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2019 AFC South Preview: Indianapolis Colts

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The Colts try to build off of 2018 with the sudden retirement of Andrew Luck.

Cleveland Browns v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The primordial swamp beast, the golden quarterback prospect, the once in a generation talent, the leader of another Indianapolis AFC South dynasty and perennial Super Bowl contender is done playing football. Andrew Luck is gone forever. The king millennial has decided to go be an architect and read Dune or whatever, and enjoy the rest of his life. Good for him. I’m so jealous. I’m dying to retire already.

None of the things that were thought to happen in his career happened. The Superbowl trophies never materialized. MVP trophies were never bathed in his gargantuan tears. The Colts were pulverized into dog food by the Patriots in the 2014 AFC Championship game 45-7. That’s the farthest Luck ever made it.

Luck’s career will be defined by incredible play, and the decision to forgo playing the best years of his career on the deepest team he’s ever had. Injury, pain, rehab. Stuck in the process. Never being able to live in the life I want to live.

It’s the saddest shit ever for football fans who can put aside petty esoteric clan huddled worship. The slobbering hollering on the sidelines, the seaweed strangling pockets he played through, the running pocket climb that powered up ridiculous downfield throws, and his scrambles that were both lumbering and rapid at the same time, are all gone, and will all be missed. The worst part about it is quarterbacks typically hit their prime at 31. Luck was 29. And most of all, the Colts finally have a deep roster that isn’t entirely dependent on his ability to win brutal close football games. Devastating. No one will ever be able to see what prime Luck could have accomplished.

Over the course of his career Luck had been knocked down 542 times according to Football Outsiders. From 2012 on he took, 122, 115, 115, 44 (played only 7 games, extrapolates out to 100), and 85 hits before sitting out the entirety of 2017. His kidney was lacerated. His shoulder was mangled. Rib cartilage was torn. His brains rippled in his skull like a boulder tumbling into a glacial lake. It took him a year to hold a football again. Injury, pain, rehab, the culmination of 542 hits. Like the heart that only has a predetermined number beats in it, the brain and body has a predetermined number of hits it can take.

A sliver of it was his fault. He played dangerously. He was spectacular at holding the ball until the very last moment and unleashing completions before detonation. Luck was the action hero snipping the red wire at 0:01.

The majority of it, however, was the fault of ex-general manager and straight to VHS action villain Ryan Grigson, and the offensive line he drunkenly constructed around him. Damn, potato salad on a hot dog is a great idea. Anthony Castonzo, a competent left tackle, was the only steady starter in his butcher shop. Do you remember me? Mike McGlynn, Winston Justice, Samson Satele, Joe Reitz, Gosder Cherilus, A.Q. Shipley, Jack Mewhort, Jeff Linkenbach, Joe Haeg, Denzelle Good, and Jeremy Vujnovich all are personally responsible for handing the knife over to opposing defenses and watched them flay and gut Luck since 2012.

The malpractice ended last season. General manager Chris Ballard broke the code. The Colts’ offensive line was no longer the root cause of a hazardous work environment. Quenton Nelson became an All-Pro left guard in his rookie season. Braden Smith moved from guard to tackle and did incredible things like lock down J.J. Watt. Ryan Kelly played the majority of the season once again. Mark Glowiniski eventually took over for Matt Slauson at right guard, and he’ll remain the starter in 2019. And Castonzo was still there, providing acceptable left tackle play. Luck was finally protected after years of having his head smashed into the concrete. He took only 61 hits, nearly half as much as usual, and the Colts finished sixth in pressure rate and second in adjusted sack rate.

The Colts are one of the rare teams that have an offensive line that can win games on its own. See the dismantling of Dallas and the domination of Buffalo in 2018. It isn’t unreasonable to think the offensive line will be even better in 2019. It took a few weeks for the Colts to get their best unit together. Add another year of consistency, and Smith and Nelson in year two, and the Colts can even improve on an already great blocking season.

These walls no longer belong to Luck. Jacoby Brissett will have the opportunity to start at quarterback behind one of the league’s best offensive lines. This is wonderful news for him. He was smashed 112 times while Luck was rehabbing and drinking drinks with little umbrellas in them. The blocking was still horrendous—I’m sure Brissett still has nightmares of standing behind La’Raven Clark at guard. The offense was slow and putrid. It was built around Frank Gore and a power run game. With Brissett starting at quarterback Indy averaged 16.4 points a game and finished 30th in points scored.

Here’s the quick scouting report. Brissett had problems v. the blitz, and even though he’s fast, he didn’t understand the pocket well and took too many nasty hits on his own accord. Under pressure he had a passing DVOA of -56.6% (19th), and averaged 3.3 yards a play. Without pressure he had a DVOA of 25.2% (30th) and averaged 6.9 yards a play. Too often he locked onto his first read was fortunate he only threw 7 interceptions. He has a great arm, but he wasn’t a great downfield passer, and hit on only 34.8% of his deep pass attempts. T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle were his primary targets, and he never really gelled with anyone else. His season was also bloated by the 5.9 yards after the catch his completions averaged. Brissett was interesting in a bad situation, and saw his name brought up in trade talks last season and this past offseason, but he’s still an uncertainty.

