This is going to be a very interesting season for the Indianapolis Colts.
Rebound or continue decline are the two possibilities for the Horseshoes, and it seems the odds of either are right at 50-50.
Many in national media predict the Colts will finish 6-10 or 5-11. Locally, most are more optimistic. We tend to see 2015 as an aberration caused by multiple injuries to franchise quarterback Andrew Luck.
The result of this season will go a long way to securing the futures of many affiliated with the team in one direction or another.
Here are the top 10 Colts with the most to prove in 2016:
10 – Ryan Kelly. The Colts made a significant statement by drafting Kelly 18th overall, making him the only center to be taken in the first round in franchise history. Kelly will be expected to lead the Colts offensive line from below average over the last several seasons to good in 2016. It’s up to Kelly to justify that trust. He seems like an absolute lock to get the job done, but there is no such thing as a lock in the NFL.
9 – Mike Adams. The 35 year-old safety has continued to play very productive football into what we can only assume is the twilight of his career. Adams is entering the final year of his contract, but the present is more important for the Colts than the future as Adams is the only proven professional safety on the roster. If Adams continues to play at a pro bowl level, the Colts back end has a chance to avoid being a weakness. If not, uh-oh.
8 – Chuck Pagano. While Pagano and Grigson kept their gigs, most of the rest of the coaching staff churned after the disappointing 2015 season. That will leave little doubt where to assess failures in leadership if this edition of the Colts ebbs toward mediocrity in the same way last year’s Colts did. Pagano saved his gig with an inspired win over a woeful opponent in week 17, and then reportedly saved Grigson with a savvy plea during a meeting with owner Jim Irsay the following morning. If Pagano and Irsay were right, this year should bring an improved result.
7 – Hugh Thornton. The last member of the dreadful 2013 draft class to enjoy a spot on the Colts roster, Thornton is battling through an ankle issue as he tries to secure his job as a backup guard. The Colts have always hoped Thornton would play to his potential, but it hasn’t yet happened. This camp is likely last-chance saloon for Thornton who needs to finally prove himself worthy as a pro.
6 – Frank Gore. Last season showed a statistical regression for Gore that either revealed the effects of aging on a running back entering his mid-30s, or an atrocious run blocking offensive line. Gore is affordable, but if he wants his career to continue beyond 2016, he need to show he’s capable of finding and hitting a hole. In Gore’s defense, no Colt has rushed for 1,000 yards since 2007, and none have run for 100 in a game since Vick Ballard on December 16, 2012. Gore came close to both last year with 965 yards for the season and 98 yards during a game in week five. Eclipsing those marks would show an amazing rebirth.
5 – T.Y. Hilton. One of GM Ryan Grigson’s steals of the 2012 draft, Hilton has been superb through his first four seasons, but there was a bit of a step back during the 2015 season as Hilton caught 13 fewer balls than in either 2013 or 2014. The cause of the decline had a lot more to do with the quarterback situation and the amount of time they had to throw than with a step back from Hilton, but if Hilton is going to be paid elite money, he needs to provide elite production.
4 – Robert Mathis. The 35 1/2 year old Mathis showed signs of explosiveness toward the end of the 2015 season coming off rehab for a torn achilles, and heading into his final contracted year, Mathis could sure use 16 games of excellence to secure one more big deal before retirement. The Colts need Mathis to bring heat that appears unlikely to come from another source. If the Colts defense is going to be disruptive, it appears Mathis is the only potential source of that disruption.
3 – Joe Philbin. Hiring Philbin as the offensive line coach was hailed as a major step in rebuilding the Indianapolis Colts offensive line, but the former Miami Dolphins head coach hasn’t coached an o-line since 2006 with the Packers, and that gig lasted a single year before he was promoted to offensive coordinator. There is every chance Philbin will bring competence to a group that is key to both Andrew Luck’s health and the Colts virtually non-existent running game. For his sake, and the Colts, let’s hope that happens.
2 – Ryan Grigson. A horrible 2013 draft and many swings and misses on veteran free agents have left the general manager of the Colts vulnerable heading into a season that could break either way. If the Colts rebound and make the playoffs behind a strong draft class, all will be forgiven if not forgotten. If the 2016 class stiffs, and the Colts drift further toward mediocrity, Irsay might choose to make a change despite signing Grigson to an extension seven months ago.
1 – Andrew Luck. When you are paid the most, you have the most to prove. Luck has the biggest guarantee in NFL history, and as a result expectations are lofty for the guy who is expected to be THE next great quarterback. Occasional overthrows and questionable decisions that put his health in jeopardy have short-circuited Luck’s ascension to the top of the NFL QB heap. In year five of his career, Luck needs to deliver growth toward excellence.
Kent Sterling hosts the fastest growing sportstalk show in Indianapolis on CBS Sports 1430 every weekday from 3p-6p, and writes about Indiana sports at kentsterling.com.