It's the bye week for the Colts and week eight in the NFL, which means that the regular season is almost halfway over. Since it's the bye week, I figured I'd take a look at how the first "half" of the Colts season went and take a look at how the second "half" looks too. We'll go position by position and give grades for how the first seven games went. We'll start with the easy one - quarterback.
Quarterback: A +
Andrew Luck is incredible. That's about all I have to say for this one. Seriously - he has far exceeded expectations so far and has been simply amazing. In fact, he currently sits at number two on ESPN's MVP Watch. Luck has completed 60.7% of his passes for 1,574 yards, 10 touchdowns, and only 3 picks. Additionally, he has added 183 yards and 3 scores on the ground while averaging 6.5 yards per carry. Luck's 3 rushing touchdowns lead all NFL quarterbacks and he is one of only three players to have double digit touchdown passes with 3 or less picks (the others being Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan). He has led 2 game winning drives so far this year and has led the Colts to wins over the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, and Denver Broncos - teams that are a combined 17-1 against every other team in the league. Any way you look at it, Andrew Luck has had a phenomenal year and any way you look at it, his success should absolutely continue.
Running Back: C +
This one was much tougher to grade than the quarterback position. The Colts started out the season with Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw as the two headed rushing attack. After one week (and a good game, I might add), however, Ballard was out for the season with a torn ACL suffered in practice. The Colts pulled off the huge blockbuster trade for Trent Richardson, but it was Ahmad Bradshaw who the following week recorded what was by far the best performance by a Colts running back so far this season. He was a huge part of the team's win over the 49ers, but he too was lost for the season with a neck injury suffered in that game. That left Richardson, last year's third overall pick, as the starting back, and so far he has yet to overwhelm anybody. He has averaged just 45.6 yards per game, 3.0 yards per carry, and 2 total touchdowns so far this season with the Colts, and he also had a critical fumble in the Denver game. I am not giving up on Richardson yet, but he was just average at best through the first "half" of the season and the Colts need him to step up. With better blocking, we'll see him improve, but we need to see him improve regardless. The huge bright spot out of this position has been Donald Brown, who has found the perfect fit within the offense. He doesn't carry the ball a ton but when he does he is very good. He is averaging just 27.9 yards per game this year, but he is averaging 5.9 yards per carry. He has also caught 9 of his 10 targets in the passing game, averaging 8.3 yards per reception. He is having a terrific season so far in the limited role that he has (which is best for him) and he is the shining bright spot. Overall, this unit has been ravaged by injuries and has a new player still adjusting to the offense, plus one who has excelled, so I'm not as down as most people, but there is still no doubt that the position needs to improve as the season goes on.
Fullback: A -
All the problems I have with the fullback have to do with the offensive system and not the fullback himself, and so as a result I give Stanley Havili a very good grade. I still don't think the run game is as good with a fullback and I still think it limits Luck some, but those are all issues with the offensive system, not with Stanley Havili. Havili has exceeded my expectations and has been great this year for the Colts. Perhaps the win over the Broncos was his best game of the year, as he caught a touchdown pass (displaying his speed) and forcing a fumble on a return (displaying his good overall football skills), and then of course blocking well. I like what Havili has done this year and think it was another good trade by Ryan Grigson. I still have questions about the use of a fullback, but not the fullback himself.
Wide Receiver: B -
This one is hard to write after what happened this past week. Of course, what I am referring to is Reggie Wayne's injury, as the Colts lost him for the remainder of the season with an ACL tear in last week's win. Wayne accounted for nearly 30% of the Colts's receiving production, so the outlook of this unit is very uncertain, but through the first seven games, they played well. Reggie was Reggie, and that's about all I have to say. Darrius Heyward-Bey was actually impressive as a whole and I liked what he did in the short to intermediate passing game (granted, in limited opportunities), but in the deep passing game the results were mixed. He has shown that he definitely can get open, but he has also shown that he has trouble catching the passes when he does. DHB has brought a lot to the table and is clearly a major upgrade over Donnie Avery, but I'd say it has been a mixed bag so far with him. T.Y. Hilton has yet to be the great deep threat that he was last year or that he was in preseason, but he has been better at the underneath passing game and still has been a very good player and a great weapon. He is second to Reggie in catches, targets, yards, and tied with Reggie for second on the team with 2 scores. He has had a very good year and I would expect him to just keep getting better. Outside of those three, only Griff Whalen has caught a pass as a true receiver, and he caught 2 for 28 yards - good but nearly a nonexistent impact. Overall, I think this unit has been good but not great, and the loss of Reggie Wayne is a HUGE question mark going forward.
