snaps last season, but could see more playing time this season with Woods gone. He’s unlikely to ever develop into an every down player, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be improved in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. He and Hunt could be their primary early down players with Lewis and Autry as their primary sub package interior rushers. This is a solid group.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The reason the Colts are moving Lewis inside is because they are deeper at defensive end than defensive tackle. In addition to drafting Lewis in the 2nd round last year, they also took Rutgers defensive end Kemoko Turay in the 2nd round last year and then they used a 2nd round pick on TCU’s Ben Banogu in the 2nd round of this year’s draft. They also made a big free agent signing this off-season, signing ex-Chief Justin Houston to a 2-year, 24 million dollar deal. He’ll start opposite incumbent starter Jabaal Sheard.

Houston used to be one of the best defenders in the entire league, finishing in the top-4 on Pro Football Focus among edge defenders in 3 straight seasons from 2013-2015, while totalling 40.5 sacks, 21 hits, and an 18.3% pressure rate in 38 games. However, injuries seem to have caught up with him. He’s missed 26 games over the past 6 seasons with a variety of injuries, only once playing all 16 games, and, in 3 seasons since that dominant 2013-2015 stretch, he’s seen his pass rush numbers drop to 22.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 12.4% pressure rate in 32 games. 

That’s still impressive though and he still has a very impressive 14.8% pressure rate for his career, with 78.5 sacks and 51 hits in 102 career games. Even last season, he still finished 12th among edge defenders on PFF last season, with 9 sacks, 7 hits, and a 12.8% pressure rate in 12 games. Going into his age 30 season, his best days are likely behind him, which is why the Chiefs parted ways with him rather than pay him a 17 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2019, but he could easily have at least a couple seasons of strong play left in the tank if he can stay on the field. He was a worthwhile signing by the Colts at a cheaper rate than what the Chiefs would have had to pay him to keep him. 

Sheard should also give them strong play on the other side. He’s never put up a big sack total, not surpassing 8 sacks in a season in 8 years in the league, but he’s been a top-31 edge defender on PFF for 4 straight seasons. He just has 24 sacks over that time period, but has added 27 hits and a 13.3% pressure rate, while playing the run at a high level. Like Houston, Sheard is going into his age 30 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet and could easily have another couple seasons of above average play left in the tank. He and Houston make an impressive starting duo unless one expectedly sees their play fall off a cliff this season. 

With Houston and Sheard locked into starting roles, Kemeko Turay and Ben Banogu will be reserves, but both could see still see significant snaps in a rotational role. Turay was decent on 383 rookie year snaps and, like his draft classmate Tyquan Lewis, he could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. Banogu, meanwhile, is a tremendous athlete, but still pretty raw as a prospect. 2017 6th round pick Al-Quadin Muhammad could also be in the mix, after flashing as a run stuffer on 415 total snaps in the first significant action of his career last season. With the addition of Houston, this is a strong position group.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The biggest reason for the Colts defensive improvement last season was the addition of linebacker Darius Leonard in the 2nd round of the draft. Leonard flew a little under the radar in the draft because he went to South Carolina State, but passing on him proved to be a mistake for the rest of the league, as Leonard finished as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked off ball linebacker and won Defensive Rookie of the Year. Not only does Leonard excel in coverage and against the run, but he also pressured the quarterback 10 times on just 44 blitzes, including a ridiculous 7 sacks. He might not do that every season, but he should continue developing into one of the top linebackers in the NFL. 

The Colts lacked another good linebacker next to him last season though. Anthony Walker started 14 games last season and was a decent run stuffer, but he struggled mightily in coverage. The 2017 5th round pick could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but this could be his ceiling as a player. A pair of 2018 7th round picks, Matthew Adams and Zaire Alexander, struggled on 215 snaps and 176 snaps respectively last season, and also aren’t guaranteed to get any better. 

The Colts had the cap space to sign an upgrade in free agency this off-season, but opted to only use a 3rd round pick on Stanford’s Bobby Okereke. He could push Walker for his starting job, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. This is a very young group overall, so they have some upside, but for now Darius Leonard looks like their only reliable linebacker. Fortunately, he’s one of the best in the game, which elevates this entire group.

