In an offseason where several more changes have occured, it’s time to look to the possible leaders for the Indianapolis Colts for the 2018 season. We’ll identify the top returners in each position group, while also projecting the upcoming season’s top additional contributor(s) at their respective positions/position group.
Within this exercise we won’t go in on positions in which only one individual participated at that position for the vast majority of the 2017 season ie: Jacoby Brissett, Adam Vinatieri, Rigoberto Sanchez. We’ll instead focus on positions in which multiple players had similar opportunities to produce as starters or were heavy rotational guys.
Presence in Backfield
Top Returner: Marlon Mack
Mack is the most productive returner for the Colts’ ground game as Frank Gore was allowed to walk this offseason and returned home to Miami to play with the Dolphins. Mack’s 2017 season production came in a distant second to Gore, who was the bell cow, totaling 93 carries, 358 yards and 4 total touchdowns (3 rushing).
His speed and big-play ability is going to give him the early lead in opportunities for the 2018 season as well, but he’s going to have some young help in 2018 as well.
Top Additional Contributors: Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins
Hines and Wilkins are very different backs in comparison to what they currently have in Mack. Hines is much smaller and adds more of a true scat back who can catch out of the backfield and isn’t scared to run between the tackles either. Wilkins, on the other hand, is bigger than Mack and has a completely different running style.
While Robert Turbin did nicely as a short-yardage back in recent years, I’m not so sure his usage will be similar to what it had been within that role.
Top Returners: T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle
With Brissett under center last season, both, Hilton and Doyle were fed pretty consistently among the rest of the pass catchers. Hilton’s targets (109) and receptions (57) dropped from years past, and Doyle’s (108/80) increased considerably given the offense’s limitations.
Both, Hilton and Doyle finished tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns (4) despite both players being largely on their own talent wise at their respective positions. Both positions have received some help this offseason which could affect their future production, but with the return of Luck that could all be mitigated as well.
Top Additional Contributors: Deon Cain, Eric Ebron and Chester Rogers
With the addition of Ebron, the Colts receiving prowess will automatically be spread out more than it was in ‘17 and will lessen the load on Doyle to have to produce so heavily in all areas of the field. Ebron’s 86 targets and 53 receptions would have been good for third in each category for the Colts last season and will open up the options for Luck going forward.
While we haven’t had a consistent workload present itself with Rogers to this point, we know that his work ethic and skillset is worthy of a No. 2 or No. 3 role amongst the wide receiver corps. He was expected to break out last season, and barring any additional injury concerns, it’s reasonable to assume that he’ll have his chance to do so in the 2018 season.
Despite bringing on Ryan Grant in free agency, and fellow draftee Reece Fountain, Deon Cain has the build and ability to become the steal of the draft for the Colts. He’s been given similar monikers thus far through the offseason, and if the flashes he’s shown through OTAs with minimal opportunities continue, he’s certainly going to be in contention for the WR2/3 battle that enters training camp this summer.
Top Returner: Anthony Castonzo
Despite getting the brunt of the criticism over the past couple seasons, Castonzo has been more than a dependable pass protector for the Colts. He’s been highly rated among PFF — for what it’s worth — and hasn’t given up an inordinate amount of sacks.
Like most of the best tackles in the league, he’s struggled against the top pass rushers that he’s faced, but he also wins the overwhelming majority of the matchups he’s supposed to just the same. Without Castonzo over the past several years, the Colts line would have been a total trash heap, but he’s reliable and durable, and that in and of itself says a lot more than several team’s situation at the position.
Top Additional Contributors: Ryan Kelly and Quenton Nelson
There is so much that the Colts were missing with Kelly being out the majority of the 2017 season. Having him back, and having a rookie axe-murderer at left guard between him and Castonzo should completely shore up Luck’s blind side and greatly improve the leaky interior.
Adding veterans at RG and RT in Matt Slauson and Austin Howard are likely to pay dividends in their own rite, but Kelly will undoubtedly come back with unfinished business to settle. Nelson may be actually serve the largest single contribution to the unit given his unprecedented skillset entering the league.
In the end, especially for this unit, nobody cares who plays well along the offensive line so long as someone does and there’s noticeable improvement throughout.
Top Returner: Jabaal Sheard
Sheard returns after leading the Colts with a somewhat ordinary 5.5 sacks in 2017. This, mostly due to his role in last year’s defense, with the move to defensive end in 2018 Sheard’s numbers could considerably improve. Sheard was also the fourth-leading tackler for the Colts and one of the better run defenders in an improved defense against the ground game.
Top Additional Contributors: Tarell Basham, Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis
While Hassan Ridgeway tied for second on the team in sacks with John Simon (3) and will be expected to present some critical interior pressure in the upcoming season, I have to believe a few younger guys will become the team’s rotational pressure package in 2018. Tarell Basham will be expected to, and I believe he will, become the true edge threat on the team getting back into his wheelhouse as a traditional 4-3 defensive end.
