Entering the 2017 season, there was hope that Andrew Luck would return to the field fully recovered from his off-season shoulder surgery. He would be joining a group on offense that was already competitive in 2016. There were a lot of relatively young pieces, some who were entering a potential breakout seasons. The wide receiver group was considered particularly talented and deep, a rookie running back was added through the draft with a big play reputation, and a basketball convert at tight end was entering a full season in a bigger role after breaking out last year.
So much of this went the opposite direction that it has crippled an otherwise competitive offense. Luck would not return. Another dip into veteran free agency at wide receiver would fail. Injuries would decimate an already shaky offensive line. Even tight end was left bare for much of the season. With this in mind, we are going to take an early look at the Colts offensive needs through free agency and the draft in 2018.
The Colts were more active at the quarterback position than might have otherwise been predicted. With Luck unable to meet the most optimistic timetables for a Week 1 return and with Scott Tolzien not representing a great long-term solution at backup quarterback, Chris Ballard chose to trade wide receiver Phillip Dorsett to New England for their third string quarterback, Jacoby Brissett.
The upside to all of this is that the Colts acquired a young aspiring NFL quarterback on his rookie contract who had already won in the NFL. He has NFL arm strength, is athletic enough to get yards on the ground, and has been one of the most accurate deep ball throwers in the NFL this year. He has a lot of learning yet to do and a nasty habit of holding onto the ball for too long (sound familiar?) but has shown legitimate promise.
If Luck is able to return in 2018, as is expected, the Colts could be completely set at quarterback. A healthy Luck with Brissett backing him up is an ideal situation. If the Colts choose to move Brissett in order to acquire draft picks to utilize at other positions, there is no player on the roster who can reliably serve as the backup quarterback next season.
When the Indianapolis Colts used a fourth round pick to add running back Marlon Mack in the 2017 NFL draft, he represented the greatest draft investment in the position since the Colts took Delone Carter in the 4th round in 2011. One big reason they’ve had the luxury of delaying this investment is that Frank Gore signed with the team in 2015.
A backfield that is composed of Mack entering his second season, Gore if he could be brought back on a reasonable one or two year deal, and even Robert Turbin as a short-yardage and goal line specialist is not awful. It is more likely that the Colts allow Gore to move on to a team he might perceive as being more immediately competitive for a championship (if he finds any suitors) and will need to add a new runner to share the load with Mack.
Heading into training camp, the Colts had a group at wide receiver that featured former third round pick T.Y. Hilton, former third round pick Donte Moncrief, former first round pick Phillip Dorsett, and two undrafted free agents in Kamar Aiken and Chester Rogers. Aiken had career numbers in 2015, when he was asked to be the primary target in Baltimore. Rogers showed some flashes of potential in 2016. Dorsett had yet to figure things out but had blazing speed and potential if he could develop as a route runner. Moncrief had proven to be a dangerous red zone receiver early in his career who was simply waiting to breakout into a bigger role.
Instead, Dorsett was traded to New England for quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Aiken has been one of the biggest disappointments as a free agent receiver acquisition in a long line of free agent receivers in Indianapolis over the last five years. Rogers spent much of the first half of the season on the sidelines with a hamstring injury. Moncrief has not been regularly targeted or made any meaningful impact in his contract season. Only T.Y. Hilton has continued to produce and has played a huge role in every Colts win (3 games).
Looking forward, the future is much hazier than it appeared a season ago. While all of these players may have some measure of an excuse that Brissett is new to the offense, doesn’t throw with any touch on short routes, and doesn’t get through his progressions efficiently or recognize an open receiver quick enough, there is a chance that only Hilton and Rogers remains in 2018.
There are a numerous high profile wide receivers hitting free agency this off-season that represent potential replacements. Moncrief could be retained as he is only 24 years old and has not been targeted much under a new quarterback. Regardless, this is a position that could undergo some pretty significant changes before the Colts take the field for summer camp in 2018.
Veteran tight end Jack Doyle was Andrew Luck’s favorite check down target in 2016. He grew into a primary tight end role and carried great expectations into the season. After a rough start to 2017, he has settled down and is again one of the most reliable receiving options on the team. It is who composes the rest of the position that has been less certain this season.
Erik Swoope was projected to earn a lot of snaps but a knee scope held him out through the Colts bye week and forced others into a more prominent role. Brandon Williams is a journeyman who was primarily known for his abilities as a blocker. He has surprised some with better hands then expected. Undrafted rookie free agent Darrell Daniels made the team and has been able to stick around all season. Henry Krieger-Coble has also bounced on and off of the roster to help fill in when one of these players were unable to go.
There is still a reason to be excited about Swoope’s potential but until he takes the field, he will represent an unknown. Williams and Daniels both seem like depth options only and not players who should be asked to take on primary roles. Krieger-Coble has shown excellent hands in Indianapolis and Denver but has failed to stick at this point in his career. While this may not necessarily be a priority position, Swoope’s development will be the key to how much the position will require in free agency or the draft.
The Colts offensive line has been a work in progress for several years. During all of that work, the only constant has been Anthony Castonzo holding down the left tackle position. While it is fair to suggest that the Colts could find better players to take over in this role, it is also accurate to say that he is an average NFL starting left tackle who has played at about the same level for a number of years.
On the other side, though, there is no real certainty. Joe Haeg has been starting at right tackle and doing relatively well. Denzelle Good started the season at the position and he also flashed potential. Le’Raven Clark was brought in to fill one of the tackle positions but finds himself on the bench fighting to keep a spot on the roster. Do any of these players represent the long-term future at either tackle position?
With the potential for coaching staff changes, it is possible that even Chris Ballard doesn’t completely know the answer to that question. One thing is certain, these last 6 weeks are an extended audition for whoever takes snaps at tackle.
Similar to Anthony Castonzo, the only real constant for the Colts at guard has been Jack Mewhort. He has played through knee injuries over the past couple of seasons that may put his career in doubt. Still, he has been an average to above average guard who makes more positive plays than negative ones. As with Castonzo, the question has always been who plays on the other side.
The list of potential guards in Indianapolis is overwhelming. Joe Haeg has played inside at guard, Denzelle Good has as well, Jeremy Vujnovich has started all season at left guard, and Kyle Kalis has been given an extended opportunity. The team even has Tyreek Burwell and Isaiah Williams on the roster who could potentially be used inside or outside.
The issue is that none of these players has established confidence at the position. With Mewhort set to be a free agent while managing what could be a career ending knee condition, Vujnovich being a weak spot on the line all season, and no one inspiring confidence at right guard, this is a position that will require considerable off-season attention. It is appropriate that this attention come through both free agency and the draft.
Until the offensive line gets straightened out, few other priorities on the roster will matter much.
The Indianapolis Colts have invested a first round pick in Ryan Kelly to be the long-term starter at the center position. He has been a strong starter with Pro Bowl level potential. Behind him, the Colts found an undrafted player out of Indianapolis named Deyshawn Bond who showed some flashes of doing some very positive things while Kelly was out with an injury.
Between veteran free agent addition Mike Person and second-year player Deyshawn Bond, the Colts have some options that are already in-house. It is unlikely that there were be considerable attention or resources allocated to bringing in new players here.
Primary offensive needs: G, RB, OT, WR