Indianapolis Colts 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

At this point last year, the Colts seemed to have a bright future. In their first season under new head coach Frank Reich in 2018, the Colts went 10-6, won a playoff game, and were especially good down the stretch, winning 9 of their final 10 regular season games, after some early season injuries that led to a 1-5 start. They finished the 2018 season 5th in first down rate differential at +4.56% and, following a solid off-season in which the Colts had significant money to play with in free agency, the Colts looked like definite Super Bowl contenders going into the 2019 season. 

However, that all changed shockingly in late August, a few weeks before the season started, when Pro-Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck announced his retirement after a series of injury plagued seasons, hanging them up before what would have been only his age 30 season. Without Luck, the Colts still had one of the best supporting casts in the league and former backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett was one of the better backups in the league, but the drop off from Luck to Brissett was still too big for this team to overcome, as they fell short of the post-season at 7-9.

The Colts’ offense wasn’t really the problem, as they finished 10th in first down rate at 37.30%, en route to a 16th ranked finish in first down rate at +0.79%, which suggests they were slightly better than their final record. In fact, the Colts had a lot of close losses and could have won at least an extra two games if they hadn’t missed very makeable kicks. That doesn’t mean Jacoby Brissett wasn’t a problem, however, as the Colts were able to have some success offensively despite Brissett, not because of him. Despite a strong offensive supporting cast, Brissett completed just 60.8% of his passes for 6.58 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions and on Pro Football Focus he finished 33rd out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks. 

The Colts were never expecting Brissett to be their starter in 2019, turning to him only after Luck’s surprise retirement, so it’s not a surprise the Colts went out and found a replacement for him this off-season, signing at least a short-term solution in Philip Rivers, who joins the Colts on a one-year, 25 million dollar deal for his age 39 season after 16 seasons with the Chargers. Rivers overall has had a Hall-of-Fame career and he has finished in the top-10 among quarterbacks on PFF in 10 of 14 seasons as a starter, while never missing a single start, but his age is obviously becoming a concern, especially off of a relatively down year in which he slid to 17th among quarterbacks on PFF. Overall, he completed 66.0% of his passes for 7.81 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions last season.

Rivers may have at least a couple years left in the tank as a starter and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Brissett, but his best days are probably behind him. Even still, with Rivers and Brissett as an above average backup behind him, this is a solid quarterback situation. Considering this offense had some success last season even with Brissett having an underwhelming season, it’s conceivable they could be one of the better offenses in the league if Rivers can be even a middle of the pack starting quarterback. 

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The biggest reason for the Colts’ success on offense last year was the running game, as the Colts understandably compensated for the loss of Andrew Luck by keeping it on the ground more, finishing the season 5th in the NFL with 471 carries, and they had a lot of success in doing so, rushing for the 7th most rushing yards in the league with 2,130 and finishing 12th in yards per carry at 4.52. Lead back Marlon Mack rushed for 1,091 yards and 8 touchdowns on 247 carries (4.42 YPC) and finished 10th in the NFL with a 52% carry success rate, which shows he was very efficient at keeping this offense on track. 

Mack gets a lot of help from an offensive line that ranked 2nd in the NFL in run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus (more on the line later), but he is a solid running back in his own right, earning an average or better grade from PFF in each of the 3 seasons he’s been in the league, since being drafted in the 4th round in 2017 (4.41 YPC and 20 touchdowns on 535 carries). Despite that, the Colts still used a high draft pick (41st overall) on Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor this off-season, suggesting they plan to remain relatively run heavy even with Rivers providing an upgrade under center.

Taylor’s addition likely means the Colts will not be paying Marlon Mack what he wants on a long-term extension, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, and in the meantime Mack and Taylor figure to split carries. How exactly it breaks out will likely be determined in training camp, the pre-season, and throughout the season, but it could ultimately be close to 50/50, as Taylor was arguably a first round talent, but Mack is a proven starter in the NFL. 

Mack and Taylor figure to get the vast majority of the carries on this season, with Jordan Wilkins (5.79 YPC on 111 carries in the past 2 seasons) providing nothing more than insurance, but passing down back Nyheim Hines figures to still have a role, as neither Mack nor Taylor are especially good in the passing game, with Mack catching just 52 passes in 40 career games and Taylor totaling just 39 catches in 3 seasons as a starter in college.

