By Joe Hopkins
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.– Players report to camp July 29th, giving Chuck Pagano and company just over 40 days to transform a group of 90 individuals into a 53 man collective. While every year is “big,” this season comes with inflated implications for the sixth year head coach. After team owner Jim Irsay elected to replace the club’s general manager but retain its signal caller, Pagano is essentially in a one-year prove it deal. New General Manager, Chris Ballard, will have his microscope pointed down at the coaching staff, looking for evidence that he has the right gang of leaders to guide this team to the Promised Land. In other words, if you need to fry some eggs, look no further than where Pagano was just sitting.
Fortunately for Pagano, this roster looks drastically different than the teams that just missed the playoffs in back to back years for the first time since the 1997-1998 seasons. While the league’s eighth ranked scoring offense remains largely intact, Ballard imported a bevy of talent to the defensive side, which could see as many as eight new starters. Any notable improvement from a unit that ranked 30th in total defense last season could have a major impact on a team that missed the playoffs by a single game.
Alright, enough backstory. This isn’t Game of Thrones. Let’s go position by position as I break down battles for starting roles and roster spots.
Chris Ballard has finally announced that Andrew Luck has started throwing again. The 27 year-old had surgery in mid-January to repair a lingering labrum injury in his throwing shoulder. The recovery time for that type of surgery is generally six months, meaning Luck’s rehab is going as planned. For now, however, number twelve will begin training camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Everyone heals differently, and the Colts have made it emphatically clear that the last thing they are going to do is rush their franchise QB back on the field before he is ready. Until then, fans will have to patiently wait, but the team has repeatedly reiterated that Luck will be ready by week one.
It might not be the worst thing that Luck is forced to miss part of training camp. The Pro Bowler hasn’t played a full season since 2014. If he misses time again this year, reps with the first team in August could pay huge dividends for Luck’s fill in.
The team felt comfortable enough with Scott Tolzien and Stephen Morris to reenter another season with the duo as their primary backups. Tolzien, the presumed second stringer, went 22/36 for 205 yards, one touchdown and two picks in his lone start last year, losing to the Steelers 28-7. The Colts are banking on the seventh year vet to improve in his second season with the team.
Morris is yet to play a regular season down in his four year career. Barring a training camp breakthrough or nightmare injury scenario, the 24 year-old will continue to be seen sporting a ball cap and clipboard.
Last season Frank Gore gave the Colts their first 1,000 yard rusher since Joseph Addai cracked the milestone in 2007. The 34 year-old cyborg will enter the season as the league’s oldest starting back by at least two years, making it crucial that Indianapolis develops some capable successors.
This offseason Indy resigned Robert Turbin to a two-year deal after he led the team in rushing touchdowns (7) on just 47 carries. The 27 year-old bruiser is a nice complementary piece and should see his fair share of goal-line and short yardage carries.
Marlon Mack is the running back Colts fans should feel excited about. USF’s all-time leading rusher was selected in the fourth round of this year’s draft and possesses the kind of big-play ability Indy’s backfield has been lacking. While the youngster will likely be confined to scat-back duties as a rookie, the 21 year-old has a high ceiling and the potential to develop into a full-time starter.
T.Y. Hilton is coming off a career year in which he led the league in receiving yards. The speedster is a legitimate top ten NFL receiver and the unquestioned top target for Andrew Luck.
After an injury ridden 2016, Donte Moncrief is looking to bounce back in a big way as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. The 23 year-old lost nine pounds this offseason in an effort to remain healthy. Despite his ailments, Moncrief led the team in receiving touchdowns (7) last season on just 30 receptions (sleeper alert).
The competition for the third receiver position is where things start to get interesting. Former first round pick, Phillip Dorsett, had an opportunity to establish himself last season while Moncrief was sidelined but failed to make much of an impression. The third-year pass catcher will need to make a significant impact if he wishes to avoid the “bust” label.
First, he’ll have to beat out Kamar Aiken and Chester Rogers. Aiken was signed this past offseason from the Ravens and turned heads in 2015 when he led the team with 944 receiving yards. Rogers flashed last season as a rookie as he recorded a respectable 14.4 yards per catch and also helped out on punt return duties.
While I expect Dorsett to barely edge out Aiken and Rogers, all three wide-outs should get their share of snaps. Aiken has four inches on Dorsett, which suggests their usage could be highly matchup based.
The emergence of Jack Doyle allowed Indianapolis to trade away the often-injured Dwayne Allen and his generous contract. The 27 year-old finished second on the team in receiving and was rewarded with a three-year contract extension.
Backing up Doyle will be third-year tight end Erik Swoope. The former basketball player will be expected to take a big leap this season after averaging a robust 19.8 yards per catch a year ago. Given their frequent usage of two tight end sets, Indy’s offense could be restrained if Swoope fails to develop, as there is little competition behind him on the depth chart.
