The Colts made the no brainer selection taking Andrew Luck #1 overall in 2012, but have otherwise done a very poor job of rebuilding their roster. Aside from Luck, the Colts have drafted just one other Pro-Bowler since 2012, wide receiver TY Hilton, and have pretty much struck out completely in free agency, despite handing out several significant contracts. Considering this was a 2-14 team when Luck came in, they haven’t done nearly enough to improve his supporting cast over the past 5 years.
The Colts are 49-31 over those 5 years, but that’s largely because of Luck, who has been a top-12 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in 3 of the last 4 seasons and finished last season a career high 4th at the position. The Colts have also had a weak division and have pulled out a lot of close wins. They are 23-7 in the division over the past 5 seasons, as opposed to 26-24 against non-divisional opponents, and are 30-12 overall in games decided by a touchdown or less. Over the past 2 seasons, the division has gotten better and the Colts have not been pulling out as many close victories (12-8 in games decided by a touchdown or less over the past 2 seasons), so they have finished just 8-8.
As a result, the Colts fired GM Ryan Grigson, who was hired back in 2012 before Luck was drafted. In 2015, they could blame their disappointing season on Andrew Luck missing 9 games with injury, but last season Luck was healthy. Their supporting cast around him just took a huge step backwards, which makes sense, given that they were the oldest supporting cast in the league. The offense still performed at a high level, ranking 7th in first down rate, but their defense ranked 28th in first down rate allowed, no surprise, considering they had a whopping seven week 1 starters who were in their age 30 season or older. Grigson needed to be let go for his inability to bring in good young talent.
Now with new GM Chris Ballard in place, the Colts hope they can build the supporting cast Luck needs to take this team to the Super Bowl, but it’s going to take more than one off-season. Complicating matters even more is the fact that Andrew Luck is coming off of off-season shoulder surgery and might not be ready for the start of training camp. Luck is a big, tough quarterback at 6-4 240, but has taken way too many hits because of a bad offensive line and the injuries are starting to pile up for him as a result. He didn’t miss a single game in the first 3 seasons of his career, but missed 9 with a shoulder injury and a ruptured kidney in 2015, then missed another game with a concussion in 2016, and now needs surgery to repair that 2015 shoulder injury. The Colts don’t have a capable backup, so they are obviously hoping he can get healthy and play all 16 games again in 2017. His status for week 1 is probably not in doubt, but it’s a situation worth monitoring.
Grigson and the Colts tried to upgrade the Colts’ offensive line in the 2016 NFL Draft, after Luck’s injury plagued 2015 season, using 3 picks on offensive linemen and ignoring major holes on defense in the process. It was too little too late though and none of the offensive linemen showed much as rookies. Ryan Kelly was the best of the bunch, but the #18 overall pick finished below average on Pro Football Focus in 16 starts, 21st out of 38 eligible centers. Kelly still has potential, but he needs to be more than just a solid center to validate his draft slot, considering he’s one of just eight pure centers drafted in the first round since 2000.
Fifth round pick Joe Haeg also saw significant action as a rookie, making 14 starts between left guard, right guard, and right tackle. His versatility is a plus, but he finished 52nd among 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus and may be best long-term as a versatile reserve. He’ll compete for starting jobs at both right guard and right tackle out of desperation. Third round pick Le’Raven Clark will also be in the mix for snaps, but he struggled on just 201 snaps as a rookie. He’s more of a right tackle, but can also play right guard if needed.
Also in the mix for snaps are veteran free agent acquisition Brian Schwenke, 4th round rookie Zach Banner, and 2015 7th round pick Denzelle Good. Schwenke is one of their most experienced offensive lineman, making 28 starts with the Titans from 2013-2016, after they drafted him in the 4th round in 2013. Schwenke graded out below average in all 4 seasons though, his first 3 at center and then last season in 3 starts at left guard. He’s theoretically a candidate at right guard, but would be best as veteran depth if he even makes the roster.
Banner is also an unlikely option, though the massive 6-8 353 pounder could play both right tackle and right guard if they need him to. Good is a more likely option, considering he started 10 games last season. He didn’t play well either though, finishing 67th among 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. Like their other offensive linemen, he can play both right guard and right tackle, but they need two players to step up and stabilize those positions so they aren’t changing their offensive line every week in 2017 like they did in 2016. Haeg, Clark, and Good are the most likely options, but none of those three are any good.