Trying to figure out what Brissett will do in 2019 is an impossibility. He had plenty of holes in his game in 2017 while playing in a murderous situation at the age of 25. He’s 27 now, and this season, he’ll be playing with one of the five best offensive lines around, a better collection of skill players, and Frank Reich, a great playcaller directing him. Who knows what he can do?

Indianapolis isn’t dead in the water without Luck. This isn’t a four win team that’s going to bottom out, tank like Curtis Painter, and find another perfect quarterback with the first overall pick. That being said, the Colts weren’t slam dunk Superbowl contenders, and AFC South winners even with Luck.

Last season the Colts went 4-4 in one score games and played the easiest schedule in football. They went 9-1 after starting the season 1-5. Their only lost was a 0-6 calamity to the Jaguars thanks to four failed fourth down conversion attempts. The best team they beat during this run was either the Texans or the Cowboys, depending on how you feel, and they loaded up on easy carbs like Buffalo, Oakland, and Miami.

The Colts were in the driver’s seat to slam the pedal into the floorboard and push this team over the edge. Entering free agency they had $106 million in cap space to do things like improve their pass rush, solidify the cornerback position, and add additional weapons around Luck. They ended up retaining their own and signing Justin Houston, Devin Funchess, and Spencer Ware.

Entering the draft they had 4 top 100 picks, including 2 second round selections after trading down with the New York Jets in 2018. Instead of grabbing an impact pass rusher they traded down from 26 to 49 for a future second round selection, and grabbed Ben Banogu after selecting Rock Ya-Sin earlier that day, and ended the second round with Parris Cambell. Rather than invest heavily into the third youngest roster, stuffed with cost effective talent, Ballard decided to hoard his resources for the future.

The Colts weren’t in a position to do this either. They flipped their record by beating bad teams after losing some sad! games to start 2019. This wasn’t a team without its flaws. This isn’t a team that could bank solely on player development to expect another successful 2019.

The Colts’ biggest flaw was their pass rush. They were 25th in pressure rate and amassed only 38 sacks last season. They predominantly rushed four and their best and most consistent defensive lineman was the tragically underrated Jabaal Sheard. Over the last two seasons the garage sale find has picked up 10 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, and 78.5 pressures. He can rush from both the exterior and interior, and materializes mischief with great hand use.

Sheard is also an awesome run defender who has a perfect understanding of how to play half a man and find the ball. He added 36 run plays to his stellar 2018 season.

Unfortunately, he’ll probably miss the beginning of the season thanks to a recent knee surgery. Surrounding him is Demico Autry, who plucked fetid meat off the bones with vulture sacks and failed to create consistent pressure, and Margus Hunt, who started off volcanic and disappeared like ignited butane a month into the season. The Colts are depending on their young rushers Kemoko Turay, and Tyquan Lewis, to make an immediate impact and plop themselves onto the counter top. Of the two, I like Lewis more. He’s a bullrushing second round pick who can drive quick setting linemen directly into the quarterback.

Second round purple laden draft pick Ben Banoga is an athletic marvel, but weighs only 255 pounds. He’ll be best used in stunts, scurrying and looping from the outside in to create pressure, as he gets used to having to maneuver around NFL behemoths. Typically undersized defenders are devoured as they learn how to maneuver around the giants along the line of scrimmage. Keeping their hands off him will be the key to his career.

Their only free agent signing to address the lackluster pass rush, despite having more than $100 million in cap space, was Justin Houston. He’s coming off a whatever season after playing in only 12 games, which is normal for Houston now. He’s 30 years old, 2014 was a long time ago, and he isn’t a dependable run defender either. As a bullpen arm that plays 25 pass rushing snaps or so a game Houston is a great signing, but as a focal point of the front seven, as he’s expected to be, it was an unenthusiastic one.

Like last season the Colts are going to have to come up with creative ways to rush the passer. This isn’t a terrible thing. Matt Eberflus had a blast conjuring up demons to haunt unsuspecting quarterbacks. Kenny Moore slot blitzes were a hellish sight.

Their other All-Pro rookie, Darius Leonard, was fantastic as a spy turned blitzer; he picked up 7 sacks of his own last season.

The Colts’ defense was strange last season. They ranked 30th in DVOA with pressure and 4th in DVOA without it. They rushed four, sat in Nickle with Leonard and Anthony Walker, and played a variety of coverages. When you have someone like Leonard who can cover wide receivers in the slot, and run past second level lurchers, it makes playing a ton of Nickle a preferable option.

This allowed them to move Moore from the outside to the slot, and brought Quincy Wilson onto the field as an outside cornerback playing on the other side of Pierre Desir. Backing them up was Clayton Geathers, who’s a mediocre veteran, and Malik Hooker, who looks better on film than the production he’s had so far in his career. As a free safety Hooker can play the ball from the center of the field to the sideline, and it’s only a matter of time before he has a breakout season.