In fact, given the Colts’ quarterback upgrade and Philip Rivers’ tendency to check down to running backs, it would surprise me if Hines topped the 63/425/2 and 44/320/0 slash lines he’s had in 2 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2018. His 3.74 YPC average on 137 carries shows his shortcomings as a runner, but he’s a decent pass catcher. He’s an important part of a deep and talented running back group.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

In addition to excelling in the run game, the Colts’ offensive line is also strong in pass protection, allowing the 9th fewest sacks in the league last season (32), despite Jacoby Brissett averaging the 3rd longest time in the pocket of any quarterback. Philip Rivers, meanwhile, had the 3rd shortest average time in the pocket last season, frequently under pressure behind a terrible Chargers offensive line. He should benefit significantly from better pass protection with the Colts.

The Colts’ offensive line was dominant for stretches in 2018, but they only had their starting five together healthy for one 5-game stretch. In 2019, they had great injury luck upfront, with none of their starting five missing a single game, allowing them to dominate all season long. They probably won’t have quite the same injury luck in 2020, but they return the same five starters and look likely to be among the top offensive lines in the league once again.

Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is the longest tenured member of this group, making 132 starts in 9 seasons with the team that used the 22nd overall pick on him back in 2011. He’s been remarkably consistent over that stretch, finishing between 7th and 25th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in every season except for his rookie season and missing just 12 games total due to injury. Castonzo’s age is becoming a concern, going into his age 32 season, but he didn’t show any decline in an 8th ranked finish in 2019 and is likely to remain an above average starter at least for another couple years. Castonzo reportedly considered retirement this off-season before re-signing for 33 million over 2 years, a deal that could possibly take him to the end of his career.

The rest of this group joined the team relatively recently. As good as this offensive line is overall, left guard Quenton Nelson is obviously their best player and he was arguably their team MVP last season, given how dependent they were on their running game and how Nelson paved the way on the ground. He finished as PFF’s 2nd ranked guard in overall grade, a year after the 6th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft finished 4th at his position as a rookie. As close to a sure thing as I’ve ever seen at the guard position coming out of the draft, it’s no surprise Nelson has instantly become one of the best guards in the NFL and, still only going into his age 24 season, it’s likely that only injuries could prevent him from being a perennial All-Pro for years to come.

Right tackle Braden Smith also was added through the 2018 NFL Draft, being taken by the Colts with the 37th overall pick at the top of the second round. He hasn’t been as good as Nelson obviously, but he’s developed into a talented young player in his own right, ranking 29th among offensive tackles on PFF as a rookie and 9th in his second season in 2019. Also only going into his age 24 season, Smith could easily keep getting easier and he has the ability to be one of the best right tackles in the league for years to come.

Right guard Mark Glowinski also arrived in the 2018 off-season, although he arrived as a mere waiver claim after being released by the Seahawks, with whom he struggled mightily in 19 starts in three seasons after being drafted in the 4th round in 2015. It turns out the Seahawks gave up on him too quickly, as he took over as the starting right guard for the Colts in week 6 of 2018 and instantly made an impact, finishing the season as PFF’s 10th ranked guard. He wasn’t quite as good in a middling season as a 16-game starter in 2019, but he at least proved his 2018 season wasn’t a total fluke and that he could continue being a capable starter at best going forward. He was a good value re-signing on a 3-year, 16.2 million dollar deal last off-season.

Ryan Kelly completes this offensive line on the pivot, entering his 5th season with the team after they took him in the first round in 2016. Kelly had a middling rookie year, followed by an injury ruined second season, but he’s finished in the top-10 among centers on PFF in back-to-back seasons, including a career best 7th ranked finish in 2019. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s the only member of this unit not signed beyond next season, but the Colts have plenty of cap space to keep him, even if they have to reset the center market at upwards of 12 million annually to do so. It’s unlikely all five of these starters play all 16 games again in 2020 and depth is definitely suspect on the interior, but they at least have a solid swing tackle in Le’Raven Clark, a 2016 3rd round pick who has been capable across 12 career starts. It’s hard to find a more complete offensive line than this one.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Along with quarterback, the other unit on this offense that needs to play better in 2020 is this receiving corps. Fortunately, the problem was mostly injury related in 2019, as expected top-two wide receivers TY Hilton and Parris Campbell were limited to 478 snaps and 196 snaps respectively by injury, leaving Zach Pascal (799 snaps), Marcus Johnson (412 snaps), Chester Rogers (408 snaps), and Deon Cain (228 snaps) to play significant roles. Pascal surprisingly played pretty well, leading this team with a 41/607/5 slash line, after the 2017 undrafted free agent struggled on 527 snaps in the first action of his career in 2018, but the rest of this group struggled.

