While a great deal is certain to change from now until the start of 2018 NFL regular season, it is relatively safe to assume that a big chunk of Frank Reich’s first Colts roster is already in Indianapolis. We will take a look at each position and attempt to predict the regular season depth chart based upon who is already participating in OTAs, will assign tentative grades to each position at this point in the off-season, and speculate on which players should garner serious consideration to bump someone off of the roster at each position.
We cannot possibly know who will be cut on teams as the regular season approaches so we’ll only use current free agents when we consider outside possibilities for the roster.
OFFENSE — 25 : Overall Grade — B
QB - Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett — Grade: A
While we are still left to only speculate and wonder about whether Andrew Luck will be ready to start the season, there are strong indications that he is preparing to be the guy Week 1. He is actively participating in the offense but is holding off on throwing a football until he gets closer to training camp. Assuming he is ready, Indianapolis will have one of the best quarterback rooms in the league.
— No free agents are likely targets at this point.
RB - Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, Robert Turbin, Jordan Wilkins — Grade: C-
The weakness of the Colts interior offensive line has made it difficult to get a clear picture of what the backfield can do. I believe this committee of running backs has some real big play potential and that at least two of the three are the type of hybrid weapon that Frank Reich will deploy all over the field to create mismatches and confuse defenses. If the offensive line is considerably better, these players can take it to the house.
It wouldn’t shock me if Robert Turbin is cut as a part of a youth movement and that Jordan Wilkins gets short-yardage opportunities. It also wouldn’t shock me if Josh Ferguson is retained, especially if he shows potential in the return game. Reich likes interchangeable parts and having three options in the mold of Mack, Hines, and Ferguson may interest him. This position could also be prime for a free agent addition — likely at final cut downs.
— Of current free agents, only Terrence West has gotten attention from the front office. He could be an addition but it seems tentative at best.
WR - T.Y. Hilton, Chester Rogers, Ryan Grant, Reece Fountain, Deon Cain, Steve Ishmael — Grade: C
The Colts often start the season heavy at wide receiver. This group is very boom or bust so I gave it a C grade. If Chester Rogers does what I thought he was capable of doing last season, when he was without Andrew Luck, he could be one of the bigger surprises of the roster. Ryan Grant might be the most legitimate possession third receiver the Colts have had in some time. The breakout potential of Deon Cain is worth monitoring closely — he could even push for a starting spot sooner rather than lately.
On the other hand, this group could entirely under-perform. Fountain may have a rough time making the transition to the NFL. Rogers may not show some of the splashes he did as a rookie. Grant could be the next in line of Colts free agent wide receiver failures.
— The biggest name in free agency in Dez Bryant but it is hard to predict the impact he would have in the locker room. Ballard would have to feel confident he wouldn’t negatively impact team chemistry. If Bryant is healthy — a rare thing these days — he could be a big weapon.
This just feels more like it could be Andre Johnson signing in Indianapolis than Randy Moss signing in New England.
TE - Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron, Erik Swoope — Grade: A
This is one of the most exciting groups for the Colts offense. Jack Doyle is a reliable pass-catcher and an average blocker — he also has great chemistry with Luck or Brissett. Eric Ebron is a toy that Frank Reich will likely use heavily all over the field to create mismatches. He loves utilizing more than one tight end and has coached his fair share of athletic superstars at the position. Erik Swoope is in the most important off-season of his life. If he can show the ability to abuse linebackers in space the way he did on occasion in 2016, he could be an important weapon and provide incredible depth for the Colts offense.
The biggest downside from this group is the lack of a true blocker and there is a very real possibility that Ballard and Reich will look to find someone to add to this position group after cuts. It is also quite possible they will look to keep four TEs on the roster given Reich’s heavy use of them.
— There is very little available on the open market that jumps out at this time.
T - Anthony Castonzo, Austin Howard, Denzelle Good, Le’Raven Clark — Grade: B-
Anthony Castonzo is one of the more underappreciated players on the Colts offensive line. Fans in Indianapolis have grown so weary from watching Andrew Luck under duress that I think they create unrealistic expectations for a player who plays the toughest position on the offensive line. There is a very real chance that one of Denzelle Good or Le’Raven Clark does not make the cut with this group. I believe that Austin Howard and Good are the front-runners for starting duties at right tackle. However, if Clark can find his way under a new offensive line coach and in a hybrid blocking scheme, he has the athletic ability to make his presence felt.
