Of course, the Chiefs are no stranger to the Colts.
After all, it’s the same organization that general manager Chris Ballard previously served as a football operations executive before joining Indianapolis three seasons ago.
It’s the same organization that Andrew Luck played the last game of his career against in the Divisional Round of the playoffs last season—in defeat.
It’s the same organization that veteran pass rushing great Justin Houston left from to join the Colts this past season.
It’s the same organization that the Colts had their biggest win of this past season, upsetting the Chiefs 19-13 at Arrowhead in Week 5 (before things truly snowballed only a few short weeks later).
There is also no one way to have Super Bowl success.
After all, the two teams that met up in this year’s Super Bowl were very much different.
One, the AFC Champion Chiefs, were led by an NFL MVP and one of the best quarterbacks in the game, Patrick Mahomes, featuring a prolific offense with many weapons—and a “bend but not break” defense.
Their opponent, the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers, were anchored by arguably the league’s best defense and a dominant, dynamic run game offensively.
However, there are a few takeaways from the Super Bowl Champion Chiefs (and really, even both conference champions):
1. Quarterback Matters
Yes, this should hardly come as a shock.
The most important position in the sport matters—especially on the game’s biggest stage.
The Chiefs have arguably the best quarterback in the league (and he’s under the age of 25), meaning those type of players don’t just grow on trees.
Mahomes was shaky during the better part of three quarters for the Chiefs in the Super Bowl—as the 49ers pass pressure had clearly gotten to him, and he was sped up, rushing throws and not properly setting his feet, leading to inaccurate passes.
However, he shook it off, showed tremendous poise, and led the Chiefs spirited comeback attempt, who scored 21 unanswered points in the 4th quarter.
Meanwhile, the 49ers who were built to play with a lead—featuring a dynamic running game, couldn’t quite get the big plays when suddenly behind from starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo down the stretch to thwart the Chiefs’ comeback attempt and ultimately win the Super Bowl.
Colts incumbent starter Jacoby Brissett is a bit similar to Garoppolo in that regard—although he’s admittedly not as good.
Brissett can become a solid starter at times with a strong running game backing him up and creative scheming in the passing game, but if you ask him to carry you to a win, like the Chiefs asked Mahomes to do late (and often this year), he’s probably not going to be able to more often than not.
Finding the next Mahomes won’t be easy (maybe close to impossible)—and probably isn’t even realistic this offseason, as the Colts are picking with the #13 overall pick (not in the Top 5, where the top quarterback prospects generally go).
Perhaps a developmental rookie quarterback project like Utah State’s Jordan Love—who’s drawn comparisons to Mahomes with his talented arm, mobility, and overall playing style, could be worth a gamble in late April to be a “poor man’s Patrick” in time.
Otherwise, the Colts may be looking at signing an aging, yet accomplished free agent veteran such as Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers as a starting stopgap (or perhaps New England Patriots great Tom Brady in a dream or maybe for some, nightmare scenario).
Perhaps, if the Colts get creative and their competition makes other moves at starting quarterback, like let’s say the Oakland Raiders Derek Carr or Detroit Lions Matthew Stafford become available via the trade market, that could be something certainly worth exploring—as both veterans would present a clear upgrade to Brissett.
However, it’s unclear if either scenario is actually a realistic possibility right now.
Regardless, the Colts have to be better at starting quarterback next season.
2. Defensive Lines Do Work.
The Kansas City Chiefs defensive line features the likes of two Pro Bowlers: defensive tackle Chris Jones and defensive end Frank Clark.
The box score may not show it, but Jones may have had the best performance in the Super Bowl, while Clark had a huge 4th down sack and two other QB hits—and was a downright terror in the playoffs off the edge for Kansas City.
The 49ers dominant defensive line rotation meanwhile has five former first round picks: Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Solomon Thomas.
Assuming he can make a full recovery from a season-ending ankle surgery, the Colts already have an emerging young pass rusher in 3rd-year pro, Kemoko Turay, who was one of Pro Football Focus’ best rated edge defenders in 2019 prior to his injury.