Fortunately, things are a lot better on the left side of the offensive line, where left tackle Anthony Castonzo and left guard Jack Mewhort remain as starters. Castonzo is a rare holdover from before Andrew Luck and has played well in 6 seasons in the league since the Colts drafted him #22 overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. Unspectacular, but consistent, Castonzo has made 89 of a possible 96 starts in 6 seasons in the league and has graded out above average in all 6 seasons, including three straight top-20 finishes. Going into his age 29 season, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t continue to play well.
Mewhort, meanwhile, is a rare solid draft pick from the Grigson era, going in the 2nd round in 2014. Mewhort has made 40 starts in 3 seasons in the league, grading out above average in all 3 seasons, including 9th among guards in 2015 and 25th among guards in 2016. He can also play some right tackle, but has settled in at guard, where he has been best. He missed 6 games with injury last season, but should be healthy this season and could earn a big contract with another big season in the final year of his rookie deal. Considering how little success the Colts have had developing capable starters or signing other teams’ free agents, they would be wise not to let Mewhort go. He hasn’t made a Pro Bowl yet, but he’s a valuable part of an overall mediocre offensive line.
Wide receiver TY Hilton is the only other Grigson draftee besides Luck who did make a Pro-Bowl, making it in each of the past 3 seasons. Over the past 4 seasons, he has caught 324 passes for 5000 yards and 23 touchdowns. Only Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, and Demaryius Thomas have more receiving yards than him over that time period. A lot of that is Andrew Luck throwing him the football, but Hilton is a legitimate #1 receiver in his own right, finishing 34th, 10th, 17th, and 5th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in the past 4 seasons respectively. Last season was his best season to date as he led the league with 1,448 receiving yards and he’s still only going into his age 28 season. He was a steal in the 3rd round in 2012.
The Colts also drafted a wide receiver in the third round in 2014, though with different results. Donte Moncrief has all the physical tools to be a great wide receiver, but hasn’t put it together yet through 3 seasons in the league. Moncrief flashed on 421 snaps as a rookie and then was a league average wide receiver in 16 games (10 starts) in 2015, but was limited to 470 snaps in an injury plagued 2016. He still graded out above average for the third straight season though and is still only going into his age 24 season. He could have a breakout year in the final year of his rookie deal in 2017 if he can stay healthy.
The Colts also used a 1st round pick on a wide receiver in 2015, taking Miami’s Phillip Dorsett in what now looks like one of the worst decisions of the Grigson era. Not only did Dorsett not remotely fill a need at the time, but he also hasn’t shown anything positive on the field in 2 seasons in the league. He was limited to 215 snaps as a rookie and then made 7 starts last season when Moncrief was hurt and played terribly, finishing 105th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on 796 snaps in 15 games. He caught just 33 of 60 targets for 528 yards and 2 touchdowns. He’s still only going into his age 24 season and still has game-breaking speed, but he’s been a one-trick pony thus far in his career and the new regime has no loyalty to him, bringing in ex-Raven Kamar Aiken on a 1-year, 2.6 million dollar deal to compete with him for the #3 job.
Unlike most of the free agent signings made by Ryan Grigson, Aiken has a good chance to pan out on a relatively inexpensive contract. A 2011 undrafted free agent, Aiken played just 295 offensive snaps in his first 4 seasons in the league, but had a breakout 2015 season when the Ravens had injuries in the receiving corps, catching 75 passes for 944 yards and 5 touchdowns on 937 offensive snaps and finishing 19th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He struggled on just 595 snaps in 2016, when the Ravens were healthier in the receiving corps, but he’s still just going into his age 28 season and could easily bounce back and be a capable 3rd receiver for them. He’s considered the favorite for the #3 job, but Dorsett will get a fair look.
The Colts also gave a decent sized contract to tight end Jack Doyle this off-season, bringing him back on a 3-year, 18.9 million dollar deal. A 2013 undrafted free agent who the Colts signed off the Titans’ practice squad during his rookie year, Doyle had just 7 starts in 3 seasons going into 2016, but had flashed in limited action and earned the #2 tight end job after Coby Fleener signed with the Saints last off-season. Doyle then broke out on 750 snaps in 2016, finishing 17th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus and finishing 2nd on the team with 59 catches and 584 receiving yards. He also added 5 touchdowns. The 6-6 267 pounder lacks explosiveness and only averages 8.44 yards per catch in his career, but has also caught 80.0% of his career targets and Andrew Luck is very comfortable with him as a safety net. He’s also a good run blocker. He’s still inexperienced and basically a one-year wonder, but bringing him back wasn’t a bad idea. They didn’t overpay for him.
