The quarterback position was not one the Colts had to worry about for a long-time. They got the #1 pick in 1998, the year can’t miss quarterback prospect Peyton Manning entered the draft, and Manning didn’t miss, playing 14 seasons of a Hall of Fame career with the team, before injuring his neck, missing all of 2012, and being released the following off-season. Manning’s release was in part due to the Colts falling to 2-14 in his absence and yet again landing the #1 overall pick in a draft with a can’t miss quarterback prospect, Andrew Luck, who many believed was the best prospect since Manning.
Luck took over the following season and seemed like he could follow in Manning’s footsteps, leading the Colts in the post-season in each of his first three seasons, including an AFC Championship appearance during the 2014 season. However, then the injuries started, first costing Luck a total of 9 games in 2015, another game in 2016, and then ending his 2017 season before it started. Luck returned for a full season in 2018 to lead the Colts to another post-season appearance, but an off-season injury after the season caused Luck to hang them up early rather than continue trying to fight through pain, ending his career before his 30th birthday.
Luck’s surprise retirement came close to the start of the season too, so the Colts didn’t have time to find a proper replacement, instead turning again to backup Jacoby Brissett, who was underwhelming in Luck’s absence in 2017. Brissett was again underwhelming, leading to the Colts trying to find a proper replacement for Luck last off-season. The best they could do was sign Philip Rivers, a likely future Hall of Famer in his own right, but one at the end of his career in his 17th season in the NFL.
Rivers took the Colts back to the post-season, but the Colts were one and done and Rivers decided to make his 17th season his last, hanging them up this off-season ahead of what would have been his age 40 season in 2021. After years of stability at the quarterback position, the Colts were yet again in need of a quarterback this off-season and with Brissett signing with the Dolphins, that quarterback would be the Colts’ 4th different starting quarterback in the past four seasons, 5th in five seasons if you include Scott Tolzien, who actually started week 1 of the season Luck missed in 2017.
Rather than adding another short-term solution like they did with Rivers, the Colts decided to focus on finding stability at the position this off-season, trading for Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles, whose contract guarantees him 47.4 million over the next two seasons. Sending back a third round pick and a second round pick that can become a first round pick in that trade, the Eagles are all in on Wentz and will be locked into him for the next couple seasons, for better or worse.
That’s a big risk considering how badly Wentz played last season, when he completed 57.4% of his passes for an average of 6.00 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, ranking 34th among 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF and getting benched down the stretch for rookie Jalen Hurts, leading to Wentz’s trade from Philadelphia this off-season. However, Wentz is reuniting with his former offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who coached Wentz to a 2017 season in which he ranked 6th among quarterbacks on PFF and completed 60.2% of his passes for an average of 7.49 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in just his second season in the league, before tearing his ACL in the middle of an MVP caliber season and watching Reich leave the following off-season to take the head coaching job in Indianapolis.
Reich’s presence alone doesn’t guarantee Wentz’s success, but how Wentz played in the interim between his 2017 MVP candidacy and his 2020 bottoming out suggests that his 2020 was more of an outlier than his 2017, as Wentz completed 66.2% of his passes for an average of 7.06 YPA, 48 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 2018-2019 combined, while finishing 14th among quarterbacks on PFF in both seasons.
Both seasons also ended with injury, but some of that has been more bad luck than anything. Wentz is still theoretically in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and, prior to a year ago, he was seen as a perfectly fine starting quarterback, even if his chances of reaching his 2017 heights seemed slim, so I like his chances of bouncing back in 2021 and the reunion with Reich only helps his chances.
Wentz also is very unlikely to have receivers drop a league high 10.7% of his passes like they did a year ago with the Eagles and he’s unlikely to be pressured on at the 8th highest rate in the league at 38.3%, which both largely contributed to his poor statistical production. Wentz has a good chance to be a noticeable upgrade in 2021 over Philip Rivers, who ranked a middling 18th among quarterbacks on PFF in his one season with the Colts in 2020.
That is needed for the Colts, whose 11-5 record last season was largely the result of an easy schedule, which included seven games against the Jaguars, Texans, Jets, Bengals, and Lions, who all won five games or fewer. In first down rate, the Colts ranked 8th on offense and 11th defense and 9th overall with a +2.02% first down rate differential, but when schedule adjustments are applied, the Colts fell to 19th on offense, 13th on defense, and 13th overall at +0.20%.
This season, the Colts still face a relatively easy schedule within the division, but the Jaguars are better than a year ago and, outside of the division, the Colts are trading the AFC North, NFC North, the Jets, and the Raiders for the NFC West, the AFC East, the Ravens, the Buccaneers, and the Raiders (again). If the Colts want to win 11 games and make it back to the post-season, they’ll need to be better than they were a year ago and Carson Wentz returning to form will almost definitely need to be part of the reason why they are better for that to happen.
