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Five Critical Questions Still Facing the Colts Ahead of the 2020 Season

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NFL: SEP 25 Chargers at Colts Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NFL’s scheduled start of the 2020 regular season is quickly approaching, and while the Indianapolis Colts made a number of headline moves already this offseason—and appear to be much improved (*at least on paper*), there are five critical questions still facing this year’s ‘speed blue wrecking crew’:

NFL: MAY 03 Colts Rookie Mini-Camp Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

5. Colts Offensive Line Depth

The Colts lost the majority of their proven offensive line depth this offseason, as two key veterans: versatile swing lineman Joe Haeg and interior lineman Josh Andrews departed in free agency respectively.

To their credit, the Colts did re-sign veteran offensive tackle Le’Raven Clark, who’s been a serviceable spot-starter at times in the past.

However, beyond Clark—the lone veteran, the remainder of the Colts’ backup offensive line room is largely unproven: rookie guard Danny Pinter, guard Jake Eldrenkamp, last year’s 7th round pick Javon Patterson (who missed all of last season with a torn ACL), and tackle Chaz Green chief among them.

It doesn’t mean that Colts offensive line coach Chris Strausser can’t develop that unproven group into productive offensive lineman in time—if called upon in 2020.

However, until they’re thrust into meaningful game action and prove it, it will remain a question for the Colts—where injuries are often known to happen in the physical trenches.

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

4. Who Replaces Versatile D-Lineman Jabaal Sheard?

The Colts are seemingly letting versatile veteran defensive line starter Jabaal Sheard leave in free agency—as he hasn’t been re-signed and his old number (#93) has already been issued to rookie defensive tackle Rob Windsor.

Sheard wasn’t quite his old self last season, but he gave the Colts a versatile defensive end who could set the edge on running downs—while kicking into defensive tackle and providing a pass rushing push during obvious passing situations in 12 starts last season.

The Colts have already stated that they plan on utilizing both defensive tackle Denico Autry and backup defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis in Sheard’s ole role during 2020.

Autry is just a year removed from having 9.0 sacks for the Colts in 2018—albeit exclusively at defensive tackle, while Lewis, as a former 2018 second round pick of Indianapolis has largely been an enigma through his first two NFL seasons.

Whether either one of those replacements can be as good as Sheard was in such a hybrid role remains unclear. It’s a question mark for the Colts (and one of the reasons some fans have been clamoring for prized free agent Jadeveon Clowney this offseason).

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images

3. Colts Kicking Game

Longtime Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri suffered an injury-plagued and poor 2019 season, where he only made 68.0% of his field goals (17-25 FG) and 78.5% of his extra point attempts (22-28 XP).

Among those misses were critical kicks in Week 1 (at Chargers), Week 9 (at Steelers), and Week 10 (Miami)—where the Colts could’ve arguably otherwise won the games respectively.

The Colts’ legendary and future Hall of Fame kicker is now a free agent and appears highly unlikely to be re-signed—especially since the Colts have two promising young kickers: Chase McLaughlin and rookie Rodrigo Blankenship competing for his old starting job.

In late relief of Vinatieri, McLaughlin converted 5 of 6 field goals (83.3%)—including a long of 50 yards and all 11 of his extra point attempts during 4 starts for the Colts this past season.

Meanwhile, the rookie UDFA Blankenship was awarded the 2019 Lou Groza Award (as the nation’s top placekicker), as well as earned consensus First-Team All-American and First-Team All-SEC honors for Georgia during the 2019 season.

When considering that 11 of the Colts’ 16 games last season were decided by one score or less, and it’s easy to see that the kicking game clearly matters quite a bit for Indianapolis going forward.

Whether it’s McLaughlin or Blankenship who ultimately wins the Colts’ starting kicking job outright, Indianapolis will need someone who’s consistently reliable—because it can potentially otherwise cost them a handful of wins—and a playoff birth for a consecutive season.

Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

2. Colts Outside Cornerbacks

Beyond emerging 2nd-year cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, who was ‘rock solid’ down the stretch last season—despite some early season growing pains, the Colts have some questions at starting outside cornerback (note to self: Kenny Moore is a stud covering the slot).