In order to justify signing Jack Doyle, the Colts had to trade veteran tight end Dwayne Allen and his 5 million dollar salary to the Patriots for a swap of late round picks. Allen finished 41st out of 63 eligible tight ends last season though, so he won’t really be missed, and the Colts like 4th year tight end Erik Swoope. A collegiate basketball player at the University of Miami, Swoope barely played in his first 2 seasons in the league after going undrafted in 2014, but flashed on 246 snaps last season and caught 15 passes for 297 yards and 1 touchdown. Dwayne Allen played 611 snaps last season, so Swoope could have a significant role in 2017. We’ll see if he’s up to the task. He’s part of a deep receiving corps.
As big of a mistake as using their first round pick in 2015 on Phillip Dorsett was, they made an even bigger mistake a year earlier, sending their 2014 1st round pick to the Browns for running back Trent Richardson. Richardson, the 3rd overall pick in 2012, averaged just 3.09 yards per carry on 316 carries in 2 seasons with the Colts and fell out of the league shortly afterwards. The Colts replaced him two off-seasons ago with veteran Frank Gore, who they signed to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal.
Gore is in the twilight of his career though and has averaged just 3.81 yards per carry on 523 carries in 2 seasons with the Colts. Part of that is the offensive line’s fault, but a lot of that is on Gore. Gore has been especially sluggish in the second half of the season, averaging just 3.41 yards per carry on 277 carries in games 9-16 in the past two seasons combined. Gore is still an effective player in pass situations, especially as a pass protector, but the Colts should cut his carries from 250 to around 150 to keep him fresher, as he goes into his age 34 season. Gore is the oldest active starting running back in the league and it shows. Going into the final year of his contract, this could easily be his final season in the league.
The Colts drafted Marlon Mack in the 4th round, likely in an effort to keep Gore fresher and to find a potential long-term replacement. Mack is explosive, but is probably best as a change of pace back early in his career. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t jump up to the top of this weak running back depth chart by the end of the season, but he’ll probably start the off-season as the 3rd back behind veteran backup Robert Turbin. A 2012 4th round pick, Turbin has averaged just 3.94 yards per carry on 328 carries in 5 seasons in the league and 3.49 yards per carry on 47 carries last season. He’s a poor option for carries. The Colts finished 23rd in yards per carry last season with 3.99, despite Andrew Luck averaging 5.33 yards per carry on 64 carries. That could easily happen again this season.
While the Colts had some offensive talent last season, they had next to nothing on the defensive side of the ball, which is why they finished 28th in first down rate allowed. The new regime rightfully saw defense as the side of the ball to focus on, making several signings in free agency and using their first 3 draft picks on defensive players. The Colts could have 6 new starters week 1 and are much younger than last season, when they had the oldest defense in the league.
Their biggest free agent signing was Johnathan Hankins, who comes over on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal from the Giants. He fills a huge need for a defensive line that was led in snaps played last season by David Parry, who played 644 snaps and finished 110th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus. Hankins will take over for Parry at nose tackle and could lead them in snaps played this season. Parry, meanwhile, was arrested for DUI this off-season and is no lock to even make the Colts’ final roster, given how poorly he has played in the past 2 seasons.
The 6-2 320 pound Hankins is primarily a base package nose tackle, but can also play some in sub packages. Hankins has graded out above average against the run on Pro Football Focus in 4 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, though 2014 was the only season he graded out above average as a pass rusher. 2014 was easily the best season of his career, when he finished 7th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He finished in the top-20 at his position again in 2015, but he fell to the middle of the pack in his contract year last season. The Colts are giving him a lot of money, so they are betting the 2013 2nd round pick can bounce back and has a lot of good football still ahead of him. Given that he’s still only going into his age 25 season, it’s a bet that could pay off.
Defensive end Henry Anderson is also a candidate to lead this defensive line in snaps played. The 2015 3rd round pick has flashed in limited action in 2 seasons in the league, finishing 12th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2015 on 453 snaps in 9 games before tearing his ACL and then finishing 15th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2016 on 308 snaps in 11 games upon his return last season. Now another year removed from the injury, Anderson could have the best season of his career in his 3rd year in the league and breakout as an every down defensive end in the Colts’ 3-4 defense.
