Analysis by FOX59.com contributor Joe Hopkins
Wake up, Indiana—a blue wave is coming our way. Okay, calm down. I’m not here to talk politics. I’m referring to the 2018 Indianapolis Colts. I hope you’re pulling out those chicken wing-stained jerseys and dusting off your lucky memorabilia because the dawn of a new season is nearly upon us.
It’s that time of year when every NFL fan base is overrun with elusive concepts such as “hope” and “optimism.” Colts supporters are not immune to these notions, but this season they don’t come unwarranted. After overhauling the coaching staff, shuffling through the free agent bargain bin, and drafting a franchise-record eleven rookies, Indianapolis effectively has a brand-new roster.
If you’ve been living under a rock since the end of last season, I can’t blame you. A 4-12 record can inspire even the most devout followers to seek a dark place in which to hide. However, general manager Chris Ballard has been a beacon of light for a franchise that seemed increasingly lost under the former regime. In roughly a year and a half, Ballard has transformed what was the oldest roster in the league to the fourth-youngest, giving the team room to grow. Join me as I go position by position detailing the changes the front office has induced from last season to now.
Jump to section:
- COACHING STAFF
- RUNNING BACK
- WIDE RECEIVER
- TIGHT END
- OFFENSIVE LINE
- DEFENSIVE LINE
- SPECIAL TEAMS
Chuck Pagano had worn out his welcome after six years as Indy’s head coach. Though he led the Colts to the AFC Championship game in 2014, his team failed to produce a winning season in the three years that followed. Pagano was fired shortly after the 2017 season concluded, and the search for a new captain began.
For a moment the world thought Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would be calling the shots in Indianapolis. An agreement was formally announced, but McDaniels backed out of the deal before officially signing his contract.
Ballard and company finally landed on Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich as their new head coach. Fresh off a Super Bowl win over the Patriots, Reich is no stranger to the Hoosier State. From 2008-2011 he served the Colts in a variety of roles that included offensive assistant, quarterbacks coach and wide receivers coach before moving on to other teams. Reich has spent the past four years as the offensive coordinator of the Chargers and Eagles. The 56-year-old preaches toughness, discipline, preparation and unity. Reich plans to call the plays for the first time in his NFL career and is installing an aggressive, up-tempo offense that disguises its intentions with a multitude of formations.
Reich named 37-year-old Nick Sirianni as his team’s offensive coordinator. Sirianni and Reich became close during their time together in San Diego. Sirianni has spent the last five years as the Chargers’ offensive quality control coach, quarterbacks coach and wide receivers coach.
Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus originally signed a contract with the Colts thinking he was going to be a member of McDaniels’ coaching staff. After McDaniels flaked, Indianapolis honored Eberflus’ deal, thus beginning the conversion back to a 4-3 defense. Eberflus spent the past seven years as the Cowboys’ linebackers coach. His defense is predicated on speed and rallying to the ball, similar to what the Colts were doing prior to Pagano’s arrival. Ballard is fond of the schematic transition, stating that no indoor team has ever won the Super Bowl running a 3-4 defense.
Fun Fact: As a player, Frank Reich orchestrated the greatest comeback in NFL history. Trailing 32 points to the Houston Oilers in a 1993 playoff game, Reich led the Buffalo Bills to victory as quarterback.
What Changed? Andrew Luck is back.
After missing all of last season due to a shoulder injury, Andrew Luck (12) has finally returned to play. The three-time Pro Bowler’s last regular season game was Jan. 1, 2017. As expected, he’s looked rusty at times this preseason, but overall the Colts are pleased with the progress Luck has made. The quarterback has avoided any setbacks since rejoining the team and is expected to start week one against Cincinnati.
I should also add that backup passer Jacoby Brissett (7) has looked fantastic this offseason. Brissett performed admirably last year after he was thrust into a starting role just 15 days removed from being acquired via trade with New England. Rumor has it the front office turned down a second-round pick for his services recently, and Colts owner Jim Irsay continues to insist that the 24-year-old is a top 20 quarterback. Should, heaven forbid, Luck suffer another injury, the Colts offense looks to be in good hands.
Fun Fact: None of the four quarterbacks selected in round one of the 2012 NFL Draft played a single snap in 2017 (Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden).
What Changed? Frank Gore is gone.
