Colts must re-establish presence in AFC South

Indianapolis Colts

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) calls a play at the line of scrimmage against the Indianapolis Colts in the second half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

INDIANAPOLIS – They’re back, mostly intact. Will that be good enough for the Indianapolis Colts to return to prominence in the AFC South?

Winning the division, after all, is the first authoritative step in doing anything substantive in the postseason. Own the division, at least host a first-round game and build on that.

Easy.

But that hasn’t been the recent history of the Colts and a division they once dominated.

In the first nine seasons of the AFC South’s existence (2002-10), the Peyton Manning-led Colts won seven titles, including five straight at one point, and finished second twice.

Over the last seven seasons? The Colts have as many AFC South banners as the defending champion Tennessee Titans and downtrodden Jacksonville Jaguars. That would be one. Houston has the other four.

Since following Andrew Luck’s lead and capturing consecutive division titles in 2013-14, the Colts have finished second three times, twice earning wild-card berths, and third on three occasions.

That bit of mediocrity must cease.

The Colts’ triumvirate of owner Jim Irsay, general manager Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich spent the offseason ensuring the bulk of last year’s 11-5, wild-card unit returned. Seventeen starters – nine on offense, eight on defense – are back.

That’s the positive spin.

The negative is that the five positions requiring attention were critical: quarterback, left tackle, both defensive ends and one of the linebacker spots.

A trade with the Philadelphia Eagles addressed quarterback (Carson Wentz), a free-agent signing took care of left tackle (Eric Fisher, whenever he’s cleared to return from a torn Achilles tendon), Ballard used the draft to reload at defensive end (Kwity Page and Dayo Odeyingbo) and Bobby Okereke moves from strong-side ‘backer to Mike to replace Anthony Walker with Zaire Franklin likely filling Okereke’s void.

Internally, the Colts are optimistic they made the proper offseason decisions. And those included re-signing wideouts T.Y. Hilton and Zach Pascal, cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie, tight end Mo Alie-Cox, safety/special teams standout George Odum and defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad.

“We think we have a very good football team,’’ Ballard said after the draft. “Now, we have to go prove it. What I think doesn’t really matter because I could sit here and tell you we’re a no-doubt Super Bowl team, but that’s not reality until you go out and practice and you play and you get better and you lose a game that everybody thought you should win.

“You have to go through the process, and then we judge it. Always judge it at the end of the season, not in March, not in April, not in September. I judge it at the end of the season.’’

Most oddsmakers considered the Colts slight AFC South favorites as well as a top-6 AFC contender, but that was before the Titans acquired Julio Jones in a trade with the Atlanta Falcons this week. Tennessee quickly compensated for the free-agent losses of wideout Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith by adding one of the NFL’s elite receivers, at least when he’s healthy.

Here’s a recap of where the AFC South stands heading into the summer. There still will be tweaks to the rosters, but most of the heavy lifting is done:

COLTS

2020: 11-5, wild card.

Key additions: QB Carson Wentz (Eagles), OT Eric Fisher (Chiefs), DE Kwity Paye (draft), Dayo Odeyingbo (draft), DE Isaac Rochell (Chargers), G Chris Reed (Panthers), OT Sam Tevi (Chargers).

Key losses: QB Philip Rivers (retired), OT Anthony Castonzo (retired), DE Justin Houston (unsigned), DE Denico Autry (Titans), LB Anthony Walker (Browns), QB Jacoby Brissett (Dolphins).

Comment: At the risk of dummying things down, the Colts must be spot-on with their evaluation of Wentz. If he’s the quarterback whose career was trending upward in his first four seasons with the Eagles, they’ll be fine. He probably will offer at least the level of play provided by Rivers last season. They don’t need Wentz to be a hero, but simply play the position efficiently and make those occasional plays that make a difference. He’ll be working behind a strong offensive line and can lean on what should be a top-5 running attack.

Anything less than serious contention for the AFC South and a second straight playoff berth should be viewed as a major disappointment.

TENNESSEE TITANS

2020: 11-5, AFC South champions.

