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2016 AFC South Season Preview: Indianapolis Colts

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Matt Weston reaches the final destination in his AFC South tour by previewing the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts are mostly the same, but oh, no, Andrew Luck is back.

ANDREW. BACK.
ANDREW. BACK.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Weston is previewing the AFC South for the 2016 season by going from worst to first in Football Outsiders' projections. Next is the Indianapolis Colts, with a projection of 7.8 mean wins.

Part One: All AFC South Team.

Part Two: Jacksonville Jaguars Season Preview [Battle Red Radio: Summer Sparkles and Glitter Kitties].

Part Three: Tennessee Titans Season Preview [Battle Red Radio: Hey Now, You're An All-Star].

Part Four: Houston Texans Season Preview [Battle Red Radio: Houston Texans Number One].

Part Five: Indianapolis Colts Season Preview [Battle Red Radio: The End of Summer].

The Indianapolis Colts were going to do things differently after they released Peyton Manning and drafted Andrew Luck. No longer would they have a team with a transcendent quarterback who had to shoulder every win on his own. With Luck, the Colts were going to play defense. They were going to control the line of scrimmage. They were going to run the ball. Now it's four years later, and the Colts have the franchise quarterback, but they still haven't successfully done the other things they set out to do.

After drafting Luck, the Colts' strategy was to ride out the 2012 season and make an impact in free agency the following year. After 2012's "Luckiest Season of All-Time" (GET IT?), they took advantage of Luck's rookie contract and disbursed $77.3 million dollars in free agency. They signed Ricky Jean-Francois, Erik Walden, Greg Toler, LaRon Landry and Aubrayo Franklin to obtain the personnel to run Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense.

So far, that has been their team building strategy. They use free agency to bring in past-their-prime veterans and backups.  They spend their draft capital on offensive players. The issue is the Colts have spent a lot of money, but they haven't added top-tier defensive talent. They've signed just two Pro Bowlers, D'Qwell Jackson and Mike Adams, and brought in the occasional above-average starter like Cory Redding. But for every Adams, there is LaRon Landry, who signed a four-year, $24 million deal, or Jean-Francios, who was cut after three years, or Arthur Jones, who has started three games since signing a five-year, $30 million contract back in 2014. This strategy has been inefficient, aside from 2012, when they unearthed gems in Redding and Freeman.

Year $ Spent AV $/AV
2012 $18.175 55 3.02
2013 $77.3 55 1.40
2014 $75.07 46 1.63
2015 $22.2 11 2.01

The chart is by no means perfect since it's an aggregate of money spent and approximate value accrued in Indianapolis. It doesn't take into account cuts or dead money. It only looks at the total. Also, approximate value is a big round fuzzy thing. Despite the rawness of the chart, we can get a baseline on the value the Colts got from their defensive free agent signings.

You can see the production hasn't matched the cost. In 2013 and 2014 , he Colts spent $75 million each year. Each class earned less than 2 AV per million spent. The Colts got the same amount of value in 2012 as they did in 2013, and more than they did in 2014...for 4.25 times less. The 2015 class was saved by Dwight Lowery's sixteen starts for $750,000 that overshadowed the nothing they got from Trent Cole (two years for $14 million) and Nate Irving (three years for $7.25 million). The Colts have spent a lot on labor, but they've never received the returns they expected.

By paying for veterans and backups, the Colts have put together an average defense. Surprise, right? Since being the 31st defense in DVOA in 2012, the Colts have finished 16th, 13th and 13th. This isn't what they expected when they had a surplus of cap space thanks to Luck's rookie contract, Chuck Pagano (a defense-first head coach), and a financial commitment to stocking the defense. These last four years were the time to complement Luck with a defense that could provide support. Instead, all that opportunity and beaucoup dollars got them was acceptable.

This past offseason, the Colts did the same thing on a limited basis. They couldn't splurge because of Andrew Luck's new contract, the $10 million in dead money owed to Gosder Cherilus/Andre Johnson/Bjoern Werner, and a desire to not scrape against the top of the cap. So the Colts  signed past-his-prime veteran Antonio Cromartie to a one year, $3 million contract and agreed to terms with backup cornerback Patrick Robinson for three years and $13.5 million. In accordance with their free agent signing history, those two players perfect for Indianapolis.