Things should be a lot better at wide receiver this season and Pascal could end up being no higher than 4th on the depth chart, as both Hilton and Campbell should be healthier and second round rookie Michael Pittman is expected to compete for a role in 3 wide receiver sets immediately. Campbell was a second round pick back in 2019, so he’s still very unproven after an injury riddled rookie year, as is the rookie Pittman, so it’s tough to know how much to expect from them, but the upside is obvious. Hilton, meanwhile, is the biggest re-addition, as he was Andrew Luck’s long-time #1 option, averaging a 87/1430/7 slash line per 16 games from 2014-2018 in games that Luck played. 

Hilton hasn’t been as good without Luck, averaging a 63/932/5 slash line per 16 games without Luck in his career, and he’s going into his age 31 season having dealt with a variety of nagging injuries over the past 2 seasons, but it’s very possible he could re-emerge as a legitimate #1 option now with Philip Rivers in town. He’s finished in the top-32 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 6 of the past 7 seasons, including three seasons in the top-11 (2014, 2016, and 2018) and a 28th ranked finish in limited action last season, so even if he’s on the decline, he still should remain an above average option for another couple seasons, provided he can stay healthy.

With underwhelming play at wide receiver, the Colts relied on tight ends in the passing game more last season and frequently ran two tight end sets with Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron, who finished with slash lines of 43/448/4 and 31/375/3 respectively in 16 games and 11 games respectively. Ebron signed with the Steelers as a free agent on a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal this off-season, but Doyle remains and the Colts may have found a cheaper replacement for Ebron, signing ex-Bear Trey Burton to a cheap one-year deal.

Burton is coming off of a horrendous season, averaging a position worst 0.48 yards per route run, struggling as a blocker, and finishing as PFF’s 48th ranked tight end out of 50 qualifiers, leading to his release this off-season, but he was playing through serious injuries most of the time he was on the field last season and was limited to 283 snaps overall in 8 games. Burton was a capable starter for the Bears in 2018 (54/569/6) and flashed as a reserve with the Eagles in the first 4 seasons of his career prior to that, so he has some bounce back potential if he’s healthy in 2020, only in his age 29 season. He’s never been much of a run blocker, but neither has Ebron who he’s replacing, and Burton is unlikely to play as much as Ebron did, given the Colts’ improved depth at wide receiver.

Jack Doyle, meanwhile, should play a similar role as last season, but I would expect his production to go up, as not only does he get an upgrade at quarterback, but one that has historically targeted tight ends in the passing game. Doyle missed most of 2018 with injury, limited to 26/245/2 in 6 games, but that’s a 69/653/5 pace over 16 games and he totaled 59/584/5 and 80/690/4 in 2016 and 2017. All in all, Doyle has earned an average or better grade from PFF in 6 straight seasons, including 4 seasons as a starter (51 starts in 53 games), providing a reliable receiver underneath and a capable blocker as well. This is a deeper receiver corps, but Doyle should still be able to exceed last year’s production.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Colts’ defense wasn’t bad last season, finishing 20th in first down rate allowed at 36.51%, but the Colts had financial flexibility and the urgency to win now with an aging veteran quarterback on a one-year deal, so they made a big splash move before the draft to acquire 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner for their first round pick, 13th overall. Buckner was a big part of the 49ers’ dominant defensive line in 2019, but the cap strapped 49ers didn’t have the financial flexibility to keep him long-term, so they sought to trade him. For the Colts, they’re paying a steep price, as they also had to give him a 4-year, 84 million dollar extension as part of the trade that makes him the third highest paid defensive player in the NFL in average annual salary behind Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack, but Buckner will provide a big boost to this defense.

The seventh overall pick by the 49ers in 2016, Buckner has been an above average starter since day 1, finishing 33rd among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus as a rookie, and then improving to finish 20th in 2017, 26th in 2018, and a career best 14th last season. All in all, he’s totaled 28.5 sacks, 52 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate from the interior in 4 seasons in the league, while playing at a high level against the run. Only going into his age 26 season, he has the ability to keep getting better, especially in an attacking 4-3 defense in Indianapolis that fits his skill set as a one gap penetrator well. He might have been a slight overpay, but he’ll help this defense in a big way.

Buckner will most directly replace free agent departure Margus Hunt and he is an obviously massive upgrade over Hunt, who is no longer with the team after finishing 114th out of 125 qualifying interior defenders on PFF in 2019, but Hunt played just 451 snaps, so Buckner’s addition will likely also lead to reduced roles by both Denico Autry (620 snaps) and Grover Stewart (627 snaps). Autry is the better of the two players, so I would expect him to see his snaps reduced less, while Stewart will likely be limited to situational work as a run stuffer. 