With all they have invested in him, it’s unlikely the Colts would want to bench Wentz at any point, but if he does suffer another injury, the Colts are pretty thin behind Wentz with Brissett gone, leaving 2020 4th round pick Jacob Eason (0 rookie year passes) and 6th round rookie Sam Ehlinger as the candidates to be Wentz’s backup. Eason can probably lock down the job with a strong training camp, but if he struggles, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Colts add a veteran to give them a little bit of a higher ceiling if Wentz misses time.
Philip Rivers was not the Colts’ only significant retirement this off-season, as long-time left tackle Anthony Castonzo decided to hang them up this off-season rather than return to the Colts for his 11th season. The 22nd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Colts, Castonzo stepped into the starting lineup right away as a rookie and was an above average starter from the beginning, starting a streak of 10 straight seasons (144 starts) with an above average grade from PFF that took him through the end of his career, when he finished 33rd among offensive tackles on PFF in 2020.
Castonzo was only going into his age 33 season and likely could have continued playing at an above average level in 2021 had he returned, so he is a significant loss, especially since the Colts offensive line has been the strength of this team for the past three seasons, while keeping the same starting five together across that stretch, an unusual occurrence in the NFL. With Castonzo gone, that continuity is gone as well, which could hurt this offensive line even if Castonzo’s replacement is able to play comparably well.
Castonzo’s replacement playing comparably well is a possibility as the Colts went out and got another proven veteran left tackle Eric Fisher as a replacement, but Fisher comes with a lot of risk as well. Fisher also is a former 1st round pick, actually being selected #1 overall by the Chiefs in 2013, and he has been an above average starter for a while as well, earning above average grades from PFF in seven straight seasons, dating back to his second season in the league in 2014 (100 starts total over that stretch), including a 18th ranked season in 2020.
However, Fisher suffered a torn achilles in the Chiefs’ AFC Championship victory back in January and, now going into his age 30 season, the Chiefs let him go to save 12 million, which they needed to retool their offensive line. The Colts signed him to a 1-year, 8.38 million dollar deal, but he might not be ready for the start of the season and, even if he is, there is no guarantee he’ll be as good as he’s been, given his injury and his age. Even if he does bounce back, he doesn’t have a ton of upside on a deal worth 8.38 million and even if he proves to be a good value, the Colts will only have to pay him more to keep him long-term next off-season.
The Colts didn’t use a draft pick on a left tackle of the future, a bit surprising given that Fisher isn’t a long-term option, which leaves veteran free agent addition Sam Tevi as the swing tackle and likely replacement for Fisher if he misses any time. Tevi has plenty of experience, making 43 starts over the past three seasons, but it hasn’t been good experience, as the 2017 6th round pick has earned below average grades from PFF in all three seasons, including a 82nd ranked finish out of 89 eligible offensive tackles in 2020. He would almost definitely continue struggling if forced into action. His primary competition for the swing tackle role is probably fellow free agent addition Julie’n Davenport, who made 23 starts between 2018-2019 with the Texans and Dolphins, but struggled mightily and was limited to 53 snaps in 2020.
The rest of this line is still the same from the past few years. Braden Smith will remain at right tackle and play opposite Fisher, or whoever starts in Fisher’s absence. A 2nd round pick in 2018, Smith has been an above average starter in all three seasons in the league, finishing 29th, 9th, and 17th among offensive tackles on PFF over the past three seasons respectively, while making 43 of a possible 48 starts. Still only going into his age 25 season, Smith could even keep getting better and, even if he doesn’t, he should remain one of the best right tackles in the league.
Left guard Quenton Nelson was also added in that 2018 NFL Draft and, though he was selected 6th overall, he’s exceeded his draft slot by just as much as Smith has exceeded his draft slot as a second rounder, as Nelson has developed into one of the top offensive linemen in the entire NFL. He’s finished 5th, 2nd, and 4th among guards on PFF in his first three seasons in the league respectively while making all 48 starts and, still only heading into his age 25 season, he’s just getting started. He should remain one of the top guards in the league for many years, barring unexpected injuries, and is arguably the surest bet in the entire NFL to be an All-Pro in 2021, up there with Aaron Donald.
