INDIANAPOLIS – One topic figures to suck most of the oxygen out of the room – locally and nationally – for the foreseeable future: quarterback.
How do the Indianapolis Colts replace Philip Rivers? Are they able to not only find a short-term answer, but find that guy for the next five or six years?
“I promise you we get the importance of the quarterback position,” general manager Chris Ballard said last week. “We’re going to find a way to fix the problem and find a long-term solution as we go along.”
The NFL landscape, meanwhile, suddenly is flush with QB-related issues.
Deshaun Watson reportedly has asked – demanded? – the Houston Texans to trade away their most valuable asset. Detroit has agreed to Matthew Stafford’s request and is entertaining trade offers. Aaron Rodgers’ future in Green Bay is uncertain – that was Rodgers’ description – and it’s possible the Atlanta Falcons will use the 4th overall pick in the April draft on a quarterback and move on from Matt Ryan.
As much as the Colts/NFL universe revolves around the glaring quarterback issue, there are other areas of concern facing Ballard, coach Frank Reich and owner Jim Irsay.
Here’s a look at our top-5 offseason priorities:
2020: Rivers exceeded expectations when the Colts signed him to a one-year, $25 million contract. He finished with his 12th 4,000-yard season, and eighth straight, along with 24 TDs, 11 interceptions and a 97.0 passer rating.
Status report: Rivers has retired and backup Jacoby Brissett becomes a free agent in March. The only QB under contract for 2021 is Jacob Eason, who didn’t step on the field as a rookie.
What’s next? The draft? The Colts hold the 21st overall selection, which will require a significant move-up to be in position to snare one of the top four prospects. A veteran? Indy seems to be among the early frontrunners for Stafford, and that will necessitate packaging at least that 21st pick and more to bring him to town. Irsay’s preference was clear Wednesday.
“(With) the type of team we have, it would really benefit us the most if we could get someone to come in that can play at a high level, that has veteran vision veteran understandings of picking up things quickly . . .” he said. “That would be ideal.”
2020: Anthony Castonzo missed five starts while dealing with rib, knee and ankle injuries. He played at a Pro Bowl level and his value to the offense was most evident when he wasn’t on the field. Injuries decimated the depth chart: Le’Raven Clark (Achilles) and Will Holden (ankle). Desperation forced Ballard to lure Jared Veldheer out of retirement to start the regular-season finale and playoff game.
Status report: Castonzo retired after 10 stellar seasons that included 150 starts. Not only is Clark dealing with a long rehab from the Achilles surgery, he’ll be a free agent in March.
Now what? It’s possible the Colts fill Castonzo’s massive void from within. That would consist of sliding three-time first-team All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson to tackle. If that’s how this turns out, the team better be absolutely certain Nelson will be a top-tier player at a new position. We’re not in favor of uprooting a generational guard and winding up with a serviceable left tackle and a young project at left guard.
A realistic solution seems to be the draft. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler projects nine tackles being selected in rounds 1-2, including six in round 1. He has the Colts going with Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood in the second round.
No one should question Ballard’s commitment to keeping the offensive line well-stocked.
“I believe it in my soul that that’s where you win,” he said. “You win up front in this league.”
2020: The Colts were tied for 12th with 40 sacks, but it seemed to be a hit-or-miss season. They had at least 3 in six games, but 1 or none seven times. Justin Houston finished with 8 after piling up a team-high 11 in 2019, but was too inconsistent. There were seven games he failed to register a sack or a quarterback hit. Denico Autry had a nice bounce-back season with 7.5 sacks – he had only 3.5 in ’19 – and Al-Quadin Muhammad added 2 from the edge.
Status report: The two primary edge rushers – Houston and Autry – hit the open market in March. Kemoko Turay never really got going while spending the bulk of his third season rehabbing a serious ankle injury. He had 1 sack and three QB hits in seven games, and the lasting impression of Turay is when he jumped offside at the most inopportune time in the playoff loss to Buffalo. Ben Banogu? The 2019 second-round pick – No. 49 overall – was a season-long non-factor. He had four total tackles and was a healthy scratch seven times.
Now what? Does Ballard believe Houston, who turned 32 last month, still can be a situational force? Does Houston want to re-up with the Colts? We could argue Autry would be the better investment. He’s not the pure passer rusher that Houston is, but he’s the more complete end. Yes, he’s 30, but Autry should be somewhat cheaper to re-sign. It might be difficult to find a legitimate edge rusher in the draft, especially with issues at quarterback and left tackle.
2020: Two economical offseason acquisitions proved to be worth the investment. Xavier Rhodes (one year, $3.25 million) bounced back from two subpar seasons in Minnesota to anchor the secondary with two interceptions – one a pick-6 against the Jets – and 12 passes defensed, tied for the team lead. T.J. Carrie (one-year, $910,000) was with his third team in four seasons and quickly found his comfort zone. He had a career-high two interceptions and matched Rhodes’ pick-6 against the Jets. Kenny Moore II was, well, Kenny Moore II: a team-best four interceptions, including a ridiculous one-hander against the Raiders; 12 passes defensed; 2 sacks, four tackles for loss and a fumble recovery.
The biggest concern was the continued inconsistency of Rock Ya-Sin. The 2019 second-round pick endured another uneven season in coverage – six penalties after eight as a rookie – and at one point saw his reps significantly decline.
Status report: Rhodes and Carrie will be free agents. We could argue Rhodes sits atop the offseason “To-Do” list simply because of his level of play last season and the inability of Ya-Sin to make noticeable progress in year 2. The cornerback room should be strengthened by the return of Marvell Tell III, who opted out of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What now? As we mentioned, re-signing Rhodes needs to be a priority, but that doesn’t mean Ballard will stray from his approach of assigning a value to a player and sticking to it. Complicating Rhodes’ return might be a belief he can get more on the open market than from the Colts. We wouldn’t rule out re-signing Carrie, who provided versatility in the nickel package and when Ya-Sin struggled.
“Xavier had a heckuva year,” Ballard said. “Really bought into what we were doing. I think we’ll wait and see how it works out here in free agency. We like Xavier.”
“Rock had his good moments and he had his rough moments, no different than a lot of second-year corners,” Ballard said. “It is hard to play corner in this league. The rules make it hard. They call PI on any freakin’ bump that happens.”
2020: T.Y. Hilton led the group with 56 catches and 762 yards, and shared the team lead with Zach Pascal with five TDs. Rookie Michael Pittman Jr. dealt with a serious leg injury early, but showed enough over the final two months to give confidence he’ll be a major component for the foreseeable future. The second-round draft pick registered 40 catches, 503 yards and one TD. The rest of the group was hit and miss.
Status report: Hilton will be an unrestricted free agent while Pascal will be restricted. There’s every reason to believe Pascal returns under the one-year restricted tender, but good luck predicting Hilton’s future.
Moving forward: Everyone in a position of authority endorses Hilton’s value on the field and the locker room. But he turns 32 in November and speedy wideouts rarely get better as they get older.
Hilton’s fate in Indy comes down to whether he and management find common ground on a short-term contract that doesn’t disrespect one of the most prolific wideouts in franchise history, but reflects his age and diminishing production.
“We’d love to have T.Y. back,” Irsay said. “It’s just a question of trying to find what that means financially and I know Chris and him will talk with his agent.”
Irsay made it clear he believes the offense needs more pop.
“I think we need another one or two big playmakers on offense, at tight end or wide receiver,” he said. “It’s amazing when you see 87 (Travis Kelce) and 10 (Tyreek Hill) in Kansas City, the things they do. It’s remarkable.”