With the 2014 NFL season set to begin this week, Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson offers up five bold (or not so bold, depending on your opinion) predictions for the Colts 2014 season. How many do you agree with?
1. This Colts Offense will Finish in the Top-Five in the League
Last year, the Colts offense - statistically - was just average. They finished 15th in yards per game and 14th in points per game. That's just middle of the pack. But this year, they really could finish in the top-five in the league. Seriously. Their receiving talent is more than good enough. T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief, Griff Whalen, and Da'Rick Rogers make for the best six-deep receiver position in the NFL, and then tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener will provide two good receiving targets as well. Oh, and the guy leading the show for the Colts, quarterback Andrew Luck, is pretty good too. He is poised for a big year and is in complete control of the offense. We've also seen the worst of Trent Richardson (that might be it's own bold prediction?), and then Ahmad Bradshaw and Dan Herron could both be good change of pace backs (and, if Bradshaw stays healthy, could be the team's best back). And although the offensive line has a lot of questions, I still don't think it will be worse than last year (another bold prediction?). The only reason for this offense not to be great in 2014 is if they insist on being a run-first team. Regardless of whether they start the season that way, i don't think it'll stay that way for long. With Andrew Luck leading the charge and the weapons this passing game has, the Colts offense will be a top-five unit in the league this year.
2. This Colts Defense will be their Best since the Tony Dungy Era
In 2007, the Colts defense ranked first in the league in points per game and third in the league in yards per game. In 2008, the Colts ranked seventh in the league in points per game and eleventh in the league in yards per game. Since then, the defense hasn't come close to being a top unit. Ever since Tony Dungy retired (following the 2008 season), the defense has finished in the top ten in either category just twice (eighth in points per game in 2009 and ninth in points per game in 2013). Their average rank in the past five years has been 17.8th in the league in points per game and 21.8th in the league in yards per game. Last year, the Colts defense improved under Chuck Pagano. They finished as a top-ten defense in terms of points per game (9th) and while they still weren't great overall (20th overall in yards), there were noticeable strides forward. This year, Pagano has the most talent and the best fit for his hybrid 3-4 system since he's come to Indianapolis, and it's not really close. The defensive line could actually be a strength (there's another bold prediction!) with Cory Redding, Josh Chapman, and Arthur Jones as the starters and then Ricky Jean Francois, Montori Hughes, and Zach Kerr as depth. Jerrell Freeman and D'Qwell Jackson will make a good, reliable inside linebacking core. Without Robert Mathis, the defense will struggle with pass rush, but Mathis will return after week four and Bjoern Werner will have a better season than a year ago (yet another bold prediction). The secondary - if healthy - could be a good one too, with Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, Darius Butler, LaRon Landry, and Mike Adams. The corners are good and the safeties are solid. And if the front seven plays well and the secondary stays healthy, then this defense could easily be the best since the Tony Dungy era.
3. Andrew Luck will Finish in the Top-Three in MVP Voting
We kind of went over this one in the first bold prediction so I'll keep this brief, but there's no reason for Andrew Luck not to have a breakout season. He has a terrific cast of receivers. T.Y. Hilton is close to becoming a legit superstar receiver, and Reggie Wayne is still a reliable possession receiver. Hakeem Nicks could have a resurgence this year as the Colts' number three wideout, and then the trio of Donte Moncrief, Griff Whalen, and probably even Da'Rick Rogers will get some playing time this year. Dwayne Allen is back and I think he might return to being a safety blanket of sorts for Luck. Coby Fleener is a talented receiving tight end too, and then the Colts also have backs who can catch the football. All of those should make for impressive numbers for Luck. Andrew Luck has also shown and will continue to show that he can make plays with his legs. He'll likely have to pull out a few fourth quarter comebacks and/or game winning drives this year. His team should have a good season and win the division. And all of those factors combined should make a very strong case for Luck as MVP, and he could very well end up in the top three of the MVP voting. Oh, and I forgot another pretty big reason, which is that...
4. Pep Hamilton will become Popular
Colts fans have mixed opinions on offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. A lot of the negativity and doubt comes from his run emphasis last year and some questionable play calling. Without denying that either of those facts were disappointing, I think that Colts fans will grow to really like and appreciate Pep Hamilton this year (and see why he's considered by many as a hot head coaching candidate). Last year was Pep's first as an NFL offensive coordinator. He was forced to make significant changes to his offense when he lost Dwayne Allen, a huge piece in his offense. He also lost Donald Thomas, Vick Ballard, and Reggie Wayne. And, toward the end of the season, Pep improved greatly. Greatly. I also thought he was better at play calling this preseason. I think that this year the Colts will play more to their strengths. That doesn't mean that they'll abandon the run, but I think they'll move more toward passing to set up the run rather than running to set up the pass. This isn't a scheme or system change but rather simply letting Andrew Luck play to his potential and his strengths. Oh, and in what certainly could be it's own bold prediction, I think the use of a fullback will greatly decrease until Stanley Havili returns. Ultimately, Pep Hamilton is one of the only people that can stand in the way of a great year from the offense and Andrew Luck. And rather than stand in the way, I expect Pep to be a great help.
5. The Pass Rush will be a Bigger Concern than the Offensive Line
Saying that Colts fans are concerned about the offensive line right now would be an understatement. The constant clamoring for a guy like Richie Incognito shows that full well. And I'm not about to say that those concerns are unfounded. But I think the concerns are mainly about depth, and some of the depth guys will (hopefully) be getting healthy soon. I really don't think this offensive line will be worse than it was last year. The two other real notable concerns are the safety position and the pass rush. With the veteran Mike Adams starting at safety, I think he'll be solid enough. But what is really concerning is the pass rush. With the offensive line, there's the potential to expose Andrew Luck. With the pass rush, there's the potential to expose the secondary. Andrew Luck has shown such a tendency to break tackles, avoid sacks, buy time, throw on the run, and make plays with his feet that I'm confident he can do it again. It's not ideal, I know, but I think that Luck can do it this year. We can have a separate discussion about Ryan Grigson needing to do a better job at protecting Luck, but there's not much to do about it now. It's up to Luck to make plays, and I think he can - though it's a dangerous game allowing your quarterback to take that many hits. The secondary, on the other hand, really needs the pass rush. Vontae Davis can be a great corner, but he has had a few bouts of inconsistency. Greg Toler is a good corner, but injury-prone. LaRon Landry could be a solid safety but not really in coverage, and then Mike Adams - well, there's a reason he was a free agent and battling for a starting spot in Colts camp. He'll be a solid veteran but nothing great. Even with the best secondaries, forcing them to cover for a while due to a bad pass rush isn't going to work. For the Colts, they need pass rush. And where will it come from? Well, Robert Mathis after week four. But before week four? Or with Robert Mathis afterwards? The team is counting on Bjoern Werner, but can he produce? I'm more concerned about the pass rush for the Colts, and I think we'll see why as the season begins.