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.

Offensive Score: 77.63

Defensive Score: 75.44

Total Score: 76.54 (1st in AFC South)

Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (7-8) at Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10)

The Jaguars don’t have the worst record in the NFL, but they’re arguably the worst team in the league. They rank dead last in the NFL in first down rate differential at -7.39% and have been even worse since trading away cornerback Jalen Ramsey, with a -10.47% first down rate differential since sending him to the Rams in week 7. The Jaguars’ defense ranked a respectable 13th in first down rate allowed at 35.71% through the first 6 games of the season, but have allowed a 40.74% first down rate over the past 9 games, 3rd worst in the NFL over that stretch. Their offense, meanwhile, has struggled throughout the season, ranking 31st in the NFL with a 31.34% first down rate. They’re an awful team on both sides of the ball and have been for weeks. This week, they could be even worse, with injured cornerback AJ Bouye and running back Leonard Fournette resting in a meaningless game and news breaking that head coach Doug Marrone will likely be fired after the game. They might not give any effort this week.

Meanwhile, the Colts are out of the post-season race at 7-8, but they’re a solid team, ranking 15th in the NFL at +1.16%. They have a positive point differential at +6, despite getting awful play (68.0% field goal, 78.6% extra point) from kicker Adam Vinatieri, costing them at least two games. Vinatieri is on injured reserve now and replacement kicker Chase McLaughlin has missed just one kick in 3 games. If the Colts had him all season they could easily be in a strong position for a playoff spot. The Colts are favored by 4 points on the road, but I think this line is still too low, as my calculated line is Indianapolis -7. If the Colts hadn’t lost to the Chargers and Steelers because of makeable kicks, I have a feeling this line would be much closer to a touchdown. This isn’t a big bet, but there’s enough line value here for the Colts to be worth a wager. 

Indianapolis Colts 24 Jacksonville Jaguars 17

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -4

Confidence: Medium

Carolina Panthers at Indianapolis Colts: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-9) at Indianapolis Colts (6-8)

The Kyle Allen era in Carolina got off to a great start, as the 2018 undrafted free agent won his first 4 starts after taking over for an injured Cam Newton week 3, but things have gone south in a hurry. Since that 4-game winning streak, the Panthers have lost 7 of 8 games to fall out of playoff contention completely. Over that stretch, they have the 3rd worst first down rate differential in the league at -4.42%. 

The offense actually hasn’t been the problem, as they’ve had a 36.65% first down rate over that stretch, 11th in the NFL, but their defense, which ranked 7th in first down rate allowed at 33.97% in the first 6 games of the season, but has fallen to 31st in first down rate allowed at 41.07% over the past 8 games. The Panthers fired head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Ron Rivera a couple weeks ago, but it hasn’t seemed to make a difference in two games against the Falcons and Seahawks.

After firing their head coach a couple weeks ago, the Panthers are now benching Allen for third round rookie Will Grier. Even though the offense hasn’t really been the problem, it’s understandable why the Panthers would make this decision. Allen hasn’t played well, with the offense being carried by feature back Christian McCaffrey and #1 wide receiver DJ Moore, and, in a lost season, it’s worth giving Grier a shot. 

I don’t have high expectations for Grier though. He struggled in the pre-season, losing the backup job to Allen as a result, and could also be without starting wide receiver Curtis Samuel after he picked up an injury at practice this week. The Panthers are also in a tough spot this week, playing a meaningless non-conference matchup before a big divisional home matchup against the Saints to close out the season next week. Teams are 20-42 ATS since 2016 before being 7+ point home underdogs and the Panthers are 10.5-point home underdogs on the early line.

This isn’t an easy matchup for the Panthers either, on the road in Indianapolis. The Colts are just 6-8, but they’ve played better than their record has suggested, ranking 16th in first down rate differential at -0.17%. They got blown out against the Saints last week, but before that their only loss by more than a touchdown came against the Titans in a game in which the Colts were about to take the lead in the 4th quarter before a blocked kick returned for a touchdown. I wouldn’t recommend betting on the Colts this week because they could be flat after getting eliminated from post-season contention last week, but I think they’ll be more focused because they were just blown out, so they should be able to take care of business against an inferior team in a bad spot.