The tackle position is still a bit weak but the combination of Castonzo and Howard/Good can likely look a whole lot better with upgrades on the interior.
— Nothing particularly exciting is sitting in free agency. Greg Robinson has been a massive disappointment so unless a reclamation project is in the cards, it seems unlikely that anything would happen at the position until cut day.
G - Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith, Jack Mewhort, Joe Haeg — Grade: A-
No position on the Colts offensive line has gone through as much of an overhaul as the guard position. Quenton Nelson is a clear Week 1 starter and is projected to be Pro Bowl caliber as a rookie. Braden Smith will compete for the chance to start early in the season as well. A healthy Jack Mewhort is solid inside. While Matt Slauson is listed as center in this depth chart, he too will be in the hunt to start Week 1.
Joe Haeg is pushed to the bubble here. He isn’t particularly gifted at any one position on the line but is able to play both guard spots and both tackle spots if needed. Players like that are valuable for depth and so he likely sticks around.
— Absent an injury, at this point, the Colts are set here.
C - Ryan Kelly, Matt Slauson — Grade: A-
If Ryan Kelly is completely healthy to start the season, the Colts may have one of the better interior offensive lines in the NFL, and that could include two starting rookies. There is every reason to believe that Kelly will improve with better guard play around him and that they should make life much easier for Andrew Luck in the pocket and for the running backs in between the tackles.
— Similar to guard, absent injury it would seem that Ballard has every reason to be comfortable here.
DEFENSE — 26 : Overall Grade — C-
DT - Al Woods, Hassan Ridgeway, Grover Stewart, Tyquan Lewis, Rakeem Nunez-Roches — Grade: C+
This version of the Indianapolis Colts defensive line will look drastically different than the last four or five years. The one-gap base four man front that Matt Eberflus will employ will not ask the interior defensive linemen to eat up double teams or “plug” gaps. This new system will ask the interior defenders to “fill” the gaps by beating the man across from them.
The upside potential of this new philosophy is the chance to be more disruptive in the passing game and generate more pressure. The downside is that the only proven meat in the middle is Al Woods. How Grover Stewart develops will go a long way in determining how strong this group can be.
It is hard for me to cut Margus Hunt because I think that he showed the ability to be a one-gap penetrator and disruptor last season. However, he is 30 years old and was a better fit as a 3-4 defensive end than he has been in a 4-3. The youth movement can push him out. His special teams prowess could keep him in.
Hassan Ridgeway is the biggest boom or bust prospect for me in the new system and is not a Ballard pick, maybe Hunt wins out over Ridgeway.
— The only current free agent who could make sense for the Colts roster is Johnathan Hankins and is entirely unlikely that he will be signed back to the team after they jettisoned him for not fitting into the new scheme. In terms of talent on the interior though, Hankins is only 26 and could play the one-tech.
DE - Jabaal Sheard, Denico Autry, Kemoko Turay, Tarrell Basham — Grade: C-
At first glance, it is very possible that the Chris Ballard will keep five defensive ends. I only have four ends listed here. Keep in mind that some players I list at DT are currently listed as DEs on the Colts roster. If there is another player who breaks through, Chris McCain may has an edge due to his experience, age, and because he is known as a rush specialist.
The reason this group earns a C- grade is because so much is entirely unknown. I have no doubt that Jabaal Sheard will be a A- or B+ defensive end. I look forward to seeing him go to work in the new system. Behind him, Basham was inconsistent and we’ll have to wait to see how big of a step forward he has taken in a year. Turay is a project player and may only be utilized as a specialist in his rookie season — much like Robert Mathis. Autry is listed as a defensive end but could play all over the line and isn’t really an edge rusher.
It is hard to get a good feel for this group.
— Defensive ends don’t linger in the free agent market. At this point in the off-season there is nothing to be found. Cut day could be intriguing though.
LB - John Simon, Najee Goode, Darius Leonard, Skai Moore, Matthew Adams, Anthony Walker, Zaire Franklin — C+
I still cannot bring myself to put John Simon with the defensive ends in this group. I believe the best trio at linebacker will be Darius Leonard, Najee Goode/Skai Moore, and John Simon. Leonard has the speed and range to play in the WILL role right away as a rookie. As a rookie, I expect that he will learn some hard lessons.
