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Quick Thoughts: Colts eliminated from playoff contention by Jaguars with 4 games to go

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NFL: Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last two seasons, the Indianapolis Colts have found a way to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot in the AFC South all the way to the end of the season. It left fans wondering what the best choice was without any real hope for any success in the playoffs and glaring needs all over the football team.

If there is any merciful thing about 2017 it is that Colts fans don’t have wait until the last week with any kind of suspense. This year we get that all out of the way early on. Additionally, the glaring weaknesses for the team are still apparent but somehow there is a reason more more hope after the Week 13 dismantling in Jacksonville than there was after the Colts were eliminated from the playoffs late in the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

Consider that in previous seasons the Colts had a middle of the league record that took them out of contention for a high draft pick. Picking in the middle of the pack tends to limit the ability to find a real difference-maker in the first round who can make a drastic impact on your team’s future. More specifically, the team has been desperate to find a marquee pass rusher in free agency or through the draft. Consistency in the regular season makes it difficult to find one of the top players at coveted positions like edge rushers.

This year, Indianapolis will enter the off-season with a lot of work to do in free agency. This includes work to bring back some of their own free agents who should be retained. With a defense who has failed to put together full games and finds itself back at the bottom of the league statistically, it is strange to somehow feel better about the group’s future this season than in previous seasons.

At this time, predicting starters who are deserving of that role is a lot easier than it has been in the past. Consider these positional groups (assuming Ballard retains some players).

Safety: Malik Hooker, Clayton Geathers, Matthias Farley
Cornerback: Rashaan Melvin, Pierre Desir, Nate Hairston, Quincy Wilson

While it is fair to be uncertain about Hooker’s recovery from the ACL surgery and there is still a need to add to this group. There is also reason to believe that a full off-season working together for this unit could put together a respectable secondary without adding a single player from the draft (Melvin and Desir would be retained free agents).

Outside Linebacker: Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, Barkevious Mingo, Tarrell Basham

None of these players is the type of pass rusher the Colts need. Sheard and Simon are tremendous as all-around players who will occasionally have success pressuring the quarterback. Their biggest strength is setting the edge against the run. Mingo and Basham are the most likely to develop into pass rushers but Mingo is a piece you can afford to let go for another option if you find it. Basham is young and has a couple of sacks in his rookie season but has a long way to go.

Defensive Line: Johnathan Hankins, Al Woods, Henry Anderson

This starting unit is very competitive and I would argue could be a top 10 unit with another full off-season working together. The depth isn’t there yet, so this is an area to address but this is an encouraging starting unit.

On the offensive side of the ball there are more questions. What do you do at wide receiver? The offensive line has to be addressed like Ballard’s (and Luck’s) life depends on it. Do you retain Frank Gore if he is willing to come back or is there another hole that needs to be filled?

Somehow it feels good to know that the team will have in excess of $70 million in cap space with primary attention required on the offensive line, inside linebacker, and pass rush. It seems like it might be a little easier to find a reasonable running back and wide receiver later in the draft with Andrew Luck hopefully facing the prospects of a better line blocking in front of him.

Most importantly, this season there is every reason to believe that Chuck Pagano and his coaching staff will not be returning. First-year General Manager Chris Ballard will be about to bring in his own head coach and there will be an opportunity for a rebirth with what I believe is a roster with more overall talent that the one Ballard inherited an off-season ago.

As for the game, my quick thoughts are that the team continues to have the same struggles. Jacoby Brissett is horrible about holding onto the football too long. He has no touch on short passes and wastes downs too often by making poor decisions, bad reads, or fails to get rid of the ball when he is chased out of the pocket. Frank Gore continues to be the most consistent offensive weapon on the team but receives only a limited number of carries. Mack is an inconsistent game breaking talent who is lost as a pass blocker.

It was encouraging to see Donte Moncrief and Chester Rogers get more involved in the offensive game plan. Moncrief was reliable along the sidelines against A.J. Bouye and Rogers made a couple of nice grabs as well. It is super difficult to figure out just where the Colts are at the wide receiver position. Sometimes it seems like there are more talent rich at wide receiver than it seems and that the problems lies more on a young quarterback in a new system who has struggled to get through progressions behind an offensive line who has struggled to provide him with time.

It is encouraging to see Clayton Geathers take on a bigger role on defense. While he continues to be somewhat limited in terms of his defensive snaps, he made two tackles in the game against the run — both for no gain. His instincts are still looking fantastic so absent some kind of setback for his neck, he could offered a strong in the box safety in 2018.

Johnathan Hankins and Al Woods are two very good interior defensive linemen. These guys are a nightmare for every offense they face and they can shut down anyone. They each end every game with a handful of impact plays that force opponents away from their plans to run in between the tackles.

Coming back to the pass rush. Tarrell Basham earned his second sack of the season on a strip sack that the Jaguars were able to recover. The only other quarterback hit of the day was made by Matthias Farley. This simply cannot happen game in an game out against AFC South opponents with any expectation to win football games and get back to the playoffs. This is a huge weakness that must be addressed before the team takes the field in 2018.

The team desperately missed Rashaan Melvin. It cannot afford to lose Pierre Desir as well. Hopefully it can build on this game to continue getting Marlon Mack involved in the offense. It will need to keep Jack Doyle and T.Y. Hilton involved down the stretch if it hopes to find any sustainable success.