A year removed from the unexpected disaster of quarterback Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement, the Indianapolis Colts intend to make a serious run at an AFC South title with 38-year-old passer Philip Rivers, an infusion of young offensive playmakers and an upgraded defense including acquired All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.
Although 2019’s slide to 7-9 without Luck shouldn’t have been a surprise, general manager Chris Ballard points to a 5-6 record in one-score games and key injuries to offensive weapons as reasons for falling short of the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. The Colts started 5-2 before falling apart.
The disappointment didn’t sit well with Ballard or owner Jim Irsay, hence a busy and expensive offseason in free agency as well as the NFL Draft. The franchise wants to win now and can no longer be labeled as rebuilding.
Rivers was sought after because of his past relationship with Colts third-year head coach Frank Reich. The 17th-year pro flourished with Reich and Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni when the two were Chargers assistant coaches. That means the quarterback, upon agreeing to terms on a one-year, $25 million contract, already knew about 80 percent of the Colts playbook. How much Rivers has left is a lingering question. But Ballard has gone to great lengths to put pieces around him.
A series of offseason moves included re-signing left tackle Anthony Castonzo for two years. Whereas Rivers struggled with 20 interceptions behind a porous Chargers offensive line, he joins a team that didn’t have a missed start on its O-line and ranked seventh in rushing yards. Ballard used his first two draft choices in the second round on impact players, USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and Wisconsin workhorse running back Jonathan Taylor. The physically tough Pittman gives the Colts their best size at the position since the departure of Reggie Wayne after the 2014 season. Taylor’s rugged, downhill style also fits with a backfield that was built on speed with running back Marlon Mack. Now, the Colts have a 1-2 rushing punch, with an emphasis on punch. Former Pittsburgh fullback Roosevelt Nix was also added to help create running lanes.
Most of the other offensive positions are set with returnees, which leads to another question: Can important players such as four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton stay healthy? Hilton was sidelined by injuries and played hurt for much of the season. Since his 2012 arrival, the Colts are 1-9 when Hilton doesn’t play. The lesson reinforced by Luck’s departure is that a team can’t be built around one player. To overcome that requires more talented playmakers so that the Colts aren’t relying so much on one guy. Nobody encountered more of a hard-luck 2019 than rookie wide receiver Parris Campbell, a promising second-round pick who showed flashes but eventually landed on injured reserve. The scars from his NFL debut were from surgeries to repair a sports hernia, fractured hand and broken foot. Campbell is exceptionally fast and versatile, so a breakthrough year could be in the offing.
The last game Buckner played for the 49ers was Super Bowl LIV, where he was a force with 1.5 sacks in a losing effort vs. the Kansas City Chiefs. San Francisco couldn’t afford to keep him, and Ballard didn’t hesitate to offer a 2020 first-round draft choice, 13th overall, to secure a dominant tackle who can get after quarterbacks while also being solid against the run. He joins a defense led by two-time All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard as well as established pass-rushing end Justin Houston.
Some of the defensive revamping required patchwork, with cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie given one-year deals to prove they are worth another contract. Two years removed from being an All-Pro cover corner in Minnesota, Rhodes’ play dropped off in part due to playing hurt, and then the Vikings released him. If he can regain his past form, it will get him paid after 2020, and the Colts secondary will be vastly improved. Second-year cornerback Rock Ya-Sin showed potential as a rookie when he wasn’t getting flagged for holding and pass interference. The back line is still a question mark, with inconsistent safety Malik Hooker and second-year pro Khari Willis.
If there’s a position up for grabs, it’s defensive end. Veteran Jabaal Sheard was allowed to become a free agent, so the Colts will be looking at several players in his spot, including a trio of former second-round picks in Kemoko Turay, Tyquan Lewis and Ben Banogu. Turay was starting to make a name for himself when he suffered a season-ending broken ankle in Week 5. Lewis must show something after two injury-plagued seasons or he’ll be gone. Banogu struggled to adjust to the pro game as a rookie with just 2.5 sacks and 11 tackles. Having Buckner inside should take the pressure off the edges as well as the other defensive tackle spot, where seventh-year pro Denico Autry will no longer have to face double teams and should make more plays like two years ago, when he had a career-high nine sacks.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri, the NFL’s all-time leader in points and field goals, was allowed to hit free agency after enduring the worst season of his legendary career. He had 14 of the team’s 15 missed kicks, including six extra points, before ending up on injured reserve after 12 games with a leg injury that required surgery. Rookie Chase McLaughlin filled in well enough to earn a one-year tender. But he’ll have to win the job in a kicking competition with undrafted rookie Rodrigo Blankenship, Georgia’s all-time leading scorer and the 2019 Lou Groza Award winner as the nation’s top college kicker.
Punter Rigoberto Sanchez and long snapper Luke Rhodes return in their reliable capacities. One late-season development bodes well for the return units — running back Nyheim Hines returned two punts for TDs in a Week 16 home rout of Carolina. The Colts looked to upgrade their special teams with a couple of sixth-round draft choices in UMass cornerback/returner Isaiah Rodgers and Michigan linebacker Jordan Glasgow.
As much as Ballard tried to fill several obvious holes, the Colts’ chances of winning the division and making the playoffs hinge on how well Rivers can play in trying to revive a passing game that went nowhere with now-backup QB Jacoby Brissett. His offensive weapons, which also include Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle as well as an established run game, should make the task more achievable. Rivers has put up Hall-of-Fame-worthy numbers with 59,271 career passing yards and 397 TD passes because he reads defenses well and gets rid of the ball quickly. He was named to his eighth Pro Bowl in 2018, so it’s not a stretch to suggest he could enjoy a rebirth with the Colts.
The other part of the equation is the young defense, which often failed to protect leads. That’s why Buckner’s impact could make such a difference. The Colts are still thin in the secondary, so the only way this defense flourishes is if the pass rush is formidable and the run defense is solid. That starts up front.
Put it all together and the Colts are capable of becoming one of the NFL’s surprise teams in 2020. It’s not time yet to suggest Super Bowl contender, but everybody else in the AFC South lost key players and didn’t make significant offseason upgrades. There’s no reason why the Colts can’t win the division and make a statement that the franchise is trending in the right direction.