The Indianapolis Colts have at least five critical questions facing them this offseason with OTAs underway and training camp in the future, so without further ado, what are they?
1. How Ready is Rookie QB Anthony Richardson?
In the NFL, about 98% of the time (and that other 2% is like with a strong running game and historically dominant defense), a team only goes as far as its starting quarterback play, which remains the most important position on the football field—and by a rather large margin.
Having just turned 21 years of age and with limited starting experience at the University of Florida, Richardson is very much still developing as a quarterback. Initial growing pains will occur and patience will be required—particularly in the passing game.
Right now, Richardson has reportedly been splitting first-team reps with veteran quarterback Gardner Minshew in OTAs—who was brought in this offseason to compete and serve as an experienced soundboard and insurance for the young quarterback.
That being said, the Colts’ top brass has publicly stated that Richardson lacks playing experience, and the only way to get it is by actually taking snaps on the field—not holding a clipboard and talking into a headset along the sidelines.
Richardson has looked largely sharp in the team’s recent open OTAs to the media:
However, throwing in simulated and scripted plays in gym shorts on a practice field against your teammates and coaches is a little bit different than real game days on NFL Sundays when opposing players are going full speed and trying to really lay a hit out there.
It would be surprising if Richardson isn’t the Week 1 starter on September 10th against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but even if he’s not the initial starter, I’d be shocked if he isn’t the starter by Week 5 of this upcoming season, supplanting Minshew rather early on.
That’s not a knock on Minshew, but Richardson needs to see the actual field sooner rather than later in order to grow and get better.
2. Will Shaq Be Fully Back?
With recent vague comments by his new head coach Shane Steichen (who we’ll get to), that the Colts former All-Pro linebacker is “progressing well” in his rehabilitation from a second back surgery—yet not getting into an exact timetable of recovery, it’s uncertain right now of when Shaquille Leonard will return to the football field (much less, if he’ll ever truly be at 100% again).
Leonard admittedly rushed his return last year, even though he didn’t have full feeling in his lower leg, and looked a step slower on the field—appearing in just 3 games before shutting it down for another back surgery to hopefully finally correct the lingering nerve issue.
Right now, it’s not a given that ‘The Maniac’ will ever fully regain his prior superstar form, with two back surgeries and playing a very physically demanding position in the NFL—where collisions and high-end impact happens on almost every play.
If fully healthy, Leonard is one of the best players on the Colts and in the entire NFL defensively as a dynamic playmaker with sideline-to-sideline ability, a nose for finding the football, and a knack for generating turnovers—especially as it relates to punching out the ball for forced fumbles.
Whether the Colts see that star linebacker again though is unclear at this juncture, but you’d be foolish to count out the Maniac right now.
3. Can Shane Steichen Revitalize the Colts Offense?
The Colts hired at head coach one of the top regarded young offensive minds in football in order to improve an offense that was simply dreadful in 2022.
Indy averaged 17.0 points per game last year (3rd worst) and 311.6 total offensive yards per game (6th worst), so it was by all accounts, an offense that was bad and even worse to watch. (For those more analytically driven, they ranked both 32nd (i.e., dead last) in both DVOA and weighted DVOA by Football Outsiders for this past season).
Steichen’s offensive success should go hand-in-hand with #1—namely Anthony Richardson’s. That being said, he should bring some fresh perspective, new ideas, and dynamic play-calling (and sideline edge?) to an offense that had stalled under former head coach Frank Reich.
With the uber-athletic Richardson in the fold, expect Steichen to simplify the playbook and utilize the top rookie’s legs early on by deploying the RPO, play-action, and the bootleg game, and by working off of workhorse running back Jonathan Taylor initially.
4. Who’s Starting at Right Guard?
Rather surprisingly, the Colts haven’t addressed this position with a meaningful veteran signing yet. Dalton Risner anyone?
It looks like third-year offensive guard Will Fries, is the current penciled in starter at right guard. Fries started 9 games for the Colts last year in relief, and while his blocking wasn’t necessarily banner worthy, he did get better down the season’s stretch—and was recently talked up by new Colts offensive line coach Tony Sparano.
Should Fries falter, and the Colts remain coy at the position, one contingency could be starting rookie fourth round pick Blake Freeland at right tackle, who has gotten recent first-team reps at OTAs with incumbent Braden Smith’s injury.
In this scenario, Smith would kick inside, who played some right guard at Auburn. Rookie UDFA Emil Ekiyor (Alabama) could also be an under-the-radar option, if fully healthy.
The Colts need cohesiveness and continuity among its front five if it’s wanting to rebound from a season of collective struggles from a once proud and consistently productive unit (which is another question in and of itself). Having routinely solid right guard play should and would go a long way towards helping that unit return to a formidable form again.
5. Can the Colts’ Young Secondary Hold Up?
Gone are longtime NFL veterans such as Stephon Gilmore (32) and Rodney McLeod (32) from the Colts revamped secondary. Instead there are a number of young players: Julian Blackmon (24), Rodney Thomas II (24), and Nick Cross (21) at safety, as well as Isaiah Rodgers (25), Dallis Flowers (26), Julius Brents (23), Darius Rush (23), and Jaylon Jones (21) at cornerback among them respectively, who will have to step up this season with ample playing time.
Colts slot cornerback Kenny Moore may be the grizzled veteran of the Colts secondary at 27 years old (*although veteran signee Kevin Toliver II is also the same age, if he sticks).
Facing a short-term rebuild, it makes sense that Indy has elected to get younger, longer, faster, and more athletic in the secondary and get some of these young defensive backs valuable reps and playing time to accelerate their early development.
However, opposing quarterbacks and passing games aren’t going to take it easy on them by any means—which it’ll be interesting to see how this young and rather green secondary holds up over the course of an entire 2023 campaign.
Update: This unit may look even younger with Rodgers Sr. facing an indefinite suspension for potentially violating the league’s gambling policies.