For the first time in Andrew Luck’s five year career, the Colts are returning the same starting five linemen they ended the season with. That continuity could go a long way in protecting Luck, who was pressured on a league high 44% of his dropbacks last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Shielding the face of the franchise’s blind side will once again be Anthony Castonzo. The seventh year tackle has more than twice as many starts than any other lineman on the roster and will be looked to as the leader of a particularly young unit. Though you won’t hear his name mentioned among the elites at the position, Castonzo has been a rock solid performer since he entered the league.
After a knee injury ended his season, Jack Mewhort is aiming to rebound in a strong way as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. When healthy, Mewhort has been Indy’s best blocker and has held down the left guard position since being drafted. Expect the coaching staff to go easy on the former Buckeye early in camp, as they test out that surgically repaired knee.
The final three expected starters have a combined 33 starts to their name. First round pick, Ryan Kelly, started all sixteen games in his rookie campaign and refused to surrender a single sack. The 24 year-old will look to build upon his early success and has the tools to quickly become the league’s best center.
Versatility would be the go-to word when describing second-year guard, Joe Haeg. After showing promise during starts at both guard spots and right tackle, Haeg will look to settle into his role as the team’s starting right guard. The North Dakota State product has come a long way since joining the team as a fifth-round pick just a year ago.
The 2016 draft continues to bear fruit as second year player, Le’Raven Clark, is penciled in as the club’s starting right tackle. The third-round pick has developed at such a rapid pace that he went from being a multi-year project in the spring to starting the team’s final three games. With a ceiling as high as any player on the roster, don’t be shocked if Clark overtakes Castonzo’s left tackle position within a year or two.
The primary backups for the Colts will be two newcomers. Interior lineman, Brian Schwenke, brings with him 41 starts from his four years in Tennessee and should be a reliable performer if called upon. Rookie tackle, Zach Banner, could contribute as a run blocking specialist but may be susceptible to quick pass-rushers thanks to his 6’8” 350 lb frame. Denzelle Good was underwhelming in his ten starts at guard last season but does provide depth along the interior of the line.
After allowing the third worst yards per carry average in the league last season (4.7 YPC), clamping down against the run will be a top priority in 2017. The health of the defensive front will go a long way in achieving that.
Kendall Langford made waves in his first season with the Colts, racking up 38 combined tackles and tying Robert Mathis as the team leader in sacks (7). Last season knee and abdominal injuries hindered the veteran before he was finally shut down after seven starts. If the 31 year-old can return to form, he is expected to make a substantial impact as one of the team’s starting defensive ends.
A similar story can be told about third-year player, Henry Anderson. The Stanford alum entered the league as an effective run stuffer, and he was one of Pro Football Focus’s top graded rookie defenders before tearing his ACL after 9 games. Last year Anderson never quite looked like the same player. If he can bounce back in his second season post injury, the 25 year-old could be a major contributor from the other defensive end position.
Chris Ballard’s biggest signing this offseason was nose tackle, Johnathan Hankins. Much will be expected of the 25 year-old after he signed a three-year 30 million dollar contract in April. The Colts are betting that Hankins will play up to the potential he showed in 2014, when he recorded 51 combined tackles and seven sacks for the Giants.
While returning linemen David Perry, Hassan Ridgeway and T.Y. McGill are young and working to improve, they’ll have to compete with newcomers Al Woods, Margus Hunt, Josh Boyd and rookie fourth round pick, Grover Stewart, for roster spots, let alone playing time.
Though the defensive front is a unit draped with question marks, this is also the most talented and deep group of linemen Indianapolis has had in years. If the coaching staff manages to pull the full potential out of these players, the line could easily be the strength of this defense in 2017.
No position will face more turnover from one season to the next than Indy’s linebacker group. That kind of shake up was warranted after only nine teams managed less sacks than the Colts (33) last season. With Robert Mathis, D’Qwell Jackson, Eric Walden and Trent Cole all disappearing from the roster, casual fans might experience a feeling of stranger danger as they watch their team in 2017.
Outside linebackers Jabaal Sheard and John Simon were signed early in free agency. Both players should be in the prime of their careers but played limited roles with their former teams. They combined for 22 starts and 21 sacks over the past two seasons. While Sheard is the more accomplished of the two, Simon has the most room to grow. The former Texan will be look to prove himself, as he has never had the opportunity to be the full-time starter in his four-year career. Expect both players to enter the season starting on the outside.
