After a busy offseason with changes all over the coaching staff, veterans retiring, or moving on after years of donning the horseshoe, a new era begins. The Matt Ryan era has officially begun.
NEW LOOK OFFENSE
This year, the Colts will need contributions from many new faces to get back into the playoffs and be in a position to make noise once they get there. Ryan needs to show that he has enough juice left in the tank to elevate a largely unproven group of receivers. The only sure-things on the roster through the air are Michael Pittman Jr. and Nyheim Hines. Everyone else is either a rookie or has yet to show proven production at the NFL level.
This will require Parris Campbell to stay healthy finally, first-year contributions from second-round rookie Alec Pierce, and a noticeable offensive jump from special teams ace Ashton Dulin. It will require Mo Alie-Cox to step into Jack Doyle’s role — which requires excellent blocking and reliable production to move the chains and score in the Red Zone. Second-year tight end Kylen Granson will need to play a more prominent role and the inexperienced Jelani Woods will be asked to pass a trial by fire.
On the plus side, the Colts have a reliable running game. The best back in the league, Jonathan Taylor, will be joined by hybrid threat Hines in the backfield. Ryan gets the ball out of his hands quickly, likes to take what the defense gives him, and is comfortable taking a check down. Expect to see Taylor get the lion’s share of the work on the ground and for fresh legs to keep defenses honest underneath. It will be of no surprise if the Colts deploy more looks with two running backs, hiding some of the weaknesses on the outside.
The other question-mark facing the Colts is how do Matt Pryor and Danny Pinter perform in place of left tackle Eric Fisher and right guard Mark Glowinski from a season ago? Pinter has earned a lot of positive early attention during the summer program and training camp. He is arguably filling in for the player who could be considered most replaceable on the offensive line. Pryor is replacing a former Pro Bowler, but Fisher was often bad in 2021, especially protecting the quarterback. Can Pryor best Fisher, or will it remain clean that Indianapolis has a glaring hole at left tackle needing filled after Anthony Castonzo’s retirement in 2020?
Does Ryan still have it? Can the receivers stay healthy and outperform expectations? Who is ready to step up at tight end? Is the current offensive line enough to make it all work?
We’re about to find out.
DEFENSE SHARPENING ITS TEETH
There are plenty of reasons fans should feel confident about this Colts defense. For starters, this is the most well-rounded defensive line grouping the team has seen in years, potentially since Manning led the Colts deep into the playoffs. The biggest glaring weakness on the defense last season was a lack of consistent pass rush. Kwity Paye was the biggest consistent threat on the outside, and he was a rookie. Offenses gave a lot of extra attention to DeForest Buckner on the interior and dared the Colts to win on the outside.
Now, Indianapolis has Yannick Ngakoue as a true veteran every snap threat to create pressure and sack the quarterback on the outside. Paye will get a lot of one-on-one looks opposite him. As the two bookends create pressure, Buckner will see fewer double- and triple-team looks. Plus, this defensive scheme under Gus Bradley uses more of a pin-your-ears-back style where defensive linemen have fewer responsibilities.
Every reasonable expectation is that this scheme and its weapons on the defensive line should do considerably more to benefit players at the second level.
Speaking of that second level. Shaquille Leonard is one of the most opportunistic defenders in the league. He is well on his way to compiling career stats that make him one of the most opportunistic defenders in league history. Behind him are other turnover-focused weapons like Kenny Moore — who is fresh off of a Pro Bowl and is widely considered the best slot defender in the NFL. Stephon Gilmore replaces Rock Ya-Sin as the team’s first lockdown corner since Vontae Davis had a couple of good seasons years ago. Isaiah Rodgers has flashed incredible range and potential to close out the 2021 regular season and start the 2022 preseason.
Julian Blackmon will be asked to play a centerfield role in Gus Bradley’s Cover-3 heavy scheme. His range and comfort reading the quarterback could lead to a big breakout. Rodney McLeod is a veteran safety with enough miles left to be a factor, and third-round rookie Nick Cross has playmaker written all over him in the early going.
It’s hard to expect the Colts to replicate the turnover numbers from 2021. It’s also hard to know what to expect for the run defense with a new, more aggressive scheme. It’s also hard not to feel confident that the Colts will put the best defense in the AFC South on the field this season and one that should be exciting to watch.
DraftKings Sportsbook has placed the Colts over/under at 10 wins. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans are in long-term rebuilds around young signal callers. The Tennessee Titans have been the team to beat, but Derrick Henry has been key to their success, and they just lost A.J. Brown. If the Colts expect to win the AFC South, and they should, Indianapolis must take four of six division games and not squander opportunities against beatable, familiar opponents. They’ll rely on the experience and stability of Matt Ryan to make sure that happens.
AFC South = 4 wins
The non-division schedule will be challenging. The Chiefs have been an AFC Conference favorite since Patrick Mahomes established himself as the starter and one of the best in the game. The Broncos picked up Russell Wilson, and he will join a roster with plenty of weapons, including an impressive backfield after Javonte Williams broke out as a rookie. The Las Vegas Raiders have sought to buy their way into AFC relevance, adding weapons on both sides of the ball, including All-Pro receiver Davante Adams. The Los Angeles Chargers have one of the best young quarterbacks in Justin Herbert, and he also is surrounded by weapons. The Minnesota Vikings may not get the same notoriety as these AFC contenders, but any offense that boasts Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and Dalvin Cook is a nightmare to handle. Winning one or two of these games would go a long way toward hitting the over.
The meat of the schedule = 2 wins
Games against the Giants, Cowboys, Eagles, Steelers, and Commanders are all winnable on paper. Dallas could have a bit of regression this year with Ezekiel Elliott showing signs of slowing down and a somewhat depleted receiver corps. The Commanders are grasping at straws at quarterback — not unfamiliar in Indianapolis. The Eagles are praying for a breakout from Jalen Hurts with A.J. Brown as a new weapon on the outside. The Giants are still unsettled at quarterback, and Saquon Barkley will need to stay healthy to make big blue a consistent threat. Pittsburgh is transitioning from Ben Roethlisberger to a new quarterback, and those shifts almost always result in a step back — this could be the first losing season for the terrible towels since 2003.
The weakest part of the schedule = 4 wins
I’d agree with DraftKings here. Ten wins feels like an appropriate over/under. An extra win in the AFC South or winning an extra game against playoff-caliber teams outside of the division will be all the difference. Dropping more than two games in the AFC South or more than one game against the five weakest opponents on the calendar could cause the Colts to fall short and likely miss the playoffs.
To pick a side here, I’ll take the over. Colts win five division games, the AFC South, and have 11 wins heading to the playoffs.