The Indianapolis Colts believe in their quarterback whisperer, head coach Frank Reich, who will have his fourth different starter in as many years. It just won't be Carson Wentz, who the Colts acquired from Philadelphia, at least not to start the season.
The hope was that Wentz could regain his All-Pro form from 2017. His Eagles offensive coordinator that year was Reich. Instead, a foot injury suffered at the start of training camp will sideline Wentz for anywhere from five to 12 weeks after undergoing surgery, meaning someone else will have to lead the offense in his absence.
Last year, the Colts signed 38-year-old Philip Rivers after he threw 20 interceptions with the Chargers. Rivers thrived in Reich’s system, and the Colts finished 11–5 before losing 27–24 at Buffalo in the AFC Wild Card round. Reich has reached the postseason twice in his three years.
Owner Jim Irsay, general manager Chris Ballard and Reich came away from the Bills loss convinced that the Colts are close to contending for the Super Bowl. Then Rivers retired. Wentz was supposed to be handed the keys to an effective offense, but a different driver will at least have to keep the Colts on the road to the playoffs until Wentz is healthy enough to take the wheel.
The challenge of fixing the most important position is becoming old hat for Ballard, who started his fifth year by reuniting Wentz with Reich. Why are the Colts sold on Wentz? Because the Eagles didn’t protect him, allowing 15 more sacks than any other team. He shouldered much of the blame for the Eagles’ struggles and became gun-shy from taking a continual pounding and not being surrounded with enough weapons.
That's still the hope, but it won't be Wentz under center to start. So the job will either go to Jacob Eason, the team's fourth-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, or newcomer Brett Hundley, who was signed right after Wentz got hurt in training camp. A trade for a veteran, such as Chicago's Nick Foles, isn't out of the question.
Rivers succeeded because Reich’s offense relies upon a stout offensive line to provide time to complete high-percentage passes and get rid of the ball quickly. There’s also balance with a strong running game led by Jonathan Taylor, who impressed as a rookie with 1,169 rushing yards and 12 total TDs. Third-down back Nyheim Hines scored seven combined TDs rushing and receiving. Wentz, like Rivers before him, doesn’t have to be the hero with too many risky throws. Reich calls the plays and knows what works for Wentz.
Entering training camp, the Colts had one spot to sort out on a solid O-line, and it’s arguably the most important, left tackle, in the wake of Anthony Castonzo’s retirement. Media and fans panicked when Ballard didn’t use a draft pick on the position, and there wasn’t overwhelming faith in free-agent addition Sam Tevi, who started 44 games in four seasons for the Chargers but was inconsistent at best. Ballard allayed those concerns with the May signing of Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher, a two-time Pro Bowler and former No. 1 overall draft pick (2013). Fisher was set to line up next to three-time All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson, but he suffered the exact same foot injury that Wentz did early in training camp, and will miss up to 12 weeks depending on how quickly he recovers from surgery. The depth up front will be tested more than expected, but starting right tackle Braden Smith is going nowhere after signing a four-year, $72.4 million extension that includes $42 million guaranteed prior to the start of camp.
Another question for this offense is who will catch passes? T.Y. Hilton re-signed for one year, reportedly turning down more money from Baltimore, but the 31-year-old wide receiver’s last of four Pro Bowls was in 2017. He’s more of a possession receiver now. That means second-year pro Michael Pittman Jr. has the opportunity to step up as the No. 1. Pittman had one monster game with seven catches for 101 yards against Tennessee. He needs to deliver on a more consistent basis. He had just two catches or fewer in six starts. Veteran Zach Pascal tied Hilton for the team lead with five scores and, like Pittman, is an excellent blocker on the outside.