Indianapolis Colts 26 Carolina Panthers 17

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -6.5

Confidence: Low

Indianapolis Colts at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (6-7) at New Orleans Saints (10-3)

The Saints didn’t just lose a big conference matchup against the 49ers last week. They also lost a pair of key defensive linemen for the season in Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport. The Saints are still talented enough to win the Super Bowl without them, but that’s a big blow to their defense. Both were missed badly after going down last week in a game in which the Saints allowed the 49ers to move the chains at a 49.21% rate, dropping the Saints to 17th in the league in the season with a 35.98% first down rate allowed on the season. Their offense has been better, moving the chains at a 40.31% rate when Drew Brees is in the lineup, most equivalent to the 3rd ranked Chiefs on the season. They’ll need to continue playing at a high level for this team to make a deep playoff run without Rankins and Davenport.

The Colts also have injury concerns, with top cornerback Kenny Moore out and top wide receiver TY Hilton a gametime decision after a 2-game absence, but the Colts have been missing key players all season and are arguably in better injury shape now than they’ve been in most of the season, especially if Hilton can suit up. Despite their injuries, they’ve been competitive, losing just 1 game all season by more than 7 points. 

The Colts are likely out of the playoffs at 6-7 barring a miracle, but they’ve played slightly better than their record suggests, ranking 14th in first down rate differential at +1.06%. Kicker Adam Vinatieri struggled mightily this season, making just 68.0% of his first goals and 78.6% of his extra points and costing them at least a couple games, but he’s been placed on injured reserve and replaced with Chase McLaughlin, who has a 75.0% field goal percentage and 100% extra point percentage on the season, so kicker isn’t as much of a problem anymore. 

If Vinatieri hadn’t missed very makeable field goals against the Chargers and Steelers, the Colts would be 8-5 right now and very much in the mix in the AFC South. I doubt they’d be 9 point underdogs in New Orleans in that circumstance, so with that in mind we’re getting some line value with the Colts. How much line value ultimately depends on whether or not Hilton plays and if the line moves in response. If Hilton plays and this line stays above a touchdown, I’ll likely place a bet on the Colts. I’ll probably be updating this writeup before gametime Monday night.

Final Update: Hilton is active, so the Colts are worth a bet this week.

New Orleans Saints 30 Indianapolis Colts 24

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +9

Confidence: Medium

Indianapolis Colts at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (6-6) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7)

The Colts are just 6-6 after back-to-back divisional losses to the Texans and Titans, but they could be 8-4 right now if not for missed makeable field goals against the Chargers and Steelers. In terms of first down rate differential, they rank 10th in the NFL at +2.25%, which is more in line with an 8-4 record than a 6-6 record. They are changing kickers this week, with ex-49ers and Chargers kicker Chase McLaughlin coming in to replace long-time veteran Adam Vinatieri, who is dealing with an injury and has just a 68.0% field goal percentage and a 78.6% extra point percentage on the season. McLaughlin is 13 on 17 field goals and 15 of 15 on extra points this year and could shore up a spot that’s been an obvious weakness for the Colts this season.

The Buccaneers, meanwhile, have also been better than their record suggests, with a -6 point differential and a +0.84% first down rate differential, but they’re behind the Colts in both metrics. Despite that, this line suggests these two teams are about even, favoring the hometown Buccaneers by a field goal. With that in mind, we’re getting a little bit of line value with the visiting Colts at +3, but not nearly enough to bet on them confidently. My calculated line is Tampa Bay -1.5 and I do still expect the Buccaneers to win straight up, though it is close to a toss up.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 Indianapolis Colts 26

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +3

Confidence: Low

Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (6-5) at Indianapolis Colts (6-5)

The Titans have been significantly better offensively since switching quarterbacks from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill before their week 7 game. Through their first 6 games of the season with Mariota under center, the Titans had a 32.69% first down rate that ranked 26th in the NFL. In 5 games since switching to Tannehill, the Titans have a 42.76% first down rate that is only behind the seemingly unstoppable Ravens over that time period. This offense probably won’t be the second best in the league over the rest of the season, but Tannehill is a capable starting quarterback and they have a good supporting cast around him, so they don’t need great play from him to be a tough opponent. 

They’re especially strong on defense, finishing last season 4th in first down rate allowed at 32.77% and they rank 9th this season at 33.88%, despite key players like Jurrell Casey (2 games), Jeffery Simmons (6 games), and Jayon Brown (2 games) having missed time with injury. All three players have since returned. Relatively healthy overall, the Titans rank 9th in my roster rankings and could easily end up playing their way into a playoff spot in the unsettled and underwhelming AFC.

Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of line value with the Titans in the past week, as a result of their blowout victory over the Jaguars last week. Underdogs of 3.5 points a week ago on the early line in this matchup with the Colts in Indianapolis, the Titans are just 1.5-point underdogs this week. I have the Titans as the better team in this matchup, but the Colts are no pushover, entering this game 11th in first down rate differential at +2.03% and 12th in my roster rankings. I have this line calculated at even, so we’re still getting a little bit of line value with the underdog, but not enough for this game to be worth betting.

Tennessee Titans 26 Indianapolis Colts 24 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +1.5

Confidence: Low

Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (6-4) at Houston Texans (6-4)

This is a huge Thursday night game, as these two teams enter tied atop the AFC South. This line, favoring the hometown Texans by 3.5 points, suggests the Texans are the slightly better team. First down rate suggests that as well, as these two teams are close to even in that metric (+2.60% vs. +2.30%), but the Texans have faced the tougher schedule (5th in opponent’s DVOA vs. 27th). However, these two teams are going in different directions injury wise. While the Texans’ chances of making a deep playoff run took a big hit a few weeks ago when JJ Watt went down for the season with a torn pectoral, the Colts enter this game arguably healthier than they’ve been all season.

The Colts have had as many injuries to key players as any team in the league, as quarterback Jacoby Brissett, wide receiver TY Hilton, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, linebacker Darius Leonard, cornerbacks Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore, and safeties Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers have all missed varying amounts of time with injury, but all eight of those players practiced in full on Wednesday and are expected to play this week, with both Desir and Hilton expected to play for the first time in about a month. Brissett was probably their biggest absence because the Colts barely lost both games in which he missed time. Most of the Colts’ wins have been close, but they could easily be 8-2 right now if Brissett hadn’t gotten hurt and something tells me the Colts would not be 3.5 point underdogs if they were 8-2.

The Colts aren’t 100% healthy, with running back Marlon Mack set to miss his first game of the season, but the Colts have enough running back depth to compensate and the Texans are also missing talented safety Justin Reid for the first time this season, a big loss. My roster rankings currently have the Colts about two points better than the Texans, which is a more accurate representation of how the talent level on these two teams compares. Given that, we’re getting good line value with the Colts as underdogs of more than a field goal (roughly 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer), so the Colts are worth betting this week.

I’m also locking in a few lines I like before the line moves. I will have full write-ups for these games and all games on Saturday as normal.

NYG +6 @ CHI

NYJ +3 vs. OAK

WAS +3.5 vs. DET

LAR +3.5 vs. BAL

Houston Texans 24 Indianapolis Colts 23

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (4-5) at Indianapolis Colts (5-4)

The Colts lost at home as double digit favorites to the Dolphins last week and, as a result, the line for their game this week against the Jaguars has shifted from Indianapolis -3.5 on the early line to -2.5 this week. That’s a significant shift given that about one in six games are decided by exactly a field goal and I don’t think it’s justified, as the Colts were without starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett last week and had to start backup Brian Hoyer, who did not resemble a starting caliber quarterback in his first action in two seasons. 

Hoyer took over for Brissett when he got hurt early in their week 9 game against the Steelers and the Colts won the first down rate battle both in that game (+8.95%) and in their game against the Dolphins (+6.40%), but Hoyer’s 97-yard pick six was the difference in a 2-point loss to the Steelers and then Hoyer followed that up by throwing a trio of interceptions in a 4-point loss to the Dolphins. On the season, the Colts rank 15th in first down rate differential at +1.09%, despite missing several key players for varying periods of time with injuries. They’re still not at full strength, with top wide receiver TY Hilton being their most notable absence, but relatively speaking they’re closer to 100% than they’ve been and they still rank 15th in my roster rankings without Hilton.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, rank 24th in first down rate differential at -3.01% and 21st in my roster rankings. They get quarterback Nick Foles back from injury, but I’m not sure how much he’ll help this team, as backup quarterback Gardner Minshew wasn’t really the problem. Minshew didn’t play badly, but lack of talent around the quarterback has resulted in this offense ranking 25th in first down rate. By default, their defense is their best unit, but they’re a far cry from their dominant 2017 unit. With just 4 of the top-14 in snaps played from that defense expected to be active for them this weekend, the Jaguars enter this game 13th in first down rate allowed.

