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Looking back and moving on, Colts 2018 season review: Quarterbacks and Running Backs

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts’ season ended just as it began: in disappointment, frustration, and general helplessness. The team was thoroughly outplayed and outclassed by a drastically more talented Chiefs team, falling 31-13 in a game that was, despite an admirable performance by the defense in the second half, never close. The Colts looked like the 1-5 team they started the season as; they were uncreative, uninspired, and frankly untalented.

The disappointment in Kansas City falls mainly on the shoulders of the offense, as once again quarterback Andrew Luck didn’t show up in a playoff game, while head coach Frank Reich’s gameplan was completely unsuccessful. No receiver other than Dontrelle Inman could get open against a pretty average chiefs secondary, and the offensive line, the key to the Colts’ playoff run, was dominated in the run game by a defensive front had been the weakness of the Chiefs’ absurdly awful run defense throughout the season.

On Saturday the Colts looked like a team that wasn’t in the same class of Kansas City or any of the other NFL elites. But the good news, as every Colts fan knows all too well, is that they shouldn’t be.

As admirable as the team’s 10-1 run this season was, it was pretty clear this team was not a true playoff contender as much as we might have tried to convince ourselves otherwise. The team’s best wins of the season came against a Dallas team with an unusually inept performance by quarterback Dak Prescott, twice against a Houston team with an offensive line that would make the Grigson/Pagano Colts proud, and twice against a Tennessee team starting quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert, who’s proven to be terrible, and Marcus Mariota, who Tennessee should and presumably will be looking to replace in the next couple of the years.

All of that’s to say that their divisional round loss must be put in the right context. As admirable as their run was, the Colts were lucky to make the playoffs (thanks to the easiest schedule of the past three seasons) and were lucky to be placed against a Houston team that they were extremely comfortable with.

But while the Colts’ success this season can be seen to some degree as a fluke, the foundation they were able to lay this season is something to be incredibly excited about going forward. The post-Grigson rebuild is over for all intents and purposes. GM Chris Ballard has put together a young core that’s only going to get better, has extra picks in the second and likely fourth round from the Sam Darnold Trade and the Donte Moncrief signing respectively, and has $100+ million in cap space that he could and absolutely should use recklessly before it comes time to pay Luck and the young studs from the 2017 and 2018 draft classes in a few years.

This team has all the makings of a team that will be ready to truly compete in the playoffs as soon as next year, despite an absolutely brutal road schedule. This is a critical offseason for Ballard and company because if they take advantage of the plethora of resources at their disposal, those Super Bowl dreams fans had at times this season will not be far-fetched.

So what exactly must the team do in the offseason? Let’s dive in, position by position, as the offseason ramps up in the next few months.

Note: UFA denotes an unrestricted free agent, RFA denotes a restricted free agent, and ERFA designates an Exclusive Rights Free Agent.


On Roster: Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Phillip Walker

Free Agents: N/A

What They Have:

The most important thing for the Colts in 2018 was the complete return of Andrew Luck. He played masterfully during the win streak and at times looked better than he did pre-injury. The arm strength might not have been 100% by the offseason, as the Kansas City game showed some concerning lack of velocity, but a full offseason to recover should get Luck’s arm *close enough* to full strength to the point where it’s not a concern at all.

Outside of that, Luck was at his best. With an actual offensive line to protect him, Luck displayed poise and mobility in the pocket at a level that I had never seen from him before. Luck was as accurate as ever, posting far and away his career high in completion percentage, and didn’t skip a beat getting his absurd chemistry with T.Y. Hilton back to pre-injury levels. Luck was way more cautious than ever as well, both by sliding and getting out of bounds as a runner and making *less* bone-headed decisions as a passer.

Behind him, Jacoby Brissett didn’t need to come in for any meaningful plays (except that infamous Hail Mary against Philadelphia early in the season) but still was one of the best stories on the team. Brissett embraced his role on the scout team and his honorary spot as a member of the defense, and contributed to the aforementioned unified locker room that contributed to the Colts elongated stretch of success.

