Missing the AFC playoffs at 9-8 after finishing with an embarrassing loss at NFL-worst Jacksonville didn't sit well with the Indianapolis Colts, who made several changes to address key positions for 2022. Most notably, quarterback Carson Wentz was out, shipped after one season to Washington, and 15th-year quarterback Matt Ryan is in after being acquired from Atlanta.
GM Chris Ballard also acquired pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue from Las Vegas and signed 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore to a two-year, $20 million deal to be the shutdown corner that this defense has lacked for years.
The Colts are on a mission to win the AFC South for a 10th time, a crown they haven't celebrated since 2014. Disgruntled owner Jim Irsay promised this roster would have players who are "all-in."
The 37-year-old Ryan joins an offense led by running back Jonathan Taylor, who topped the NFL with a franchise-record 1,811 rushing yards. It might seem unrealistic to expect Taylor to continue to produce at that level, but he's quickly emerged as one of the NFL's best backs because of his combination of speed and strength. He also makes plays in the passing game. His 40 receptions tied for second on the team and resulted in 360 yards and two TDs. Perhaps the best part: He's just 23, so the workhorse still has young legs and strong shoulders to carry the load.
The veteran Ryan has to coax production from a relatively young group of wide receivers and tight ends so that defenses can't just load the box to stop Taylor. Wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. also enjoyed a breakout second season with 88 catches for 1,082 yards and six TDs. But most of the other pass-catching options are unproven, including oft-injured wide receiver Parris Campbell and tight end Mo Alie-Cox. Running back Nyheim Hines saw his pass-catching numbers drop significantly with Wentz. Ryan needs to get the versatile back more involved by isolating him in space.
An offensive line led by Pro Bowl stars Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly struggled to stay healthy and will have two new starters this season. Most notably, the left tackle spot will be key, where Matt Pryor has been penciled in for the departed Eric Fisher. Pryor has a lot to prove. Braden Smith returns as a solid right tackle, and Danny Pinter steps in at right guard after proving himself a reliable backup at center and guard. The Colts don't have ideal O-line depth, so more moves could be made as the season nears if backups don't prove effective in camp. The team did add tackle Dennis Kelly in May.
Head coach Frank Reich, 38-30 in four seasons (including 1-2 in the playoffs), calls the plays. He's counting on Ryan, his sixth different starting quarterback in as many years, to be a coach on the field and stick to what works in getting rid of the ball quickly and providing a steady passing game so the Colts will be balanced and have running lanes for Taylor. Under intense pressure, Wentz often cracked and made too many careless decisions.
Reich also has been reunited with Nick Foles, who signed a two-year deal with Indianapolis in May after he was released by the Bears. Reich was Foles' offensive coordinator when the two were in Philadelphia, a run highlighted by the Eagles' Super Bowl LII victory where Foles was the MVP after taking over for an injured Wentz.
After the humbling loss to the Jaguars, Irsay made it clear the Colts needed to move on from Wentz, who had been acquired last offseason for a 2022 first-round draft choice and 2021 third-round selection. Irsay said it was obvious that Wentz "wasn't the right fit."
Coordinator Matt Eberflus was hired as Chicago Bears head coach, which meant the Colts lost a top assistant for the second consecutive year after offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni had been hired as Philadelphia Eagles head coach after 2020. The Colts brought in Gus Bradley as defensive coordinator after he helped the Las Vegas Raiders make the playoffs. He's expected to devise schemes that will boost the aggressiveness of his defenders. The Colts' obvious inconsistencies were generating a pass rush and covering receivers. The Eberflus system relied on a lot of zone schemes, but it often didn't work when the pass rush was unable to get enough pocket pressure.
The good news is that the Colts have some solid building blocks in Pro Bowl weakside linebacker Darius Leonard and Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. Leonard is one of the NFL's best at impact plays. "The Maniac" has 538 tackles in four seasons as well as 15 sacks, 17 forced fumbles and 11 interceptions. And he's ticked off because he didn't receive more votes for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Leonard is always looking for motivation, so the perceived snub is a good thing. The Colts want him to stay motivated.
Buckner is one of the league's best 3-technique defensive tackles, which means he draws his share of double teams. That should help pass rushers like Ngakoue, who has 55.5 sacks in six seasons, as well as second-year edge rusher Kwity Paye, a first-round selection who showed promise as a rookie with four sacks and 10 quarterback hits. Buckner led the Colts with 18 quarterback hits in making his second Pro Bowl.
The key to the secondary is probably Gilmore, who started just three games in Carolina and has missed 14 games due to injuries in the past two seasons since being named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. When healthy, he's among the league's best cover corners. And at 31, he should have plenty of solid football left in him. If Gilmore can lock down one side, that allows schemes to cover more on the other. And more reliable pass coverage in the secondary gives the pass rush more time to disrupt. The Colts still have to settle on the other corner, but slot cornerback Kenny Moore II made his first Pro Bowl and can shift outside when needed. Several other corners, including Isaiah Rodgers, will get a long look in camp.
The Colts added experience at safety with the signings of Rodney McLeod and Armani Watts, then drafted Nick Cross in the third round. That's because third-year pro Julian Blackmon is coming off an Achilles tear. Safety Khari Willis has 219 tackles in three years as a starter.
Long snapper Luke Rhodes made the Pro Bowl, and punter Rigoberto Sanchez has been solid on punts as well as booting the ball deep on kickoffs. The question is: How will kicker Rodrigo Blankenship bounce back from a hip injury that sidelined the second-year pro for 12 games last season? He had a solid rookie year in 2020 and has made 43-of-51 FGs and 50-of-53 PATs. The Colts are counting on "Hot Rod" to be the clutch kicker who earned the job as an undrafted free agent two years ago. Rodgers and Ashton Dulin are effective kickoff returners, and Hines is an excellent punt returner with two career TDs.
It's fair to surmise that Irsay and Ballard, among others, are a bit salty because things haven't progressed as expected. The Colts have won only one playoff game since 2015, and the division title drought is a constant reminder of what hasn't been. The reality is that the Colts have an ideal opportunity in the AFC South. The coaching is good enough, and Ballard did a masterful job of rewriting the Wentz mistake by trading his contract to Washington and pocketing a conditional 2023 third-round pick that could become a second. Then he acquired Ryan for a 2022 third-round choice. Too many pieces seem to be in place for the Colts to fall short of the playoffs again. Problem is, the AFC is overloaded with so many serious Super Bowl contenders that the Colts might not go far if they get to the postseason.