The Indianapolis Colts are on their fourth quarterback in four years. A nice challenge for quarterback whisperer Frank Reich, but the question is whether his latest project is one for the long term. After retiring from Philip Rivers got Carson Wentz namely the keys to the kingdom. However, since an All-Pro performance in 2017 – under Frank Reich – injuries have dominated his career. At Colts ownership, general manager Chris Ballard and Reich realize after the play-off defeat to Buffalo that competing for the Super Bowl is within reach. However, a good quarterback is a requirement for this; like a strong offseason.
Besides the trade for Carson Wentz, the free agency period of the Indianapolis Colts was mainly dominated by player retention. In the context of consistency and continuity, this is generally a good move. Especially if you are in the cap space top four prior to free agency. On the offense, the contracts of Marlon Mack, TY Hilton, Braden Smith, Mo-Alie Cox and Zach Pascal, among others, were renewed. Hilton’s return means the Colts keep their WR1 from years past. Because Pascal also signed and Michael PittmanJr. still present, the top three targets remain in Indianapolis. Hilton’s effectiveness has declined in recent years due to injuries, but the $8 million one-year contract doesn’t hurt the Colts much. By retaining Marlon Mack, Indy keeps a diverse and dangerous running back group.
Defensively, Indianapolis kept the likes of Darius Leonard, Xavier Rhodes, Al-Quadin Muhammad and TJ Carrie on the payroll. The return of Rhodes – the best Colts cornerback in 2020 – is essential in a defense where pass rusher is still a need and where linebacker depth leaves something to be desired.
The top new signings in free agency were backup quarterback Brett Hundley, linebacker Isaac Rochell and left tackle Eric Fisher. Fisher’s arrival helps the O-line; Despite still recovering from injury, Fisher’s arrival is significant for the Colts. Especially now that Sam Tevi will miss the season due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Notable outgoing players include backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, starting quarterback Philip Rivers, linebacker Justin Houston, and defensive end Denico Autry. The quarterback room has completely changed compared to last season. The departure of Houston and Autry was partly made up for in the draft.
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Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye is the man who has to absorb the departure of Houston and Autry. The two were good for more than 15 sacks, leaving a gaping hole in the defense. Paye only had 11.5 sacks during his time at Michigan and that is a concern. However, choosing him with the first round pick underscores GM Ballard’s focus on the trenches. There may have been a similar need in the tackle position, but Indy let that pass. Given the injuries on the O-line, that could prove an expensive decision in the short term.
In the second round, the Indianapolis Colts again chose a defensive end. This time it was Dayo Odeyingbo (Vanderbilt). He too must contribute to filling the gap left by Autry and Houston. Due to this decision, the O-line was again not addressed. In round three, the Colts had no picks, but in round four they chose tight end Kylen Granson (SMU). After Trey Burton ‘s departure, that position needed more depth.
With the last four picks, the focus was on the offense, but the first of the four was still an addition to the defense. Safety Shawn Davis (Florida) is an in-depth investment. In the sixth round, quarterback Sam Ehlinger (Texas) was picked to compete for the QB3 spot – until his injury – and wide receiver Mike Strachan (Charleston) has to make a big jump from his Division-II college to the National Football League (NFL). With the very last pick, the O-line was finally strengthened. With Carson Wentz under center, it’s surprising that this pick didn’t come sooner. However, the signing of Will Fries (Penn State) brings the necessary battle and depth to the position.
With the fourth quarterback in four years, Ballard hopes to have finally filled the position permanently. Reuniting Wentz with Reich seems like a good move, but since his All-Pro season, Wentz’s career has been fraught with questions. The Colts think they can get Wentz talking because they can offer him better protection than the Eagles did. In Philadelphia, he lacked solid offensive linemen and targets. Both are at a higher level in Indianapolis, but the question remains whether it will be enough. The question is also when Wentz will appear under center. He suffered a foot injury in the offseason.
In 2020 Philip Rivers was successful because the O-line was so strong. Next season that line will be solid, but not as good as last year. An additional bonus is the group of running backs. With Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines and Marlon Mack, every defense has to constantly keep an eye on the running game. In principle, tackle Eric Fisher has a major role in the O-line, but he sustained the same injury as Wentz and will therefore not start immediately. Lineman Sam Tevi suffered a preseason injury. Despite not being seen as a starter, this is a drain on the O-line when it comes to depth.
In terms of targets, the Indianapolis Colts are somewhat thinly occupied. TY Hilton signed on, of course, but his last Pro Bowl was in 2017. That means sophomore Michael Pittman has to grab the role of WR1. In 2020, he played a strong game against Tennessee, but his consistency has to go up if he wants to be the top dog. In the tight end position, Wentz has veterans Jack Doyle and Mo-Alie Cox. Kylen Granson was added to that position group in the draft. Wentz and Reich love tight ends so they can count on a lot of targets.
With the departures of Autry and Houston and the lack of pressure on Josh Allen in the playoffs, the draft of two defensive ends in the first two rounds was no big surprise. Most of the pressure came from All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. He was good for 26 quarterback hits; more than twice as much than Autry and Houston. Paye and Odeyingbo are therefore welcome additions to the Colts defense. The latter will take a little longer than Paye, as he recently recovered from a torn Achilles. Al-Quadin Muhammad’s contract was extended for the necessary experience at DE.
In terms of defensive ends, things changed quite a bit in Indy, but luckily one of the main positions remained the same. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus will return in 2021. Just as important was ensuring the quality in the linebacker group. This was done with the renewal of Darius Leonard. He had his third All-Pro season in a row and is the man the entire Colts defense revolves around. That’s why he got a monster contract: 98.5 million dollars over five years.
The secondary is generally quite solid. Kenny Moore II is one of the better nickel cornerbacks in the NFL and veteran Xavier Rhodes signed on after a strong 2020. Rock Ya-Sin remains a potentially good cornerback, but he always knows how to cause a lot of penalties. Safeties are also good, but it seems that the Colts want to increase the pressure on Khari Willis a bit. Julian Blackmon is an established name, but Shawn Davis was drafted to push Willis.
Looks like the Colts under Ballard and Reich are headed in the right direction. The pain of Luck’s departure has turned into a serious window two years later. Much depends on the development of Carson Wentz, but still things look good for Indianapolis. Even without Wentz in the early games, the quarterback at the time should be able to break some pots. The O-line is solid, the targets are suitable and Reich’s coaching is exceptional. Jonathan Taylor will continue the 2020 line in 2021 and with Hines and Mack behind him, he won’t have to go out on the field all the time.
However, the youthfulness of the defense – especially the edge rushers – and the uncertainty surrounding Wentz mean that the Super Bowl is still too ambitious this season. The playoffs are definitely within reach, but this year is mainly about figuring out which crucial pieces are still missing for a Super Bowl run.