“The Amateur Ward”: AFC South Preview Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts had one of the more quiet free agency offseason of any NFL team in 2016, and after finishing second to the Texans last season at 8-8, their quiet offseason is neither a plus nor a minus. The one area of concern that will need to be addressed is the loss of Coby Fleener to the New Orleans Saints. He was the Colts third leading receiver with 491 yards and 3 scores. They also lost a very valuable tackler in Jerrell Freeman (Bears), who racked up 112 tackles in 13 games, and was a key piece in their defense in 2015. Losing arguably their best free safety in Dwight Lowery could loom large for a secondary unit that was mediocre at best last season. So, right there they lost three valuable starters in free agency and only made one real impact signing in Patrick Robinson from San Diego.
We all know Andrew Luck is the franchise player in Indianapolis, but if he battles injuries like he did last season, it will be another long season for the Colts, who played five QBs last season. They no longer have Matt Hasselbeck, as they decided to release him and instead signed Scott Tolzien from the Packers to be Luck’s backup. The reason Luck is paramount to the Colts is not because he gives the team the best chance to win, but because their backup has played sparingly and is not yet comfortable in the Indy offense. Luck is a very accurate passer, especially downfield, where he has phenomenal touch deep and throws one of the league’s best over the shoulder balls. He also has great mobility and can create plays when the pocket collapses and scramble for extra yards, or wait for his receivers to come loose. The one area of concern with him is his decision making. He can sometimes try to be too aggressive in making the play, as he has a tendency to try to force throws into too tight windows, resulting in turnovers or dropped balls. Luck did have a horrendous 2015, but that has to do with the fact that the Colts offensive line was swiss cheese and did not give him the opportunity to run the offense effectively.
New offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, will look to implement a fast hitting offense that will utilize the Colts fast, quick receivers to make plays downfield. The Colts will likely deploy an offense that will feature many spread sets, where Luck gets the ball out quickly, or has the flexibility to make plays with his legs or wait for his receivers to get deep downfield. Chudzinski’s scheme will likely look like what the Steelers have in Pittsburgh with Big Ben and Antonio Brown. The difference is that the Steelers have a runningback that can also stretch the field in Le’Veon Bell, while the Colts have your more traditional ball carriers in Frank Gore and Robert Turbin. The success of Gore to get the run game going early in the season could be the deciding factor in how effective the Colts will be in 2016.
Frank Gore is the bell cow in Indianapolis, but how much mileage does he have left? He is entering his twelfth season, and second with the Colts. He is ultra consistent and very durable, as he has never missed more than five games in a season, and has played every last game the past five seasons. He is your traditional smash mouth back who runs through you and keeps going like a bowling ball. He may not be the fastest back, but he is incredibly hard to bring down, and had five runs over 20 yards last season. Gore also can be used some in the pass game, and had 267 receiving yards and a score last season. Behind Gore, Turbin is a very stable and reliable backup, who played in two Super Bowls with the Seahawks and has made the most of his playing time when he has been on the field. He is by no means an every down back, and is better utilized in short yard plays or near the goal line. He has a career four yards per carry average, but in very limited stints, so it remains to be seen how effective he can be as Gore’s backup. Behind Turbin is Jordan Todman, who is a journeyman RB that has played for five teams since entering the league, with his longest tenure with the Jaguars from 2012-2013. He will compete for touches with Turbin and return some punts and kicks.
Receiver is the forte of the Colts offense, as TY Hilton is very explosive and reliable and will be one of the league’s top receivers in 2016. Hilton can beat defenders off the snap, and corners and safeties must give him a bit of a cushion to respect his speed and route running ability. He can truly do it all on offense and is a threat to score anytime he touches the ball. As long as you do not ask him to block, you will not have any problems with him on offense. Even with a carousel playing at QB last season, Hilton managed to rack up 1124 yards on 69 receptions, good for an average of 16.4 yards/catch, and scored 5 times. With a healthy Luck and a new offensive system that is ‘run and gun,’ look for Hilton to post career highs in receptions, yards and scores. Do not be surprised if you see him get a few carries out of the backfield when the Colts run some trickeration on offense. Donte Moncrief, who will play opposite Hilton, is a very undervalued receiver and has speed of his own, showcasing 4.40/40 speed at times last season. Where he made the biggest strides was in his route running ability, where he made clear decisive cuts and runs consistently. His upside is immense and he is the most explosive and physical receiver the Colts have. Over the first three weeks last season, Moncrief had 17 receptions for 200 yards and three scores. After that, the Colts offense was discombobulated and the team relied the most heavily on Matt Hasselbeck to finish out the season. While Hasselbeck is no Luck, he did guide the team to a 6-3 record when he was field general, and Moncrief finished with a modest 6 scores on 64 receptions and 733 yards. When this offense is clicking on all cylinders, it is one of the fastest and most furious, and led the league in passing yards and touchdowns in 2014. However, last season the Colts pass offense had 16 fewer scores and 1190 fewer yards. That’s 74.375 yards and a score per game less. In 2016, the Colts will look to rebound and have the two table setters in Hilton and Moncrief, and if they can get anything from their slot man, Phillip Dorsett (2015 draftee), the offense will be right back to dominating through the air. With Griff Whalen and Andre Johnson gone, the Colts will give the slot position reigns to Dorsett, and he should see plenty of one on ones with opposing nickelbacks and plenty of real estate to run loose. He is a very good route runner, fast as hell, and can go over the top of about any defender in the league. He is a physical receiver, who is capable of taking the trash out one on one with defenders, and is an absolute matchup nightmare. Enter him in the Colts offense, and defenses will need gas masks after the first quarter playing versus this offensive juggernaut. All three receivers should be targeted in fantasy drafts, with Moncrief and Dorsett coming at huge discounts on draft day.
