2019 record: 7-9
Most important position battle: Kicker. There are a few battles for the Colts, namely 1) rookie Michael Pittman Jr. vs. the field of young wideouts angling for the No. 2 receiver spot behind T.Y Hilton, and 2) who starts where at cornerback. Great depth will be the result, whatever the outcome, but when it comes to the kicker position, it’s loser leaves town. Chase McLaughlin and undrafted rookie Rodrigo Blankenship will be dueling kicks this training camp, and it will be important for a team that saw six games decided by three points or less in 2019. McLaughlin was claimed midway through last season after Adam Vinatieri’s bad campaign was abbreviated by injury. With the Colts expected to be a run-heavy, clock-managing team with an improved defense, a reliable kicker will be a key component. The only question remains: Who will that be? The 24-year-old journeyman or the rookie in Rec Spec goggles?
Biggest strength on roster: Running backs. In this current age of the NFL, you will not often see one of the more expendable positions featured in this section, but the tremendous talent in the Colts’ backfield shouldn’t be ignored. Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and rookie Jonathan Taylor will be the three-headed monster behind an offensive line that thoroughly enjoys run-blocking. Mack will have plenty of incentive to follow up his first 1,000-yard season as he enters a contract year. Nipping at his heels will be the rookie out of Wisconsin, who set three Division I FBS records for rushing yards through his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons. Hines, a pass-catching specialist, may be poised for the biggest breakout, with Philip Rivers now at quarterback. Ask Austin Ekeler, Darren Sproles, Danny Woodhead, etc.
Biggest weakness: Secondary. The Colts went 1-5 over the last six weeks of the 2019 season and missed the playoffs as a result. The inability to stop the pass was a glaring problem down the stretch. GM Chris Ballard hopes a change of scenery will revitalize Xavier Rhodes, a former All-Pro who’s struggled the past two seasons. The Colts also signed veteran T.J. Carrie, who should make up for Pierre Desir’s absence. Kenny Moore and Rock Ya-Sin round out the main corps, but the secondary issues aren’t limited to the cornerbacks. Safeties Malik Hooker and Khari Willis have been established starters but struggle with consistency. Yet, there is one X-factor that could change the overall perception of a squad with talent ...
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: DeForest Buckner, defensive tackle. Rivers, who came aboard this offseason after 16 years and eight Pro Bowls with the Chargers, is an obvious answer here, but when reading into the glowing buzz from defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, it’s hard not to get excited about how Buckner impacts this Colts defense. Elite three-technique defensive tackles don’t come around often, and the Colts jumped at the chance to attain one by giving their 2020 first-round pick to San Francisco in exchange for Buckner. With Buckner playing the role of a disruptor between the gaps, his lasting effect won’t always show up on the stat sheet, but it will be felt by the rest of the defense. Play-making linebacker Darius Leonard will have a new best friend in Buckner. So will pass rushers Justin Houston and Kemoko Turay, among others, and the shaky-looking secondary will surely appreciate the pressure Buckner applies to QBs up the middle. Buckner is expected to be a game-changer for the 2020 Colts. Perhaps just as important as the one under center — except Buckner will be the one giving hell to opposing centers.
Regarding the Colts’ most important position battle, Baca is right that 2nd-year pro Chase McLaughlin vs. undrafted rookie Rodrigo Blankenship is among the team’s biggest.
In relief of longtime veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri late last season, McLaughlin made 5 of 6 field goals (83.3%)—including 2 for 2 from 50+ yards, as well as was a perfect 11 for 11 in extra points during 4 starts for Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, the senior Blankenship for the Georgia Bulldogs converted 27 of 33 field goal attempts (81.8%) and was a flawless 46 of 46 in extra point attempts. Blankenship won the 2019 Lou Groza Award (given annually to the nation’s top placekicker), was a consensus First-Team All-American, and was awarded First-Team All-SEC honors in 2019.
As it relates to the Colts secondary, Baca is right that the Colts have some question marks—that could potentially become weaknesses. The battle at starting outside cornerback between veteran Xavier Rhodes and 2nd-year cornerback Marvell Tell is a significant one.
Rhodes, as a former All-Pro with the Minnesota Vikings, is the frontrunner to win the starting job—especially with a much needed change of scenery, scheme change, and a reunion with his former defensive backs coaches in Indy. However, should he struggle, Tell figures to be the ‘next man up’—as a young cornerback who showed a lot of initial promise last season.
(Yet, the bit about T.J. Carrie replacing Pierre Desir isn’t exactly true—as the veteran was signed as slot insurance for Kenny Moore [because the whole defense struggled in his absence last season], while it’s solely safety Malik Hooker—not Khari Willis, who’s so far struggled with consistency in his early Colts career).
While a strong case can be made that veteran quarterback Philip Rivers is the Colts ‘newcomer/player returning from injury’ to watch (he’s certainly the most critical player to the team’s success at age 38 years old in 2020), DeForest Buckner is indeed the best player Indianapolis added this offseason.
The 6’7”, 295 pound defensive tackle—with freakishly long arms (34 3/8”) should be a natural fit as a three-technique in the Colts defensive’ scheme. He has outstanding athleticism, quickness, and strength and is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL.
With 19.5 combined sacks over the past two seasons, Buckner should provide a much needed interior pass rush to the Colts with his penetration, but he’s also disruptive against the run—as just a well-rounded overall player at his position.
He should make the entire Colts defense better with his ability to consistently command double teams, attention, and cause pressure—freeing up plays for his teammates and limiting their overall time in coverage.
Even though this year’s training camp is unfortunately closed to the general public (because of the ongoing pandemic as a safety precaution), there should be a few storylines to watch for the Colts.