Somehow, after so much fell apart amid Super Bowl expectations and the Indianapolis Colts were reduced to an 8–8 underachiever that missed the playoffs, the three men most responsible for the team’s fate returned even more resolute for 2016.
The most important is quarterback Andrew Luck, lost for nine games to back, shoulder, ribs, kidney and abdominal injuries. He’s healthy and anxious to prove he can be a three-time Pro Bowl star as opposed to a turnover machine. And after absorbing 375 hits in four seasons, Luck was ecstatic when the Colts used four draft picks on offensive linemen to ensure that No. 12 won’t continue to take such a beating. The good news for Luck continued into late June when he signed a five-year contract extension (his contract now covers six years) worth around $125 million, making him the highest-paid player in the NFL. The new deal includes $87 million in guaranteed money, the most ever for any player.
The other two happy campers are head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson. After rampant speculation both would lose their jobs, owner Jim Irsay gave Pagano a four-year contract and added three years to Grigson’s one remaining year. Much of Pagano’s coaching staff took the fall as nine new assistants were hired.
Despite the lack of a consistent rushing attack, a healthy Luck ensured that the Colts were a perennial playoff team. In his last start before being lost for the remainder of 2015, he defeated the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Irsay made it clear that the No. 1 offseason priority would be the offensive line, which the Colts first addressed with the first-round selection of center Ryan Kelly. While the right side still needs to be sorted out, enough pieces are in place to give Luck the best line he’s had since he was drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo returns as the anchor.
Luck realizes he must be better at not taking unnecessary risks, especially extending plays too long and subjecting himself to hits. He should have more time to throw, and running back Frank Gore will have more space to run. Gore is 32 and entering his 12th NFL season, but he showed in a 967-yard season he could still be effective when not met by tacklers in the backfield.
Rob Chudzinski, who took over as play-caller for the fired Pep Hamilton during last season, returns and will implement a new playbook suited to getting the most out of Luck’s talents. Expect the Colts to spread the field with their speedy receivers, which opens the middle for tight ends in addition to providing running lanes. But Luck must cut down on his turnovers — he’s been intercepted 55 times and lost 14 of 32 fumbles in 55 regular-season games.
The Colts cut their losses with veteran wide receiver Andre Johnson after only one season as Donte Moncrief proved to be a more capable playmaker in his second season. Moncrief, Pro Bowl deep threat T.Y. Hilton and 2015 first-round pick Phillip Dorsett might be the fastest three pass catchers on one NFL team. Dorsett has star potential if he can stay healthy.
Tight end Dwayne Allen, a forgotten man with just 16 receptions because he was used as a blocker, received a four-year, $29.4-million contract and the promise to be utilized more effectively. The Colts expect to see the Allen who caught eight touchdown passes two seasons ago. Tight end Jack Doyle received a one-year tender and will get more snaps now that Coby Fleener has departed in free agency.
New coordinator Ted Monachino inherits a 3-4 defense devoid of pass rushers beyond franchise all-time sacks leader Robert Mathis, who enters a contract year at 35. The Colts surprisingly didn’t add an impact pass rusher in the draft — Grigson says players they targeted went too early and he wasn’t going to reach — so Monachino needs more production out of 33-year-old outside linebacker Trent Cole, who had just three sacks in his first Colts season and accepted a pay cut to return.
Expect the Colts to blitz more, which will stress those in coverage. Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis is in his prime, but the secondary is a work in progress with cornerback Patrick Robinson, a free-agent addition who in six seasons with two previous teams hasn’t lived up to his first-round selection. Nickel back Darius Butler has been a playmaker in his four seasons but gets exposed when covering speedy receivers outside. He needs to stay in the slot. Second-year cornerback D’Joun Smith has yet to prove he’s a reliable pro.
Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, the NFL’s second-leading tackler, enters his 11th season. He’s the glue that holds the unit together. Who plays next to him will be an open camp competition as Nate Irving, Sio Moore and fourth-round draft choice Antonio Morrison vie for snaps vacated by Jerrell Freeman, who departed in free agency. If healthy, Irving has the edge.
The Colts must be able to stop the run to get into third-and-long blitz situations. Oft-injured defensive tackle Arthur Jones is key. He missed last season and has started just three games since signing a five-year, $33-million deal to join the Colts in 2014. Jones agreed to a pay cut but can earn that money back in performance incentives.
Defensive end Kendall Langford played well in his first Colts season, tying Mathis for the team lead with seven sacks. Second-year nose tackle David Parry showed potential but could be pushed for playing time by fourth-round pick Hassan Ridgeway. Defensive end Henry Anderson was outstanding as a rookie until being lost after nine games to a knee injury. His eventual return will boost the run defense, but he had only one sack.
Ageless kicker Adam Vinatieri is still one of the game’s best, which is why the Colts re-signed the 43-year-old “Mr. Clutch” for two more years. He made 25-of-27 field goals, including four-of-five from 50-plus yards. Punter Pat McAfee is also among the elite in his profession and a touchback machine on kickoffs. He had surgery on his non-kicking leg in the offseason, but is expected to be ready for training camp. Long snapper Matt Overton has been to one Pro Bowl and completes a trio who take pride in being the “Fourth Down Army,” a slogan that adorns T-shirts. Who returns kicks will be an open camp competition, although wide receiver Quan Bray likely has the inside track.
Colts fans who remember the glory days with quarterback Peyton Manning should experience some deja vu this season. These Colts should score plenty of points, but they will give up their share, too. High-scoring shootouts are entertaining and will re-establish Luck as a star on the rise.
But unless the defense can figure out a way to pressure opposing passers, the Colts will have their share of games that come down to who has the ball last. They’ll win many of them because Vinatieri is arguably the greatest kicker in NFL history, but the formula typically doesn’t work in the playoffs against the league’s best defenses.
The Colts will be fun to watch, but they’re a year away from committing more draft picks to impact players on defense. And with Luck now signed to one of the biggest contracts in NFL history, it’s reasonable to assume that the team won’t have as much money to spend in free agency to shore up that defense.
Until the defense has the necessary playmakers, the Colts can go only so far come January.