Indianapolis Star columnist and Stampede Blue friend, Gregg Doyel recently penned a story explaining how the Colts have almost certainly gotten worse since the team’s season ended in Buffalo earlier this year (subscription required). Doyel analyzed each position and explained how it is unreasonable to think the Colts are better now than they were at the end of the 2020 season, noting it’s the first time in Chris Ballard’s tenure this is the case.
While reasonable, the analysis falls short of taking an honest look at where the team was, at the players who departed and underestimates Ballard and the coaching staff’s ability to fill vacated positions with players who are likely or very likely to produce at higher levels than those they are replacing.
Philip Rivers had a bounce-back season, after one of the worst of his career, and helped Indianapolis get back to the playoffs. In fact, he played well enough for the Colts to advance in Buffalo, against budding star Josh Allen. There is no doubt that his cerebral nature, leadership, and onfield gamesmanship will be extremely difficult to replace.
It’s also fair to note that Rivers was limited athletically, reserving him almost entirely to making plays from the pocket, and his arm strength wasn’t what it used to be, particularly on downfield passes that all but neutered a player like T.Y. Hilton. In short, while Rivers was efficient and heady, he also reduced Frank Reich’s options.
Adding to the commentary is a free agency piece from Luke Schultheis who openly pondered whether the Colts should re-sign Rivers — before he announced his retirement:
... the Colts offense ultimately has to get more explosive in 2021. In a loaded AFC that just saw young stud quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and even Baker Mayfield all playing into the second week of the playoffs, the Colts might need to consider getting more dynamic at the position going forward.
Switching to Carson Wentz has to be considered something of a wild card because he is coming off of a horrible season (sound familiar?). Never mind that he was playing behind an offensive line that was in shambles and with a roster that was severely limited in pass-catching talent — due to injury or otherwise. Never mind that he, like Rivers, arguably was placed in a position to be a hero or force the issue in an attempt to win.
Wentz brings a cannon for an arm and is incredibly comfortable stretching the field. His mobility and threat as a ball carrier will open up the run-pass option (RPO) offensive playbook for Reich and make life easier for a deep Colts backfield.
While it’s fair to expect some kind of drop-off on the field in terms of live adjustments and gamesmanship, Wentz is certainly no slouch in that area. Also, like Rivers, Wentz was and is extremely familiar with Frank Reich, his playbook, and his offensive philosophy.
It’s fair if Doyel wants to suggest that the floor for Wentz is lower than Rivers. It’s also only fair to note that his year-one ceiling, and that of the offense or even for the team, could be considerably higher than it was with Rivers.
LOSING HOUSTON AND AUTRY
Losing veteran NFL players necessarily creates a hole and a reason to feel apprehensive. There is comfort in familiarity and treading water feels better than tearing off the bandaid and moving on to younger players, who will often get their first full-time opportunities. However, sticking with veterans forever can also lead to stagnation and wasted draft capital — as well as ultimately a drop-off due to father time.
Regarding Justin Houston, the Stampede Blue writing team has made some important observations about his performance and how the Colts might approach replacing his impact.
In a story titled, “Colts Free Agents: Swipe Left or Swipe Right” Elliot Denton noted:
Houston is a veteran presence on the defensive line and a leader in the locker room. Given that he is now 32 years old and just saw his lowest sack total since 2016 when he only played five games, the Colts may look for a more long-term option at defensive end.
Denton concluded that the Colts should let Houston walk in free agency.
Zach Hicks completed a film review on Houston to draw his conclusions and added to the concerns by sharing that sack production alone wasn’t Houston’s only issue:
The main issue to discuss though is why the Colts had so many spurts of no pass rush production this year. Houston’s raw stats are great but digging into the pressure numbers and there are some concerns. He was sixth among Colts’ defensive linemen in pass rush production, a metric that PFF uses to measure hits and hurries relative to how often a player rushes the passer. Houston also had an unreal sack conversion number as he had 8 sacks this year with just 3 quarterback hits. For comparison, Buckner had 16 quarterback hits to go with his 10 sacks according to PFF. In fact, Houston finished with fewer quarterback hits on the season than Grover Stewart and Al-Quadin Muhammad.
Justin Houston just isn’t the player that he once was and the result is that he shouldn’t be a starter on defense. He has enough flashes as a pass rusher to be a good situational guy (think of how Ryan Kerrigan was used in Washington this year) but the down to down consistency leaves so much to be desired.
What is perhaps even more interesting from Hicks’ review is where Houston excels and how he produced in 2020.
Houston was at his best this year when he could rush inside the offensive tackle or stunt to the interior. When he was able to shorten his lane to the quarterback, he had enough speed to make a big impact. He utilized inside moves when rushing the passer to great success this year as a result.
Hicks ultimately concluded the Colts should let Houston walk in free agency.
The Colts selected defensive end Kwity Paye in the first round, and one of his best attributes is his comfort in defeating offensive linemen with suddenness and downhill speed on stunts.
From Hicks’ film review of Kwity Paye and how he impacted games:
Paye showed real polish on a few of these rushes, especially on the inside move in the first clip. He was relentless in his pursuit in the run and pass game, which will fit in perfectly with the mindset of the Colts’ defense.
It is entirely possible that Houston’s replacement, while in his rookie season, will have more explosiveness and speed off of the edge, still have Houston’s strength on stunts, and have significantly higher upside.
Autry is a little different. What made Denico Autry so valuable to the defense was his ability to play multiple positions. He was originally brought in to serve as the team’s three-technique defensive tackle. He was pushed more permanently to defensive end when Chris Ballard traded a First Round pick to bring in DeForest Buckner — which is arguably not his natural position in the Colts defensive front.