Stewart has fared pretty well against the run in 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2017, but the 6-4 333 pounder unsurprisingly has just a 4.5% pressure rate for his career. Autry, meanwhile, leaves something to be desired against the run, but he’s an effective interior pass rusher who should continue playing in sub packages, after totaling 17.5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 8.4% pressure rate over the past 3 seasons and earning an above average pass rush grade from PFF in all 3 seasons.

Hybrid defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis could also be in the mix for snaps on the interior in sub packages and he has some upside as a 2018 2nd round pick, though injuries have limited him to 562 mediocre snaps in 17 games in 2 seasons in the league. The Colts also added veteran Sheldon Day in free agency and he could be in the mix for a role, especially if Lewis can’t secure one or gets hurt, though Day is an underwhelming option who has averaged just 281 snaps per game in 4 seasons in the league. Adding Buckner is a big boost to this position and the Colts have solid depth as well.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Along with DeForest Buckner disrupting offenses in a big way from the interior, the Colts should also have Justin Houston disrupting offenses in a big way on the edge, although that’s less of a sure thing, with Houston getting up there in age, going into his age 31 season. Houston hasn’t shown any signs of dropping off yet though, finishing last season 10th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, especially excelling as a pass rusher with 11 sacks, 9 hits, and a 13.1% pressure rate. 

Now going into his 10th season in the league, Houston has finished in the top-22 among edge defenders on PFF in 8 straight seasons, including 5 seasons in the top-10. He had some injury problems for a stretch, missing 21 of 64 games from 2015-2018, but he played in all 16 games last season and has still totalled 89.5 sacks, 60 hits, and a 14.5% pressure rate for his career, even with the significant missed time. Even if he declines a little bit in 2020, he should continue playing at a high level.

With veteran edge defender Jabaal Sheard, who was about average across 569 snaps last season, no longer with the team, snaps are up for grabs aside from Houston and the Colts have some intriguing options, including third year defensive end Kemoko Turay. Originally a 2nd round pick, Turay was solid on 383 rookie year snaps and was expected to take on a larger role in his 2nd season, but his year was ended by injury after 4 games. Still, in those four games, Turay showed a lot to suggest he could have had a breakout year had he stayed healthy, with 1.5 sacks, 4 hits, and an amazing 20.3% pressure rate, while playing well against the run to boot. He’s still unproven, but he has obvious breakout potential in his age 25 season in 2020.

Ben Banogu is another option and he is also a former second round pick, going 49th overall in 2019. He struggled mightily as a rookie though, consistently struggling against the run and managing just an underwhelming 9.4% pressure rate off the edge, while only playing 272 snaps. He still has the upside to develop into a starter long-term, but he needs to take a step forward in his second season in the league to be worth a larger role. The Colts also have fourth year player Al-Quadin Muhammad in the mix for snaps, but he’s more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher, with an underwhelming 7.1% pressure rate for his career. The Colts’ have upside at the edge defender position, but need someone to step up as a consistent option opposite Justin Houston.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Colts also have a high level player in the linebacking corps, as 2018 2nd round pick Darius Leonard has developed into one of the best off ball linebackers in the league in just two seasons, finishing 7th at his position on Pro Football Focus as a rookie and then 6th in 2019. Only going into his age 25 season, Leonard could keep getting better and, barring injury, is likely to be one of the best off ball linebackers in the league for years to come.

Along with Leonard, the rest of this linebacking corps is the same as last season, but unlike Leonard, the rest of this group didn’t play all that well, so the Colts will be banking on young players taking a step forward at this position. 2017 5th round pick Anthony Walker has played in a close to every down role over the past two seasons (48.6 snaps per game), but he has been a marginal player at best. He developed into a solid coverage player in 2019, but also led all off ball linebackers for 21 missed tackles. His 38 missed tackles over the past two seasons also are the most among off ball linebackers. He could be a little better in 2020, but doesn’t have a high upside.

Walker will likely be pushed for his every down role by 2019 3rd round Bobby Okereke, who flashed in 29.5 per game snaps in primarily a base package role last season. Okereke wasn’t tested much in coverage, but impressed against the run and played at a high level overall. He probably has a higher upside than Walker and could begin eating into Walker’s snaps as recently as this season. This is a young group with upside, but Darius Leonard is the only sure thing. He significantly elevates this whole group by himself though.