Future Hall of Famer Frank Gore signed with the Dolphins this offseason in hopes of ending his career in his hometown of Miami. Gore was a true bell cow ‘back in his three years with the Colts, handling over 70% of the running back touches while averaging 1,247 yards from scrimmage and 6.3 touchdowns per season.
Indy will use a medley of runners to replace Gore as the team adopts a committee approach under Reich’s tutelage. Second-year player Marlon Mack (25) is the favorite to lead the backfield in touches after showing a knack for hitting the big play as a rookie. The 22-year-old will have to improve his consistency if he wishes to meet that goal. A hamstring injury has put his status for week one in question.
Veteran running back Robert Turbin (33) is suspended the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) policy. Though he’s a plodder whose career-long run is just 26 yards, Turbin is a reliable pass blocker and excels in short yardage situations.
The Colts drafted a pair of running backs this past spring and both hope to make an early impact. Fourth-round pick Nyheim Hines (21) makes up for his lack of size with blazing speed, posting the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.38) of any running back at this year’s combine. Hines played receiver during his first two years at North Carolina State before transitioning to the backfield and aspires to be deployed in a multidimensional role like Darren Spoles or Danny Woodhead.
The most intriguing of the bunch may be a fifth-round pick from Ole Miss named Jordan Wilkins (20). Ballard compared the 24-year-old to former Bears great Matt Forte, whom Ballard is familiar with from his time in Chicago. Wilkins has good size and uses his excellent vision and elusiveness to find running room when the offensive line fails to create open lanes.
It only took two weeks for veteran ‘back Christine Michael (38) to land on Injured Reserve (IR) after signing with Indianapolis in summer 2017. The Colts kept him around and now Michael has a chance to start week one should Mack’s hamstring refuse to cooperate. The 2013 second-round pick has been a solid contributor, averaging 4.3 yards per carry over his career.
Fun Fact: Frank Gore is six scores away from reaching the milestone of 100 career touchdowns.
What Changed? T.Y. Hilton has new sidekicks.
T.Y. Hilton (13) remains Luck’s go-to guy as he enters his seventh season with the team. The faces that fall in line after him are far less familiar.
After four years of waiting for Donte Moncrief to realize his potential, the Colts finally parted ways with the former third-round pick, allowing him to sign with divisional foe Jacksonville. Indy let Kamar Aiken walk as well after the veteran caught just 15 of the 43 passes thrown his way during his only season with the Horseshoe.
Unlike Moncrief, the Colts did hold on to former undrafted free agent Chester Rogers (80). The 24-year-old is entering his third season with the Colts, and figures to get plenty of action out of the slot. From time to time Rogers has flashed upside, but this year he must illustrate the ability to consistently produce.
Signed to a one-year deal this offseason, former Washington receiver Ryan Grant (11) may find himself starting on the perimeter. The four-year veteran set career highs in catches (45), yards (573) and touchdowns (4) last year while finishing second on his team in receptions.
Sixth-round pick Deon Cain (8) turned no shortage of heads during early workouts but tore his ACL in Indy’s first preseason game against Seattle. He has been placed on IR and is out for the season.
Rounding out the depth chart will be Zach Pascal (14), who spent last season on Tennessee’s practice squad, and recent trade acquisition Marcus Johnson (16).
Fun Fact: Chester Rogers was a childhood actor who went by the stage name of Tre Rogers. He appeared in such films as Madea’s Family Reunion, Dirty with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Re-Animated on Cartoon Network.
What Changed? A two-headed monster is born.
Jack Doyle (84) is coming off his first career Pro Bowl appearance, finishing second among tight ends last year with 80 receptions. The 6’6” mismatch is firmly planted as Luck’s number two target behind Hilton and could be due for a career year playing in Reich’s tight end-friendly scheme.
Reich loves tight ends so much he had Eric Ebron (85) signed to a two-year deal in March. The former Lion was selected 10th overall in 2014 for his unique athleticism, but drops and redzone struggles prevented him from finding his groove in Detroit. Ebron will see the field plenty as Reich frequently deploys two-tight end sets. The 25-year-old tight end will effectively be Luck’s third option in the passing game.
Erik Swoope (86) will serve as the third tight end after missing the entire 2017 season with a knee injury. Swoope played college basketball at Miami and used his athleticism to average a robust 19.8 yards per catch in 2016.
