Despite a really critical loss last week to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the hit to the confidence of Colts fans in our weekly FanPulse survey was minimal. What I believe this shows is that our most informed fans understand that this season was never only about the results in the win-loss column. A lot of our confidence has been determined by the progress we have observed.
This season the Colts have shown promise in all the ways we hoped they would. They have a key piece in Darius Leonard who can anchor the defense for years to come. Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay might not be the answers to all the defensive line’s problems, but they have shown promise. Free agent additions like Denico Autry and Eric Ebron have had strong showings and have looked great over stretches.
On offense, they seem to have truly “fixed” the offensive line with the incredible performances of their two rookies Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith. Mark Glowinski has been another pleasant surprise, and when healthy this line is one of the better lines in the league. Their tight end group has a lot of talent, though they’ve struggled when Jack Doyle is out, which he has been for much of this season. As a team, they are greatly improved in terms of talent and upside.
There are plenty of questions that remain though. The wide receiver group is one of the worst in football. Behind T.Y. Hilton is a vast echoing abyss of nothingness with only the sound of a football being dropped reverberating across its space. The cornerbacks are equally rough, unable to play with consistency from one week to the next. They have made some truly middling quarterbacks look very talented.
The defensive line will likely need to be upgraded as well, as guys like Al Woods get older and they continue to look for disruptive pass rushers who can make an impact. The talent they have drafted and signed have no doubt improved the group, and their rookies could continue to develop, but until they can land a true difference making pass rusher, they won’t be able to really take the next step as a defense.
They are still a roster with a great deal of need, but with a quarterback playing at a top 5 level and a head coach who has transformed their offense into a much more dynamic and modern attacking group, they have been able to place themselves in a position to compete this season. Because of this, it would be easy to be frustrated if this team doesn’t achieve a playoff berth.
We don’t watch teams to see them improve, we want them to win. However, Chris Ballard was pretty straightforward in saying that this process would take time, and a look at the scarce talent hanging around from Ryan Grigson’s drafts (Luck, Hilton, Geathers, Kelly, Clark, Haeg) is all you need to see to know how tall the task was to rehab this roster. It was never going to happen overnight, but it is happening perhaps faster than was fair to expect.
The 2018 draft went perhaps better than any in recent memory, and while it is too early to know for sure how good this class is, they have certainly jump started the “rebuild” of this roster. While some like Darius Leonard and Quenton Nelson are bona fide stars, there are many that have contributed a great deal and could improve with time.
In addition to the impact of the picks made this year, the trade last year with the Jets is the gift that keeps on giving. While the Colts were able to use their picks from the Jets to take Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith, that last 2nd round pick is now starting to look like a pretty nice cherry on top as well. If the season were to end today, it would be the 36th pick in the draft. This year’s 36th pick? Darius Leonard. In other words, there are very good players available at that spot.
As it currently stands, the Colts have the opportunity to add 3 picks in the top 50 of the coming draft. If Chris Ballard has a comparable draft to the one he had in 2018 I don’t think it is a reach to say this team has the potential to be a real contender in 2019.
On top of their draft, there is the Colts’ cap space for 2019. They’ll have $123.65M available according to Spotrac when the new league year begins. While I don’t expect Ballard to dramatically alter his strategy, I do expect him to spend. He’ll probably re-sign some players, work extensions with a few, and bring in a fair number of free agents if there are solid options are available.
Those expecting him to break the bank for players have a) not been paying attention and b) will likely be very disappointed. Overpaying for a player isn’t a good strategy, even if you have the money to do it. In the long run, it hurts the team, and that is not how Ballard operates.
He will need to spend, and given how well the Colts did, I expect them to be looking for pieces that might have been considered less likely for them to pursue last season. However, the big name flashy guys are rarely going to be fits for what Chris Ballard is looking for. He has been crystal clear about his philosophy, and that is that you build the primary part of your team’s talent from the draft. However, I do expect him to spend, as well as to reward the play of those in the building who have earned it.
On top of the additions to the roster, there is the inherent improvement of a team that is both very young and playing for the first time in a scheme on both offense and defense. The Colts have had more snaps given to 1st and 2nd year players of any team in the NFL this season. Player growth and improvement alone will account for team wide improvement as these players hone their craft.
Andrew Luck will enter his second season with the same offense. He has only had two other times in his career where his offensive coordinator has remained the same two years in a row. Those years? 2014 and 2016. If you’ll recall, he had pretty good seasons during both those years. If his second year working with Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni yields the same kinds of improvements in terms of his own play, we could easily be looking at an MVP type year for Luck.
In other words, the Colts look like a team that has outperformed expectations this season despite having a lot of known holes on their roster. They have all the pieces in place to take the next step forward, and Chris Ballard has shown himself to be level headed, intentional, and adept at selecting pieces that fit well in the Colts’ system and improve the roster.
It has been perplexing to many when we have posted the fan base’s FanPulse results, why Colts fans have remained so optimistic despite some truly disappointing losses and a very rough start to the season. This is the reason. While there have been some bumps this season, over all, it has been a success. We can see the makings of a very good team. What’s more, that reality is not far off.