Tight End: C +
It's hard to grade this one too, because the Colts's best tight end was lost for the season after just one game. Dwayne Allen was placed on season ending IR after the Raiders game where he caught 1 pass for 20 yards and a touchdown. Because of his injury, Coby Fleener has had to step up and fill the role, and similar to the receivers, he has been good but not great. He is having a good year, but he has yet to live up to his talent level or his potential and while it is way too early to consider him a bust, I need to see more from him. He leads the team in touchdown catches with 3 and is third in catches and receiving yards, but has yet to be anything spectacular. Still, he has been solid. The other tight ends have been a mixture of Dominique Jones and Jack Doyle, both of whom have looked good at times but have been unspectacular. I was more impressed with Jones, but he was just released this past week. Either way, the tight end position doesn't depend on either of them.
Offensive Line: C -
Last year, Andrew Luck was sacked 40 times. This year, he is on pace to be sacked just over 34 times, so that's obviously improvement. Still, however, it's more than you'd like and Luck has still had to be on the move a lot, making plays and doing what Andrew Luck does. It really hurt losing Donald Thomas for the year early in the year, as Hugh Thornton had to step in for him instead of Mike McGlynn. The rookie Thornton has been good this year and has impressed, as has Anthony Castonzo and, for the most part, Gosder Cherilus. They have been good, and I even thought that McGlynn looked much better when moved to center. At guard, however, he still has been bad and Samson Satele has continued to be bad at center too. The interior of the line - the same issue as last year - continues to be the problem, and while I understand that Thomas was injured and that threw things off, it still shouldn't be used as an excuse for poor interior line play. In terms of run blocking, however, the line started off the season doing really well but has gotten significantly worse as it went on. Why that is, I have no idea, but I know that Trent Richardson and Donald Brown are not getting much room to run at all anymore. As a whole, the offensive line is improved from last year, but the improvement is rather minimal and the interior is still an issue.
Defensive Line: B -
The defensive line has improved a lot for the Colts. Cory Redding is having a good year at defensive end, notching 20 tackles (2 for loss) and 2.5 sacks, plus batting down a pass. Redding is more of the pass rushing defensive lineman, and he has done that so far, but he also has been solid overall. Ricky Jean Francois has also been good, but not as good as Redding. RJF has played solid along the line this year and proves to have been a good pickup, but we have seen nothing special from him yet - which is perfectly fine. Aubrayo Franklin has made fans forget about Chapnado, which is an impressive feat in itself, but at the same time he has done a good job on the interior of the line. I think he has been too inconsistent this season, but he has been better than I expected him to be. If they continue to play like they have so far, I'll be happy - they've been nothing special, but they have been solid, and really that's ok with me for this team.
Outside Linebackers: A
This grade is greatly helped by Robert Mathis, who is on a simply ridiculous pace right now. Through seven games, he has already tied his career high for sacks in a single season with 11.5, leads the league in that category, and is on pace to break the NFL single season sack record. Last week against Peyton Manning's Broncos, Mathis notched 5 tackles (1 for loss), 2 sacks, and a forced fumble in his best game of the year, but his year as a whole has been lights out. His counterparts at outside linebacker haven't been as impressive but they've still been good. I have actually been impressed with Erik Walden. I still don't think he is worth his contract, but I refuse to use that to analyze his play and just going by what he has done on the field, he has been good. He started off rough but has actually been a good player for the Colts at outside linebacker. Bjoern Werner, the rookie, struggled early and was then injured and missed the past several weeks, although hopefully he will be back after the bye week. He wasn't very effective and it was worrisome to some people, but these things take time and I wouldn't freak out yet.