The primary backups for Sheard and Simon will be third-round pick, Tarell Basham, and 2013’s sixth overall pick, Barkevious Mingo. Barring injuries, Basham will likely be confined to situational pass-rusher duties as a rookie, while Mingo will provide depth and athleticism on special teams. Akeem Ayers also returns to the team after notching a couple sacks last season and will play a role similar to Mingo’s.
The two middle linebacker spots are a crapshoot. Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morrison made a combined twelve starts as rookies last year, but neither established themselves as the future at the position.
Veterans Sean Spence and Jon Bostic were both signed to one-year contracts this offseason and bring with them 37 combined starts. While the two linebackers have flashed potential in their careers, they each have a history of major injuries as well.
After a productive career at Northwestern, fifth-round pick, Anthony Walker Jr., may have the most talent of the bunch. He impressed in minicamp with his mental grasp of the game, but he will have to prove he can jump the gap from college to the pros.
When it comes to predicting the starting duo, your guess is as good as mine. Chances are Indy will deploy several different combinations during the season until they settle on the pair that gives them the best chance to win. Competition often brings the best out of players, and I expect Spence to rise to the occasion. According to Pro Football Focus, the former Titan had the third best tackling efficiency of any linebacker in the league last season. Bostic’s athleticism has generated some hype during offseason programs. Though the fifth-year player might have an inside track to start week one, don’t let it shock you if Walker Jr. overtakes him by the end of the season.
Where Ballard went through free agency to address the linebacker position, he used the draft to add three defensive backs to a secondary that forced the second fewest interceptions in the league last year (8). The youngsters will be asked to play key roles from the get-go as the team cut cornerback Patrick Robinson after one injury plagued season with the Colts, and elected not to renew 36 year-old, Mike Adams’s, contract.
Let’s start with cornerback where former Pro Bowler, Vontae Davis, will enter the season on the final year of his contract at the age of 29. Davis had a rocky 2016, as he played through several nagging injuries. If a return to health means a return to top ten cornerback status, Ballard will have a tough decision after the season on whether or not to resign the aging veteran.
Indianapolis received good value when they drafted Quincy Wilson with the 46nd overall pick. The cornerback’s size, physicality and aggressive style of play perfectly fit Pagano’s press-man scheme. Though growing pains are inevitable for rookie cornerbacks, expect the 20 year-old to earn the starting nod at some point during the season, if not by week one.
Battling Wilson for the second cornerback spot will be fifth-year journeyman, Rashaan Melvin. Prior to 2016, the 27 year-old had just two starts to his name. Melvin filled in admirably during Robinson’s absence last season, and those nine starts will give him an early edge to hold off the rookie. Ultimately, Wilson’s superior talent will push Melvin down to the third on the depth chart sooner or later.
Chris Milton, Darrl Morris, Tevin Mitchel and fifth round pick, Nate Hairston, will compete for backup rolls and special team snaps.
Drafting Malik Hooker with the 15th overall pick was arguably the biggest splash Indianapolis made this offseason. The ball-hawk was considered a steal after racking up 74 tackles and seven interception in his lone season as Ohio State’s starting safety. Though rehabilitation from labrum surgery forced Hooker to miss the pre-draft process, he is expected to make his Colts debut at the start of training camp.
According to Pro Football Focus, Clayton Geathers was one of the league’s most improved players last year before injury ended his season after week 11. The hard hitting safety had surgery to address a bulging disc in his neck during the offseason, and is expected to miss at least the first six games. If the third-year player can make a speedy return from the PUP list, he and Hooker could combine to make one of the better young safety duos in the game.
Until Geathers is able to make a comeback, Darius Butler is the favorite to start next to Hooker. After nine seasons at cornerback, the veteran is transitioning to safety, as his skill set fits the position nicely. The 31 year-old has also worked with a personal chef to gain ten pounds this offseason in an effort to improve his durability.
Second year players T.J. Green and Mathias Farley will also compete for playing time. Though Green was a second round pick in 2015, he struggled mightily as a rookie. Despite going undrafted, it would surprise no one if Farley overtook Green on the depth chart.
Tyvis Powell, Andrew Williamson and Lee Hightower will all fight for roster spots.
Future Hall of Famer, Adam Vinatieri, showed no signs of slowing down in his 21st season, as he connected on 27 of his 31 field goals last year. The 44 year-old will once again provide the Colts with one of the more reliable legs in the league.
Fan favorite, Pat McAfee, will be missed after unexpectedly retiring after the season. Though he’s no “Boomstick”, Jeff Locke tied for fifth last year in punts downed inside the 20 and should serve as a very capable replacement.
Receivers Quan Bray and Chester Rogers will handle the majority of kick and punt return duties. Bray averaged 25.7 yards per kick return before an injury ended his season after six games, while Rogers led the team with a 9.2 yards per return average on punts. Lead kick returner, Jordan Todman, signed with the Jets this past offseason.