All of this suggests that I should take the Colts at home as 2.5-point favorites, a line that suggests these two teams are more or less even, but unfortunately the Colts are in a horrible spot. Not only do they have a key divisional matchup in Houston next week, but they have that matchup on a short week on Thursday Night Football. Divisional home favorites are just 29-64 ATS since 2002 before being divisional road underdogs and favorites cover at only a 45% rate all-time before Thursday Night Football. The Jaguars have a key divisional matchup next week as well, taking on the Titans, but they at least get a normal week and will be at home. The Colts are still my pick, especially since they only need to win by a field goal to cover, but I don’t think I’d bet on them in this spot.

Indianapolis Colts 24 Jacksonville Jaguars 20

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -2.5

Confidence: Low

Miami Dolphins at Indianapolis Colts: 2019 Week 10 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (1-7) at Indianapolis Colts (5-3)

The Dolphins won their first game of the season last week, but that wasn’t all that surprising. Winless teams tend to be good bets this late in the season (55-31 ATS in week 8 or later) because they tend to be undervalued and highly motivated to get their first win and the Dolphins were at home facing a Jets team that didn’t rank much higher than them. The Dolphins’ win moved this line from Indianapolis -15 on the early line last week to Indianapolis -11.5 this week, but the Dolphins are unlikely to have that same motivation after winning their first game.

In fact, after basically winning their Super Bowl last week, I expect the Dolphins to be relatively flat, especially with a much bigger divisional game against the Bills on deck. The Dolphins are +7.5 on the early line and teams have a lot of trouble covering before being big home underdogs, going 43-77 ATS before being home underdogs of 6+ since 2014. On top of that, underdogs of 6+ are 59-92 ATS before being underdogs of 6+ again the following week, over that same time period.

The Dolphins being flat would be a big problem because they still rank dead last in both my roster rankings and in first down rate differential (-9.38%) and they have a much tougher matchup this week than last week. The Colts haven’t won a game by more than 7 points this season, but they haven’t lost by more than 7 points either and something tells me they won’t have much of a problem winning against a bottom level team like the Dolphins, who already have 5 double digit losses this season and 20 since the start of the 2017 season.

The Colts have an injury concern with quarterback Jacoby Brissett questionable with a knee injury, but I don’t think the drop off from Brissett to backup Brian Hoyer would be all that significant, especially in a matchup like this. Hoyer led the Colts to a loss in Pittsburgh last week in relief of Brissett, but he also threw three touchdowns on the road against a good defense and led the Colts to a +8.95% first down rate differential, with the game swinging entirely on a 97-yard pick six. With Brissett under center, I would have this line calculated at Indianapolis -14.5 and with Hoyer I would have it at Indianapolis -14, giving us line value either way. Add in the Colts being in a better spot and there’s enough to bet the Colts confidently this week.

Update: Brissett has been ruled out, but this line has dropped to 10.5 to compensate, so I still like the Colts.

Indianapolis Colts 33 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -10.5

Confidence: Medium

Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2019 Week 9 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (5-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (3-4)

The Steelers have been one of the most impacted by injury teams in the league this season. The big injury was obviously to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who went down for the season with an elbow injury in the first half of the second game of the season. With backup Mason Rudolph under center for most of the season, the Steelers have fallen to 21st in first down rate at 34.35%, a year after ranking 6th in at 40.55% in 2018. They’ve also suffered a major injury on defense as well, with All-Pro caliber defensive end Stephon Tuitt out for the season with a torn pectoral, though they have more talent on defense to make up for his absence, led by Cameron Heyward and TJ Watt, who have also played at an All-Pro level in 2019. This week, the Steelers will also be without starting running back James Conner and starting left guard Ramon Foster. 

The Colts have also been very impacted by injuries. They’ve had 7 expected starters miss time with injury this season: wide receiver TY Hilton, cornerbacks Kenny Moore and Pierre Desir, safeties Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers, linebacker Darius Leonard, and defensive end Jabaal Sheard. They were as healthy as they’ve been all season in a near home loss to the Broncos last week, but this week they could be without Desir, Hilton (already ruled out), Hooker, and defensive end Justin Houston. Despite the Colts’ 5-2 record, these two teams aren’t far apart, as all seven games the Colts have played have been decided by seven points or less. I tentatively have this line calculated at Pittsburgh -3, factoring in the Colts’ injury situation, but it’s hard to make a definitive call on this game without knowing the status of Desir, Hooker, and Houston. I’ll likely have an update tomorrow morning. 

Sunday Update: Houston and Hooker will both play, despite not practicing Friday. I have this line calculated at Pittsburgh -2, so there’s not enough here to take the Steelers with confidence.

Pittsburgh Steelers 19 Indianapolis Colts 17

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh PK

Confidence: Low