As Chris Ballard and the Indianapolis Colts prepare for the thick of the throes in this massive rebuild the rest of the AFC South appears to be putting them in their rear-view mirror in terms of overall roster talent. It’s difficult enough to remain competitive while retooling a roster, but they’re now also taking on a new head coach and supplementary staff, the schemes on each side of the ball and are only in Ballard’s second season running the show.
Andrew Luck looks as though he’s going to return for the 2018 season on time, and looks great physically as the Colts begin their offseason program. The Colts still have playmakers in T.Y. Hilton and second-year running back Marlon Mack who are a danger to get into the end zone any time they touch the ball.
But, we all know there are a litany of positions in which the Colts need to find starters, and the depth at a lot of those same positions needs to be greatly improved — and is just as crucial to earning some success.
The Colts divisional foes, at the moment, are much closer to being ‘complete’ teams. The Jacksonville Jaguars actually reached the conference championship last season despite having to work the play-action game to death with Blake Bortles taking the snaps. The Tennessee Titans also earned their way into the divisional round, and the Houston Texans could reasonably have been the best of the three in 2017 had Deshaun Watson remained healthy.
Since then, the Colts’ AFC South rivals have continued to stack their talent through the offseason. The Colts have been relatively low-key in free agency and seem content building almost exclusively through the draft over the next few seasons.
So, the question that begs answering; Can the Colts legitimately compete in the near future within their own division?
The Jaguars have continued to build a large portion of their capable talent through free agency but stayed relatively young with their targets this season. Nabbing guard Andrew Norwell was massive, and they went out to retool their wide receivers by adding Donte Moncrief and re-signing Marqise Lee in the midst of allowing Allen Robinson to leave and releasing Allen Hurns.
Those weren’t positive moves in my honest opinion, but they also replaced Marcedes Lewis with Niles Paul and Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the tight end room. The Jags went with experience in the secondary by adding D.J. Hayden to the roster as well as a couple safeties.
Additionally, adding such guys as A.J. Bouye, Malik Jackson, and Calais Campbell — among many others — in recent years along with getting some great production from draft picks has built a defense with elite potential and has proven to mitigate what they lack at quarterback right now. The Jags are going to be a real thorn in the side of the Colts’ offense if they stay healthy.
The Jaguars have only 4 players older than 29 at the moment, however, they have several bordering that group at 28-years old and could slowly lower their group age within the next couple drafts.
The Titans have done most of their work through the draft themselves, and have had some solid production with the likes of Adoree Jackson Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin among some others. They have had a head coaching change as well, hiring Mike Vrabel, and have been active in free agency so far with additions such as Josh Kline, Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, Bennie Logan and some additional pieces to bolster their roster heading into the 2018 season.
Though the Titans have some key pieces to their roster who are among the team’s oldest, they don’t appear to be affected by it at the moment. They have a nice mix of youth and experience spread out among the different position groups, and some of their elder statesmen are also still among their most productive.
A Marcus Mariota breakout year in 2018 could shoot them up the list in the AFC in terms of being contenders, but they’ll have to hit on some of Vrabel and Jon Robinson’s initial picks together as they have 8 players 29 or older and have a ton (14) on the cusp of being in that group at age 28.
The Texans have slowly attempted to get younger, and the fact that Watson appears to be a monumental find at quarterback could allow them some leniency in having to take any drastic measures just based on the age of the roster. The likes of J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney on that front seven, and adding Zach Fulton and Aaron Colvin as well as re-signing some of their existing talent puts the Texans in a pretty good spot going into the draft.
The Texans have 9 players 29 or older, but most of their current roster is 27 or younger. Despite their pass defense being down last year, the re-emergence of Mercilus and Watt will have an impact as there, as well as will adding a solid draft class around them. They will likely also get Watson another weapon or two.
The Colts, with building through the draft being such a point of emphasis going forward under Ballard, do still have some quality talent on the roster. The problem is that it’s not spread out as nicely as some of the others within the division.
As it stands, Hilton is the Colts only legitimate deep threat, the offensive line has been addressed, but still has a ton to prove, the running back group is so much of an unknown right now that it is difficult to see its all-around prowess situationally and the team’s pass rush is a major question mark any way you look at it, just to name a few issues.
In terms of building long-term success, despite how things may look right now, I think you can say that the division is fairly even in creating sustained success. The rest of the AFC South looks to be in position to have to sustain, and build, to maintain where they currently sit, while the Colts are in a prime situation to focus on just the building of a top AFC roster.
So much depends on how the 2017 draft class bounces back this season. Malik Hooker will have to stay healthy and Quincy Wilson has to prove that Chuck Pagano was an absolute fool to hold him back last season. Marlon Mack can’t be limited to being a home run hitter outside of the tackles, Tarell Basham has a ton of work to do in multiple areas, Nate Hairston has to maintain a consistent improvement and Grover Stewart and Anthony Walker have to do their part to become quality rotational players at a minimum.
On top of that, the incoming draft class really needs to be a hit for Ballard and the Colts. There’s no reason that, with Andrew Luck, the Colts can’t take their 2017 season into the playoffs. But, Luck’s been out of football for a good while now and even if he’s healthy as an Ox, we don’t actually know what percentage he’ll be playing at in comparison to his first few seasons under center.
We know what he can do, but is that what he will do early enough in the season to keep the Colts on an upward trajectory towards a playoff run?
Expectations for 2018 aren’t, and shouldn’t be for the Colts to be back to instant contenders. But, looking at it from a different angle, the Colts could go a long way towards becoming the most stable roster in the coming years with a little bit of luck over the next several months. Three years from now the AFC South could potentially be the most brutal division in football, with that distinction holding a very different meaning than it has in recent history.