With Andrew Luck’s return to practice and another promising draft class from GM Chris Ballard, expectations are higher than they’ve been for almost two years. Add new head coach Frank Reich who brings a championship pedigree and there are reasons to get excited about this team. Still, it will take a lot to turn around from last year’s 4-12 season. A handful of players will need to take a step forward to propel the Colts from cellar-dweller to playoff hopeful.
There has been a trend in recent weeks on Twitter where writers and fans have been identifying important players on their favorite team for the upcoming season. The categories are; Breakout Player, Comeback Player, Rising Star, Remember Me, Needs To Bounce Back, Darkhorse, and Under The Radar. These are the Colts players I think fit into these categories.
Breakout Player: Quincy Wilson
In 2017, Quincy Wilson saw very limited playing time under Chuck Pagano. He appeared in the first two games last season before injuring his knee which took 4 weeks to recover. From week 6 to week 13, Wilson was a healthy scratch for reasons that nobody seems to know. He finished the year with 22 tackles, 6 pass deflections, and 1 interception despite limited playing time.
In 2018, Wilson’s role is projected to drastically expand with the departure of Rashaan Melvin and others. On top of that, the Colts are adjusting their defense to a Tampa 2 zone style, a style that plays to Wilson’s strengths. Throw in his strong play in college that had some college scouts touting him as CB1 in the draft class and I am left expecting a huge season from the sophomore corner.
Honorable Mentions: Tarell Basham, Deon Cain, Quenton Nelson
I can't wait for the rest of the draft world to catch on to Quincy Wilson as CB1...or better, don't. Let me be right alone.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) November 23, 2016
Comeback Player: Andrew Luck
Is there any other player in the league that is generating more excitement right now than Andrew Luck? After missing the last 18 months of football, Luck is finally back with the team and throwing the ball. We can all breathe a collective sigh of relief, for now. If Luck is even a semblance of his old self, this team is on pace for a much more successful season than the last two.
In his last full season, Luck passed for 4,240 yards, 31 Touchdowns and 13 interceptions with a career best 7.8 yards per attempt. With new explosive weapons such as Deon Cain, Eric Ebron, Nyheim Hines, and Marlon Mack I think it is safe to say this could be one of the best seasons of Luck’s career.
Honorable Mentions: Malik Hooker, Ryan Kelly
Rising Star: Jabaal Sheard
I don’t necessarily care about what the sack numbers say, last season was the best season of Jabaal Sheard’s career. After a relatively slow start, he exploded down the stretch and played at a near elite level as the season finished. Sheard finished second in the NFL in pressure percentage at 14.6% and also was 9th in the league in pressures at 67. To show off his ability as a run defender, Sheard also had the fourth most run stops among edge players with 30 last season.
Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 41st best player in the NFL and the 9th best edge rusher in their 101 best players of 2017 list. So I think it is safe to say that Sheard broke out last season. For him to really become a star though, Sheard has to be able to put it together for multiple seasons and convert more of those pressures into sacks. With a revamped defensive line and more pass rush attempts for Sheard this season, I don’t think its absurd to expect 10+ sacks from him.
Honorable Mention: Malik Hooker
Jabaal Sheard earned an elite grade on the Colts this past season! pic.twitter.com/yWqUwmOejO— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 26, 2018
Remember Me Player: Clayton Geathers
Clayton Geathers has been an easy player to forget because he hasn’t played much in the last two years. Geathers was taken with the 109th pick in the 2015 draft out of UCF after a strong showing at the Senior Bowl and Combine. After a solid rookie campaign with limited playing time, Geathers broke out in 2016. He had 58 total tackles, 5 pass deflections, and a forced fumble in his 9 starts that season.
Since then, Geathers has spent more time on the injured list than on the field. He was placed on IR in 2016 with a neck injury that kept him out until November 14th of last season. Despite limited playing time over the last year and a half, I’m cautiously optimistic for Geathers. If he can stay healthy, a tandem with Malik Hooker could be very solid for years to come.
Honorable Mentions: Chester Rodgers, Anthony Castonzo
Needs To Bounce Back: Ryan Kelly
Its no secret that GM Chris Ballard wanted to address the offensive line this offseason. With the additions of first round pick Quenton Nelson and second round pick Braden Smith, the team is looking to establish a bully mentality up front. Veteran additions Matt Slauson and Austin Howard only reenforce that mentality. But what about the center position?
Former first round pick Ryan Kelly has had a relatively solid young career for the Colts. After being perhaps the lone bright spot in 2016 on the offensive line, Kelly had an injury plagued 2017 season. He missed the first four games with a broken foot and then was shut down later in the year with a concussion after inconsistent play, after only 7 games. Kelly will need to bounce back to solidify this new unit up front. If he can return to his 2016 form, a trio of Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, and Braden Smith will maul the AFC South for years to come.
Honorable Mention: TY Hilton (Sort of)
Darkhorse Player: Jordan Wilkins
Jordan Wilkins had a sneaky productive college career and somehow flew under the radar at the NFL draft. At Ole Miss, Wilkins had 1751 yards rushing on 279 attempts for an average of 6.3 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns. Wilkins also showed top notch elusiveness and pass catching ability in his time at Ole Miss. So far in camp, he has impressed coaches and displayed a physical running style.
Head Coach Frank Reich had this to say about Wilkins in training camp (via The Colts Wire):
“Yeah, I think Jordan is one of those guys that we are talking about with a real toughness,” Reich told reporters on Wednesday. “I just feel like this guy loves football and he loves physicality. He’s got no fear in his game.”
With the departure of veteran Frank Gore, touches are up for grabs in the Colts backfield. I think Wilkins is a guy who can really outperform his draft slot and take control of this backfield by the end of the season.
Honorable Mentions: Deon Cain, Nyheim Hines, Najee Goode
Under The Radar: Nate Hairston
Nate Hairston quietly put together a really solid rookie season. The 5th round pick was a pleasant surprise in the nickel corner slot for the Colts last season, tallying 35 tackles, 5 pass deflections, 2 sacks, and 1 interception in 4 starts. With more playing time this year, I expect those stats to increase.
Hairston’s best ability last year was his versatility. He lined up mostly in the slot but spent time on the outside and was an effective blitzer as well. If Hairston can improve in coverage and build upon his rookie season, the Colts may have found a gem. I expect Hairston to show out in an inexperienced corner back group this season.
Honorable Mentions: Grover Stewart, Ryan Grant, Skai Moore