Luke Schultheis took the time to review all pending Colts free agents and had the following thoughts about Autry:
... while having a natural defensive tackle playing defensive end no doubt helped the Colts have the NFL’s second-best run defense (and Autry provided push as a pass rusher), the unit could afford to have a more natural defensive end with greater speed, bend, and explosiveness (who’s cheaper in the short-term).
Even playing out of position, Autry figures to have a handful of productive seasons still left, but the Colts cannot afford to provide all of their mid-tier starters pay raises—especially with the team’s top young players’ mega-contracts starting to come up just after the 2021 season.
Something eventually has to give—and that unfortunately might be Autry here.
There’s no doubt that Autry brought value to the team but even despite his value, Luke reasonably concluded that his spot on the team may be in jeopardy.
Taking the analysis a step further, Mateo Caliz completed a deep dive into the statistical production of Houston and Autry — as well as other Colts’ rushers — and reached similar conclusions that indicated neither was particularly productive as a pass rusher. (visit the story for the stats)
Just looking at the raw numbers, the Colts’ pass-rushing department seems like more than okay, as Justin Houston set a single-season record in safeties, he and Autry surpassed 7 sacks each, and the presence of Buckner made the Colts a team to fear, but the truth is far from that. Houston and Autry got most of their sacks against mediocre teams, in fact, against teams with a record worse than .500 the duo got on average 1.44 sacks and 1.87 quarterback hits per game, while against teams at or above .500 those numbers fall to 0.78 and 1.11 respectively, a drastic drop off that is most certainly worrying.
Taking an even deeper look at the numbers, Autry and Houston start to look even worse. I always hated sacks as a measure of how effective a pass-rusher is, as they fail to tell the whole story of the play. However, looking at (sacks + hurries + knockdowns) paints a much clearer picture as to how good a pass-rusher really is....
Houston and Autry are near the bottom in terms of pass-rushing productivity. The argument can also be made that those sack numbers are inflated because of the havoc DeForest Buckner was causing on the inside, and his presence demanding double teams almost on every single play.
The broader point is that, outside of position flexibility, the loss of Houston or Autry is at best overstated. Replacing their production on the edges as pass rushers may not be particularly difficult at all. Their production on the edges was modest even with Grover Stewart and DeForest Buckner demanding a ton of attention on the inside.
Is it so difficult to believe that Tyquan Lewis getting more snaps at defensive end, Kemoko Turay getting his ankle right, Paye getting into the mix, and the mixture of Ben Banogu, Al-Quadin Muhammad, and Isaac Rochell couldn’t find a way to meet or exceed the same production? This of course doesn’t even include Dayo Odeyingbo, whose versatility mimics Autry’s with arguably more speed and explosive in his arsenal.
Once again, the floor could very well be lower for the group in 2021 but there’s an entirely reasonable, if not likely, chance the Colts will see even better production on the edges after moving on.
LOSING ANTHONY CASTONZO
The biggest and most obvious hole that remains post-draft for Ballard is the one left by veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Finding good or really good left tackles in this league is really challenging. It can be reasonably argued that none of the current options on the roster comes close to Castonzo’s ability - a clear and obvious position where the team is or likely will be decidedly worse.
However, any analysis of this position should be able to acknowledge and appreciate Castonzo’s talents while also considering the context of the offensive line as a whole. Coming to play left tackle for the Colts means playing next to Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly to your inside. This is a luxury that few free agents or rookie tackles will ever experience.
Consider that retired tackle Jared Veldheer came from the street, after nearly an entire season away from playing football to coach at the high school level. The Colts called his name desperately when Castonzo suffered a late-season injury that required season-ending surgery. The results were encouraging.
Zach Hicks completed a film room breakdown of Veldheer’s first action with Indianapolis and came away impressed. He also added the following comments in his conclusion:
Overall I was impressed with how Veldheer played, especially coming off the street to an offense he likely didn’t know even half of before the game. Offensive tackle is one of the most important positions in the NFL and for the Colts to pick up an adequate player at the position this late in the year is a huge plus.
When it comes to who should start in the playoff game, there is no doubt in my mind it should be Jared Veldheer. Will Holden was decent in both the pass and run game against Pittsburgh but Veldheer just gives so much more in run blocking.
Primary takeaways are that even without reasonable time to become familiar with the Colts blocking scheme or offense, even after missing nearly a season of organized professional football to retirement, and even with the left tackle position being one of the most important and most demanding on a roster — Veldheer played really well. Even Will Holden had a decent showing when called upon on short notice.
Perhaps the continuity at every other position of this offensive line, and the dominance of Quenton Nelson, will allow the Colts to get an appropriate level of performance out of left tackles who might otherwise, or who have otherwise, struggled to produce. There’s no guarantee of that - there’s also no guarantee that the Colts don’t sign another veteran offensive tackle who will be able to capitalize on the same opportunity Veldheer had late last season.
In essence, it’s possible the left tackle situation is being overstated because of a lack of context. It’s also possible the left tackle situation is being overstated because many months full of cuts and salary cap casualties remain before the finished product takes the field later this fall.
Look, there is no doubt that turnover and losing veterans at important positions on a football field create an entirely rational feeling of concern. Change isn’t an easy or fun experience for most people. However, it’s important that fans and journalists don’t get carried away too quickly. The Colts will experience change every season but if the front office continues to make shrewd decisions that lead the team in a positive direction, perhaps that group has earned the benefit of the doubt.