For all but four teams in the NFL, the offseason has already begun. For the Indianapolis Colts, they’ve been in offseason mode for weeks, as they missed the playoffs for the second straight year after a second straight 8-8 record.
Without a doubt, this offseason will be HUGE for the Colts. They’re currently further away from the Super Bowl than they’ve ever been in the Andrew Luck era, and that should be a haunting fact for Jim Irsay and the rest of the Colts’ leadership. In order to ensure that they don’t squander Luck’s prime, they need to lay a good foundation this offseason. It’s not Super Bowl or bust for this team in 2017 (though it might be for Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano if they’re still around), but the Colts definitely need to take significant strides forward in building the team.
To start with, here are seven things that I think the Colts need to focus on this offseason. This is far from a comprehensive list and won’t address everything the Colts need to fix, nor will they all seem adequate to everyone (such as on the offensive line), but these are the things I think they have to do this offseason to take steps towards improving both next season and long term:
Figure out the leadership situation
The biggest question of them all in Indianapolis right now is regarding Ryan Grigson, Chuck Pagano, and who will be leading the Colts in 2017. And while the point of this article isn’t to rehash these matters, this subject is absolutely crucial for this offseason. Depending on who’s in charge, there might be different priorities or more change in certain scenarios, but at the very least the Colts need to know who’s in charge before they can truly get into other matters. The good news is that all the Colts can really do right now is sign guys to reserve/future contracts, but the bottom line is that the Colts need to know who’s leading the charge this offseason before getting into their moves.
So here’s what we know right now: Jim Irsay has been silent since the end of the regular season and very much pursued Jon Gruden as head coach and Peyton Manning as an executive to run the football operations. Gruden said no and Manning sounds unlikely, at least right now and for this year. Based on everything we’ve heard, we can conclude that Irsay has led a targeted search and that Gruden and Manning were his guys. So that would seem to indicate that Grigson and Pagano will be back, unless Irsay had already determined that he would fire Pagano regardless (which, in that case, why not do it right away?) or that he’s too far gone with his pursuit becoming public that he needs to make a change. If that’s the case, a decision would likely come soon, which would enable the team to transition fully into this offseason.
Address the pass rush
On the field, the Colts’ biggest need is at pass rush - though that’s nothing new. This has been a need for years for Indy, and in 2016 we once again saw that issue pop up. Making things more complicated is the fact that Robert Mathis has retired and that Erik Walden and Trent Cole are set to become free agents. Those guys accounted for 18 sacks last year, while Walden (11) and Mathis (5) were numbers one and two on the team in sacks. Because of that, the team could view this offseason one of two ways: either as a problem because they’ve got so many free agents, or as an opportunity because they’re not hindered by space. Whereas last year the Colts would have needed to cut Cole and/or Mathis and/or Walden to create both cap space and roster spots for other pass rushers, this offseason they won’t have to worry about that because they’re basically starting from ground zero (with a few guys like Akeem Ayers and Curt Maggitt worth noting as well).
So the Colts will have significant cap room and roster spots to make some moves at outside linebacker. They could opt to bring back Erik Walden, or they could opt to look in free agency at other outside linebackers. There are some guys who potentially could come available who could be targets for the Colts, and linebackers will be in high demand. We don’t know which players will reach deals with their current teams, but the Colts should be monitoring it closely. Furthermore, the Colts should look to the draft to add pass rushers as well - and the good thing for Colts fans, as Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller noted, is that “it’s a very good EDGE class.” Adding a legitimate pass rusher (or multiple) would probably be the single biggest thing the Colts could do on-the-field to help this defense, because of how much an effective pass rush can impact other areas as well.
Address the inside linebacker position
Going along with the outside linebacker position and pass rushers, the Colts will need to focus on the inside linebacker position - an area that was also a big weakness last year. The Colts gambled last offseason in letting Jerrell Freeman walk, but they didn’t have a viable replacement. They went from Nate Irving to Sio Moore to Josh McNary to Antonio Morrison to Edwin Jackson - and then when D’Qwell Jackson was suspended for the final four games of the season, it was both Antonio Morrison and Edwin Jackson. In short, the position was a mess last year.
Entering 2017, these spots seem wide open just like the outside linebacker spots, though it’s possible D’Qwell Jackson might be filling one of those spots again - but even in that scenario, the Colts could save $5.5 million by cutting him, which has to at least be discussed. The young guys like Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morrison showed some promise at times near the end of the season, but part of the Colts’ horrific run defense last season can be attributed to the inside linebacking corps. The Colts will need to figure out what to do at the position this offseason, and part of that might depend on how much the Colts like the young guys.