The team’s reigning sack leader, Justin Houston, who had 11.0 sacks this past season seems slated to have another highly productive season as a pass rusher. However, he also just turned 31 years old, meaning the Colts could really look to start grooming his long-term successor.
The Chiefs’ Jones would be a pipe dream for the Colts at defensive tackle—if Kansas City shockingly allows him to hit the free agency market, and it would be a situation with the Colts having a projected $86 million of cap space, that they should pay him realistically whatever he would want—as a 25 year old star interior pass rusher just entering his prime.
After all, Ballard has said the 3-technique is what really drives the Colts defense, and Jones looks every bit the part of a great one for years to come.
With Mahomes set to become the highest paid player in NFL history soon, the Chiefs are a bit salary cap strapped right now with only $16.2M of cap space—but do have some flexibility if they release veteran wideout Sammy Watkins (freeing up $14 million more in cap room).
The more realistic top free agent defensive lineman to actually hit the market could be the 49ers’ Armstead, who’s coming off a breakout season with 54 tackles, 10.0 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles in all 16 starts in 2019.
The 49ers have around $14 million of projected cap space and could free up around $10 million more depending on the future of longtime veteran offensive tackle Joe Staley.
Armstead is the type of long-armed, dynamic athlete, Colts general manager Chris Ballard covets defensively, and he’s a well-rounded player against both the run and pass that could really help bolster Indianapolis’ defensive line—whether at defensive end or tackle.
Other top free agents that could entice the Colts are Seahawks pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, Rams pass rusher Dante Fowler, Jaguars pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue, Steelers pass rusher Bud Dupree, Texans defensive tackle D.J. Reader, Steelers defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, and Broncos defensive tackle Shelby Harris.
In the upcoming NFL Draft, the Colts have already been linked to Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa through mock drafts, and South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw had a strong showing during Senior Bowl practices—where the Colts seemingly put a lot of stock into performance and selecting players who have previously participated in that fun week.
Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown could be another highly touted interior prospect who very well might be under strong consideration at #13 overall for the Colts—if available.
Defenses win games in the trenches, and the Colts have the potential to really improve in this regard—whether through free agency or the NFL Draft.
3. Have to Have Horses
Late in the Super Bowl, Mahomes and the Chiefs offense leaned heavily on the horses that helped get them there: Pro Bowlers Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, as well as veteran wideout Sammy Waktins. (Although running back Damien Williams was also huge late).
Point being, the NFL is still a star driven league.
On offense, teams still have to have stars who can help carry you to the promised land and that they can lean on heavily when ‘the tough gets going’ and they need a big play the most.
It’s no different than those winning ‘Peyton Manning era’ Colts teams, who had the likes of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Dallas Clark to make plays late in games (as well as some other unsung heroes) to help finally hoist up an elusive Lombardi Trophy in 2006.
The Colts right now have star wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, sure handed security blanket Jack Doyle, and little other proven weapons—with Devin Funchess uncertain to return at wide receiver and tight end Eric Ebron already out the door.
Finding elite playmakers like Hill or Kelce at their respective positions isn’t easy, but the Colts need to find another dynamic weapon that can consistently make big plays for this offense—along with Hilton.
The free agency market isn’t great in this regard, Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowler Amari Cooper—who seems unlikely to leave Dallas and Bengals veteran wideout A.J. Green headline the free agent wide receiver class, while Falcons Pro Bowler Austin Hooper and the Chargers oft-injured Hunter Henry are the best available tight ends this offseason.
This NFL Draft Class is incredibly deep at wide receiver though with talented prospects such as Alabama’s Henry Ruggs, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, LSU’s Justin Jefferson, and TCU’s Jalen Reagor among others.
LSU’s Thaddeus Moss would be simply fun to watch being deployed in Frank Reich’s friendly tight end system, but there’s also a few top tight end prospects in Ballard’s own backyard, such as Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet or Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins that could really help Indianapolis offensively as well.
Point being, Indianapolis has some options, and perhaps a blueprint to follow for Super Bowl contention—even though none of this is hardly earth-shattering.