Fun Fact: Jack Doyle is an Indianapolis native who played his high school ball at Cathedral, winning the state championship in 2006.
What Changed? More beef up the middle.
The anchor of the offensive line remains left tackle Anthony Castonzo (74). His rock-solid blocking was one of the few bright spots of the 2017 season. The 30-year-old’s availability for week one is threatened by a hamstring injury he’s been nursing throughout training camp.
Prized draft pick Quenton Nelson (56) was selected sixth overall in April and has lived up to expectations thus far. The Notre Dame product is a generational talent at the position and will start at left guard from day one. Suddenly, the left half of the line appears to be sturdy, as long as Castonzo can return to health.
After performing well as a rookie, Ryan Kelly’s (78) second year in the league was marred by injuries. The center missed nine games last season and never seemed 100% healthy when he did manage to suit up. Drafted 18th overall in 2016, Kelly’s resurgence would go a long way in helping a rebuilding unit find its footing.
Though effective when healthy, chronic knee issues forced guard Jack Mewhort to retire at the early age of 26. While his circumstances are unfortunate, Colts fans can take solace in the fact that Matt Slauson (68) will be taking his place inside. The Colts signed Slauson to a one-year deal this offseason, and the 32-year-old is expected to man the right guard position. Slauson is a reliable ten-year veteran who has 108 career starts under his belt.
The weakest link along this offensive line by far lies at right tackle. Fourth-year Colt Denzelle Good (71) may get the first crack at the starting gig. Veteran tackle J’Marcus Webb (61) was signed during training camp and is also in the running along with rookie second-round pick Braden Smith (72), who played guard at Auburn. The most likely scenario is that the right tackle position operates in a constant state of influx all season long, leaning on the rest of the line to pick up the slack.
Versatile lineman Joe Haeg (73) stands out among the group of second stringers because of his ability to fill in at every position–and don’t be surprised if he starts or plays often in week one. Former third-round pick Le’Raven Clark (62) is the primary backup for Castonzo at left tackle.
Fun Fact: Quenton Nelson is the highest-drafted guard since Leonard Davis, who went second overall in 2001.
What Changed? New scheme, new roles.
The transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense will takes years to complete, but the Colts believe they will be better because of it. Some players such as Johnathan Hankins and John Simon were signed for the old scheme but proved ill fits for the new system. As a result, the Colts cut them. Others like Jabaal Sheard (93) have transitioned from a 3-4 outside linebacker to a 4-3 defensive end. Here his primary focus will be to rush the passer, as Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis did for so many years.
Joining Sheard in the defensive end rotation will be a pair of rookie second-round picks. Kemoko Turray (57) is an athletically gifted but extremely raw defensive end from Rutgers and Tyquan Lewis (94) is a versatile defensive lineman out of Ohio State. Unfortunately, Lewis is rehabbing a foot injury that will likely sideline him for roughly half the season.
Additional members of the rotation will include 2017 third-round pick Tarell Basham (58) and the 6’8”, 298-pound Margus Hunt (92).
Veteran nose tackle Al Woods (99), who’s entering his second season with the team, returns along the interior of the line. Free agent signee Denico Autry (96) is expected to start next to Woods at defensive tackle. Autry, who had five sacks last year with Oakland, agreed to a three-year contract this offseason.
Third-year Colt Hassan Ridgeway (91) and second-year Colt Grover Stewart (90) will provide depth. The Colts also acquired defensive end Al-Quandin Muhammad.
Fun Fact: Jabaal Sheard was ranked 41st on Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) Top 101 Players from 2017 list. His 67 quarterback pressures and 30 run stops were the 13th-most and fourth-most, respectively, among edge defenders, according to PFF.
What Changed? An emphasis on speed.
In a 4-3 defense, linebackers are asked to cover a lot of ground. That made 2017 tackle leader Antonio Morrison a bad fit due to his lack of speed. The Colts shipped Morrison off to Green Bay for cornerback Lenzy Pipkins, who has since been waived and signed to the practice squad.
The Colts’ third-leading tackler from a year ago, Jon Bostic, signed with Pittsburgh in the offseason after spending just one season in Indianapolis.