Address the secondary
Perhaps the biggest questions regarding the Colts’ secondary right now are about free agents, as both Darius Butler and Mike Adams are set to become free agents this offseason. Both guys played critical roles in the secondary last year, so the question is whether the Colts will re-sign them or not. If they don’t, they’ll need to figure out a replacement plan. At cornerback, Vontae Davis is still a good cornerback, while Patrick Robinson, Rashaan Melvin, and Darryl Morris all are guys the team can continue to work with. But at safety, it’s Clayton Geathers - who suffered a neck injury last season, which is at least worth paying attention to - and T.J. Green - who had a terrible rookie season. Does the team bring back Butler to play safety? Adams? Another free agent? A draft pick? No matter what, the Colts are going to have to address the secondary this offseason, because they can’t afford to be left counting on Green as a full-time starter next year. Hopefully he develops, but they can’t count on it without a fallback plan. So the first question that must be asked is who the Colts will re-sign, and that will determine where the Colts go from there in the secondary.
Develop the offensive line
I don’t emphasize the offensive line as highly on the list of offseason needs as others seem to do, and I’m not suggesting that the Colts need to go out and overhaul their line once again this offseason just like last year. Instead, I actually think the Colts have some pieces in place they could keep working with. Ryan Kelly had a good year at center, Jack Mewhort had a good year at left guard, Anthony Castonzo is a solid left tackle, Joe Haeg seemed to settle in at right guard late in the season, Le’Raven Clark did some nice things as a run blocker late in the year, Jonotthan Harrison impressed at left guard in the last few weeks, Joe Reitz is a very reliable depth guy and sixth man, and Denzelle Good could be a decent depth option as well. Throw all of that together and the Colts are hoping they’ve got a competent offensive line. We didn’t see those results last year, but they could choose to keep working at it.
The Colts made a big investment in the position last offseason and brought in a respected offensive line coach in Joe Philbin, and we saw the results of that development in some of the younger guys as the season went on. So the pressure is going to be on Philbin this offseason to continue to work with these guys and help develop them into capable starters. With the talent the Colts have in house right now they’re not going to have a great line, but it could be a solid one if some guys develop. That’s why I don’t place the emphasis on linemen as highly as others. What the Colts need right now are sure-fire, reliable, quality starters, not developmental guys - which means that the moves that would really help would be to add big-money free agent starters, and I don’t think that’s the wisest use of that money right now. Instead, the pressure should be on Philbin and this coaching staff to work with the young guys already in house to try to field a competent unit.
Find a dynamic running back
This one is less clear than the others, because it’s more specific. What the Colts need here is a guy who can be the long-term replacement for Frank Gore and who can be a dynamic back, something that Gore isn’t at this point in his career anymore. The reality is that for the 2017 season, a combination of Frank Gore and Robert Turbin (who the Colts should re-sign) could probably handle the running back duties once again adequately enough for what the Colts ask of them. But Gore will be 34 years old, and the Colts need to have a plan in place to replace him. It would also help next season as well, giving the team a good young running back who can make plays. Whether this is through the draft or free agency can be debated, but the Colts also shouldn’t spend a ton of investment here at the expense of the defense. But if they could find this type of back, it would be huge for them not only next year, but more importantly for future years.
Re-sign Jack Doyle
Besides working with the offensive line and trying to find a dynamic young running back, the Colts’ offense is pretty much set. The overwhelming emphasis this offseason should be placed on the defense, but there is one free agent in particular I think the Colts should try very hard to bring back on the offensive side of the football: Jack Doyle. This depends quite a bit on his price tag, of course, but Doyle is a very important part of the offense. Last year, he proved that he’s perfectly capable of being a starting tight end, as he played in every game (starting 14) and caught 59 passes for 584 yards and five touchdowns. He was second on the team in both receptions and yards, serving as a security blanket for Andrew Luck. Doyle also proved to be a good blocker as well as he’s a well-rounded player, and he’s a very well-liked and respected member of the locker room. Doyle gives the Colts a ton of flexibility in the offense and at tight end, which is a crucial position in Rob Chudzinski’s offense (see what I mean about how the leadership will impact the direction of the moves?). Doyle is a good player and is worth keeping around in the Indianapolis offense, because after all, you can never have too many Jack Doyles.