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Football Outsiders projects Colts to win the AFC South, second-year leap from Kwity Paye

Las Vegas Raiders v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Every season, Football Outsiders produces an almanac with excellent content reflecting on each team’s off-season and analyzes data to project how each team might perform in the season ahead. This year, Stampede Blue sat down virtually with Football Outsiders writer J.P. Acosta to ask five key questions that will impact the Colts in 2022.

1) Trial years for Jacoby Brissett and Carson Wentz did not turn out. Philip Rivers had enough left in the tank to get the Colts into the playoffs but no further. Matt Ryan is also likely entering the final years of his career but can he take this Colts roster to the top in the AFC South and potentially deeper into the playoffs in his first season?

I think he has enough to take this Colts roster to the top of the AFC South, mainly because the AFC South is arguably the worst division in football. The counting stats like passing touchdowns may look meager from Ryan’s last year in Atlanta, but in Indianapolis he’s behind a better offensive line and has a better running game to accompany him. Ryan will be a good mesh between the skills Rivers had in throwing the quick game with accuracy, while also having a stronger arm than Rivers and the ability to work play action, which is a lot of what Wentz did. Reich has molded his offense around the QB’s ability to run play action, and while Ryan might not be the most nimble mover, he can still operate play action better than Rivers did. Overall, he should have enough to lead this team to the top of the division, but a deep playoff run might be out of the cards. There’s still questions about the depth at receiver and the defense needs a second cornerback, but that should be enough to win the AFC South.

2) Indy’s proven veterans at tight end and wide receiver are no longer on the roster. The players who remain are young and have upside. Matt Ryan is one of the most accurate quarterbacks in league history and a master at throwing his receivers open. Will the youth movement hold the team back or will Ryan elevate the group higher than some might expect?

Despite Ryan’s ability to throw receivers open, I ultimately think this receiver group is too young for Ryan to elevate by himself. Not only are they young, they’re extremely inexperienced. Outside of Michael Pittman Jr., Ashton Dulin has played the most games, and he’s only started one game on offense. Parris Campbell is a fine receiver when he’s healthy, but hoping for him to be healthy at this point might be a pipe dream. The Colts are depending on Alec Pierce, a second round rookie, to be the second receiver and a complement to Pittman early, and that might not happen. We’ve also seen Ryan with an inexperienced/poor receiver group last year with the Falcons, and he threw 20 touchdowns. The inexperience at the receiver position just is too much for Ryan to overcome by himself.

3) Chris Ballard was aggressive in adding to an already strong defensive core with Stephon Gilmore replacing Rock Ya-Sin, Rodney McLeod bringing a veteran presence at safety, and Yannick Ygankoue joining young pass rushers Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo on the defensive line. With his new toys, does Gus Bradley take this defense to another level or will the group be as turnover dependent as it may have been a season ago?

This is an interesting question. The hope is that Bradley helps this team to be less turnover dependent, simply because turnovers are volatile. Consistently being the best team in the league in turnovers forced isn’t a metric that can be repeated over time. I’m skeptical of Bradley’s scheme on a macroscopic scale, due to only playing one style of defense and coverage that teams have figured out already, but on a microscopic scale Bradley’s defense should help the Colts generate more pass rush. Being able to only focus on one gap in the run and letting edge players play the pass first will help guys like Paye and Ngakoue, while on third downs Odeyingbo can slide next to Buckner and contribute. The coverage will have to be spot on, however, because Kam Chancellor isn’t walking through that door.

4) If you had to pick a dark horse candidate to play a major role for the Colts this season who would it be and why?

I’m going to go with rookie safety Nick Cross. With the retirement of Khari Willis the Colts are in need of an impact player at safety. Gus Bradley’s defenses always are better with a true game changer at the position, and he seems to value the spot a lot. Cross is definitely more of a downhill player who can play in the intermediate zones, but that can be huge when playing against modern offenses.

5) Which returning player on defense will benefit most from the changes that come along with Gus Bradley’s system?

Kwity Paye. Allowing Paye to pin his ears back and get to the QB more often will help his development just as much as having Yannick Ngakoue opposite him. Paye is a power rusher who can crush pockets in order to get to the QB, and in Bradley’s system he’ll have more opportunities to rush the passer. Expect an increase in production this season.