As in seasons past, the Colts' defense in 2016 iis going to be pretty alright, alright. They have acceptable players at just about every position to go along with Vontae Davis (their only great player), run-stuffing space-eater D'Qwell Jackson, and up-and-coming nose tackle David Parry. Yet again, the defense will be in the middle of the league and nowhere near the aspirations they had back in 2012. Life will be like this until next season, when the Colts have cap space to immediately upgrade the defense again. Time is a flat circle, maaaaaaaan.

The Colts' strategy has been entirely different when it comes to the offensive line. Instead of trying to use money to construct a five-man moving company, Indianapolis opted to use the draft and subsequent cheap contracts to patch various holes. Since 2012, the Colts have used ten picks on offensive linemen. Of these, four came in the first three rounds of the draft. This year, their starting offensive line was supposed to be composed of two first round picks in Anthony Castonzo, Ryan Kelly, second round pick Jack Mewhort (though things aren't looking good for Mewhort), along with seventh round pick Denzelle Good, who beat out third round pick Hugh Thorton (who in turn got put on injured reserve), and spare part Joe Reitz at right tackle until 2016 third round pick Le'Raven Clark can take over.

Like the defense, the returns have been frustrating for the amount they have invested.

Year Rush DVOA Adjusted Sack Rate Pressure Rate Adjusted Line Yards
2012 -4.3% (18) 6.8% (17th) N/A 3.76 (26)
2013 3.1% (11) 5.6% (6th) 27% (24) 3.89 (15)
2014 -16% (27) 4.8% (7th) 22.6% (12) 3.94 (16)
2015 -20.9% (30) 6.1% (16th) 25.8% (18) 3.47 (27)

In pass protection, the Colts have sandwiched two good years between two fair years. 2013 and 2014 didn't see the number of sacks 2012 and 2015 did, and the pressure rate was slightly better. 2013 was more of a case of Luck getting the ball out right before getting hit and taking the sack less often. During Luck's precipice of being #elite in 2014, he had the best offensive line of his career. All in all, this has been an average to below-average unit.

Indy's scheme hasn't helped at all either. From 2012 to 2015, no team threw fifteen yards or deeper more than Indy has. With Bruce Arians as the offensive coordinator, Luck attacked down field in one back/four receiver sets. With Pep Hamilton as the offensive coordinator, Luck spent more time in two tight end packages and less time in the shotgun, throwing deep just a bit less often. In both offenses, Luck waited until the time between a sack and a completion was infinitesimal as he unleashed passes at the last second.

Consequently, no quarterback has been hit as often as Andrew Luck has the last few years. In 2012 , he was sacked or hit 122 times (most in the NFL). He was sacked or hit 115 times in 2013 (again, most in the NFL). He was sacked or hit 115 times in 2014 (see a pattern?). Fortunately, Luck was hit or sacked only 59 times in 2015, but he missed nine games due to injury. Since being drafted, Luck has been splattered 411 times. It's not all on Luck, the scheme, or the offensive line.  It's a combination of all three.

All of these years of hits have added up. Luck was out for most of last year with shoulder and rib injuries. Then a lacerated kidney knocked him out for the season after the Colts scarred Denver's perfect record. Despite Jim Irsay saying, "My philosophy on quarterbacks is, first and foremost, you've got to keep quarterbacks healthy and on the field,'' the Colts haven't protected Luck, and he hasn't protected himself. He needs to learn how to slide and get the ball out quicker. The talent and draft capital need to match up and provide better protection.

The good news is the pass blocking this year should improve. Kelly and the possibility of Clark taking over helps the offensive line. The Colts will be running a different scheme with Rob Chudzinski as the offensive coordinator. More plays will be run from the shotgun. Luck won't line up under center as often and will start plays with more breathing room. Surrounding him is a four-headed serpentine of pass catchers in T.Y. Hilton, Phillip Dorsett, Dwayne Allen, and Donte Moncrief.  He just needs to get the ball out quickly.

Luck is going to need protection to come from the line and the scheme because running the ball is again going to be a miserable endeavor. The Colts have had only one good rushing season in recent years, way back in 2013. Aside from that year, the Colts have been down in the dungeon, ranking 27th in 2014 and 30th in 2015 in rushing DVOA. In adjusted line yards, which measures the affect the offensive line has on the run game, the Colts have been average when the pass blocking was good and terrible in 2012 and 2015.