Grade: B+

Secondary

While the Colts linebackers are the exact same this season, they have made some changes in the secondary. At cornerback, the Colts released Pierre Desir, owed 6.85 million non-guaranteed after a down 2019 season in which he finished 91st out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF, and will replace him with free agent acquisitions Xavier Rhodes and TJ Carrie, who will compete for snaps behind holdovers Kenny Moore and Rock Ya-Sin.

Moore will likely be their top cornerback again, as he’s been their de facto #1 cornerback over the past two seasons. Even though he was undrafted in 2017, Moore flashed on 384 snaps as a rookie and has finished 35th and 18th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus over the past two seasons respectively since becoming a starter. Moore is a better run stuffer than he is in coverage, but he’s still earned an above average coverage grade from PFF in both seasons. He’s at his best on the slot (0.92 yards per route run allowed on the slot over the past two seasons), but despite his limited size at 5-9 190 he can hold up on the outside and play every down as well. Still only going into his age 26 season, he should do more of the same for years to come and could keep getting even better.

Rock Ya-Sin also remains as a starter, after playing capably on 853 snaps (13 starts) as a rookie last year. The 34th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Ya-Sin has a high ceiling and could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league. That leaves newcomers Xavier Rhodes and TJ Carrie to compete for the third cornerback job, with Rhodes likely being the favorite, signing for 3 million on a one-year deal, compared to 1.05 million for Carrie. 

Rhodes also has the bigger track record of success, making 97 starts in 7 seasons in the league since being drafted in the first round in 2013, with his best years coming in 2016 (21st among cornerbacks on PFF) and 2017 (37th), but he’s fallen off significant since then, falling to 107th out of 126 qualifying cornerbacks and 125th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks over the past 2 seasons respectively. Rhodes isn’t that old in his age 30 season, but he’s played through injuries in recent years that have consistently limited him and, even if he does bounce back in 2020, his best days are likely behind him. He’s not a bad third option, however, given his history. 

Carrie, meanwhile, is also experienced, with 51 starts in 92 games in 6 seasons in the league, but he’s never been as good as Rhodes at his best and he too is going into his age 30 season and coming off of a bad year, finishing 100th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks last season. Carrie is also primarily a slot cornerback and Moore has that role locked down, meaning Carrie is likely going to begin the season in a versatile depth role, able to fill in both inside and outside when needed.

At safety, the Colts let Clayton Geathers walk in free agency. Geathers had been with the Colts for 5 seasons since they took him in the 4th round in 2015 and he was generally a capable player across an average of 41.7 snaps per game over the past 4 seasons, but it’s not entirely surprising the Colts moved on, as Geathers had been very injury prone over the past four seasons (23 of 64 games missed) and lost his job to 4th round rookie Khari Willis down the stretch last season. Geathers also was a much better run stuffer than he was in coverage, which he frequently had trouble with. Willis is unproven with just 50.4 career snaps, but he was pretty solid last season and would be a more well-rounded long-term starting option than Geathers if he can continue to develop.

Malik Hooker remains as the other starting safety, though that may not be the case beyond this year, as the Colts declined the former 15th overall pick’s 5th year option for 2021, even though it would have guaranteed him just 6.7 million for injury. Injuries have always been a concern with Hooker, who has missed 14 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league and has injury problems dating back to his collegiate days, but the Colts will regret declining that option if Hooker has a big year in 2020, which he could easily do, as he’s shown a lot of potential when on the field in his career, finishing 17th among safeties on PFF in 14 starts in 2018 and 37th in 13 starts in 2019.

Only in his age 24 season with a huge upside, it’s surprising the Colts wouldn’t take a chance on Booker for 2021, but for 2020 he should be at least an above average starter when on the field. If he misses time, he’d likely be replaced by either George Odum, who has been decent on 489 snaps in 2 seasons since going undrafted in 2018, or third round rookie Julian Blackmon. This is a solid secondary overall with good depth.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Colts made a big addition on both sides of the ball this off-season, adding Philip Rivers to upgrade the quarterback position and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to give them another dominant player on the defensive side of the ball. They also should get a healthier year from their #1 wide receiver TY Hilton, so it’s not hard to see how the Colts could be significantly better in 2020 and win an unsettled AFC South. The AFC in general is weak outside of the Ravens and Chiefs and, other than those two teams, the Colts look like they have the best shot to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this season.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Chiefs and Ravens both have suffered losses in the pre-season, so the Colts chances to win the AFC got even better.

Projection: 12-4 (1st in AFC South)

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