Tight ends Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox are both capable of bigger numbers. Doyle is a two-time Pro Bowl standout and the better blocking tight end. Wide receiver Parris Campbell, a 2019 second-round pick, has had four surgeries in two years and missed 23 games. His speed is undeniable, but can he stay healthy? That would be a huge bonus if he were able to produce as projected.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ballard drafted two edge rushers in the first two rounds in Michigan’s Kwity Paye and Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo. The Colts didn’t pressure Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen nearly enough in the playoff loss. The pass rush was mostly All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, whose 26 quarterback hits were more than twice as many as the next two guys, defensive ends Justin Houston and Denico Autry. Buckner was as great as advertised as an elite 3-technique tackle. Acquired from San Francisco for a 2020 first-round pick, Buckner led the Colts with 9.5 sacks and was voted All-Pro for a second time. Neither Houston nor Autry was re-signed, which puts more of the onus on Paye to make an immediate impact. Odeyingbo is coming off an Achilles tear, so he likely needs a year.
Ballard has reiterated that sometimes pass rushers need more seasoning to develop. But his patience has been tested by players who haven’t panned out. He used a pair of 2018 second-round picks on defensive ends Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis. Turay has yet to regain his promising form since breaking an ankle in 2019. Lewis finally stayed healthy, playing 16 games and amassing four sacks. Neither will ever have a better opportunity to make impact plays. Ben Banogu, a 2019 second-round pick, was scratched in seven games and didn’t have a sack last year. His roster spot couldn’t be more in doubt.
Defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad re-signed for one year to provide experience. He has five sacks in 47 games the past three years.
Weak-side linebacker Darius Leonard is coming off a third consecutive All-Pro season and has amassed 416 tackles, 15 sacks, nine forced fumbles and seven interceptions in just three seasons. “The Maniac” is the heart and soul of this 4-3 defense, which is why the Colts made Leonard the highest-paid inside linebacker in NFL history after signing him to a five-year, $98.5 million contract extension in early August.
The defense also will benefit from having coordinator Matt Eberflus back at the helm. Strongside linebacker Bobby Okereke is expected to shift to the middle to replace Anthony Walker, who wasn’t retained. Okereke is excellent in pass coverage but needs more splash plays.
Nickel cornerback Kenny Moore II is one of the best in the NFL, and veteran cornerback Xavier Rhodes re-signed for another year after a solid season. Third-year cornerback Rock Ya-Sin still struggles with using his hands too much and getting penalized. Safety Julian Blackmon made several impact plays early as a rookie and finished the season as a key piece. The fact that the Colts drafted another safety in hard-hitting Shawn Davis suggests that they would like to see more from Khari Willis, who struggles in coverage.
Undrafted kicker Rodrigo Blankenship set a franchise rookie record with 32 field goals, but he had five misses off the uprights, including a chip shot in the playoff loss. Punter Rigoberto Sanchez enjoyed a career year but was sidelined two games to have a cancerous tumor removed. Long snapper Luke Rhodes never gets noticed because he’s flawless. He was voted second-team All-Pro last year.
Returner Isaiah Rodgers displayed his speed with a 101-yard TD kickoff return at Cleveland but was inconsistent at times after that and eventually shared the job. It will be his to lose once again. Hines is an exceptional punt returner with two TDs in 2019.
There’s no denying that Ballard and Reich work well together, and the Colts are trending in a positive direction. Two years after Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement, many pieces are in place to make a run. Even with Wentz' injury, whoever is at quarterback will benefit from working with Reich and has enough around him to ensure that the Colts will score. Taylor got stronger as his rookie year progressed. And the Colts keep him fresh by utilizing the versatile Hines, who will have added motivation in a contract year. If the edge rush is a work in progress and young defenders need more time to develop, the Colts are still one year away from being a serious Super Bowl contender, especially in light of Wentz' injury. If they have only one reliable cover corner in Rhodes, again, that’s enough to prevent this team from going far. The Colts' hierarchy isn’t wrong to believe that this team is close. But don’t be surprised if this season reveals that the Colts need a few more pieces to be a legit Super Bowl team.