He knew his first season as the Colts general manager would be a challenge, but Chris Ballard loathed what he saw with alarming frequency from his 4-12 team last year. Granted, a roster lacking in talent and depth was dramatically impacted by cornerstone quarterback Andrew Luck not taking a single snap due to shoulder surgery. But what resonated with Ballard was how often his Colts weren’t tough enough in the trenches.
“I had some frustrating moments where I just thought physically we did not match up against teams, especially within our division,” Ballard says.
Four of the first five draft picks were used on linemen. Free agents were signed to raise the level of competitiveness. And Luck is expected to be healthy for 2018. All of that might not be enough to snap the Colts’ playoff drought of three seasons, but it’s a start toward rebuilding the team into what he and new head coach Frank Reich expect.
So much of the Colts’ success hinges on Luck’s health, and the organization is confident he’ll return to previous Pro Bowl form. Luck is a rare talent, possessing smarts to go with athleticism, and he brings a locker room together with his selfless, team-first attitude. But Reich and Ballard maintain that this team can’t rely on only one man. That Luck has endured a series of serious injuries is an indictment of an inept offensive line. Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett absorbed that same punishment as the Colts allowed a league-high 56 sacks in 2017.
Quenton Nelson, the sixth overall pick in the draft, should be an immediate starter at left guard and brings a nastiness that this team needs. Second-round pick Braden Smith will also be pushing for a starting spot at guard, which should dramatically improve the interior of the line, especially with center Ryan Kelly returning after suffering a season-ending concussion. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is reliable, although not a Pro Bowl blocker. Right tackle is once again wide open with as many as four possibilities, none of them considered a long-term solution.
An offense that ranked 31st in total yards and 30th in points scored will strive for more balance. The rushing attack will be led by second-year back Marlon Mack, who steps in for Frank Gore (signed with the Dolphins) after showing promise as a rookie. The fourth-round pick out of South Florida rushed for 358 yards on 93 carries in 2017. Only twice did he have at least 10 attempts in a game. Veteran backup Robert Turbin is also capable of carrying the load at times, but he is suspended the first four games for using performance-enhancing drugs. He may not even make it out of training camp after the Colts selected two running backs in the draft, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins.
When Luck throws, he will look for four-time Pro Bowl standout T.Y. Hilton and Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle. Hilton is the Colts’ best weapon -- he’s a speedy deep threat who can also help move the chains on third down. Last year, he had a streak of four-straight 1,000-yard seasons snapped but still caught 57 passes and averaged 16.9 yards per catch -- the best mark since his rookie season of 2012. The Colts signed Ryan Grant after he caught a career-high 45 passes with the Redskins in 2017. Doyle, a former undrafted free agent from Western Kentucky, became the No. 1 target after catching a career-high 80 passes. Tight end Eric Ebron, a key offseason signing, is also expected to be a playmaker who should help a team still lacking depth at wide receiver.
The first noticeable change following Reich’s hiring was a defensive switch from a 3-4 alignment to a 4-3 scheme under new coordinator Matt Eberflus. Most recently the linebackers coach and passing game coordinator with the Cowboys, Eberflus spent eight seasons as the defensive coordinator at the University of Missouri but has never been the primary play caller at the NFL level.
The emphasis is on speed and flying to the ball, which the Colts didn’t do consistently in finishing 30th in total yards and points allowed and 31st in sacks. The Colts parted with their best defensive player, nose tackle Johnathan Hankins, who was cut one year after signing a three-year, $30-million contract because he didn’t fit the new scheme. It’s also telling that linebacker Jon Bostic, one of the team’s leading tacklers, was allowed to depart in free agency.
That means the line will be anchored by journeyman tackle Al Woods, who is with his fifth team since 2010. Hassan Ridgeway and Grover Stewart will need to improve or Ballard will start shuffling in more bodies to find guys who can hold up inside.
Second-round selection Darius Leonard is expected to be an immediate upgrade at linebacker because his speed gives him three-down capability. The question is whether he gets his snaps at middle linebacker or on the outside. John Simon and Jabaal Sheard will shift from linebacker to defensive end. Sheard is the team’s most established pass rusher after recording 5.5 sacks in 2017. Another unknown is how quickly second-round rookies Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis can get on the field at either defensive end or outside linebacker. They were drafted for their pass-rush ability.
A secondary dependent upon the front seven getting pressure will be a work in progress. Perhaps the most intense training camp competition will be at cornerback, where Quincy Wilson, Pierre Desir, Kenneth Acker and Kenny Moore, among others, will try to prove they belong on the field. Wilson and Desir should have the early edge, but nothing is certain. Safety Malik Hooker was having a solid rookie year before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The former first-round pick is an obvious playmaker on a unit that doesn’t have many. Safety Clayton Geathers, who has had his three-year career slowed by injuries, is a solid hitter who needs to show improvement in pass defense.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri isn’t ready to start the clock on his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The 23rd-year pro who turns 46 in December signed for one more year after proving he still has plenty of life in his right foot. He made 29-of-34 field goals with a long of 54 yards, so distance and accuracy aren’t an issue. Rigoberto Sanchez joined the Colts as an undrafted free agent and adeptly handled punts, averaging 44.8 yards with 28 downed inside the 20, as well as kickoffs with 46 touchbacks, which tied for 11th. He’s also a solid holder for Vinatieri on field goals.
Who returns kicks and punts will be another camp competition to keep an eye on, especially if wide receiver Chester Rogers is used more as a backup on offense. The Colts are excited about Hines, a fourth-round rookie running back who patterns his game after longtime NFL specialist Darren Sproles.
The AFC South isn’t a cupcake division as in years past. Tennessee won a playoff game last year, and the Jaguars reached the AFC title game. Houston has won the division four times since 2011. That leaves the Colts with an arduous climb just to be competitive, especially with a schedule that has them on the road for four of the first six games, including away games at Super Bowl finalists Philadelphia and New England.
As Ballard learned last year, there’s only so much that can be accomplished in one year with so many holes to fill. A healthy Luck gives the Colts a shot at being respectable, but the run game is still an uncertainty and the defense is still lacking playmakers, even if the newcomers prove capable of making immediate contributions.
If the Colts show the expected modest improvement, 8-8 is probably the ceiling with 6-10 more likely. The fan base -- which was spoiled during a run in which the Colts made the playoffs 14 times in 16 seasons from 1999-2014 -- probably won’t be satisfied unless this team makes the postseason. But that remains a long shot in the short term.