While the Colts are über deep at receiver, they are paper thin at tight end, and made the wrong decision in keeping Dwayne Allen over Coby Fleener. Allen is more of an H-back, and cannot stretch the field as effectively as Fleener. He also does not have hands as good as Fleener, and is more injury prone. Coming off a season where he only caught 16 passes for 109 yards and a mere score, due to injuries, it is prove-your-worth time for Allen, who just got a new four year, 29.7 million dollar deal. He is a better blocker than Fleener, and the Colts will need him to stay healthy and produce in the pass game, as well as be a good blocker in the run game. He has the athleticism to beat safeties and linebackers, but needs to do it consistently if the Colts are to play to his strengths. If he goes down again, the Colts offense would look to either Jack Doyle, Darion Griswold, or Michael Miller to replace him. This would also result in more looks for the Colts receivers, but hurt Gore out of the backfield, as he would lose a good run blocker – one that could keep defenses honest. If you must draft him in fantasy leagues, he is middle tier TE-2 with upside.
Defensively, the Colts were bad last season, but to be fair, they were also on the field for the 8th most defensive snaps (1072) and allowed a tied for fourth worst 5.7 yards allowed per defensive snap. This was because they never had an identity on offense and struggled to move the ball. Hasselbeck did an admirable job at QB, but he couldn’t keep the defense from getting gassed down the stretch. It will be interesting to see how they replace the production from the departed Freeman and Lowery, as they currently have Nate Irving (Denver) in Freeman’s spot and Sio Moore, who they acquired for a draft pick from the Raiders in 2015, backing up D’Qwell Jackson at the other inside linebacker slot. Jackson is flat out a tackling machine and very useful in the run game, but a liability in coverage, while the outside linebackers, Trent Cole and Erik Walden, will be responsible for containing runningbacks and providing pressure on the QB. Overall the front seven are not any better than they were last season, and could take a step backwards, depending on the play of Nate Irving on the interior. Irving is a great run stopper and could be an upgrade in that aspect of the game over Freeman and Moore. He is not the tackling machine that Freeman and Jackson are, but he is tough as nails versus the run, and the further he is off of his torn ACL from 2014, the more he will show his abilities and play to his strengths. The advantage of having Moore on board is he is a better pass rusher than Irving, and could be used in situations where the team needs more immediate pressure on the signal caller. Although neither is stellar in coverage, they both are more than capable of dropping into coverage, and figure to battle for snaps in 2016. It is viewed as an open competition for the spot alongside Jackson, but Irving could have the inside track, as he profiles better than Moore next to Jackson. Trent Cole appears to be the starter opposite Walden at outside linebacker, but sack artist Robert Mathis will also see plenty of time on the field in 2016, and the defense might be better off starting both over Walden as the season progresses, to apply more pressure on the QB. If Cole and Mathis end up in a time-share, Mathis would see the field more on passing downs, as he is better in coverage than Cole. But with how weak Walden is in rushing the passer, having both on the field would be wise.
The defensive end and tackle positions for the Colts really offer limited fantasy appeal because Arthur Jones and Henry Anderson are both currently sidelined while they recover from offseason surgeries. Anderson (ACL) does not appear to be on track for Week 1, leaving the Colts hopeful they will have Jones able to suit up as he works back from ankle surgery to repair torn ligaments. This is not a very good run stopping unit, but hopefully right defensive end, Kendall Langford, can continue to provide sacks, while the linebacker core helps address the difficulties stopping the run. Langford is the only player from the DE-DT group worth drafting, and he is a lower end DE2. He posted seven sacks last season with a handful of stuffs.
The secondary is more solid than it appears, with dominant corner play from Vontae Davis, who had 4 picks and 16 passes defensed last season. The key for the Colts secondary will be the play of Patrick Robinson opposite Davis and Darius Butler in the slot. Robinson profiles the best as a nickelbacker, as he was the third best slot corner last season, but the Colts will initially use him outside, leaving Butler in the slot. It will be interesting to see how Robinson fares playing mostly outside, although he will play some inside when Indianapolis plays teams that lack elite wideouts, or teams more predicated on using strong inside wideouts. If Robinson can play well in containing opposing receivers opposite Davis, this will take pressure off the safeties, and provide the front seven more time to apply pressure on QBs and harass running backs. At strong safety, no receiver wants part of Mike Adams, as he is a ballhawk just waiting to either pick the ball off or run through the receiver. He is a tough as nails defender, who can rack up the tackles and play close to the line when needed. The key to his continuing success in Indianapolis in 2016 (been to two straight Pro Bowls with Indy) will be the play of free safety Clayton Geathers, who will be replacing Lowery. Geathers, who was drafted in 2015 by the Colts, can be a good safety in short areas, but is liable to bite too early on plays and has a tendency to miss tackles, as he sometimes does not know when to head down hill or put on the brakes when making a tackle. The Colts need him to learn to wrap up as opposed to just hitting the ballcarrier while working on not being fooled on trick plays, as he can be easily baited into plays and miss the assignment. If he falters early, the Colts will give T.J. Green (the 57th pick in the Draft) a chance to start, as he is tough in coverage and can be used in the box, like Adams. Green will see more playing time as the season wears on and is a name to keep tabs on in fantasy circles.
Overall, I think the Colts will be in contention for the AFC South Title, but Luck needs to stay healthy, and they must get production from Dwayne Allen with Gore continuing to be effective. The added depth at runningback definitely helps, but should anything happen to Gore, it remains to be seen whether Turbin or Todman can step up and keep the run game going. The defense will likely take a slight step back initially, but the likes of Moore, Irving and rookie Green should help address some of the Colts weaknesses. Next week, we wrap up the AFC South with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who look to have the building of a dynamic defense and an up and coming offense.