Inside Linebackers: A -
Jerrell Freeman was great last year. He has been even better this year. He leads the team with 60 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and is second on the team with 3.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. He also has one pass deflection on the year too. Freeman has been tremendous and has begun to garner national attention (and rightfully so) for his play. He has shown that last year was not an aberration but that he is a really good player and is continuing to improve. Pat Angerer has also played well this season at inside linebacker and has been good but nothing like he was in 2011. Still, that doesn't mean he hasn't been good this year, because he has been. The backups, however, pretty much stink. Kelvin Sheppard and Mario Harvey have both been bad this year and for whatever reason they play over Kavell Conner - who has had a good year in limited time. I don't get it, and Sheppard and Harvey have been bad. The starters and Conner, though, have been good, thus the reason for the good grade.
Cornerbacks: A -
Vontae Davis has simply phenomenal this year. He has been great. He is coming off his best career performance last week against the Denver Broncos and is in the midst of his best season, beginning to emerge into the lock-down corner many thought he could be when the Colts first traded for him. Indeed, he has been great. Greg Toler, though, not so much - although his failures have been exaggerated. It is true that he gets burned a lot and that opposing quarterbacks often go after him. He hasn't had a great start to the year, although at the same time he does make some great plays that remind you of the potential that he has, and I think that as the season goes on we will see him continue to improve. Darius Butler, the team's slot corner, has also been very good this year and also is coming off his best performance of the season against the Broncos. Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy haven't done anything that would make you even think about replacing any of the top three, although for 4th or 5th cornerbacks (which is what they are right now) they are actually pretty good. Overall this position has exceeded expectations.
Safeties: B +
Providing the other part of a secondary that has been very good this year are the safeties. Antoine Bethea continues to play every game, which at this point with all the injuries at the position might be his most valuable asset. Bethea continues to play well, too. LaRon Landry, when healthy, is a huge difference maker. We saw that last week when he sniffed out a few screens and short passes and stopped them. Landry has missed a lot of the season with an injury but when he is on the field he has been great. Landry's replacement, Delano Howell, filled in well for Landry but certainly showed limitations compared to the regular starter. Watch for Howell to continue to develop this season, however, especially as the Colts have a decision to make on whether or not to re-sign Bethea this offseason (Vontae Davis is up too). The three of them kind of remind me of the old Colts' safety tandems - Antoine Bethea there every game, Bob Sanders a difference maker when healthy (which wasn't often) and then Melvin Bullitt the replacement for Sanders who could step in and play well but clearly didn't bring the same impact Sanders did. I would write the exact same sentences about these Colts, just changing some of the names: Antoine Bethea there every game, LaRon Landry a difference maker when healthy (which hasn't been often) and then Delano Howell he replacement for Landry who could step in and play well but clearly doesn't bring the same impact Landry does. Overall, I have been very pleased with the safety play - especially when LaRon Landry is in there.
Kicker: A -
Who said Adam Vinatieri was washed up? *Nobody raises their hand.* It seems dumb now, but people were wondering how much the oldest player in the league had left before the season started. Seven weeks in, he is 15 of 17 (88.2%) on field goals and 18 of 18 on extra points. He has yet to miss from inside of 50 yards, and in fact he has 24 straight makes inside the 50 yard line, the longest active streak in the NFL. From field goals over 50 yards, Vinatieri is 3 of 5 with a long of 52, and he had his first career two 50+ yard field goal day just a few weeks ago. In fact, he is tied for the most field goals made from 50 yards out and nobody in the league has attempted as many from that far out as Vinatieri has this year. Only three players have made more field goals period than Vinatieri has this year, and only two have attempted more. It's hard to ask more of a kicker than what Adam Vinatieri has done for the Colts this year - yeah, he has two misses, but he hit the left upright on a 52 yard try on one and he was wide left on a 51 yard try. He's hit three from more than 50 yards out - I'll take 3 for 5 from that far out any day, especially when he is 12 for 12 on all other attempts.