Mark Glowinski will continue starting opposite Nelson at right guard. He was the last of the Colts’ returning starters to enter this lineup, moving into a starting role in week 6 of 2018 and making 41 of 43 possible starts in just about two and a half seasons since then. Glowinski was mediocre in his first stint as a starter in 2016 and, prior to entering the Colts’ lineup in 2018, Glowinski had played just 199 snaps the previous season, but he finished his first season ranked 7th among guards and, while he hasn’t quite been as good since, he’s shown himself to not be a complete one-year wonder, earning average or better grades from PFF in 2019 and 2020 as well, including a 26th ranked finish in 2020. Going into his age 29 season, he should remain a solid starter.
Center Ryan Kelly rounds out this group. A first round pick in 2016, Kelly has earned an average or better grade from PFF in four of five seasons in the league, with the exception being an injury plagued 2017 season, and he’s finished in the top-14 among centers on PFF in three straight seasons since that injury plagued season. Also in his prime in his age 28 season, he should continue playing at around the same level in 2021.
The Colts have avoided significant injuries on this offensive line over the past few seasons, but that’s not a guarantee that they will continue having good injury luck, and their depth is pretty suspect, as a result of years of not needing to develop backups. I already got into their underwhelming options for the swing tackle role, but on the interior their top options are 2020 5th round pick Danny Pinter, who played 103 mediocre snaps as a rookie, mediocre veteran journeyman Chris Reed (23 starts in 5 seasons in the league), and fellow mediocre veteran journeyman Joey Hunt (11 starts in 5 seasons in the league). All would be underwhelming options, but the Colts do still have arguably the top starting offensive line in the league, especially if Eric Fisher can be back sooner rather than later.
The Colts also had one of the league’s leading rushers last season, with 2020 2nd round pick Jonathan Taylor rushing for 1,169 yards on 232 carries (5.04 YPC) as a rookie, the third most rushing yards in the league. Taylor also rushed for 11 touchdowns and added 36/299/1 in the air on just 39 targets, averaging 7.67 yards per target and 1.47 yards per route run. His overall play led to him ranking 6th among running backs on PFF, even though he was only a rookie.
However, his rushing yardage is misleading when you take into account the schedule. Taylor rushed for 5.46 YPC in games against defenses that ranked 22nd or worse in first down rate allowed, as opposed to just 4.18 YPC in other games. Performing significantly better against bad defenses isn’t unusual, but the Colts’ easy schedule last year allowed Taylor to see a disproportionate amount of those carries against easy defenses, with a whopping 67.2% of his carries coming in those games against bottom third of the league defenses. Facing a tougher slate of schedules in 2021, Taylor is very unlikely to maintain that same rate, even if he takes a step forward in terms of his actual level of play in his second season in the league.
Taylor will remain the clear lead back though and could still have an impressive rushing total due to having a high volume of carries in this offense, supported by strong blocking upfront. The Colts also have pretty decent depth behind Taylor, especially after keeping Marlon Mack as a free agent this off-season. Mack was the Colts’ starting running back from 2018-2019, averaging 4.52 YPC and rushing for 17 touchdowns on 442 carries in 26 games, but he tore his achilles in week one of last season and, after Taylor broke out in his absence, it seemed highly unlikely Mack would be brought back as a free agent this off-season. However, Mack was met with a very cold market, in large part due to his injury, and opted to return to the Colts on a cheap one-year deal and try free agency again in a year.
Jonathan Taylor can’t be happy about the move from a workload perspective, as Mack presents a much more serious challenger for carries than anyone healthy on this roster last season, but it was a great move on the Colts’ part, given Mack’s track record and the susceptibility of the running back position to injury. Mack is mostly useless on passing downs (0.85 yards per route run in his career), but can still be an effective early down back if healthy. He might not see more than a few carries per game at the start of the season, but if Taylor isn’t living up to last year’s heights and Mack shows himself healthy in practice, I could see that increasing as the season goes on and if Taylor were to suffer an injury, Mack would likely be the clear lead back rather than rotating with multiple other backs.
Other running backs who saw carries for the Colts last season were Nyheim Hines (89 carries) and Jordan Wilkins (84 carries), who strangely took a somewhat significant amount of carries from Taylor, despite averaging 4.27 YPC and 3.67 YPC respectively. Hines hasn’t been much of a runner in three seasons in the league since the Colts selected him in the 4th round in 2018, but he’s averaged a solid 1.47 yards per route run as the Colts’ primary passing down back.
That career average includes a very impressive 1.83 yards per route run average in 2020 that not only ranked 5th among running backs, but also earned Hines the highest grade among running backs as a receiver from PFF. His 63 catches actually led this team last season, with him taking them for 482 yards and 4 touchdowns, and he should remain a big part of this passing offense, even if Taylor takes over more passing down work in year two. I wouldn’t expect him to match last year’s carry total though.