On the other hand, rookies Turay and Lewis will provide pressure in limited roles initially, but will be thrust into earning larger expectations as the season progresses. Lewis will add some much-needed burst from the interior battling Grover Stewart and Ridgeway for rotational snaps. Turay, on the other hand, will be a bit of a utility player finding success on the edge, and earning snaps on the interior at times as well as at the SAM position.
Top Returners: Pierre Desir and Malik Hooker
The Colts lost their top coverage defender to free agency in Rashaan Melvin, thus leaving the secondary with very limited experience going forward. With what’s left, Desir returns with the most passes defensed (7) — tied with Matthias Farley — and Hooker leads the team in returning interceptions from a year ago.
Desir overtook the starting job from Vontae Davis last season, and though he gave up some tough catches initially, it wasn’t due to bad technique or poor play on the ball. A lot will be expected from Desir as he enters a new scheme in which he’ll be able to play more towards his skill set. Off-man and zone coverages seem to be his wheelhouse and could become the playmaker many draftniks saw him as when he came out of college.
Hooker didn’t start Week 1 last season, but showed that he was more than capable of being, both, more physical than he was billed at Ohio State and the premiere centerfielder most considered him to be. His instincts will be put on display as soon as he’s able to return from his ACL injury that ended his 2017 season, and his coverage responsibilities will be cut in half in Matt Eberflus’ Tampa-2 base scheme.
Both could, and should be big time playmakers for the defense in 2018.
Top Additional Contributors: Quincy Wilson, Matthias Farley and Nate Hairston
This trio in the secondary will come with heavy expectations next season. Farley played his butt off in 2017 — for a lack of better words — tying for the top returning passes defensed, being the second-most productive returning tackler, and brings back a couple interceptions as well.
Hairston played in 14 games last season, proved he could hang with the big boys in coverage after coming in as little more than a presumed special teams guy and that he could rush the passer out of the nickel role as well. His holding down that nickel job, and improving in all aspects in 2018 will be critical for the secondary to take the next step in becoming a legitimate coverage unit.
Wilson has the most to prove perhaps with his limited action last season and he hasn’t been consistently available in OTAs this year either. Not a good start with all things considered. Wilson has all the talent the Colts need, but will only make his road to becoming a starter more difficult with every strike that comes against him from here on out — no matter how minuscule.
He desperately needs to be healthy and ready to go from Day 1 of training camp — if not minicamp which starts today — and simply must pick up his new responsibilities lickety-split if he hopes to shake the ‘coaching decisions’ from a year ago. He has high expectations, and every Colts fan is pushing for him to live up to them.
Top Returners: Antonio Morrison and Matthias Farley
Morrison isn’t the most highly regarded linebacker to Colts fans, but it’s tough to deny his production from 2017 (108 total tackles). My projection would be for him to be at the SAM linebacker this year, otherwise, he may struggle to earn a spot on the roster due to the coverage responsibilities related to the position.
Morrison’s issue wasn’t that he couldn’t tackle, obviously, rather it was his inability to work off of blocks effectively and make short-yardage stops that makes him replaceable. His coverage ability needs major help, but with the lack of experience in this linebacker corps, his production will be hard to turn away just the same.
Farley came on in minicamp last year, earning the first-team snaps over T.J. Green who the coaching staff had built up before that point in the offseason. His overall production was quite impressive as he combined for 95 total tackles and was quality in coverage as well. Whether he starts or not, possibly immediately in place of a returning Hooker, or if he can offer a true battle for playing time with Clayton Geathers will be interesting to see.
Top Additional Contributors: Anthony Walker, Clayton Geathers and Darius Leonard
Look, let’s just be honest here, this is a total shot in the dark for this defense next season. But, basing it purely off of positional responsibility and opportunity, these three make the most sense to me.
I would expect Walker to earn one of the starting linbacker roles, thus having ample opportunity to become one of the team’s best stoppers. He’s up and down with his weight which will dictate — as the past suggests — his ability to be effective against the run or in coverage.
Geathers should become a movable piece as the strong safety in Eberflus’ system. I do expect him to be the starter, and if his past is any indicator he’ll offer stout run defense in a scheme that’s begging for physicality from a young, inexperienced group.
Leonard’s projection is purely based on position. The WILL is expected to be the pursuer to any backside runs, break up screen passes and be a thorn in the side of the running backs as well as helping in additional situations. If he gets on the field, and quickly, he will be expected to be a heavy contributor in getting stops for this defense.
If these three can become the next group of defenders getting key stops then I believe we all can agree that the future could be bright for this roster, and the scheme alike.