With the 2022 NFL regular season approaching quickly, we look back at this season’s team origins. As painful as it might be, that has to start with a two-week collapse that ended with an embarrassing loss in Jacksonville to close out the 2021 season.
Carson Wentz put together two sub-par games, the leaders on the team were largely invisible with the playoffs on the line, and team owner Jim Irsay called his general manager and head coach to the office to have a serious discussion about the future after his embarrassment was immortalized in HBO’s first in-season ‘Hard Knocks’ feature.
This ending set into motion several changes and adjustments that helped lead the Colts down a path to this season.
It was quickly decided that the Carson Wentz era in Indianapolis would last only one season. Irsay was vocal in his displeasure with Wentz’s late-season performance and ultimately put the league on notice that Wentz was available. How Chris Ballard turned a no-leverage scenario into a deal with the Washington Commanders that included two third-round picks, with one that could move into the second round if Wentz plays most of the season, is hard to imagine.
With Wentz out of the fold, the Colts were again heavily in the free agent or trade market for a new signal caller. The Deshaun Watson saga, which continues to be a black eye for the NFL, created a frenzy amongst numerous NFL teams. Watson was one of the league’s best quarterbacks before his lost season and is still young enough that he could easily play 10 or more years. Players with his skill, at his position, don’t often become available — at least not in their twenties.
To the surprise of its fanbase, one of the teams involved in the frenzy was the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons were coming off a disappointing season and unlikely to be contenders in 2022, but they did have Matt Ryan. Granted, Ryan had his struggles in 2021 and isn’t a young man anymore, but he is likely the best quarterback in franchise history and certainly wasn’t the top or even near the top of the team’s long list of problems. Many around the league thought Ryan’s struggles had more to do with the team’s many glaring issues, none so obvious as a wide receiver position that was falling apart rapidly with the decline and exit of Julio Jones and the Calvin Ridley situation.
Chris Ballard pounced on the opportunity. Watson's aggressive public courtship soured Ryan on his front office and led him to request a trade. Armed with multiple third-round picks, Ballard sent one to Atlanta and landed the most intriguing veteran play caller the Colts have had since Philip Rivers joined the team ahead of the 2020 season. Ryan entered the offseason with a sizable chip on his shoulder, with a fresh start ahead of him, and immediately took command of the team.
The Colts boasted one of the most opportunistic defenses in the league in 2021. Armed with starting talents DeForest Buckner, Shaquille Leonard, and Kenny Moore — Matt Eberflus ran a defense where players at the second and third level could play in space and use their speed to fly to the ball. The result was an incredible barrage of turnovers created, the Peanut punch reimagined by Leonard, and plenty of additional opportunities for the offense on what felt like a weekly basis.
Eberflus grew a reputation for demanding high effort from his players. He tracked “loafs” in practice, and the players on that list were held accountable. Some were jettisoned from the roster or spent weeks on the inactive list for failing to show maximum effort in practice.
It was only a matter of time before Eberflus would get a head coaching opportunity, and he couldn’t turn down the offer to take over the Chicago Bears. Chicago had recently drafted young quarterback Justin Fields. The defense had pieces Eberflus could work with and a history similar enough to his defensive style to make the transition.
Gus Bradley replaced Eberflus in Indianapolis. Bradley earned notoriety in his career as the architect for the Legion of Boom when the Seattle Seahawks had a stifling and opportunistic defense of its own. The base of his scheme is similar enough to the one run by Eberflus that the Colts’ best defensive players could continue to thrive, and there are enough differences to give the unit a fresh feel.
Veteran wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has been a fixture in Indianapolis since he was drafted in 2012. He has used his speed and guile to lead the team in receiving for much of his career and has abused the Houston Texans so badly that Wikipedia once named him the owner of NRG Stadium. The last two seasons have seen Hilton navigate through more injuries and dings than he had earlier in his career, and his production has dropped off. His trademark speed has also slightly fallen off, leaving his future in question.
The Colts and Hilton have seemingly left the door open for a return, as he remains a free agent, but not having him around with the wide receivers when he could have been a veteran presence all offseason is a massive change. There are plenty of reasons to develop young receivers and keep the focus on the future, but there is also very little experience in that wide receivers room. Eyes will remain on Hilton if the Colts' current group fails to show promise to start the season.
Another offensive fixture who will not return is Jack Doyle — the reliable tight end who was a Swiss Army knife on offense. His departure led to an extension for Mo Alie-Cox, who will be asked to take on a more prominent role. It also led to the Colts drafting two tight ends who will compete to join second-year tight end Kylen Granson on the roster.
The offensive line continues to shuffle after Anthony Castonzo’s retirement. A lackluster showing for Eric Fisher led to the Colts giving Matt Pryor a starting nod. The team also drafted Bernhard Raimann to compete and a variety of veteran swing tackle options to serve as depth or fallback options. Right guard Mike Glowinski left Indianapolis in free agency and opened the door for third-year interior lineman Danny Pinter, who had previously shown promise backing up center Ryan Kelly.
Cornerbacks Rock Ya-Sin and Xavier Rhodes started on the outside in 2021. Rhodes played through injuries throughout the season and wasn’t nearly as impactful as he was in 2020. On the other hand, Ya-Sin has gradually improved and developed on his rookie contract. Rhodes was not retained in free agency, and Ya-Sin was traded to the Las Vegas Raiders for Yannick Ngakoue.
The Colts signed Brandon Facyson, who is familiar with Gus Bradley’s defensive scheme, in free agency and added Stephon Gilmore to take over for Ya-Sin on the other side, giving the team two new starters and more star power in the secondary. The Ngakoue addition does two things. First, it adds a reliable veteran to an inconsistent pass rush. Second, it brings a player who is comfortable playing in Gus Bradley’s “joker” role on the defensive line.
Khari Willis retired this offseason, choosing to focus his future on religion and serving the community. The Colts brought in veteran safety Rodney McLeod and drafted rookie Nick Cross. With Julian Blackmon returning from injury, the safety positions will look almost entirely new from a season ago.