Jordan Wilkins is also very unlikely to match last year’s carry total and could find himself off of this roster if he can’t continue to carve out a role on special teams. Wilkins is a little bit better of a runner than Hines, averaging 4.88 YPC in three seasons in the league since being selected by the Colts in the 5th round in 2018, but that’s across just 195 carries total in three seasons and he isn’t nearly as useful as a receiver (0.92 yards per route run for his career).
With Taylor locked in as the lead back, Mack to be the primary backup on early downs, and Hines to see action as a passing down specialist, there isn’t room for Wilkins on this roster aside from special teams and he would be highly unlikely to see significant carries even if he did make the final roster, barring a rash of injuries. Jonathan Taylor isn’t as good as he looked against weak defenses last season, but this is a deep backfield with Mack returning from injury.
The weakness on this Colts’ offense last year was the receiving corps, which underwhelmed despite the Colts’ easy schedule. Long-time #1 option TY Hilton led this team in receiving yards again, his 7th time doing so in 9 seasons with the team, but this wasn’t a typical TY Hilton season. After averaging 56.1 snaps per game over the previous six seasons, Hilton saw that drop to 45.9 in 2020. Hilton also averaged just 47.8 snaps per game in 10 games in 2019 and, going into his age 32 season now, it’s clear that nagging injuries and age are leading to a decline for Hilton and the Colts are responding by managing his playing time more.
Hilton’s 1.76 yards per route run average in 2020 still led all Colts wide receivers, but, like his 1.82 yards per route run average in 2019, it’s well behind his career average of 2.04. When you include that he’s doing this over more limited playing time than he’s used to, you get a slash line of 56/762/5 which, while it was the best on this roster last season, it was hardly the TY Hilton of old, who topped 1000 yards in 5 of 6 seasons from 2013-2018.
Hilton’s decline is unlikely to stop at this point and it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the Colts let him go and try to find an upgrade this off-season, with Hilton set to hit free agency, especially since they were one of the few teams in the league with some cap space to work with this off-season, but instead they opted to bring Hilton back on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal. It’s a significant amount of money on a one-year deal in an off-season where younger receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Will Fuller both got similar deals and it could prove to be a mistake if Hilton continues to decline, but the Colts clearly like the familiarity of Hilton and are betting that he won’t decline further.
With Hilton being brought back and no significant upgrades being made to this group this off-season, the Colts are betting on getting more out of the rest of this bunch, a mostly young and inexperienced bunch. One player they are almost definitely going to get more out of is 2019 2nd round pick Parris Campbell, who saw his 2020 season end after 63 snaps in 2 games due to injury. This comes after his rookie season lasted just 196 snaps in 7 games due to other injuries.
Campbell has plenty of upside still, only going into his age 24 season, and could breakout as a starter if he’s healthy, but that’s a big if and even if healthy, he’s not a guarantee to breakout, as his career 1.25 yards per route run average in limited action is pretty underwhelming. It’s a very small sample size and he could be better going forward, but it’s just a reminder that, for as much potential as he has, Campbell is highly unproven at the NFL level.
Michael Pittman is also a recent 2nd round pick, selected 34th overall by the Colts in 2020. With Campbell hurt and Hilton having his snaps limited, Pittman saw a lot of rookie year action, but was pretty underwhelming, earning a slightly below average grade from PFF and averaging just 1.37 yards per route run. He obviously has the potential to be a lot better in year two, but that is not a guarantee and if he continues playing like he did a year ago, he’s a pretty underwhelming starting option.
Zach Pascal actually led this group in snaps played (833) and routes run (470), playing more than nominal #1 receiver TY Hilton, but he was underwhelming as well, with just a 1.34 yards per route run average. Despite going undrafted in 2017, Pascal has seen some significant playing time over the past three seasons, but his career 1.30 yards per route run average is even worse than last season’s average and, for all his playing time, he hasn’t shown himself to be anything more than a middling starter at best nor is he likely to have any remaining untapped potential. He’ll likely continue seeing a significant role, even if Campbell and Pittman give the Colts more in 2021, but I wouldn’t expect him to be an every down player.
Things are also pretty similar at the tight end position as they were last season. The Colts gave three tight ends all somewhat significant playing time last season, with Mo Alie-Cox, Trey Burton, and Jack Doyle all running between 190 and 226 routes on the season, with varying degrees of success. Mo Alie-Cox was by far the best of the bunch, despite the least playing time, averaging 2.07 yards per route run, en route to a 31/394/2 slash line, while Burton and Doyle finished with averages of 1.11 yards per route run and 1.14 yards per route run respectively. Burton is no longer with the team, but Alie-Cox and Doyle both remain in a position group that also added 4th round rookie Kylen Granson, who could see action as the 3rd tight end as a rookie.
