As quarterback Andrew Luck mends from offseason shoulder surgery, his Indianapolis Colts have undergone sweeping changes in an effort to cure what has ailed a team that finished 8–8 and out of the playoffs the past two seasons — despite playing in the weak AFC South.
A deteriorating defense combined with an inability to find the right players to protect Luck forced owner Jim Irsay to make a move in the front office. Out as general manager is Ryan Grigson. In is Chris Ballard, who is regarded as an up-and-coming talent evaluator after a productive stint in Kansas City. What’s odd is that Irsay stuck by head coach Chuck Pagano, who was rumored to be on the way out after a second consecutive eight-win season. Pagano has been told that his future will be determined by Ballard after the 2017 season.
Ballard has begun his tenure by removing several of his predecessor’s failings, most notably by releasing defensive tackle Arthur Jones and signing more than a dozen free agents. But regardless of all of the personnel changes, the Colts’ immediate future depends upon Luck, who is expected to be 100 percent by the team’s opener.
Luck, the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, suffered a torn labrum in 2015 but put off the surgical procedure until the painful situation became unbearable. After taking 41 more sacks in 2016, bringing his five-year, 70-game total to 156, Luck relented to having his injury fixed. But what hasn’t been fixed is an offensive line that is inconsistent at best in pass protection and still sporting holes. The only real change in recent years has been the addition of promising first-round pick Ryan Kelly at center last year.
Although Ballard has brought in several new linemen in hopes of creating competition, Grigson used to do the same thing, and it never panned out. So, while former second-round pick Jack Mewhort returns to left guard, training camp will be about determining who will line up on the right side. Is second-year pro Joe Haeg the answer at right tackle? Is third-year pro Denzelle Good consistent enough to stick at right guard?
Beyond that, do the Colts have enough weapons to take the pressure off Luck and that O-line? Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is one of the NFL’s best deep threats, but the next-best skill returnee is tight end Jack Doyle, a hard-working overachiever and hometown-hero who was rewarded with a $19 million contract. Ballard rid himself of tight end Dwayne Allen’s overpriced contract by trading him to New England. Donte Moncrief, the No. 2 wide receiver, had seven TD catches but also missed seven games due to injury. Phillip Dorsett, a 2015 first-round pick, has caught only 51 passes and scored three touchdowns in his two seasons. He is on the verge of becoming a bust.
Running back Frank Gore became the first running back 33 or older to rush for 1,000 yards since John Riggins in 1984. But Gore is in the final year of his contract, and the Colts need to be looking for a long-term ball carrier. Robert Turbin rushed for 164 yards in a reserve role in his first season in Indianapolis. The team used a fourth-round pick on Marlon Mack, who will have an opportunity to be the No. 2 back.
The Colts have struggled to generate a pass rush in their 3-4 scheme since Robert Mathis led the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2013. As opposing passers took advantage of the extra time to throw, Colts defenders got older, too. Mathis finally retired this offseason. Outside linebacker Erik Walden, despite recording a career-high 11 sacks, wasn’t re-signed.
Ballard looked at a 30th-ranked defense and spent wisely on getting younger. Few of the new players received guaranteed money beyond next season. One exception was nose tackle Johnathan Hankins, who is still just 25 and could be the Colts’ best defensive line anchor in a decade. He was signed to a three-year, $30 million deal.
Defensive end Kendall Langford played only seven games last year and was released early in traning camp after failing his physical. The team is hopeful that Henry Anderson can return to 2015 form after being slowed by injuries a year ago. Jones’ departure at defensive tackle will free up snaps for someone, and there are many options from which to choose — but none of them appears to be dazzling. Nose tackle Al Woods, defensive end Margus Hunt and second-year defensive lineman Hassan Ridgeway should get their share of snaps.
But if the Colts’ blitzing scheme is going to flourish by bringing pressure from all angles, Ballard’s new corps of linebackers — Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, Sean Spence and Barkevious Mingo — will have to produce. This quartet combined for 11.5 sacks last season, highlighted by Sheard’s five with the Patriots.
Cornerback Patrick Robinson proved to be a one-year waste of time and money as the cover guy typically picked on by quarterbacks wanting to avoid two-time Pro Bowler Vontae Davis. And the free-agent departure of two-time Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams means Ballard still has some work to do in tinkering with the secondary. Malik Hooker, a first-round pick out of Ohio State, will be expected to start right away at one safety spot. Quincy Wilson, a second rounder from Florida, will be in the mix at cornerback.
If there was another offseason shocker, aside from Luck having surgery, it was the sudden retirement of punter Pat McAfee, a two-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro who decided after eight years to become a standup comedian. McAfee was continually one of the best at kickoff touchbacks and at pinning opponents inside the 20, and he also provided perfect holds for placekicker Adam Vinatieri. Irsay tried to talk McAfee into returning, but to no avail. A third knee operation in four seasons had the specialist thinking it was time to walk away while he still could. The Colts signed former Minnesota punter Jeff Locke, whose 42.6-yard average is well off McAfee’s career-best 49.3 yards in 2016. But Locke had 34 punts downed inside the 20, 15 more than McAfee.
Vinatieri, the NFL’s oldest player at 44, insisted on a two-year contract when he was retained before 2016. “Mr. Clutch” showed he still had the leg from 50-plus yards in converting 7-of-9 attempts from long range. He made 27-of-31 overall.
NFL general managers want to shop for their own proverbial groceries, and they expect to be doing so with a head coach of their choosing. Then again, Irsay’s insistence on keeping Pagano for one more year might not set the franchise back too much because Ballard has too many holes to fill and can use a season to familiarize himself with the organization.
But presuming the Colts are mired in mediocrity for a third consecutive season, it’s more important to pay close attention to how quickly Ballard can fix these issues. As much as the Colts need pass rushers — who in the NFL doesn’t? — the No. 1 frustration since Luck was drafted in 2012 has been subjecting No. 12 to continual pounding. If Ballard accomplishes nothing else in 2017, he must ensure that the Colts’ cornerstone player can be kept upright and have a chance to play another five years, if not more. At this pace, Luck’s body can’t hold up for that long.
The new GM deserves credit for grabbing mostly good-but-not-great young blood to try to raise the level of performance in obviously weak positions. Factor in a solid draft or two, and the Colts aren’t that far away from returning as a perennial playoff contender.
When Irsay was justifying his decision to fire Grigson — and reluctantly admitting that his team needed a new direction — the owner said he would rather have a lousy year or two to set up a long-term contender than to be consistently mediocre. The Colts have been the latter for two years. That begs this question: Do they need to endure a lousy year of growing pains in 2017 before they can become contenders in 2018?