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: Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, Matthew Adams, Zaire Franklin,
Free Agents: Najee Goode (UFA)
What They Have:
After years of linebackers being the central weakness on the defense, the 2018 Colts not only fielded a unit that was passable, they fielded a unit that was, at times, dominant. Darius Leonard, despite a truly horrendous game against Kansas City, has a statistical profile that makes him, in my mind, the clear defensive rookie of the year. He was a true disruptor, something you rarely see from a linebacking position, leading the league in total tackles with 163 and forcing four forced fumbles, the top mark for any off-ball linebacker in the league, all in only 15 games.
He undoubtedly has areas he must improve in; the Kansas City game displayed some truly awful run fits and some lapses in coverage. But he is the type of game-changing defender the Colts have lacked in the Luck era and, as only a rookie, should be a foundation for the entire team for years to come.
Leonard’s rise to prominence was perhaps not even the most surprising performance by a linebacker on the team. Anthony Walker established himself as a good starter in the league, notably dominating games against Philadelphia and Jacksonville. Walker’s improvement from what he was at Northwestern to where he is now is a testament to the work of Eberflus, a former linebacker coach himself, and Borgonzi. I’d still like to see one more season of similar play to lock in Walker as a long-term starter on this team, but his play this year cannot be ignored. Finally, the SAM spot was filled relatively well by rookie Matthew Adams.
What They Need:
Honestly, not much. Walker and Leonard come into 2019 as clear starters, looking to build on what they started last year. A replacement for Adams could be found but considering how infrequently the team plays three linebacker sets, such an investment is not necessarily worthwhile. Najee Goode would be nice to retain as a reserve, and if the team wanted to spend a late round pick or a little bit on free agency on a strong backup, I would not be opposed in the slightest.
On Roster: Kenny Moore, Quincy Wilson, Nate Hairston, Jalen Collins
Free Agents: Pierre Desir (UFA) Chris Milton (RFA)
What They Have:
Kenny Moore’s performance this season was one of the big surprises on defense. Outside of his admirable performance as a blitzer towards the end of the season, Moore played like a legitimate starting cornerback, and will certainly go into 2019 as a starter on the perimeter or in the slot (the Colts nickel package, like most in the NFL, is now their base defense).
Across from him, Pierre Desir was a revelation, especially towards the end of the season, as he deserves most of the credit for the team’s fantastic performances against Dallas’ Amari Cooper and Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins, two of the very best receivers in the entire league.
Quincy Wilson had a bounce-back year after a disappointing rookie season, and though he should not be counted on as a long-term starter, he certainly has the potential to develop into a valuable piece as he continues to mature as a person and prosper as a player. After a promising rookie year, Nate Hairston showed why he was a 5th round pick. Jalen Collins was signed to a future contract after being picked up midseason and could conceivably get some meaningful playing time, but don’t count on it.
What They Need:
The big question within the cornerbacks is the upcoming free agency of Pierre Desir. He certainly played well enough for the team to want to bring him back, but the design of that contract, or whether he is able to attract serious money from somewhere else, remains in doubt.
Whether or not he retained, the Colts still need some talent infusion into their corners, and if he leaves, they need it sooner rather than later. If a guy like DeAndre Baker falls to them at 26, I would have a hard time passing that up. In free agency, a guy like Philadelphia’s Ronald Darby could be interesting, especially considering the relatively low price he is likely to have after the torn ACL he suffered in November (the progress of which would of course be factored into the team’s decision to sign him or not).
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.