Last week, we brought up the topic of Football Outsiders' projections for the 2016 season being partially revealed in Todd McShay's 2017 mock draft, as the draft order based on those projections had the Colts picking 13th next year.
Today, Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz unveiled the early projected records and standings in the AFC, filling in the gaps that we didn't have last week. And according to the projection, the Colts will finish third in the AFC South with a 7-9 record.
Football Outsiders projects the Texans to win the division with an 8-8 record, and then they project the Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, and Tennessee Titans all to finish 7-9 - meaning that there would be just a one game difference (1.4 mean wins, according to Football Outsiders' numbers) between first and last place in a very close AFC South race. In the division standings, however, the Colts are listed as third behind both the Texans and the Jaguars.
This is different from what was included in the mock draft, as the Colts picked 13th and the Jaguars 12th - indicating that the Colts were in second and the Jaguars third in a very tight division. Instead, the Jaguars and Colts are both projected to go 7-9, though the Jaguars' mean win total is projected at 7.4, while the Colts' mean win total is projected at 7.1. Here's what Schatz wrote about the Colts:
With Andrew Luck hopefully healthy for all 16 games, it sure seems as though we should go back to favoring the Colts to return to dominating a weak division. But our projection system is accounting here for the fact that the Colts' offense wasn't very good even when Luck was on the field last season. Subjectively, we might explain away Luck's Week 1-3 performance as an early-season slump, and we might explain away his Week 6-8 performance as coming back too soon from his first injury. Objectively, our projection system sees that the Colts would have finished 20th in offensive DVOA even if we only counted games with Luck in the lineup. Meanwhile, the Colts probably will have the oldest defense in the league, generally an indicator of decline. Six projected starters will be 30 or older, as will pass-rush specialist Robert Mathis and nickelback Darius Butler.
Without a doubt, a 7-9 season and a third place finish in the AFC South would be massively disappointing for the Colts. Even though a lot of their moves this offseason have been geared toward sustained success in the future rather than immediate success, they are still expected to compete for the division title with the return of Andrew Luck.
Of course, Football Outsiders is working under the assumption that Luck will play exactly like he did last year, when he turned the football over 13 times in seven games and wasn't overly effective. If Luck doesn't bounce back, then a seven win season isn't out of the question. But the assumption from most is that Luck will be better in 2016 as he returns healthy, and if that's the case then the Colts should absolutely be in contention for the AFC South title and should have a better year than they did last year. Football Outsiders' initial projection don't take that into account, however, as they have the Colts finishing third in their division with a 7-9 record.