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What is the ‘AFC South Intel’ for the Colts?

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

According to NFL.com’s Charley Casserly, the Indianapolis Colts have a number of vital rookies, key position battles, and juicy subplots heading into this upcoming season:

Indianapolis Colts

2019 record · 7-9

IMPACT ROOKIES

Michael Pittman Jr., wide receiver: T.Y. Hilton is still Indy’s WR1, but look for the rookie to get a lot of playing time as the Colts sort things out in a receiving corps that also includes Parris Campbell and Zach Pascal. Pittman has excellent route-running ability and can catch contested throws.

Jonathan Taylor, running back: Taylor and Marlon Mack will give the Colts a talented one-two punch at running back. The rookie will compete for the starting position, but he will see considerable playing time even if he’s not the RB1. The Colts want to emphasize the run game to cut down the number of pass plays and to set up play-action — both things should help veteran Philip Rivers. Taylor is durable and gives the Colts a chance for more big plays out of the backfield. Look for them to get him involved in the passing game even though he had just 42 catches in his three seasons at Wisconsin.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Position

RB Marlon Mack Jonathan Taylor

WR2/WR3 Michael Pittman Jr. Parris Campbell Zach Pascal

CB2/NCB Rock Ya-Sin Xavier Rhodes Marvell Tell III

Kenny Moore is the Colts’ top cornerback heading into 2020, and he’ll likely start on the outside or at nickel. At linebacker, Anthony Walker and Bobby Okereke will be the starters along with Darius Leonard. The question is, between Walker and Okereke, who will be the MLB and who will be the SAM ‘backer?

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

What does Philip Rivers have left?

The Colts believe in the veteran passer and think he can adjust his game to cut down on turnovers. They think the former Chargers QB has a chance to dramatically decrease the number of INTs for several reasons. Chief among them: The Colts’ offensive line is one of the best in the NFL, and the Colts aim to have a more balanced run-pass ratio than what Rivers grew accustomed to in L.A. The veteran made a lot of errors when trying to make plays while playing from behind, something the Colts don’t intend on doing much of with their improved roster. All of these things should result in the best and most disciplined decision-making of Rivers’ career.

Now, let me preface this by saying that Casserly actually gets a lot right here.

The Colts have two highly touted rookies: wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and running back Jonathan Taylor—both of whom could be poised to make an immediate impact and provide game-changing plays offensively as dynamic weapons.

He also gets the majority of the position battles correct (and even the linebacker positional alignment question between Anthony Walker and Bobby Okereke). However, the one thing that appears to be wrong is that Kenny Moore appears to be strictly an elite lockdown and versatile slot cornerback—who doesn’t really play along the outside.

The Colts’ cornerback battle is really a battle along the outside where two of the three of Rock Ya-Sin, Xavier Rhodes, and Marvell Tell will win starting jobs—although I’d be shocked if Ya-Sin doesn’t pretty well already have one of those starting jobs locked up after a strong stretch run to end his rookie year.

Casserly also correctly points out that one additional storyline—and perhaps the most critical question facing this year’s Colts is whether their new 38 year old veteran starting quarterback Philip Rivers can still play football at a high level.

Rivers is coming off a down season for the Chargers where he threw for 23 touchdowns to 20 interceptions during all 16 starts, but he’s just one season removed from a 2018 year where he threw for 32 touchdowns to 12 interceptions—in all 16 starts.

The hope is that by passing behind a strong Colts’ offensive line, possessing solid receiving options including star deep threat T.Y. Hilton and big bodied rookie target Pittman Jr., by leaning heavily on the Colts power running game—which features a ‘one-two’ punch of last year’s 1,000 yard rusher Marlon Mack and a top rookie running back Taylor, that Rivers can return to his prior Pro Bowl form (not to mention a reunion with head coach Frank Reich).

As the Colts’ ‘bread and butter’ offensively, their power running game should set up play-action for Rivers and keep extra defenders closer to the box—which should free up potential passing opportunities downfield.

Rivers should be more willing to take chances—including deep and to all levels of the field (with an improvement in accuracy over his predecessor), but he won’t have to do it all and carry an offense quite like he did in his prime. While he could potentially have more turnovers, the Colts’ passing attack should also have greater big play potential which should lead to ultimately scoring more points offensively.

Casserly is right too.

Colts’ offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni already stated earlier this offseason that after watching Rivers’ film from last season, he didn’t notice a drop-off in his play or throws—rather that the veteran gunslinger was just forcing passes deep from playing behind (leading to his lofty interception total).

Something that hopefully shouldn’t happen very often in Indianapolis with a more balanced offense and upgraded defense—with the addition of All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner providing a much needed interior pass rush and consistently commanding double teams—which should free up plays for linebackers and mitigate coverage time for the entire Colts’ secondary.

Overall, the Colts should have a much improved roster ahead of the 2020 season with a chance to win the AFC South and return to the playoffs—perhaps even potentially having a deep playoff run within their range.