And of course, I would be remiss not giving a shoutout to Phillip Walker, who’s practice squad musical chairs was one of the most fun storylines of the season.

What They Need:

The big question with this unit is Brissett’s status going forward. Ballard came out Monday and expressed that an offer would have to “blow him away” in order to trade the QB. What that potential offer looks like is hard to say, though I have a hard time believing that if someone offered a first round pick Ballard would turn it down (though I have a very hard time believing that such an offer would ever be made).

If Brissett stays, the team has the option to extend him as soon as this offseason, or when he hits unrestricted free agency next year. He would undoubtedly provide value as a very good backup quarterback, but it remains to be seen whether this is a role he would like to pursue during the length of his vital second contract. If not, and Brissett signs a fairly hefty deal with one of the many QB-needy teams out there, he would likely receive a large enough contract to give the Colts a compensatory pick in the third or fourth round in the 2021 draft. There are many options for the relationship between Brissett and the Colts going forward, but it will take open and honest communication between Ballard and Brissett to ensure neither gets spurned.

Unless Brissett signs an extension this offseason, I expect the team to strongly consider adding a rookie quarterback to at least the training camp roster, be it one in the later rounds of the draft or in undrafted free agency. If they are not sold on Walker as a future backup level player, and I’m not sure why anyone would be at this point, this player would be a logical fit to take his place on the practice squad and could replace Brissett down the line.

Running Backs

On Roster: Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins,

Free Agents: Jonathan Williams (RFA)

What They Have:

The Running Backs were easily one of the most surprising units of the team this season. Marlon Mack emerged after his early season injury as a capable starter, posting an impressive 4.7 yards per carry and one of the highest success rates in the league at .47, and notably starring in games against the Jets, Bills, Raiders, Cowboys, Titans, and in the playoff game against Houston.

He’s not a perfect running back; his receiving skills are not up to par and his upright running style can slow him down to the point where his breakaway runs are contained. But the balance, agility, and pass protection he displayed is something the Colts haven’t seen in a young running back in the Andrew Luck Era, and he has done more than enough to, in my estimation, go into the season as the clear-cut answer at RB1.

Behind him, the Colts enjoyed tremendous rookie campaigns from both Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. Wilkins was an analytics favorite, posting a very solid .4 success rate and a positive expected points added per play (EPA). He’s not going to be a lead back anytime soon, but he showed he can be a versatile and valuable part of a committee.

Hines, on the other hand, is one of the most intriguing players on the offense due to the value he provides in the passing game. Hines posted 314 yards on the ground and 425 yards in the air on an astounding 63 receptions. Reich used Hines both out wide and in the backfield, and hopefully will continue to find creative uses for one of the most explosive players on the team. Hines projects as the ideal third-down receiving back, the perfect complement to Mack and Wilkins, and might even turn into something more if he can improve as a runner.

Finally, former Arkansas Razorback Jonathan Williams, a player who I really liked coming out of college, was kept on the roster and could be a candidate to make next year’s 53, though banking on that at this point seems like a longshot.

What They Need:

The elephant in the room with the Colts’ Running Backs is the possibility of the addition of Le’Veon Bell. The Colts have the cap space to offer him whatever they want, and a lack of talent on offense that Bell would undoubtedly bolster. While I don’t believe adding Bell would result in the locker room implosion some seem to suggest, I would be very wary of adding the former Steeler for any contract that he would be happy taking.

Rushing has been effectively devalued in the league today, and the statistical difference between Bell and a guy like Mack is not enough to justify the heavy financial investment one would have to give to a soon-to-be 27-year-old running back who is likely on the way down as a player and hasn’t seen the field in more than a year. Bell would undoubtedly bolster the offense, especially in the passing game, but unless he is willing to take a short-term deal, the dangers of his contract would outweigh the value added on the field at this point in his career.

Even if that guy is not Bell, I expect the Colts to add one more back in the offseason. If they turn to free agency, guys like Tevin Coleman or Corey Grant would add some much-needed speed to this offense.

What do you think of the Colts’ roster as a whole? What player would you most like to add in free agency? What position is in the most need of talent? Leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter, @__AlexJacobson.