Colts’ most important offseason moves? It starts with Philip Rivers

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KANSAS CITY, MO – DECEMBER 29: Quarterback Philip Rivers #17 of the Los Angeles Chargers looks up into the stands during the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – He mentioned it during his 2019 recap in early January.

“I’m pissed at myself for not giving our coaching staff enough depth during this season, because we had a real opportunity to do some pretty cool things this year. That bothers me.’’

And.

“A great thing about football is when you enter this arena, it mirrors life in a lot of ways. Bad seasons happen, bad moments happen, things don’t go the way you planned them to go. You can’t put your head in the sand and act like everything’s OK. You’ve got to accept it and then you’ve got to find answers to the problems.’’

He mentioned it again during the NFL Scouting Combine in late February.

“Look, we are going to stay the course of how we believe in team building. We have a philosophy of how we are going to build it. We will continue to build this thing the way we see fit and the way we think you can win football games.’’

Chris Ballard was committed to putting a wholly unsatisfactory 7-9 season behind him. Remember, he described it as “a stain that does not easily wash away.’’

So over the next four months he, Frank Reich and the Indianapolis Colts’ personnel staff addressed virtually every nook and cranny of the roster. They used free agency (Philip Rivers, Xavier Rhodes, etc.), trades (DeForest Buckner) and the draft (Michael Pittman Jr., Jonathan Taylor, etc.) to upgrade a roster than has missed the playoffs in four of five seasons for the first time since – brace yourself – 1988-94.

The veracity of those labors will be on display Sept. 13 when the regular season – the COVID-19 pandemic allowing, of course – begins for the Colts at Jacksonville.

Here’s a look at what we consider to be the five most impactful offseason moves/decisions:

1. QB PHILIP RIVERS

How he got here: A one-year, $25 million free-agent contract. It’s the heftiest one-year free-agent deal doled out by Ballard.

Comment: As we’ve mentioned before, this either works or it doesn’t. It doesn’t get more impactful than that.

No one was satisfied with Jacoby Brissett’s start-to-finish 2019, and the stars aligned for dramatic change when the Chargers released Rivers after 16 Hall of Fame-worthy seasons. Reich reviewed at least Rivers’ last two seasons and determined his former QB (three years together in San Diego) still had it. He was convinced the Colts were getting the 2018 Rivers (32 TDs, 12 interceptions, a 105.5 passer rating, a 12-4 record for the team) and not the ’19 version (23 TDs, 20 interceptions, 88.5 rating, 5-11 record).

If the Colts were on point with their evaluation, even at 38 Rivers brings an aggressive, commanding presence to the huddle. He’ll be playing behind the best offensive line of his career – his 445 sacks rank 11th in NFL history and are 4th-most among active QBs – and should be able to make those five or six throws every game that truly make a difference.

The idea is for Rivers to rejuvenate the Colts and his career, and return for 2021.

If last season was an indication Rivers is in serious decline, at some point Reich might have to look at Brissett and say, “You’re our guy again.’’

Reich on the move: “This was a crazy, unique opportunity. It was about an opportunity to get someone who we feel is an elite quarterback who can help our team.’’

2. DT DEFOREST BUCKNER

How he got here: A March 16 trade with San Francisco. Ballard, who covets draft picks, sent the 13th overall pick in the April draft to the 49ers. He then signed Buckner, who was entering the final year of his 2016 rookie contract, to a four-year extension worth $84 million.

Comment: This was Ballard in January: “The three-technique drives (the defense); it does.’’

And this was coordinator Matt Eberflus in May: “Getting a guy like DeForest, you ask the question when we got him in terms of, ‘Hey, if we could draft X-player or this other player at 13 or would you rather have DeForest Buckner?’ I’m going, ‘Well at least you know what you are getting with DeForest.’ You’re getting a Pro Bowl talent, a high-level player that has dominated his position.’’

And that’s what’s been missing with the Colts since forever. Buckner automatically represents the team’s best defensive tackle since perhaps Booger McFarland, who was instrumental in the 2006 world championship.

If not for Rivers’ acquisition, Buckner would be the unquestioned No. 1 on our list. He came to Indy with a big price tag and we’re not just talking about the extension. As we’ve mentioned, Ballard isn’t reckless when it comes to draft picks, especially with top-13 selections.

Buckner must be the interior force the Colts envision. He must make everyone around him better.

