Each SB Nation NFL writing team examined their respective franchise and put together a brief season preview. These stories are intended to help explain to fans of other teams some of the most important topics and issues facing each NFL team as the 2018 NFL Season approaches. We will take a look at each opponent the Colts face this year but kick things off with our own preview as players report to Westfield for training camp.
Notable free agent additions: The Colts focused much of free agency on addressing changes to the defensive line and to bolstering the offensive line. Chris Ballard signed Denico Autry to compete for the starting position as a 3-tech defensive tackle in Matt Eberflus’ based 4-3 Tampa 2 scheme. The new one-gap scheme will emphasize speed and the ability to penetrate over size and the ability to take up space. Autry has the ability to move inside and out as down and distance dictates.
On the offensive line, veteran guard/center Matt Slauson and veteran guard/tackle Austin Howard were added to the mix. Both represent more proven NFL experience than the Colts offensive line has had for years. Additionally, they are projected to compete for starting opportunities on the right side of the Colts offensive line. Given the health questions surrounding Jack Mewhort, the inexperience of rookie Braden Smith, and the unproven talent that was already in the Colts offensive line room, these additions could go a long way to keeping Andrew Luck upright and the Colts offense moving.
Over / under: 6.5 wins Over. If Andrew Luck is healthy and if the offensive line is improved anywhere close to as much as it could be after it was addressed in free agency and early in the draft, the Colts offense should go a long way to keeping the team in games. Remember, the 2017 Colts were playing with a backup quarterback who didn’t have the benefit of a full off-season to become familiar with the offense. The team had a lame duck coaching staff that regularly had difficulties preparing for games. The team was historically bad in the second half of games and particularly in the fourth quarter, leading to numerous collapses in games that should have been wins. Add Andrew Luck, an improved offensive line, and better play-calling from an offensive minded coaching staff and there are reasons to believe this team won’t repeat the second half struggles of 2017.
Rookie I’m most excited about: Quenton Nelson. The Colts offensive line has been maligned for so long that it has become drag on the fan base. Adding players who can win the game in the trenches is perhaps the most underrated and important attribute for any football team at any level of competition. Players who can single-handedly have the kind of impact that Quenton Nelson could have on keeping Luck clean and on making room to move the ball on the ground don’t come along all that often. If Nelson is anywhere close to the prospect that evaluators believe he is, he could be the most important player on the Colts offense that doesn’t play quarterback.
Best position battle heading into camp: No position is as wide open for the Colts than linebacker. Chris Ballard drafted three and signed two others in free agency. No position is undergoing a more significant change in terms of player type and responsibility in the switch to a 4-3 Tampa 2 under Matt Eberflus. There are favorites to win spots, including second round pick Darius Leonard at weak side linebacker. There should be an entertaining competition between Anthony Walker Jr., Najee Goode, and undrafted rookie Skai Moore for opportunities at middle linebacker. There will also be an active competition between Tyrell Adams, Antonio Morisson, and Matthew Adams for the chance to start on the strong side. There is no telling how it will turn out and the players have to be aware of it.
Biggest storyline heading into camp: Andrew Luck takes over the Colts offense for the first time in well over a year. If his shoulder looks completely healed and if there are truly no limitations placed on him as he takes first team reps and gets ready for the start of the upcoming season, the Colts may have just become the most improved team in the NFL.
Under-the-radar storyline heading into camp: How the Colts will handle questions at the safety position. Both presumed starters at safety will enter training camp on the physically unable to perform list. While both can begin practicing at any time, their futures are murky. 2017 first round draft pick Malik Hooker continues to recover from the ACL/MCL tear in his right knee. Veteran safety Clayton Geathers returned to the field in 2017 after recovering from neck surgery only to find himself back on the sidelines after having knee surgery. This leaves Matthias Farley and T.J. Green as the presumed front-runners to start in the Colts regular season opener. While Farley is entirely up to the task, nothing in Green’s career has proven that he is ready. With big name free agents still waiting to sign, this is a situation worth monitoring.
Notable injuries heading into training camp: Safeties Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers top the list. Andrew Luck will be lumped into this group until his activity level and performance on the practice field satisfies fans and the media. Last year’s starting left guard Jeremy Vujnovich will also begin training camp on the PUP. It will be worth monitoring rookie linebacker Darius Leonard to see if he is able to take on a full practice load after not participating in OTAs or Minicamp. Marlon Mack is projected as a full go for training camp but he also did not practice during spring activities and he could be in the driver’s seat to start in 2018.