Andrew Luck and the Colts are looking for their second straight AFC South division title
If the Indianapolis Colts are guilty of anything the past two seasons, it’s that they’ve won too fast since being resurrected. Eleven wins in each regular season and a playoff victory over Kansas City in January erased memories of the 2–14 implosion in 2011. And so, familiar expectations from the Peyton Manning era have quickly returned — it’s Super Bowl or bust for quarterback Andrew Luck and company. The rest of the AFC South has been mired in mediocrity or worse, which leaves the Colts as the team to beat once again. But division titles aren’t enough. General manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano enter their third season with the understanding that nobody remembers playoff qualifiers who exit in January. It’s about getting to February.
Luck has passed for more yards in his first two seasons (8,196) than any quarterback in NFL history, thriving despite a shaky offensive line and sputtering run game. Grigson, a former O-lineman, didn’t need to be reminded that the line is still a No. 1 priority, considering that Luck has been sacked 73 times.
An obvious question is: Who will play center? Samson Satele was jettisoned with one year remaining on his contract, too expensive and underwhelming. Khaled Holmes, a fourth-round pick last year, couldn’t get on the field. Grigson insists the Colts will start with Holmes. They drafted Ohio State All-America tackle Jack Mewhort presumably to play guard. An addition that's even more important considering the season-ending quadriceps injury suffered by fellow guard and potential center candidate Donald Thomas. Mewhort and second-year right guard Hugh Thornton will both need to perform right away.
Inquiring minds wonder if this is running back Trent Richardson’s last chance to prove he was worth the 2014 first-round pick Grigson sent to Cleveland last year. The former No. 3 overall selection — after Luck and Robert Griffin III — averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and was a step slow. The Colts considered the alternatives and re-signed veteran Ahmad Bradshaw, lost after three games to a neck injury. The team was hopeful to get Vick Ballard, steady as a rookie in 2012, back after he missed last season with a knee injury, but he tore his Achilles early in training camp. It’s hard to believe Richardson will suddenly blossom, but Ballard's already out for the season and Bradshaw has had trouble staying healthy. It's possible someone else emerges, but don’t be surprised if Bradshaw gets most of the workload.
Wide receiver Reggie Wayne has been a leader, but he’s coming off knee surgery that shortened last season to seven games. At 35 and entering the final year of his contract, Wayne has to return to some semblance of his six-time Pro Bowl form. He’s looked strong in rehab. Hakeem Nicks has something to prove after the Colts took a one-year chance on the ex-Giants target. T.Y. Hilton emerged as a go-to player, but the idea is to share the wealth and not be forced to rely on an undersized speedster. Tight end Dwayne Allen is back after missing almost all of last season with a hip injury. He scraped the surface of his talent as a rookie and could have a breakout year. Third-year pro Coby Fleener is a decent tight end, not flashy but reliable.
While the Colts were ninth in points allowed at 21 per game, coordinator Greg Manusky’s unit had issues getting stops. Expect inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (Cleveland) and defensive end Arthur Jones (Baltimore) to shore up the 26th-ranked run defense. Jackson is a tackling machine in the mold of Colts’ top tackler Jerrell Freeman. Jones is versatile and can play anywhere on the line.
The Colts paid big bucks to bring back cornerback Vontae Davis, who excels at the press coverage this 3-4 scheme requires. While effective as a shutdown corner, he’s also been inconsistent. The Colts are paying him $39 million over four years to be one of the NFL’s best cover guys. On the other side, injury-prone Greg Toler lived up to his reputation with just seven starts. When Davis and Toler were on the field together, the 13th-ranked pass defense was effective. But depth is an issue with Josh Gordy and Darius Butler vying for playing time at nickel. They’ve made plays, but they’ve been burned, too.
Robert Mathis, at 33, is still one of the game’s elite pass-rushers. But the Colts will be without the league’s reigning sack champion (19.5) for the first four games of the season due to a league-mandated suspension. With or without Mathis, the Colts need more help rushing the quarterback. Outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, the 2013 first-round pick, got hurt early and struggled. He’ll get every opportunity to rack up sacks, considering that outside linebacker Erik Walden is more suited to stopping the run. Mindful of a lack of pass-rush depth, Grigson used a fifth-round pick on Ball State outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome, who had 16.5 sacks in 23 games for the Cardinals. At best, he’s a situational pass-rusher.
The Colts didn’t keep safety Antoine Bethea, so there’s a hole next to hard-hitting LaRon Landry. Expect Delano Howell, undrafted in 2012, to get the first crack at free safety, provided the neck injury he sustained during training camp doesn't turn out to be too serious. Howell was reliable in six games last season before injuring his foot. Special teams ace Sergio Brown might also get a look and veteran Mike Adams has been added to the mix as well.
Pagano was a defensive coordinator in Baltimore, so nothing less than marked improvement is the expectation. But if the Colts struggle again against the run and don’t have a consistent pass rush, the scheme unravels.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri and punter/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee were re-signed. While Vinatieri is 41, he was given a two-year contract after showing he still has the leg for long kicks (4-of-6 from 50-plus) and is accurate (35-of-40 overall). McAfee has a strong leg and is excellent on kickoffs and as a holder. Long-snapper Matt Overton is back after going to his first Pro Bowl.
The Colts have struggled to find successful returners — not so much on punts where Hilton has excelled, but on kickoffs. It’s been a revolving door for years. Reserve running back Daniel Herron, wide receiver Griff Whalen and undrafted rookie Loucheiz Purifoy are among the candidates to likely get the first opportunities this season, especially if the coaching staff decides to lessen Hilton's workload.
So many “ifs” suggest that the Colts aren’t quite there yet for a Super Bowl run. But don’t count them out. Despite past injuries and ineffectiveness at key spots, they’re a resilient bunch that rallies around Pagano and often overachieves. The simplified synopsis is this team will go as far as Luck can take them if he gets help. Luck pressed in the playoffs, hence his seven interceptions, but he took better care of the ball in his second season and improved his completion percentage. The run game has to be better and his pass-catchers only need to be reliable for the Colts to field one of the best offenses. That takes some of the pressure off the defense, but this team won’t get to the AFC title game or Super Bowl without stops. It can’t be a carbon copy of so many Manning teams that just tried to outscore opponents.