Eberflus on Buckner: “The trickle-down effect . . . is whenever you have a defensive line – DeForest, Justin (Houston) and different guys up front – that can dominate their spot up front, it is easier to play linebacker and easier to play in coverage because everything is sped up and the line of scrimmage is changing for the run game.’’

3. OT ANTHONY CASTONZO

How he stayed here: The team’s starting left tackle since 2011 considered retirement, but opted to return for perhaps two more seasons. He signed a two-year, $33 million extension. The $16.5 million average ranks second among left tackles (Houston’s Laremy Tunsil’s deal averages a staggering $22 million).

Comment: This clearly isn’t a new acquisition, but we can’t overstate the importance of 74 once again being stationed at left tackle. Since being selected with the 22nd overall pick in 2011, he’s started 140 of 152 games, including the playoffs. Castonzo has endured occasional hiccups – that’s the case with virtually every left tackle – but has been playing at a Pro Bowl level the last few seasons.

So much is made – and rightly so – that the Colts are 1-9 when Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton has missed time with an injury. Well, they’re 2-10 when somebody other than Castonzo has been at left tackle.

Had he retired, the Colts would have found themselves in scramble mode. Perhaps the Buckner deal doesn’t materialize and the 13th overall pick is used for Castonzo’s successor. Or maybe the Colts roll the dice, stay in house and turn to Le’Raven Clark.

Reich on Castonzo: “I think he is the best left tackle in the league, I really do. I mean I think this guy is a stud player. I think he had his best year of his career (in 2019).’’

4. WR MICHAEL PITTMAN JR.

How he got here: With the second pick of the second round in the April draft, the 34th overall selection. His four-year rookie contract: $8.6 million with a $3.8 million signing bonus.

Comment: Injuries depleted the receivers’ room last season. Hilton, Devin Funchess, Parris Campbell, Chester Rogers, Reece Fountain. Even if that hadn’t happened, something had to be done at the position. It was imperative management gave Hilton a viable sidekick and Rivers another legitimate target. Staying in-house and wishing and hoping wasn’t a serious option. The 2020 draft was ridiculously deep in receiver talent, and Ballard added a big-body with speed and quick-striking talents. Pittman was the eighth wideout selected.

Pittman was brought up in a football home. His father, Michael, played in the NFL for 11 seasons and was a member of Tampa Bay’s 2002 world championship team. He understands what it takes to reach and excel at the highest level.

More to the point, the Colts anticipate his success at USC – 101 receptions, 1,275 yards, 11 TDs last season – transferring nicely to Reich’s offense. Pittman is 6-3, 223 pounds and should be a nice complement to the Smurf-ish Hilton (5-10, 183). Reich envisions him being an advantageous matchup in one-on-one coverage.

The team simply had to restock the position, and we’re not talking with a mid-to-late-round pick.

Ballard on Pittman: “What we saw with Michael was a guy that could win at all three levels. He was big. He’s strong to the ball. He competes. He got better every year in college.’’

5. RB JONATHAN TAYLOR

How he got here: With the 41st overall pick. Ballard moved up three spots to select him.

Comment: Ballard admitted the team had an overriding offensive objective entering the draft. “We knew we needed to add some explosive playmakers,’’ he said. “We didn’t care where they were at, whether it was at wideout, tight end running back.’’

Presto! Pittman, then Taylor.

You could make the argument Taylor was the more significant acquisition (We opted for Pittman). He’s coming off a 6,000-yard, 50-TD career at Wisconsin, and that’s in just three seasons. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry and posted 12 games of at least 200 yards. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Taylor’s 4.39 40 was the fastest among running backs.

The Colts plan on mixing Taylor with returnee Marlon Mack, who’s coming off his first career 1,000-yard season. It’ll be a “one-one punch,’’ according to coordinator Nick Sirianni.

We’re interested in how successful Reich and Sirianni are at divvying up the carries in what most certainly will be one of the NFL’s more run-heavy offenses.

We listed Taylor behind Pittman on our list simply because the Colts featured the NFL’s 7th-ranked rushing attack last season without him and with Mack being the feature back. The idea of a receivers room without Pittman is not the least bit attractive.

Ballard on Pittman: “A unique talent. Anytime a unique talent starts to fall a little bit, at that point we’re like, ‘Man, we need to go get the player.’’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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