Grade: B

Secondary

Cornerback was probably the Colts’ most improved position group on defense from 2017 to 2018. That’s despite the fact that the Colts didn’t make any major additions between the two seasons. Their top-4 cornerbacks in terms of snaps played last season were all on the roster in 2017, though their top-3 did all see more playing time in 2018 than 2017, including a pair of starters in Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore who both had breakout seasons. 

Both breakout seasons were pretty improbable, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Desir had played just 907 defensive snaps in 4 seasons in the league with 4 teams, since being drafted by the Browns in the 4th round in 2014, and had never shown much in limited action, before finishing 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his age 28 season last season. Moore, meanwhile, went undrafted in 2017 and was decent, but underwhelming on 384 rookie year snaps, before finishing 33rd among cornerbacks on PFF as a 15-game starter in 2018. Desir and Moore are both one-year wonders and could regress in 2019, but the Colts don’t seem to see that happening, re-signing both on long-term deals worth 22.5 million over 3 years and 30 million over 4 years respectively.

Quincy Wilson was the 3rd cornerback last season. The 2017 2nd round pick played just 435 snaps, but that was a slight bump from his rookie season, when he played 402. He wasn’t bad in either season, but could be pushed for the #3 cornerback job by 34th overall pick Rock Ya-Sin. Ya-Sin easily could have gone in the first round and profiles as an above average starter long-term. Even if he spends his rookie year as the 4th cornerback, he’ll be an obvious upgrade over Nate Hairston, a 2017 5th round pick who has struggled on 950 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined. Hairston is not a roster lock with Ya-Sin coming in. Whoever wins the 3rd cornerback job will play outside opposite Desir in three cornerback sets, with Moore on the slot where he’s at his best. 

At safety, the Colts return starters Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers. It looked likely that the Colts would move on from Geathers as a free agent this off-season, but they were outbid for Landon Collins by the Redskins and decided to bring Geathers back on a 1-year, 2.75 million dollar deal. Hooker and Geathers both missed time with injury, playing 14 games and 12 games respectively. That’s been a theme for both of them in their careers unfortunately, but both are above average starters when healthy.

Hooker has the higher upside of the two, as he was the 14th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, finished as PFF’s 15th ranked safety in 2018, despite coming off of a torn ACL that ended his 2017 season, and he is still only in his age 23 season, but Geathers is a solid starter as well. He’s been limited to 41 games in 4 seasons in the league, but in the two seasons he’s played at least 500 snaps, he’s finished 38th among safeties on PFF (2016) and 39th (2018). Still in the prime of his career, he was worth bringing back on a reasonable contract and the Colts have good insurance behind because Matthias Farley was a capable starter in 15 starts as an injury replacement in 2017. Even if there is some regression from the starting cornerbacks, this is still a deep and talented group.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Colts lost in the 2nd round of the playoffs against a tough Kansas City team on the road in one of the worst games the Colts played all season, but before being eliminated they were very much in Super Bowl contention, given how well they played once some players got healthy. This season, they go into the year without any major weaknesses on their roster and should be able to pick back up right where they left off contending for the Super Bowl. Their schedule will be tougher this season (they had the easiest schedule in the league last season in terms of opponents’ DVOA) and their division has suddenly become one of the tougher divisions in football, but they have the talent to win their division if they can stay healthier than last season, when they had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury. 

Final Update: The Colts’ Super Bowl chances were dealt a crippling blow when Andrew Luck suddenly decided to retire before the start of the season, but they could still contend for a playoff spot in the weaker AFC. Jacoby Brissett is one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league and should fare much better in his 2nd stint as the starter, with a stronger supporting cast around him. He should also benefit from Frank Reich’s quarterback friendly offense, an offense he’s spent two years in, unlike his first stint as a starter when he was acquired right before the season.

Prediction: 8-8, 2nd in AFC South

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