Punter: B -
Pat McAfee is coming off one of the greatest performances of his career against the Denver Broncos - laying out a returner, having 4 touchbacks on kickoffs, and pinning 6 of 9 punts inside the 20 while averaging 48.9 yards per punt. But as great as that performance was, it doesn't negate his previous games, and the reality is that McAfee has been struggling this year and the Colts's franchise player has been average. The Colts's punting average ranks 12th in the NFL and they had a punt blocked. They are tied for 4th in the NFL with punts downed inside the 20 and tied for 10th in the NFL in touchbacks. Those are good numbers, but McAfee's aren't quite up to par with what we expected. That said, his season last year put him as arguably the league's best punter and he is just 2 yards per punt off his mark from a year ago and on pace to have more punts downed inside the 20 than he did last year. I'm not worried about McAfee one bit, and in fact while looking at this more I think his struggles have been overblown. He still hasn't been great, but he has been good overall. He's had his struggles, but overall it has been a solid season for him.
Special Teams: B
No touchdowns allowed. That's the best place to start. The Colts' special teams unit has not allowed a touchdown. They gave up a blocked punt that resulted in a Seahawks' safety, but they still haven't allowed a touchdown, which is good. In terms of punt coverage, the Colts rank 9th in net yards per punt and, as mentioned before, have downed 13 punts inside the 20. The kick coverage has also been good, aided most by the fact that McAfee can consistently put the ball into the end zone for a touchdown. T.Y. Hilton has done a solid job at returning punts but nothing spectacular, and really, that's ok. He just needs to protect the ball, protect himself, and get as many yards as he can - and he'll break one every now and then. Now, with Reggie Wayne out, it will be interesting to see how much the Colts continue to use Hilton as punt returner. Kick returner has been a big struggle for the Colts, as David Reed flat out stunk. He would take the ball out of the end zone on every kick and get out to the 20 yard line at best - the same place he would have started had he just taken a knee in the end zone. The Colts replaced him finally for the Denver game, and while Cassius Vaughn still wasn't great, he seemed like it compared to what Reed had done (nothing). At least Vaughn could get it past the 20, but the bottom line is that the Colts's kick return unit has been bad this year, and until they can find a return guy it will continue to be bad.
It has been a real roller coaster year for Chuck Pagano. His team didn't look great in a win against the Raiders, then they lost to the Dolphins at home, then they beat the 49ers on the road in a dominating way, then they dominated the Jaguars, then they had a huge win over the Seahawks, and then they lost a terrible game to the Chargers before coming back home and beating the Broncos. The Colts looked unprepared in the Raiders and Chargers games, and you can question Pagano's decisions in-game at times too. I think we all know by now that he's not the best in-game coach, but I think what is more telling about him is the leadership he brings (the thing I think is most important in a head coach anyways). Pagano has kept this team together and has led them to three huge wins (over the 49ers, Seahawks, and Broncos) that all are signature wins for Pagano. I've said it all season long that Pagano is a good coach who has had a few bad games this season, and I truly believe that. I think more people are beginning to see that too (and understand that including playoffs he has now been on the Colts's sidelines as head coach for 12 games - that's less than a full season). Pagano's defensive coordinator Greg Manusky gets overshadowed by Pagano, a defensive coach, but I think that Manuksy has done a great job this year with the defense. He doesn't often get it, but I want to give him some credit for the job he has done so far. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has been at the root of a lot of discussions amongst Colts fans this year, and it is understandable why - he has been holding Andrew Luck back by his play calling and emphasis on the run game. The Denver game was by far the best game he has called this year and hopefully that will continue, but as a whole Hamilton has taken too much out of Luck's hands. He is a good offensive coordinator and a fantastic offensive mind, but he needs to let his best player take more of a role (like he did against the Broncos). When that happens, Hamilton will once again be the super popular, future head-coaching candidate that fans viewed him as (and I still view him as). He'll get it figured out, he just needs time - and in fact, it looks like he may have begun to figure it out already. There is no denying that he has had a rough start so far, but I expect the second half of the season to be much better from Hamilton.