With Burton gone and being replaced by a rookie, Alie-Cox and Doyle are likely to see more action, which is likely to benefit Alie-Cox more. Not only did Alie-Cox have by far the more impressive yards per route run average last season, but that was nothing new for a player who has averaged 1.88 yards per route run in four seasons since the Colts signed him as an undrafted free agent and converted college basketball prior following the 2017 NFL Draft. Alie-Cox is still very inexperienced and isn’t a guarantee to translate that average to a larger role, but he was PFF’s 7th ranked tight end overall last season in his limited action and could easily have a bit of a breakout year in a larger role in 2021.
Doyle, meanwhile, has a career average of 1.34 yards per route run that is decent for a tight end and he has always earned middling or better grades from PFF throughout the past seven seasons, dating back to his second season in the league in 2014, but he’s going into his age 31 season and is coming off of a down year, so he seems to be on the decline. The Colts would probably benefit by giving Alie-Cox more playing time at Doyle’s expense, but my guess is they plan on using both about equally. There are some promising young players with upside in this receiving corps, but their top receiver is on the decline and one of their top tight ends seems to be as well, so, without any real additions being made to this group this off-season, I would expect this to be a below average unit again in 2021, which could be especially exposed by a much tougher schedule of opposing defenses.
Despite having some needs on offense, the Colts used their first two draft picks both on edge defenders, taking Michigan’s Kwity Paye 21st overall and Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo 54th overall. Paye and Odeyingbo are expected to be replacements of veteran free agent departures Justin Houston (608 snaps) and Denico Autry (631 snaps) respectively, who both had solid seasons in 2020. Both have the upside to be significant upgrades long-term, but there is no guarantee that either one isn’t a downgrade as a rookie, especially Odeyinbgo, who tore his achilles in the pre-draft process back in January and is expected to miss the first month or two or the season at least.
The Colts also have other recent high picks in the mix, 2018 2nd round picks Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay and 2019 2nd round pick Ben Banogu, who could all also give the Colts more in 2021 than they did in 2020. Overall, their edge defenders can be split into two types, pure edge defenders and hybrid players who play inside frequently in sub packages. Their two rookies are examples of each type, as the 6-2 261 pound Paye will be replacing Justin Houston, a pure edge defender, while the bigger 6-6 285 pound Dayo Odeyingbo will be replacing Denico Autry, a hybrid player who played inside frequently in sub packages.
Tyquan Lewis is a hybrid player and, with Autry gone and Odeyingbo likely to miss time early in the season, he’s likely to get a big increase in snaps, especially early in the season, after totaling just 415 last season, despite playing in all 16 games. That was actually a career high for him though, as he averaged just 281 snaps per season in his first two seasons in the league. Lewis was a high pick, but his play has been underwhelming thus far in his career and, even though he’s getting a chance at more playing time, he hasn’t exactly earned it with his play thus far in his career and could easily struggle in a larger role. At the same time, he’s still only in his age 26 season and could take a step forward in his 4th season in the league, but his potential is largely theoretical at this point.
Turay and Banogu, meanwhile, are pure edge defenders, as is fellow holdover Al-Quadin Muhammad, a 2017 6th round pick who has carved out a role over the past three seasons, averaging 492 snaps per season. Muhammad has been a solid run defender, but hasn’t gotten much pass rush at all with 5 total sacks, 13 hits, and a 6.9% pressure rate. Turay and Banogu only played 95 snaps and 100 snaps respectively last season due to injury and will almost definitely see significantly more snaps in 2021, along with Paye who will also see significant snaps, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Muhammad see his snaps dry up due to his inability to establish himself as a pass rushing threat.
Banogu didn’t play much as a rookie either, despite being highly drafted and playing all 16 games, playing just 272 snaps across those games, so he really hasn’t shown much in his career thus far, especially since he’s struggled mightily in the limited action he’s seen thus far. He could be better in 2021, but that could be largely by default and he could still struggle. Turay, meanwhile, has played just 176 snaps total over the past two seasons due to injury, after showing promise across 383 snaps as a rookie. Like Banogu, he has upside, but has yet to show much yet and he reportedly is not yet fully past his devastating ankle injury from a couple years ago. There is plenty of potential at the edge defender position for the Colts, but with such a young group and several players with concerning injury situations, there is plenty of downside here as well.