In the run game, the problems don't just fall on the offensive line. Their primary running backs for the Colts haven't' had success. Everyone knows about Trent Richardson and his three yards per carry. But what most don't know is their next leading rusher has fared well.  In 2013, Donald Brown had a DVOA of 19.2% on 101 carries. In 2014, Ahmad Bradshaw had a DVOA 15.9% better than Richardson.

This year, the main back is Frank Gore, another Ryan Grigson disaster. In a three yards and fall down season last year, Gore had a DYAR of 0, a DVOA of -8.6%, and a success rate of just 40% (42nd) on 260 carries. He's going to be 33 years old. It should not be expected for him to either (a) carry the load or (b) be any good. At least this season there are possible efficient Donald Brown type players waiting in the wings in Robert Turbin and Josh Ferguson to help improve this 30th ranked run offense.

On defense, this year the Colts should be mediocre.  The offensive line will be average to above average.  The run game will be led by an inefficient thumper. For any other team in the league, this would be a roster that would win somewhere between six and eight games, exactly like the Colts did last year.  Indianapolis' name wouldn't be whispered in those old playoff halls. The difference is this team has Andrew Luck.

All the problems mentioned before have always existed. None of this is new. Yet with Luck , these issues have been hindrances, not impossible passages. Before last year, the Colts won 36 games, made the playoffs three years in a row, and were an AFC finalist. From 2012 to 2015, the Colts were 21st, 17th and 13th in pass DVOA despite all the pressure, all the quarterback hits, and terrible rushing attacks.

In case anyone forgot, Andrew Luck is really good. The conundrum is that Luck was really bad last year.

There were three enormous differences in Luck's play from 2014 to 2015. The first is his interception rate leaped from 2.6% to 4.1% last year. He threw 12 interceptions, 16 adjusted interceptions (accounts for drops and removes Hail Marys) in 2016. In 2015, Luck threw 16 and 21 in 323 more attempts. 2016 showed a much higher rate than he even had way back in his rookie season, when he threw 18 interceptions, which had him looking up to players like Zach Mettenberger and Peyton Manning.

This could have been mitigated somewhat if Luck was able to still hit passes downfield. On passes fifteen yards down the field, Luck has completed 174 out of 454 attempts (38.32%) for 4,992 yards and 37 touchdowns up to this point in his career. More specifically, Luck has been the best in the league at throwing passes deep to the right side of the field. Those numbers plummeted last year.

Cmp Att Cmp% Yards Td Int Y/A
Career 76 198 38.4% 2300 20 13 11.6
2014 34 (FIX) 42 (FIX) 54.8% 1107 8 1 17.9
2015 9 35 25.7% 259 0 5 7.4

Luck went from throwing passes like this...

LUCK 1

LUCK 2

To this.

LUCK 3

The underlying thing guiding Luck;s poor display of quarterbacking the football was his drop-off when dealing with pressure. In 2015, Luck posted his worst season under pressure. His DVOA was -95.7%, an enormous drop from 2014 (-70.6%), and 2013 (-58.2%). Additionally, he posted the lowest yards per play under pressure in his career and was 32nd in the league in DVOA difference with and without pressure.

What's strange is that Luck has never had this problem before. One of the standout traits that separated him from the rest of the league was his ability to sit in the face of the rush. He's been great at stepping up in the pocket and maneuvering away from pressure. He is a master at leaping out of a building right before the bomb detonates. Playing with and managing pressure is a strength.

The most reasonable hypothesis for why this occurred is health. Luck couldn't make the throws he usually made because of injuries that hampered him. He released the ball earlier than usual to escape hits he normally would have taken. He chunked garbage down the sideline to avoid sacks that he's been known to maneuver away from on his own accord. All those hits from his first four years in the NFL finally added up.

The important thing is that Luck should be 100% healthy entering this season after missing most of last year. That's the key for the Colts' in 2016. They are the same team they've been before--mired in mediocrity everywhere except for the quarterback position. If Luck is back to his slobber-spraying, OMG-throwing, Frankenmonster self, he has the ability to take that mediocrity and turn the Colts into a division-winning football team.

2015 was an aberration, not some career-defining season for Andrew Luck. He had a season from hell. He was hurt the majority of the year and missed the rest of it. In 2016, he will be back on the road to becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the league.  He will suffocate the gap between the Colts and the more talented Texans. This season, however, the talent gap is too large between Houston and Indianapolis at every other position for the Colts to get the ten wins needed to win the AFC South.

Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in the AFC South.

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