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NFL Network and ESPN suggest the Colts could be Sleepers in 2018

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Offensive line improvements and the potential healthy return of Andrew Luck could make the Colts a team to watch this season.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts-OTA Matt Kryger-USA TODAY Sports

It has been widely publicized that the Indianapolis Colts are not getting a great deal of respect at this point in the off-season. Early power polls and projections place Indianapolis at or near the very bottom of the league with a roster that is undergoing major schematic changes, attempting to transition to an entirely new coaching staff, and that has continued to undergo significant reconstruction in General Manager Chris Ballard’s second year. A number of players have been unable to join the team as full participants in practice. None more important than Andrew Luck, who has yet to begin throwing a regulation football.

Of course, the other side of each of these issues is equally compelling. Consider that the team played an entire season without Andrew Luck in 2017 to earn a paltry 4-12 record. The offensive line continued to struggle protecting Scott Tolzien and Jacoby Brissett, including numerous injuries that made matters even worse. Key defensive rookies were limited throughout the season for various reasons, including first round pick Malik Hooker whose season was cut short due to tears to his ACL and MCL. Brissett started fifteen games after joining the team without the benefit of a single off-season rep with teammates who were entirely unfamiliar to him, in a system that was entirely new.

There are legitimate reasons to believe that some of these things could go in the other direction in 2018. Andrew Luck is still targeting a “no limitations” return to practice for the start of training camp after what has seemed to be the most patient rehabilitation and strengthening program completed by an NFL quarterback in history. Forgive fans and the media if they need the confirmation after a disappointing off-season and attempted return in October last year.

The offensive line could be entirely different with arguably the top overall prospect in the draft helping to solidify an interior that has had question-marks for years. Another early draft pick focused on the other side of the interior of the offensive line shouldn’t hurt either. Two unheralded veteran signings may also prove to be upgrades at right guard and right tackle position from the unit who finished the season a year ago. The competition to fill out the roster on this unit will be significantly higher than it was a season ago and there are reasons to believe that the depth will inspire confidence if a starter misses some time.

While the coaching changes will certainly challenge players to make adjustments and learn new systems and styles, Frank Reich, Nick Sirianni, and Matt Eberflus are replacing a coaching staff — and front office — that oversaw some of the worse defenses in Colts franchise history and that managed to help squander at least three seasons of Andrew Luck’s young career. One could argue that there are more reasons to feel that the changes to the coaching staff and the offensive and defensive schemes will have an immediate positive impact on the team’s ability to win games than there are reasons to be concerned about the time it will take for players to adjust.

Andrew Walker of Colts.com pointed to comments from Peter Schrager and Kay Adams on Monday morning’s edition of Good Morning Football. Regarding teams who are flying under the radar, Schrager said:

“I’m going with the Colts. I like what Kay was saying in the opening of this show — you’ve now got an offensive line that can protect Andrew Luck. … No, they’ve got a line, dude. They’ve got a line, you’ve got Andrew Luck and they’ve got a new coach in Frank Reich. Look, I think that this team, if they were up to their full potential and they were all healthy last year would’ve competed in the division; they weren’t. Andrew Luck, when healthy, is among the best quarterbacks in the NFL — let’s put that out there. I’m saying no one’s talking about the Colts; I’m giving them a shot.”

We have regularly pointed out at Stampede Blue that the season record in 2017 drastically overstated the talent deficiencies on the Colts franchise. The defense is maligned due to its poor statistical performances and the offense was dreadful in the second halves of football games. Second half and fourth quarter leads were squandered by an offense that was entirely incapable of making adjustments, limited by an inexperienced quarterback, and by offensive play-calling that left much to be desired. The defense was forced to stay on the field for massive portions of the second halves in games when three and outs and the lack of sustained offensive drives put the unit on its heels.

It was a perfect storm of circumstances that led to an awful record and a dreadful outlook. The changes Chris Ballard and Jim Irsay made this season were absolutely overdue but it still doesn’t mean that the team wasn’t a healthy Andrew Luck away from being competitive in the AFC South, despite its many faults.

Kay Adams agreed with Schrager:

“I’m doubling down on the Colts. I feel like we don’t talk about them enough. I think we, frankly, disrespect T.Y. Hilton on a regular basis on this show — never talk about him. And Andrew Luck, like you said, he took a, what, a 2-14 team — what did he do? Take a team with two wins to the playoffs (in a) great rookie season? If he is healthy — if he picks up that Duke — it’s the Colts.”

There is no secret, the most important piece to the potential success for the Colts in 2018 is Andrew Luck. ESPN recently put together a list of players, coaches, and themes who could define the coming season. In that story, Dan Graziano, Mike Sando and Kevin Seifert listed Andrew Luck at third overall across the entire league.

“Andrew Luck, QB, Colts: Reports that Luck has not yet resumed a full throwing regimen, more than a year after surgery on his right shoulder, have been worrisome. But the Colts are a playoff contender if he can return at 100 percent, as they still hope, in time for the regular season.”

If Luck comes back completely healthy and ready to work his way back into a rhythm with a group of young group of weapons around him, with a young and possibly well-improved offensive line in front of him, and with a defense who can manage to generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, there is every reason to believe the Colts could surprise a lot of people.

Schrager and Adams will not be a part of that group.