With the Colts frequently using one or two edge defenders on the interior in sub packages, they don’t need as much depth at the interior defender position, where they only used a trio of players for significant snaps last season, DeForest Buckner, Grover Stewart, and Taylor Stallworth. Stallworth struggled mightily and hasn’t shown much in his career since going undrafted in 2018, but the Colts added Antwaun Woods in free agency and he should play over Stallworth, who was only their third interior defender anyway.
Undrafted in 2016, Woods has played 451 snaps per season over the past three seasons and has been solid as an early down run stuffer, but he’s not a pass rush option, with a well below average 3.3% career pressure rate. He won’t see much action unless injuries strike though and is likely to be almost exclusively an early down option, given how often the Colts line up a hybrid edge defender on the interior in sub packages, so his lack of pass rush ability isn’t a huge deal.
Buckner and Stewart remain locked in as the starters, with Buckner being one of the top players in the league at his position. The 7th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft by the 49ers, Buckner was an above average starter from the word go and finished 33rd, 21st, 24th, and 14th respectively among interior defenders on PFF across the first four seasons of his career in San Francisco. However, with the 49ers needing to commit money elsewhere, they opted to trade him to the Colts for a first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft last off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal.
It was a risky move as not only did the Colts give up their first round pick, but they also gave Buckner a 4-year, 84 million dollar extension that makes him the second highest paid interior defender in the league, only behind Aaron Donald. However, at least in year one, the move panned out as Buckner was even better than he was in any season in San Francisco, finishing as PFF’s 4th ranked interior defender. Buckner played the run well, but especially dominated as a pass rusher, with 9.5 sacks, 16 hits, and a 10.6% pressure rate from the interior.
As impressive as those numbers are, they aren’t that out of line with his career numbers, as he’s totaled 38 sacks, 69 hits, and a 10.0% pressure rate in 78 career games. He’s also been incredibly durable, missing just two games in five seasons, despite playing significantly more snaps per game than an average interior defender, playing about 55.1 snaps per game throughout his career. Still in his prime in his age 27 season, Buckner has a decent chance to continue playing at a high enough level to justify what the Colts invested in him, even if he might not be quite as good in 2021 as he was in 2020.
Stewart, meanwhile, is mostly a base package player at 6-4 333, but he’s shown more pass rush over the past two seasons, with 3.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 6.2% pressure rate, after showing almost no pass rush ability in the first two seasons of his career. The 2017 4th round pick has always been a capable run stuffer, but the addition of at least some pass rush ability to his game has turned him from a situational player (275 snaps per game in his first two seasons) to a starter who has seen snap counts of 627 and 581 respectively over the past two seasons. He should remain a solid starting option in 2021, even if he lacks a high upside. DeForest Buckner elevates this group and this defensive line as a whole, but the Colts will also be counting on young edge defenders taking a step forward to give them the depth they need on the edge to mask their lack of depth on the interior.
Along with DeForest Buckner, off ball linebacker Darius Leonard is one of the top players on this defense and when either one was missing last season, the Colts’ defense was noticeably worse. Leonard only missed two games last season and has missed just six games in three seasons since the Colts selected him in the 2nd round in 2018, but he also hasn’t played all 16 games in a season yet and has played so well when on the field that he can’t be replaced when he isn’t.
Leonard burst onto the scene and won Defensive Rookie of the Year in his first season, while finishing 7th among off ball linebackers on PFF and following that up with 7th and 10th ranked finishes in 2019 and 2020 respectively. He’s also a true every down player, averaging 62.1 snaps per game in his career. He figures to break the bank for the Colts on his next contract and, with him heading into the final year of his rookie deal in 2021, that is likely why the Colts weren’t as aggressive as they could have been in free agency this off-season.
Part of the reason why the Colts miss Leonard so much when he is out is simply that the rest of this linebacking corps isn’t good, so when you take an All-Pro caliber player out of the mix, it’s really noticeable. The Colts didn’t address this position this off-season, so they will instead be counting on young holdovers taking a step forward. They actually let starter Anthony Walker (697 snaps) leave in free agency this off-season, although he’s unlikely to be missed, after finishing 74th ranked out of 99 eligible linebackers on PFF in 2020.
Bobby Okereke, a 3rd round pick in 2019, will likely step in as the #2 linebacker with Walker gone. He played 685 snaps last season, so it won’t be a big jump in playing time for him unless Leonard misses more time with injury, but Okereke also struggled, finishing 72nd out of 99 eligible linebackers. He showed more promise across 472 snaps as a rookie in 2019 and was a relatively high draft pick, but he isn’t a guarantee to ever develop into a capable every down player.