Goode is underappreciated by fans at this point and has the experience to play the MIKE position but Moore’s physical development and knack for knocking down or intercepting passes could result in a role in sub packages. Where John Simon makes the most sense to me is in the SAM role where his snaps are somewhat limited, he can set the edge against the run and play aggressively toward the line of scrimmage, and use his athleticism to be decent against the pass as well.
The biggest surprise player at linebacker could be Matthew Adams, who I believe could compete for reps on the strong side as well. The reason the unit is graded relatively poorly is because youth often leads to mistakes and this group is entirely unproven.
— The top option in free agency is Mychal Kendricks, who was just released by the Philadelphia Eagles. He could play at multiple positions in the new Colts defense and is the type of athlete Matt Eberflus covets.
CB - Quincy Wilson, Pierre Desir, Nate Hairston, Kenny Moore, Michael Cirino — Grade: B-
The Colts currently have a relatively thin group at cornerback. I like the prospects of Quincy Wilson, Pierre Desir, and Nate Hairston as starters. I really liked the amount of progress Kenny Moore made in his rookie season as well — frankly I didn’t see it early in the year. After those four, there is nothing that is particularly inspiring.
What would be ideal here is to bring in Bashaud Breeland to start opposite Wilson and have Desir ready to play in a rotational role, or based upon match-ups. Having Desir and Moore as bench players, with Moore as one of the team’s most active special teams coverage specialists, could make the group much better.
— As mentioned above, Breeland is the lone starting caliber cornerback in free agency. Ballard has the cap space to bring him into the fold and it makes a ton of sense to pick him up as a veteran presence in the secondary. At 26 years old he should be entering his prime, assuming he recovers from his foot injury.
S - Malik Hooker, Clayton Geathers, Matthias Farley, Chris Cooper, T.J. Green — Grade: A-
The biggest reason this unit gets an A- is health related. Will Malik Hooker start right away? If he does, will it take him some time to get up to full speed? My guess is that he doesn’t start Week 1 and that even when he does start it will take some time to get going again. ACL/MCL injuries tend to work this way.
Clayton Geathers was arguably the best Colts defender in 2016 until he injured his neck against the Tennessee Titans. He was able to make a recovery from neck surgery and took the field last year but can he hold up given his proclivity to punish ball carriers and play in the box?
Arguably the most overlooked member of the Colts secondary is Matthias Farley. He is a legitimate starting safety in the NFL and is currently slated to play only a rotational role. I have little doubt he will do very well on special teams and that he will make his presence known when he gets on the field for the defense as well.
— It is somewhat fascinating that Tre Boston, Eric Reid, and Kenny Vaccaro are all still free agents. For a team with a lot of cap space available, Ballard could grab one of these players and have a very strong unit.
SPECIAL TEAMS — 3 : Overall Grade — B+
K - Adam Vinatieri — Grade: B+
There is very little reason for concern at kicker until Vinatieri shows legitimate signs of aging. He is still one of the top 5-10 kickers in the NFL and will easily break the all-time NFL scoring record this season.
— No free agents are relevant until the ageless one retires.
P - Rigoberto Sanchez — Grade: B+
Perhaps one of the more intriguing players at an undervalued position is Rigoberto Sanchez. He showed signs of being a deadly weapon last season and made it relatively easy for the Colts fan base to move on from Pat McAfee. Boomstick had a bigger leg than Sanchez but I’m not convinced he was meaningfully better as a directional punter at any point in his career. If Sanchez worked hard on his craft during the off-season, he could still be a valuable piece.
— No need for a free agent here.
LS - Luke Rhodes — Grade: B-
No offense to Luke Rhodes but it is difficult to get excited about long snappers. I suppose he is probably the most ripped long snapper in the NFL, if not NFL history, so he has that going for him. He also didn’t make glaring mistakes last season so... give him an A?
Meh, I’ll go with B-. I suspect that among long snapping specialists, he is probably about average. There is nothing wrong with that.
— I doubt there is a free agent move pending at long snapper. One would assume there would already be another player at the position in the fold if Ballard was worried about the position.