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These are the 10 most important Colts heading into the next season

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 05: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts throws a pass before the game against the Houston Texans during the Wild Card Round at NRG Stadium on January 5, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The tone was set in January 2017.

If the Indianapolis Colts were to return to prominence, it wouldn’t be a one-man job. To regain their swagger, it would take more than a quarterback who had shown “franchise’’ qualities before right shoulder issues became a very real concern.

Listen to Chris Ballard during his first week on the job. He was responding to a question about whether the rebuilding process he was undertaking would be bolstered by the presence of Andrew Luck.

“Let me say this, because Andrew is a great player,’’ he said. “But it will never be about one guy.

“It’s about all 53 men in that locker room. It’s about all 63 men, including the practice squad that we have. It will never be about one person. It will always be about the team.”

Yes, it takes everyone, from Luck to the 53rd player on the active roster.

But let’s not kid ourselves, and we’re convinced Ballard would admit to this if he’s really pressed and totally honest: having the right quarterback makes all the difference.

Luck makes all the difference in Indy as is the case with Tom Brady in New England, Russell Wilson in Seattle, Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Drew Brees in New Orleans, Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City and a few others.

The right guy gives his team a chance every game.

But let’s not dismiss the importance of that guy’s supporting cast, players 2-thru-53, or 63 including the practice squad.

Ballard and his personnel/scouting staff have taken a wrecking ball to the roster they inherited. Only 12 players remain: Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Adam Vinatieri, Anthony Castonzo, Jack Doyle, Clayton Geathers, Ryan Kelly, Joe Haeg, Chris Milton, Luke Rhodes, Chester Rogers and Matthias Farley.

Three drafts have injected much-needed talent into the roster – 27 of 30 picks remain on the roster, although training camp competition most certainly will whittle that number – as has selective shopping on the free agent market.

We’re hardly going out on a limb insisting this might be the strongest roster, top to bottom, since the Colts reached the Super Bowl in 2009.

That’s a long-winded way of getting to today’s topic. And that’s aligning the top most important Colts heading into 2019.

We’re not talking about the 10 best Colts, although that’s the case in most instances. We’re talking about which players are most important in terms of the franchise meeting or exceeding increased expectations following last season’s return to relevancy.

Here we go. Feel free to disagree.

QB Andrew Luck

Comment: Of course he is. Never forget: the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. We won’t bore you with too many stats, but here’s one that can’t be ignored: 43-21. That’s the Colts’ regular-season record when Luck hasn’t been bothered with his right shoulder issues. They’ve been 11-5, 11-5, 11-5 and 10-6, reached the playoffs each season and won at least one postseason game three times.

WR T.Y. Hilton

Comment: He’s been the undeniable difference-maker on offense since being selected with the 92nd overall pick in the 2012 draft. His 12 games with at least 150 yards are most in history for a team whose alumni includes Marvin Harrison, Raymond Berry and Reggie Wayne. Last season, Colts’ receivers generated 16 receptions of at least 30 yards. Hilton accounted for 12. His playmaking threat makes everyone better and gives opposing defenses the heebie-jeebies.

OT Anthony Castonzo

Comment: In the hierarchy of rosters, we rank left tackle behind only quarterback and edge pass rusher, and we’ll listen to arguments that left tackle should rank No. 2. Castonzo turns 31 in August, but is playing at a high level. Consider his impact last season when he missed the first five games with a hamstring injury. In the five games without him, the Colts averaged 3.6 yards per rushing attempt, 74 yards per game and allowed 10 sacks. In the 11 games with Castonzo at left tackle, the run game averaged 4.4 per attempt and 122.5 per game and the pass protection yielded only 8 sacks, including a five-game sackless-streak.

LB Darius Leonard

Comment: The 2018 second-round draft pick manufactured a rookie season for the ages. A league-leading and team record 163 sacks, including 12 tackles for loss, 7 sacks and 2 interceptions. Defensive Rookie of the Year. First-team All-Pro. Leonard’s impact – then and now – transcends his ability to fill up a stat line. He’s the unquestioned leader of a defense on the rise, emotionally and from a production standpoint.

DE Justin Houston

Comment: The Colts are just fine with a sacks-by-committee approach. Five different players chipped in with at least 4 last year, led by Denico Autry’s career-best 9. But Ballard’s decision to sign Houston off the free-agent market with a two-year, $23 million was confirmation the defense needed a difference-maker. Houston immediately represents an edge rusher offensive coordinators must account for. Yes, he’s got to make the transition from stand-up LB to hand-on-the-ground end. But no one has to teach Houston how to chase QBs. His 78.5 career sacks are 9th among active players.

C Ryan Kelly

Comment: The Colts featured one of the NFL’s top offensive lines in ’18, and Kelly made it all work. Luck always was praising his center for making all of the pre-snap adjustments and getting everyone working in tandem. We trust Luck’s opinion.

RB Marlon Mack

Comment: High on Frank Reich’s 2019 “To Do” list is featuring a top-5 running game. Even though Reich and Nick Sirianni will utilize every back at their disposal, there’s no question Mack is the main guy. His second season was delayed by a hamstring injury. He was inactive for four games and had 34 yards on 10 carries in week 2 at Washington. Starting with week 6 at the New York Jets, Mack was more than good enough, and better than most. Over the final 11 games, he averaged 4.7 yards per attempt and 79.5 yards per game. He became the first Colt since Joe Addai in 2007 to rush for at least 100 yards in four games, and set a team postseason record with 148 yards in the first-round win at Houston.

G Quenton Nelson

Comment: I know, this is probably too low for someone who earned first-team All-Pro recognition as a rookie. It must be our stubbornness when it comes to guards. Nelson merits top-10 mention heading into ’19 because of his dominant game and undeniable influence on those around him.

CB Pierre Desir

Comment: We’re not putting him in the top 10 simply because Ballard kept Desir with a three-year, $25 million contract. Coordinator Matt Eberflus did wonders with the defense a year ago, but needs better play in the secondary. That’s especially true with the QBs on the ’19 dance card: Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, Ben Roethisberger, Matt Ryan, Deshaun Watson (twice), Philip Rivers. We thought about replacing Desir with corner Quincy Wilson, who is showing signs of emerging, or safety Malik Hooker. We’ll stick with Desir.

PK Adam Vinatieri

Comment: This has nothing to do with Vinny’s age (46) or tenure (24th season, 14th in Indy). It has everything to do with the nail-biting nature of the NFL. Since Luck’s arrival in 2012, the Colts are 39-23 (.629) in one-possession games. That’s the most wins and second-best percentage (New England, 32-18, .640). The Colts were involved in eight such games last season. While winning nine of 10 to earn a wild-card playoff berth, they were 4-1 in one-possession games. That included Vinatieri delivering the 27-24 win against Miami with a 32-yard field goal as time expired. At some point, the Colts are going to need a clutch kick or two.

Be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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