The third linebacker spot is even more questionable, as the rest of their linebackers are very inexperienced and were not high draft picks. Matthew Adams was a 7th round pick in 2018, but he struggled in 320 snaps in his first two seasons in the league and then didn’t play a defensive snap all last season. Zaire Franklin was also a 7th round pick in 2018 and he’s played even less on defense than Adams, totaling 264 snaps in his career, including just 86 in 2020. Jordan Glasgow is a 2020 6th round pick who didn’t play a defensive snap as a rookie. And EJ Speed is a 2019 5th round pick who has seen just 35 career snaps on defense. This is a very thin group behind Darius Leonard, who will have to elevate this group by himself yet again.
The strongest position group on this defense is probably their secondary which, rather than relying on one high level player to elevate them, returns most of an above average and reasonably deep group from a year ago. Kenny Moore has been one of the Colts’ top defensive players for years, excelling on the slot, but also holding up as an outside cornerback, despite his 5-9 190 frame. An undrafted free agent in 2017, Moore didn’t play much as a rookie, but he’s finished above average on PFF in all 3 seasons since, finishing 35th, 18th, and 15th respectively, while playing 42 of a possible 48 games and averaging 59.4 snaps per game.
When not in the slot in sub packages, Moore will start in base packages opposite Xavier Rhodes, a pure outside cornerback who proved to be a steal on a cheap one-year deal in his first season with the Colts in 2020. A first round pick of the Vikings in 2013, Rhodes showed himself to be a consistent starter early in his career, earning average or better grades from PFF in each of his first five seasons in the league, maxing out at 21st in 2016 and 37th in 2017, but he fell off significantly in both 2018 and 2019, finishing 107th out of 131 eligible cornerbacks and 126th out of 135 eligible respectively, leading to him being released by the Vikings and getting greeted by a cold market last off-season, now on the wrong side of 30 as well.
However, Rhodes not only turned back the clock in Indianapolis in 2020, but arguably had the best season of his career, finishing 12th among cornerbacks on PFF while making all 16 starts. In a normal off-season, Rhodes could have cashed in with a bigger contract elsewhere, but he was greeted by another cold market due to the reduced cap and wound up staying put in Indianapolis on a 1-year, 4.77 million dollar deal, after which he’ll try free agency again in a more normal off-season.
Rhodes seems to fit well in the Colts’ scheme, so it’ll probably prove to be wise in the long-term for him to stay put rather than trying to get more money elsewhere, but he’s going into his age 31 season with a history of inconsistency, so I would bet against him repeating arguably the best year of his career and it’s possible he drops off significantly, which would hurt this defense significantly, as they are counting on him to be at least a solid starter again.
Moore and Rhodes are locked in as starters, but the #3 cornerback role is very much up for grabs, with Rock Ya-Sin (550 snaps) and TJ Carrie (396 snaps) both seeing action last season and both returning this season. Ya-Sin was a 2nd round pick in 2019 and should have a higher upside than the veteran Carrie, but, after holding up across 853 snaps as a rookie, Ya-Sin surprisingly struggled in 2020, finishing 111th out of 136 eligible cornerbacks, while Carrie actually earned an above average grade, albeit in a limited role. Carrie has mostly been a capable #2/#3 cornerback throughout his career, but he’s going into his age 31 season and could easily be on the decline this season, so the Colts are probably hoping Ya-Sin can bounce back and take this job, pushing Carrie into a reserve role.
At safety, the Colts did not retain Tavon Wilson and Malik Hooker, but the former only played 219 snaps as a reserve, while the latter was limited to 70 snaps in an injury plagued season. 2020 3rd round pick Julian Blackmon and 2019 4th round pick Khari Willis spent most of last season as the starters and are likely to remain in that role in 2021. Blackmon was underwhelming last season, finishing 61st out of 99 eligible safeties on PFF, but he could be better in his second season. Willis, meanwhile, has been an above average starter on PFF across 23 starts in 28 games in 2 seasons in the league, including a 17th ranked finish among safeties on PFF in 2020. He’s the better of the two players, but both have a chance to be solid starters.
Reserve options include Sean Davis, who struggled as a starter earlier in his career with the Steelers and played just 113 snaps over the past two seasons as a reserve, and 2019 5th round pick Marvell Tell, who flashed some potential as a rookie across 254 snaps as both a safety and a slot cornerback, before opting out of the 2020 season. He could continue faring well in a situational sub package role and his versatility is an asset for this defense. This isn’t a great secondary, but they have a good chance to be an above average unit.
The Colts had above average special teams overall last season, ranking 10th in special teams DVOA, but one aspect in which they struggled was place kicking, finishing negative overall in DVOA. Unlike other aspects of special teams where success depends more on the supporting cast, place kicking success is mostly reliant on the performance of the kicker themselves and, unsurprisingly, Colts kicker Rodrigo Blankenship had an underwhelming season, going 43/45 on extra points and 32/37 on field goals, with just one made field goal longer than 50 yards.