Replacing them will be young, unproven linebackers hungry to make a name for themselves. The most exciting of the bunch is Darius Leonard (53), the 36th overall pick in the draft. The rookie from South Carolina State possesses rare athleticism and has a nose for the football, instantly making him the best of the bunch.
The team expected second-year player Anthony Walker (50) to start at middle linebacker, but thanks to a groin injury, his week one status remains uncertain. Should the injury linger, the Colts will likely turn to undrafted rookie free agent Skai Moore (55), who impressed this offseason and would likely get the starting nod.
Veteran free agent acquisition Najee Goode (52) appears to be in line for the third starting linebacker position. The 29-year-old has operated largely as a special teamer throughout his career, having started just four games during in six years.
Rookie seventh-round picks Zaire Franklin (44) and Matt Adams (49) will take on backup duties.
Fun Fact: The Colts’ linebacking corps has a total of seven career NFL starts.
What Changed? Rashaan Melvin is gone.
Rashaan Melvin exceeded all expectations in his two seasons with the Colts, becoming far and away the team’s best cover corner. Melvin has since signed with Oakland, leaving Indianapolis to rely on an unheralded group of defensive backs to step up.
The player facing the greatest expectations is 2017 second-round pick Quincy Wilson (31). His rookie season proved disappointing. He saw only limited playing time, with Pagano citing poor practice performance as the primary reason. Wilson continues to compete for a starting outside cornerback role with Pierre Desir (35) and Kenny Moore II (23), who were claimed off waivers in September 2017 after their respective teams cut them.
Second-year player Nate Hairston (27) had his fair share of shining moments as rookie, accumulating 35 tackles, two sacks, a safety, five passes defended and one interception. Used primarily as a slot defender, it will be interesting to see how Hairston improves in his sophomore season.
Chris Milton (28) earned the fifth and final cornerback as he enters his third season with the team.
Fun Fact: Pierre Desir was the first player ever to be drafted out of Lindenwood University when the Browns selected him in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
What Changed? The starters are healthy.
Injuries restricted Indianapolis’ starting safety duo to just 12 combined games last season. After being selected 15th overall in 2017, Malik Hooker (29) racked up three interceptions in his first seven appearances before tearing both his ACL and MCL. Remarkably, the 22-year-old has made a full recovery and is on track to start opening week.
Clayton Geathers (26) dealt with a serious neck injury last year that prevented him from seeing the field until week 13. Geathers is an enforcer over the middle who complements Hookers’ ball-hawking style nicely.
Mathias Farley (41), a former undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame, finished second on the team in tackles last season after the Colts claimed him off waivers in September 2017. He will act as the primary backup safety.
T.J. Green (32) was waived with an injury designation. The 2016 second-round pick cleared waivers and has been reverted to Indianapolis’ IR list.
Fun Fact: Clayton Geathers is one of four family members to play in the NFL, including former defensive linemen Clifton, Kwame and Robert Geathers.
What Changed? New return men.
Adam Vinatieri (4) returns for his 23rd season after connecting on 29 of 34 field goal attempts last year. The 45-year-old shows no signs of slowing down despite being the NFL’s oldest active player.
Replacing a stud like Pat McAfee is no easy task, but Rigoberto Sanchez (2) is off to a good start. As a rookie, his net average of 44.8 yards per punt ranked fifth in the NFL last year. The future looks bright for Sanchez as the Colts’ punter and kickoff specialist moving forward.
Gone is 2017’s return man Quan Bray. In his place, Chester Rogers and Nyheim Hines will handle the majority of kick and punt return duties.
Fun Fact: Adam Vinatieri is 19 field goals (57 points) away from tying Morten Anderson as the NFL’s all-time scoring leader.
Colts fans must practice patience.
Make no mistake. The Colts are in the early stages of a full-on rebuild. Ballard has torn this roster down, stripped it of all the fat and is beginning anew. Key cornerstones such as the coaching staff and quarterback are in place, and the offensive line, at least on paper, has been upgraded.
However, Indianapolis may lead the league in points allowed this season, once again counting on Luck to carry the team. Between playing in a brutally competitive division and fielding one of the more inexperienced rosters in the league, the Colts’ outlook for 2018 isn’t great. At best they finish 8-8.
Nonetheless, you should think of this season’s growing pains as a necessary stage in the franchise’s overall development into what we hope to become a perennial title contender.