Ballard drafted Rock Ya-Sin in the second round. Despite lacking typical cornerback top speed, Ya-Sin is a brutal and powerful cornerback who can come in and play zone coverage, and maybe press man if he’s able to figure out how to use his upper body strength in one summer. His selection will allow the Colts’ to be even more diverse with their coverages, and he should fit right in when they want to switch out of man coverage.

The secondary is really good, but they lack an upper tier cornerback. Their success last season came against shoddy passing offenses. When accounting for opponent, the best defensive game they had was against the creaky Carson Wentz Eagles in week three. This season, like the rest of the AFC South, they’ll be stuck playing last year’s top passing offenses like the Chargers, Falcons, Saints, and Chiefs.

Last year’s defense was better than expected, and they dramatically improved in one season. They allowed 60 less points and jumped from 27th to 10th in defensive DVOA. After making intelligent signings and bringing in players like Desir, Sheard, Autry, and Moore, and having what looks like an all-time great draft class in 2018, Ballard has proven he’s a great evaluator of talent. This offseason he doubled down on himself. He’s putting faith in the Colts’ defense improving because of inhouse development and shrewd draft selections.

This will probably end up languishing the Colts’ defense. With top tier pass rushers available for a first round pick, and free agent interior rushers available, Ballard balked at all of them. The Colts shouldn’t have the same defensive results they had last season.

Offensively, Ballard held his ground too. The two additions to this offense are Devin Funchess and Paris Campbell. Funchess is a height-weight dominant possession receiver who signed a one-year $10 million contract to play on the opposite side of T.Y. Hilton. The 2018 preseason breakout projections never came to fruition. Funchess had drop issues, struggled to create separation, and like the rest of the Panthers’ pass catchers, saw his second half potential zapped by Cam Newton’s shoulder injury.

Campbell is all speed. He ran a 4.3 40 at the combine and made his senior season a successful one by turning screens into first downs, and drag routes he turned into abusrd YAC-YAC-YAC touchdowns. He’ll primarily play in the slot, and will be another downfield option to pair with Hilton. He’s a high upside second round pick, but he didn’t catch many passes in traffic at Ohio State, he grew fat off crossing routes, and most of those yards won’t be this widely available at the professional level.

The new additions will join a dependable coalition. Hilton caught 57 of his 109 targets for 966 yards with Brissett at quarterback in 2017. Jack Doyle is back. He had a great season as the Brissett’s dependable middle field target. In 2017 he made the Pro Bowl after catching 74.1% of his 108 targets that he turned into 690 yards. They should be able to click back together right away. He’ll be paired with the touchdown catching Eric Ebron, who should regress in 2019.

It’s reasonable to assume the Colts are going to be a run heavy team in 2019 as Brissett tries to find the light switch in the middle of the night. Marlon Mack should be the primary vehicle the Colts drive on Sundays. Last year he broke out and averaged 4.7 yards a carry, scored nine touchdowns, had a rushing DVOA of 16.8%, and 908 rushing yards even though he only played 12 games. He should be in for a monster season behind this offensive line, and he has the tackle breaking ability to add to create his own.

Adjoining him is the pass catching Nyheim Hines who averaged 6.7 yards a catch and 5.5 yards after the catch. Jordan Wilkins will fill in for Mack when he’s breathing heavy, or heaven forbid, gets hurt.

This is a solid set of skill players for Brissett. He’s in a better emergency quarterback situation than most get the opportunity to take advantage of. The Colts were AFC South favories, and had Superbowl aspirations before Luck retired. Indy shouldn’t reach those heights, but they shouldn’t default to putrid. This won’t be like Brett Hundley filling in for Aaron Rodgers, or Ryan Lindley replacing Carson Palmer.

Ballard was a coward this offseason. He didn’t take enough risk to add top talent. Instead he hung back and bet on his young roster improving after another year of maturation. Progression is rarely linear though. NFL windows are narrow, and typically only last for two to three seasons. Ballard had the rare opportunity to fill in the cracks, go all in, make a run at the damn thing, and fully take advantage of Luck’s prime. He chose to skimp out on in it entirely.

Life is strange. The narrative reversed. Luck’s decision salvaged Ballard’s offseason. Indy is still flexible, and most importantly, they aren’t stuck with an expensive roster with an enormous unknown leading their offense. They can figure out what they have in Brissett this season. If it doesn’t work out, they’ll have the resources to move up in the draft, or grab the best quarterback on the open market. This isn’t, however, a great roster no matter who the quarterback is, especially considering the opportunity the Colts had.

Indy should be better this season. The young players should improve. But this isn’t a complete roster or a dominant team, that can win without great quarterback play. It’s a roster that can occasionally, but can’t consistently, and will depend on the mystical Brisett, in an entirely better position, to lead this team against a more difficult schedule.

If Brissett is good the Colts can compete with the Jaguars and Texans and Titans in the always wide open AFC South, and then pray to be knocked out and squashed in the Divisional Round once again. If he isn’t, the Colts will win six to eight games and have a pick in the teens. This won’t be a bottom out season. The Colts will be decent no matter what. There’s enough talent here. The roster is deep. But this isn’t the type of team that can beat great teams without great quarterback play.

Prediction: 7-9.