Blankenship was an undrafted rookie last season and seems likely to face a real challenge to his job from free agent acquisition Eddy Pineiro. Undrafted in 2018, Pineiro was the Bears’ kicker in 2019 and, even after an underwhelming season in which he went 27/29 on extra points, 23/28 on field goals, and 5/9 from beyond 40 yards, Pineiro likely would have kept his job in 2020, but he missed the whole season with injury and was let go after the season. He could win this job, but likely would not be an upgrade.
The Colts were middling in kickoff and punting DVOA, which is in part due to the play of their other special teamers, but Blankenship received a middling grade from PFF for his kickoffs, while punter Rigoberto Sanchez only finished slightly above average in punting grade on PFF, while ranking in the bottom third of the league with 4.25 seasons of punt hang time. Sanchez has been better in the past though, with a career 4.35 hang time average and top-10 finishes among punters on PFF in 2017 and 2019, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be better in 2021. Kicker is an unsettled position and an obvious potential weakness, but Sanchez is at least a solid punter.
The strength of this special teams unit was their return units, as their primary kickoff returner Isaiah Rodgers averaged 28.8 yards per return on 24 returns, including a 101-yard touchdown, while primary punt returner Nyheim Hines averaged 10.0 yards per return on 30 returns. That was somewhat influenced by the play of their supporting casts, but both returners earned above average grades from PFF, suggesting they had a lot to do with it, with Rodgers finishing 4th in kickoff return grade and Hines finishing 8th in punt return grade.
Both players remain for 2021 and there is no reason they shouldn’t stay in their current roles. Rodgers was only a 6th round rookie last season, but he was also a 4-year returner in college, so he’s relatively experienced, while Hines averaged a whopping 31.2 yards per punt return on 9 attempts for the Colts late in the 2019 season, including a pair of touchdowns, which is how he was able to secure the job in the first place. Both players should continue playing well in 2021.
The Colts special teamers were middling as a group last season, but they were led by a pair of standouts in George Odum (338 snaps) and Jordan Glasgow (266 snaps), who finished 3rd and 5th respectively among special teamers on PFF in 2020. Glasgow was a rookie and Odum is a one-year wonder, but it’s likely both will have strong seasons again in 2021, even if they don’t reach last year’s heights.
The rest of the group was not as good, but they do bring back Zaire Franklin (353 snaps), TJ Carrie (249 snaps), and EJ Speed (208 snaps) who had solid seasons last year and they add a trio of free agents in Malik Jefferson (232 snaps), Isaac Rochell (229 snaps), and Sean Davis (209 snaps) who all earned above average grades from PFF in 2020. All three had career best years and might not be as good again, but they should be welcome additions to a group that lacked depth last season. The Colts have a very good chance to be better in this group, which should lead to them having even better overall special teams this season, despite their one weakness at kicker.
The Colts bring back a very similar team to last season, with a few key differences. They are swapping out Philip Rivers for Carson Wentz under center, which gives them a higher upside, but also a higher downside at the position. They parted ways with useful veterans Justin Houston and Denico Autry in free agency and will replace them with young players from the past few drafts. They also lost left tackle Anthony Castonzo to retirement and replaced him with Eric Fisher, who could be an adequate replacement, if healthy, which is far from a guarantee.
Given all of this, they shouldn’t be much worse than a year ago and they have the upside to even be better, particularly if Carson Wentz can bounce back in a big way now that he is reunited with Frank Reich, but they’re also starting from a lower base point than most realize, as they faced a very easy schedule last season and were a much more middling team than their 11-5 record suggests, finishing 13th in first down rate differential at +0.20%.
The Colts could play better than a year ago and still not get as many wins, so they’ll probably have a tough time getting a wild card again if they need to, but they also play in the weakest division in the conference in the AFC South, so they have a decent chance to make it back to the post-season as division winners, after losing the division on a tiebreaker to the also overrated Titans a year ago. I will have a final prediction for the Colts at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.
8/8/21 Update: The Colts will get a boost from their special teams, which is more predictive than I thought, but they could be without both Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson for the first month of the season with injuries, which obviously lowers expectations for this team. They could still be in the mix for the division though, with the Titans still being overrated.
9/4/21 Update: The Colts got good injury news ahead of the start of the season and should have both Wentz and Nelson available for week one. I’m not that high on this team, but I have them winning the AFC South over an overrated Titans team.
Prediction: 10-7 1st in AFC South