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With an Improved Starting Cast, the Colts Can Not Only Win the AFC South, But the AFC as a Whole

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Jacksonville Jaguars v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

According to NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal, the Indianapolis Colts could not only win next year’s AFC South, but the AFC as a whole—with the chance to make the Super Bowl:

There’s no reason to believe that Jacoby Brissett will get traded before the season. He is among the best backup QBs in the NFL, and his salary is a sunk cost for the Colts, because they already guaranteed most of his 2020 pay. It’s hard to imagine another team giving up a valuable pick for Brissett, even in an emergency like the one that brought him to Indianapolis in the first place in September of 2017.

On paper, this is one of the league’s best offensive lines. The unit’s probably better run-blocking than pass-protecting, but it could still be the best group Philip Rivers has ever played behind. Rivers and protection have rarely found each other.

I’ve seen assumptions that Michael Pittman Jr. will step right into a starting role, with Parris Campbell the likely option in the slot. Just don’t discount Zach Pascal’s chances to wind up second on this team in wideout snaps. He does a lot well. While Campbell didn’t reach 200 snaps as a rookie in 2019, Pascal already has proven he’s a legitimate NFL receiver with toughness and versatility.

Pittman Jr. adds a level of physicality that was needed in this group. He’s another strong option for coach Frank Reich’s beautiful buffet of red-zone plays.

The tight end group isn’t flashy, but it could be effective, with different players fulfilling different roles. Jack Doyle is a great run-blocker who can play every down. Mo Alie-Cox is frisky. Trey Burton is a worthy buy-low pickup. And fullback Roosevelt Nix could handle some of a traditional tight end’s blocking roles.

DeForest Buckner should elevate this defensive line from one that has sneaky good potential to one that has sneaky great potential. Denico Autry has turned into a steady performer and can play inside and out. Justin Houston remains ageless (at 31 years old and coming off an 11-sack season), and Kemeko Turay played like budding star before suffering an ankle injury last season. The depth is also better, allowing the team to rotate.

Anthony Walker is listed here at linebacker because he’ll wind up with more snaps in the middle than Bobby Okereke is likely to have on the strong side. But Okereke is already this team’s second-best linebacker, and I’m intrigued to see where he goes from here. If Darius Leonard takes another step up to All-Pro play, this group can be special.

The secondary may be the position group with the most questions, especially if free-agent signee Xavier Rhodes can’t reverse a dramatic decline that began in Minnesota. The Colts have a surplus of intriguing safeties, however, and they have shown they will use them a lot.

I’ve been bullish on Colts general manager Chris Ballard for years, and I haven’t been alone on that. He was dealt a tricky hand inheriting Chuck Pagano and losing Andrew Luck twice, but this is Ballard’s fourth year since taking over. The roster embodies his vision, and the offseason depth chart looks pristine. If Philip Rivers does his job, this team can compete for the AFC title.

Now, allow me to pump the brakes before anyone else does here.

Despite the significant upgrades, the Colts haven’t even had a meaningful physical practice together—yet alone a game.

Being named offseason ‘paper champions’ doesn’t mean a thing, and the teams that are often the trendy summer picks are routinely the ones that fall flat on their face (2015 comes to mind when the Colts signed Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, etc. and ‘won the offseason’ then proceeded to finish the season 8-8—with Andrew Luck missing 9 games).

That being said, even if the Colts don’t become AFC contenders overnight, it is clear to me that general manger Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich had a clear plan this offseason—and didn’t just stockpile talent, even when the pieces may not actually fit.

Rather, their additions seemingly make sense together.

There’s cohesion.

There’s chemistry.

Reich reunited with 38 year old veteran quarterback Philip Rivers, who despite a down season last year passing behind a poor Chargers offensive line, is just one season removed from throwing for 32 touchdowns to 12 interceptions in 2018 for the Bolts.

Rivers already knows Reich’s offense, and he’s shown the willingness to push the ball downfield, take chances, anticipate reads, and utilize all levels of the field. Even if he commits more turnovers, the Colts offense should show a greater propensity to consistently move the sticks, generate big plays, and ultimately score more points than a season ago.

However, knowing that Rivers is entering his 18th NFL season, the Colts brought him some significant help—beyond the strong offensive line that would’ve already been blocking for him and a Pro Bowler T.Y. Hilton to throw touchdowns to.

Ballard drafted two top offensive rookies: big bodied wideout Michael Pittman Jr. as the downfield vertical target that Rivers has historically loved throwing to, and a highly touted running back, Jonathan Taylor, who along with last year’s 1,000 yard rusher, Marlon Mack, can form a hard-hitting “1-1 power running game punch” for Rivers to heavily lean upon.

That’s not all though, as earlier in the offseason, the Colts traded the 13th overall pick for former San Francisco 49ers All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who should immediately anchor the interior of their defensive line—as “the three-technique really drives their defense”.

With Buckner’s addition (and much needed interior pass rush), as well as the continued growth of their young defenders, the Colts defense should be much improved in 2020—although starting cornerback admittedly remains a bit of a question mark on the outside.

The Colts becoming a popular prediction to transform into an AFC contender isn’t without some solid theoretical reasoning given their big additions this offseason.

That being said, the team still has to go out there and prove it—while earning everything.

There are definitely some real reasons for optimism though and for fans to keep their fingers cautiously crossed for a much improved Colts team during the 2020 campaign.