Analysis by CBS4Indy.com contributor Joe Hopkins
How’s your heart? Mine is still recovering after a brutal 4-12 season. You know what else is still recovering? Andrew Luck’s shoulder.
Injuries plagued the Colts on both sides of the ball in 2017. Aside from the quarterback, key starters Ryan Kelly (C), Jack Mewhort (OG), Malik Hooker (FS) and Clayton Geathers (SS) all missed the majority of the year. Without Luck to alleviate the team’s many deficiencies, we witnessed just how depleted this roster is in terms of talent.
Just how bad were the Colts last season? Let’s start with the offense, shall we? The Colts scored the third-fewest points (16.4 PPG) and accumulated the second-fewest yards (284.6 YPG) in 2017. The lone bright spot was their ability to take care of the ball, turning it over just 15 times (4th fewest).
Indy’s defense wasn’t any better. The unit allowed the third-most points (25.2 PPG) and yards (367.1), while ranking 20th in turnovers forced (20). But hey, at least there’s nowhere else to go but up.
Last season’s failures were hardly the fault of general manager Chris Ballard, who is now entering his second offseason in Indianapolis. His first ride through free agency was cautious yet successful. He signed players like Jabaal Sheard (EDGE) and Johnathan Hankins (DT) to reasonably priced multi-year contracts, and they rewarded him with their play on the field.
The time for caution, though, has subsided. With over $70 million in cap space (3rd highest), the third overall pick in the draft, and a new head coach in former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, Ballard is in prime position to put his mark on this team.
The best way to do that is by bolstering the offensive line. The Colts surrendered the most sacks in the league last season (56), and managed the fifth-fewest yards per carry (3.7). Until playing in Indy’s backfield is no longer a suicide mission, the offense will continue to flounder. The linebacker group is another glaring area of need. All three starting positions are up for grabs as Indianapolis switches from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive scheme.
With so many positions yearning for an upgrade, Ballard has his work cut out for him. Free agency kicks off March 14 at 4 p.m. Eastern. Before the frenzy begins, let’s identify a few crucial targets. I was able to accurately predict a couple of last year’s signings, so let’s see if I can keep the ball rolling.
Andrew Norwell – Guard – Carolina Panthers
Back up the truck. Norwell is going to cost a pretty penny and for good reason. Undrafted out of Ohio State, the former Buckeye has been a mainstay on the Panthers’ line since he joined the team. Norwell hasn’t missed a game since Nov. 22, 2015, and is coming off a career year. The 26-year-old didn’t allow a sack or hit on his quarterback the entire season, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s no scrub against the run either, consistently opening holes for Carolina’s rushers, who averaged 4.3 YPC (7th highest). Last year Kevin Zeitler signed a five-year, $60 million contract with Cleveland, which is expected to be the going rate for Norwell’s services.
Allen Robinson – Wide Receiver – Jacksonville Jaguars
Here’s a list of the Colts’ receivers signed through 2018: T.Y. Hilton, Chester Rogers, Krishawn Hogan. That’s it. Robinson displayed what he was capable of in 2015 when he caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. Since then he struggled through a down year in 2016 and tore his ACL in week one of this past season. Still, the 24-year-old’s nearly 6’3” frame makes him a perfect complement to the small and speedy Hilton. Indianapolis would be wise to sign Robinson to a “prove it” deal such as the one-year, $9.5 million contract Alshon Jeffery agreed to with Philadelphia a year ago.
Justin Pugh – Offensive Line – New York Giants
Unlike Norwell, Pugh is a former first-round pick who is coming off the worst season of his career. A back injury hampered the 27-year-old throughout the year before finally landing him on IR. However, a look at the entirety of his career shows a versatile lineman who excelled as both a right tackle and guard for New York. Given the chronic nature of back ailments, Pugh’s contract should be highly incentive based, with an emphasis placed on the number of games he’s able to play. As of now, Pugh has been medically cleared to resume football activities after NFL Network’s Ian Rappaport reported that an MRI revealed no structural damage.
Nigel Bradham – Linebacker – Philadelphia Eagles
A vital part of Philly’s Super Bowl run, it would be in Frank Reich’s best interest to lure Bradham away from his former team. The veteran is a reliable three-down player with the versatility to play both outside and inside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. Though he holds his own against the run, and is an effective blitzer, Bradham’s biggest asset is his ability to cover. He owns his assignment in both man and zone coverage. Bradham will turn 29 just days before the 2018 season opener, and will likely demand a contract in the three-year, $20 million range.
E.J. Gaines – Cornerback – Buffalo Bills
Gaines was sent to Buffalo in August as compensation for the Sammy Watkins trade, and ended up flourishing in the Bills’ zone-heavy scheme. You know who else will run a zone-heavy scheme? Matt Eberflus, the new defensive coordinator in Indianapolis. Gaines’ size (5’10”) and lack of ball skills limit his upside, but his physicality and consistency in coverage would solidify one side of the Colts’ secondary. At just 26 years of age, the corner should have plenty of good years left in the tank. Depending on the market, Gaines could command a four-year contract that approaches $40 million after his breakout 2017 campaign.
Anthony Hitchens – Linebacker – Dallas Cowboys
Many are predicting Hitchens to follow Eberflus to Indianapolis and why not? It makes a lot of sense. Though far from spectacular, Hitchens is a solid linebacker with decent speed and experience in Eberflus’ scheme. The 25-year-old plays with tremendous effort and finished second on the Cowboys in combined tackles last season (84). Though you’re unlikely to ever find his name on a Pro Bowl roster, Hitchens does provide an upgrade over the Indy’s current crop of linebackers. The former Iowa Hawkeye will likely accept a three-year contract in the $10-$15 million range.
LeGarrette Blount – Running Back – Philadelphia Eagles
I hate to break this to you, but it’s looking less and less likely that Saquon Barkley will be available when the Colts are on the clock with the third overall pick. Instead, Frank Reich can bring Blount with him from Philly to pair with second-year ‘back, Marlon Mack. Blount was an integral part of the Eagles’ third-ranked rushing attack in 2017, racking up 766 yards while averaging 4.4 YPC. Listed at 250 lbs, the 31-year-old can bring the thunder to complement Mack’s lightning. Blount signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal last offseason, and would likely agree to a similar contract this year.
Trent Murphy – Edge Rusher – Washington
A stroll through the pass-rusher aisle reveals picking are slim this year. However, former second-round pick Trent Murphy may turn out to be a hidden gem. After recording nine sacks in 2016, big things were expected of the fourth-year player heading into the season. Unfortunately, Murphy tore his ACL in Washington’s first preseason game and was placed on IR. The 27-year-old’s length and athleticism would make him an excellent addition to a pass-rush rotation that finished second-worst in sacks last season (25). Though it’s rumored that Washington wishes to retain Murphy, Indianapolis may be able to pry him away with a one-year “prove it” deal, or a highly incentivized contract.