Key additions: WR Julio Jones (Falcons), DE Denico Autry (Colts), LB Bud Dupree (Steelers), CB Janoris Jenkins (Saints), WR Josh Reynolds (Rams), S Caleb Farley (draft), OT Dillon Rudunz (draft).

Key losses: WR Corey Davis (Jets), TE Jonnu Smith (Patriots), CB Adoree Jackson (Giants), CB Malcolm Butler (Cardinals), S Kenny Vaccaro (unsigned), DE Jadeveon Clowney (Browns), OT Dennis Kelly (unsigned).

Comment: There was ton of movement with the roster, and the latest addition was significant. With the addition of Julio Jones, the Titans gave A.J. Brown an elite sidekick and took some of the weight off the shoulders of Derrick Henry, who’s led the NFL in rushing attempts (378 and 303) and yards (2,027 and 1,540) the last two seasons.

There should be concern with Jones missing seven games last season with a knee issue, but when he’s healthy, he’s still one of the league’s best. In nine games in 2020, he averaged 85.7 yards per game and 15.1 yards per catch. He’s averaged 95.5 yards in 135 career games, the best in NFL history by 10 yards.

The Jones/Brown combo coupled with Henry’s withering presence only makes things easier for Ryan Tannehill. The Titans’ season probably hinges on the effectiveness of what will be a reworked defense. Acquiring Denico Autry and Bud Dupree should strengthen their d-line.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

2020: 1-15.

Key additions: QB Trevor Lawrence (draft), RB Travis Etienne (draft), WR Marvin Jones (Lions), RB Carlos Hyde (Seahawks), CB Shaquill Griffin (Seahawks), S Rayshawn Jenkins (Chargers), DT Malcom Brown (Titans).

Key losses: WR Keelan Cole (Jets), WR Chris Conley (Texans), DT Al Woods (Seahawks).

Comment: Maybe things are about to change in Jacksonville. New coach (Urban Meyer), new franchise quarterback (Trevor Lawrence), renewed hope. Keep in mind, this is a franchise that’s 44-116 (.275) over the last decade and has endured nine double-digit loss seasons. It’s also a franchise that has swung and missed on two other top-10 drafted quarterbacks since 2011: Blake Bortles (3rd overall in 2013), Blaine Gabbert (10th in ’11).

By all accounts, Lawrence is the real deal. But we remember another real deal: Peyton Manning. The No. 1 overall pick by Indy in 1998 went through a 3-13 rookie season even though he was surrounded by a ton of offensive talent: Marvin Harrison, Marshall Faulk, Ken Dilger, Marcus Pollard, Tarik Glenn, Adam Meadows. It should take a little time for Lawrence’s influence to be fully felt.

And here’s where we remind you the Colts have always had a difficult time with the Jaguars. Jacksonville’s lone win last season? Yep, 27-20 over Indy in the opener. The Colts are 4-7 in their last 11 against the Jags.

HOUSTON TEXANS

2020: 4-12.

Key additions: QB Tyrod Taylor (Chargers), QB Davis Mills (draft), OT Marcus Cannon (Patriots), RB Phillip Lindsey (Denver), RB Mark Ingram (Ravens), WR Chris Conley (Jaguars), DE Shaq Lawson (Dolphins).

Key losses: DE J.J. Watt (Cardinals), LB Benardrick McKinney (Dolphins), WR Will Fuller (Dolphins), C Nick Martin (Raiders), G Zach Fulton (Giants), RB Duke Johnson (unsigned), TE Darren Fells (Lions).

Comment: We’re going to need a program to keep track of these guys. The Texans signed a league-high 28 free agents and added three more via trades. Most seem to be middle-of-the-roster talent, not difference-makers. Deshaun Watson remains on the roster, but it’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll ever play again for Houston. He’s facing 22 lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior.

It’s truly remarkable to consider where the Texans were Jan. 12, 2020. They led the Kansas City Chiefs 24-0 with 10 minutes remaining in the second quarter of an AFC divisional round game at Arrowhead Stadium.

Now, they’re in serious, serious rebuild mode. DeAndre Hopkins? Gone. J.J. Watt? Gone. Deshaun Watson? Who knows?

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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