Veteran Kendall Langford is penciled in as the 3rd starting defensive end, but he will be pushed for playing time by youngsters Hassan Ridgeway and TJ McGill, following a very disappointing 2016 season for Langford. After playing all 16 games in each of the first 8 seasons of his career, Langford was limited to 300 snaps in 7 games by injury last season and finished 125th out of 127 eligible interior defenders when on the field. Langford was largely a league average starter for the first 8 seasons of his career and finished 16th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2015, so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s also going into his age 31 season, which is why younger players will push him for playing time.
McGill flashed on 302 snaps last season, after playing 222 underwhelming snaps as a rookie in 2015. An undrafted free agent who the Colts signed off waivers from the Seahawks at final cuts during his rookie season, McGill could see a larger role in his 3rd season in the league in 2017. Ridgeway, meanwhile, was a 4th round pick by the Colts in 2016 and played 442 underwhelming snaps as a rookie. Both McGill and Ridgeway will play in rotational roles in 2017 even if Langford technically keeps the starting job. With Hankins coming in and Anderson healthy, this has the looks of a much improved defensive line, even if it’s largely by default.
The Colts also have a completely new group of outside linebackers, with free agent acquisitions Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, and Barkevious Mingo replacing veterans Trent Cole, Robert Mathis, and Erik Walden, a trio of 30+ year old players who are no longer with the team. Sheard, Simon, and Mingo will compete for snaps with veteran holdover Akeem Ayers and 3rd round rookie Tarell Basham. Sheard and Simon were signed to deals worth 25.5 million over 3 years and 13.5 million over 3 years respectively and are the favorites for the starting jobs.
Sheard is the biggest name was the most expensive to acquire, coming over from New England where he finished in the top-20 among 4-3 defensive ends in both seasons with the Patriots. His best season came in 2015, when he finished 5th at his position on Pro Football Focus on 558 snaps. That kind of looks like a fluke when you look at his whole career, but he’s still graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons and he has experience both as a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 outside linebacker.
In Indianapolis, he’ll be the latter and will probably see at least 600-700 snaps again, which is around what he’s used to. Still only going into his age 28 season, the 2011 2nd round pick is a solid addition for this defense, Simon is probably the better value though. The ex-Texan has graded out above average in each of the past 2 seasons and played 500+ snaps in both seasons. He could see an uptick in snaps with the Colts, after spending the last 2 seasons stuck behind Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney for snaps in Houston.
Barkevious Mingo is an upside signing, but he only played 48 snaps with the Patriots last season. Mingo was the 6th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Browns and showed his potential in 2014, finishing 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but he has finished below average in the other 3 seasons and made just 6 starts combined in those 3 seasons. Still only going into his age 27 season, he was worth a flier on a low risk 1-year, 2 million dollar deal, but I wouldn’t expect much for him on defense.
Ayers played 360 snaps for the Colts last season and could see a similar role, after grading out slightly above average last season. A 2nd round pick in 2011, Ayers had graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, but has never been much more than a rotational player. Rookie Tarell Basham will also be in the mix for snaps and could open the season as the top reserve with a strong off-season. Sheard and Simon will lead the way in snaps, but Mingo, Ayers, and Basham will also get shots behind them. They should get better outside linebacker play than last season.
Middle linebacker Sean Spence was also signed in free agency, coming over from the Titans on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. Veteran D’Qwell Jackson, who led Colt middle linebackers in snaps played last season with 708, is gone, after struggling in his age 33 season in 2016, and Spence will compete for playing time with young linebackers Antonio Morrison and Edwin Jackson. A 2012 3rd round pick, Spence didn’t play at all in his first 2 seasons in the league because of a potentially career threatening knee injury. He returned to a reserve role in 2014 and has played 510 and 504 snaps in the past 2 seasons respectively. Undersized at 5-11 231, Spence isn’t great against the run, but has developed into a decent coverage specialist, grading out above average in coverage in both seasons. With the Colts, he could be an every down player, which would be a first for him. He may be overmatched, but he was a decent value signing for a team that needed linebacker help.
