The Colts are coming off a disappointing 7-9 season that is at least partially explained by the surprise retirement of elite quarterback Andrew Luck, whose excellence was capable of masking a lot of problems.
With a year to adjust to Luck’s departure, it’s reasonable to assume the Colts may take a step forward. Through the first wave of free agency, general manager Chris Ballard has added some pieces which should shore up areas of need. The draft and secondary free agency should allow the Colts to add a few more players who can elevate the roster.
Four months short of the opening of training camp, there are ways for the Colts to improve. They will need to because the reasons for championship level optimism simply do not exist today.
Here is a positional breakdown of the current roster (grades are based upon A – Super Bowl level; B – playoffs; C – 8-8 team: D – 6-10; F contributes to a 4-12 or worse record.)
Quarterback – The Colts “upgraded” by signing Philip Rivers, a QB who has never played in a Super Bowl, finished his last 10 seasons as a starter for the Chargers with a 77-83 record, qualified for the playoffs once in his last six seasons, and will turn 39 in December. Jacoby Brissett did not get the job done during the second half of the 2019 season, but Rivers’ Chargers finished last year with two fewer wins than the Colts. The blueprint for the Colts future at football’s most important position is currently blank. Colts QBs account for $46M of the Colts cap space – which is a lot given the talent level. Compare that to the $8M the Chiefs have invested – and they have Patrick Mahomes!
Grade – C
Wide Receiver – T.Y. Hilton, 30, is coming off his second straight injury-filled season. Maybe his health returns for 2020 and the Colts will enjoy a top tier threat. If not, the cupboard is virtually bare. Parris Campbell is potentially dynamic, but he missed nine games last year with a variety of injuries. Zach Pascal’s chief asset in 2019 as the Colts leading wideout was his health. This position requires an upgrade – or three. Spending $25 million for Rivers only makes sense if he has a stable of healthy weapons who can get separation.
Grade – C- (if Hilton is healthy – D if not, and only because I don’t give Fs)
Running Back – Marlon Mack rushed for nearly 1,100 yards last year despite some dings that robbed him of two games. He is sub-elite, but as sure a thing for the offense as there is as he enters his fourth year. Nyheim Hines is a poor man’s Darren Sproles. He’s a unique weapon who can run and catch, but his usage rate dropped by about a third after his 2018 rookie year showed promise. Jordan Wilkins flashed big play ability in his second year. This isn’t as strong a three-some as the Kardashians have enjoyed, but it’s solid.
Grade – B
Tight End – Eric Ebron is gone, and that might be a very good thing. I could go on about the reasons that is good, but what is gained by that? Let’s expend our energy on who remains. Jack Doyle is a jack of all trades, master of none. Good blocker, good receiver. Every good team has a Jack Doyle, but relying upon him to be a dynamic weapon is not realistic. Mo Alie-Cox has huge hands, but has used them to catch passes only 15 times in his two-year career. Entering his third year as a full-time football player (after a college basketball career), Alie-Cox remains a project. Ballard needs to go to work here.
Grade – D+
Offensive Line – As a collective, this is one of the top starting groups in the NFL. When Anthony Castonzo decided to return, a big box was checked. Quenton Nelson is as good a left guard as there is in the NFL, and Ryan Kelly is a pro bowl center. At right tackle, Braden Smith is a nice bookend to Castonzo. Mark Glowinski at right guard is the closest thing to a liability the line has, other than depth. Le’Raven Clark, Jake Endrenkamp, Chaz Green, and Andrew Donnal are the current rostered backups of note. That means trouble for the offense if a starter (other than Glowinski) gets hurt.
Grade – A-
Defensive Line – This could be the Colts deepest position, with a lot of good players. Justin Houston was solid last year with 11 sacks, and Ballard acquired DeForest Buckner in exchange for the #13 overall pick. If Kemoko Turay can come back healthy – he, Denico Autry, Al-Quadin Muhammad, and Ben Banogu can help lift this group. Tyquan Lewis needs to go to work to save his career as a potential cog for a championship level team.
Grade – C+ (maybe it becomes a B, but before we see these linemen compete together, who knows?)
Linebacker – Darius Leonard’s excellence helps lift the linebackers. On a defense without a lot of playmakers, Leonard makes plays. His level of tackles, sacks, and picks are remarkable through two seasons. Bobby Okereke improved throughout his rookie season in every phase. Anthony Walker is not disruptive, but I can’t help believe his presence helps both Leonard and Okereke play at a high level by getting them in the right spot.
Grade – B-
Cornerback – Who knows what this group will look like by the time the season rolls around? Former starter Pierre Desir is a Jet, and Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie have signed as free agents. Rok Ya-Sin is back for year two, and Kenny Moore II returns as well. Quincy Wilson is still somehow on the roster. Marvelle Tell took strides in the conversion from safety to corner. Rhodes was a pro bowler for the Vikings in 2017, but graded poorly last year. He reunites with former Vikings position coach Jonathan Gannon, so maybe that helps him revert to form for the Colts. If Rhodes and Carrie play well, which is possible if not likely, the Colts will be OK here. If not, this is a massive problem.
Grade – D unless Rhodes bounces back to 2017 level.
Safety – Clayton Geathers is likely gone as he remains unsigned. That leaves Malik Hooker and Khari Willis to man a spot that is hard to evaluate. Hooker keeps the top on the defense and can be excellent without stacking mad stats. Willis supports the run defense and helps in coverage. If the pass rush forces a QB to get rid of the ball earlier than he would like, Hooker should be able to get a few picks. If the pass rush doesn’t get home, Hooker won’t get opportunities too often. George Odum provides depth, but is paid more for his special teams work than at safety. He’s an easy guy to root for because he puts his body at risk constantly, but the Colts need more depth here.
Grade – D
Special Teams – Rigoberto Sanchez is one of the best punters in the NFL. Luke Rhodes is a good long snapper (only because long snapping is a pass/fail position, and Rhodes always passes). The great unknown for the Colts is at kicker. Will Adam Vinatieri get healthy, and will he be welcomed back if he does. The NFL’s best all-time kicker was healthy for 10 games in 2019, and hit 68% of his field goal attempts. It wasn’t the eight misses that cost the Colts but the timing of those misses. If Vinatieri hits big kicks, the Colts go 10-6, make the playoffs, and Rivers is playing somewhere else. Chase McLaughlin kicked after Vinatieri was put on the injured list, and made six of seven field goal attempts.
Grade – I for incomplete – as in who the hell knows?
Add all that up, the Colts have a cumulative GPA of 2.08, which equates to an 8-8 season. With almost four months left until camp, Ballard can slide that grade up to the point where the Colts can be seen as a potential playoff team. Or the opposite could happen.