The Colts signed former Minnesota Vikings’ All-Pro veteran cornerback Xavier Rhodes—after surprisingly releasing ex-starter Pierre Desir earlier this offseason.

Now 30 years old, the 6’1”, 218 pound Rhodes has the coveted long-arms (33 3/4”), proven pedigree of success to fall back upon, and familiarity already with the Colts’ defensive backs coaches from his prior tenure with the Vikings.

However, he’s also coming off two straight down seasons in Minnesota and signed a mere 1-year, $3 million ‘prove it’ deal with the Colts.

The hope is that with a scheme change and a reunion with the Colts’ defensive backs coaches that Rhodes can regain his prior shutdown cornerback form—but that’s still far from a given at this point.

Otherwise, the Colts have another 2nd-year cornerback, Marvell Tell, who showed real flashes as a rookie to potentially replace Rhodes—or at least is considered the frontrunner.

Per Pro Football Focus (subscription), Tell’s overall grade of +67.6 ranked 57th this past season among all NFL cornerbacks—including a +89.2 tackling grade, which isn’t too shabby for a rookie Day 3 pick.

However, Tell still remains a bit of an unknown as a potential starter at outside cornerback for the Colts—should the veteran Rhodes continue to struggle.

Between the two, the Colts are hoping to have an answer.

NFL: SEP 25 Chargers at Colts Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. How Much Does Veteran Starter Philip Rivers Have Left in the Tank?

The most critical question facing this year’s Colts squad is easily what the team can reasonably expect from veteran starting quarterback Philip Rivers—who the team signed to a 1-year, $25 million deal earlier this offseason.

There’s no question Rivers plays the league’s most important position for the Colts.

Now 38 years old, Rivers probably isn’t the star quarterback that he once was in his prime—with some diminished arm strength, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a solid to really good starting quarterback for the Colts in 2020.

The question is whether Rivers is closer to the ‘over the hill’ quarterback with the Chargers last season—where he threw for just 23 touchdowns to 20 interceptions, or the ageless, wily gunslinger that is just a year removed from throwing for 32 touchdowns to a mere 12 interceptions during 2018.

Of course, Rivers didn’t have a great offensive line last season in pass protection for the Bolts, and he was forced to play from behind—which led to forcing throws and subsequently, turnovers downfield.

With the Colts, he’ll inherit one of the league’s best offensive lines, a strong receiving cast (although admittedly not as strong as the Chargers), and a power running game to heavily lean upon—which features last year’s 1,000 yard rusher Marlon Mack and a top rookie rusher Jonathan Taylor.

He shouldn’t be playing nearly as much from behind with a more balanced offensive attack (and hopefully better defense—DeForest Buckner says ‘hello’) in Indianapolis.

In turn, Rivers won’t have to do as much ‘heavy lifting’ offensively as in his prime—then throwing the football at sometimes a ridiculous rate.

The Colts’ ‘meat and potatoes’ ground game should set up play-action and passing opportunities downfield for Rivers—with potentially a loaded box—which means freed up opportunities for the likes of dangerous deep threat T.Y. Hilton, big bodied Michael Pittman Jr. (and Rivers historically loves throwing to taller targets downfield), and blazing fast wideout Parris Campbell from the slot.

By being reunited with head coach Frank Reich (who was previously Rivers’ offensive coordinator in San Diego), the hope is that he can regain his prior Pro Bowl caliber form.

With their stronger supporting cast, the Colts don’t need Rivers to be elite, they just need a quarterback who can consistently move the sticks and generate more big plays offensively (plus, his improved accuracy will be a big boost for the Indianapolis offense).

Even if by taking more chances, the veteran gunslinger has more turnovers than his risk adverse predecessor at starting quarterback, the Colts offense should ultimately score more points—with greater big play potential—which should lead to more wins.

After all, for a ‘duh moment’, the team that scores the most points, wins.

In the twilight of his playing career, it’s not a guarantee that the 17-year veteran isn’t running on fumes and is indeed ‘cooked’—but there’s still reason for cautious optimism that Rivers still has some highly productive football left in him as a grizzled NFL starter for the Colts.