Morrison and Jackson saw playing time down the stretch last season and will have the opportunity for more playing time in 2017, even though both were underwhelming. They finished 64th and 56th respectively among 87 eligible linebackers on 334 snaps and 495 snaps respectively. For both players, it was their first career action. Morrison was a 4th round rookie, while Jackson went undrafted in 2015 and spent his rookie year on the practice squad. Neither is a good starting option. Morrison did a decent job against the run and Jackson was adequate in coverage, so it’s possible the Colts will use them in a platoon type situation, with Jackson coming in for Morrison in sub packages. Safety Clayton Geathers could also play some linebacker in sub packages at 6-2 220. Like on the defensive line, it’s an improved linebacker corps, but largely by default.
Geathers playing some linebacker makes sense on two fronts. Not only are the Colts thin at linebacker, they’re also pretty deep at safety. Despite losing veteran 15-game starter Mike Adams, safety was not seen as a pressing need for them going into the draft, with Geathers, a 2015 4th round pick, and TJ Green, a 2016 2nd round pick, penciled into the starting lineup. Geathers was Pro Football Focus 29th ranked safety last season when healthy, but missed 7 games with a number of injuries. Green started in his absence and, while he struggled mightily, he was still a high pick that was expected to get another shot in 2017.
However, no one expected Malik Hooker, the draft class’ top free safety, to fall into their laps at #15 overall. At one point, some expected Hooker to go off the board ahead of fellow safety Jamal Adams, who went 6th to the Jets, but Hooker needed off-season shoulder surgery, which probably dropped him on a few team’s boards. Still, most expected him to be a top-10 pick on draft day, but he fell into the Colts’ lap after an early unexpected run on offensive skill position players. Even though he didn’t fill a pressing need, he was too good to pass on.
When Hooker returns from his injury, he will likely start alongside Geathers, who is also nursing an injury, still coming back from the neck strain that ended his season in 2016. Hooker is expected to be back for training camp, but Geathers’ status is a little bit more uncertain, as neck injuries tend to be. He’s reportedly not a lock to return for week 1. Green will provide insurance at both spots and could come into the game in sub packages if Geathers moves to linebacker part-time. He was Pro Football Focus worst ranked safety last season on 478 snaps as a rookie, but is still only going into his age 22 season and has a high ceiling, so he could be better in 2017.
The Colts also used a 2nd round pick on a defensive back this year, taking Florida’s Quincy Wilson #46 overall. He could start as a rookie opposite #1 cornerback Vontae Davis. Prior to 2016, Davis was their best defensive player and ranked 4th, 4th, and 29th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively. In 2016, however, he fell to a very uncharacteristic 98th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks. A 1st round pick in 2009, Davis has graded out below average in just one other season in his career.
Injuries are almost definitely the culprit. Davis suffered an ankle injury before the season that he rushed back from and then later suffered a concussion and a hip injury. He only missed 2 games with injury, but he was pretty banged up all year. Still only going into his age 29 season, Davis has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy. Wilson, meanwhile, will compete with Rashaan Melvin, Darryl Morris, and Darius Butler for playing time. Melvin and Morris are both 2013 undrafted free agents who graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus last season for the first time in their careers, doing so on 655 and 359 snaps respectively. They have just 11 and 3 career starts respectively and are both underwhelming starting options, so Wilson will probably end up as the starter sooner rather than later, even if someone like Melvin gets the first crack at the job.
Butler, meanwhile, is a pure slot cornerback. There was talk earlier this off-season that he could be moving to safety, but those plans seem to have changed with the Colts taking Hooker in the first round. Butler actually finished last season 33rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, though he’s graded out below average in 6 of 9 seasons in the league and is going into his age 31 season. He’s penciled in as the slot cornerback, but could lose the job if he struggles this off-season. Along with Kendall Langford, Butler is one of just two remaining from those seven week 1 starters over 30 last season. The Colts have completely remade their defense and are much younger on that side of the ball than last season. Their secondary could be their best unit if everyone’s healthy.
It’s going to take more than one off-season to rebuild this supporting cast, but the Colts’ new front office has done a good job of re-making this defense. They might not be a great unit, but they seem to be on the right track and are much younger. Offensively, they could still have issues on the offensive line and at running back, but, as long as Andrew Luck is healthy and throwing to a talented group of receivers, this passing game should be able to carry their offense once again. Luck’s health is not a guarantee though and safeties Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker are also working back from injuries. It’s concerning that they are already this banged up this early in the off-season, but they have a good chance to be better in 2017 than they were in 2016 and should compete for a playoff spot. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.