While the end of the season leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, the Colts exceeded expectations in 2023. The Colts were only suppose to win 6-7 games, so getting to 9 and coming extremely close to winning the division is still a nice showing. Which groups performed well and which groups hurt the team?
Grading is based on the American grading scale:
A/B/C/D+ is an average of 98.5, 88.5, 78.5 or 68.5
A/B/C/D is an average of 94.5, 84.5, 74.5 or 64.5
A/B/C/D- is an average of 91%, 81%, 71% or 61%
F is a fail
A letter grade of B is considered average.
It’s hard to count Anthony Richardson into the grading since he played less than 200 snaps this season, but what we saw from him is very encouraging. The arm was not only live but relatively accurate. His athleticism is incredible. The timing and anticipation is not there yet, but it will come.
With that being said about Richardson, the grading will be on Gardner Minshew. Minshew nearly got the Colts to the playoffs, so that in itself indicates that he wasn’t too bad, but when you dig deep, you see a lot of good and a lot of bad. Minshew threws well on a schedule, which works extremely well with RPOs, something the Colts ran more than any other team in the NFL.
On the other hand, Minshew struggled when his first read was taken away and oftentimes his weak arm was on display. He struggled to put a lot of zip on intermediate passes, especially those outside the numbers and I believe that also discouraged him from going deep. His play was good enough, but there were a lot of little things that held back the offense. Overall, he was just below average.
Jonathan Taylor was fantastic when healthy, but when he wasn’t, Zack Moss looked like a top 10 running back. The 1-2 punch of Taylor and Moss was the best in the NFL this season, without question. If 49ers and Dolphins are A+’s, then the Colts are just behind them with As. It’s in the best interest of the Colts to keep Zack Moss as the primary backup as he compliments Taylor well. At his best, Taylor was shifty, explosive and made great reads. At his best, Moss was a rugged runner who got yards on every play. This group was fantastic and needs to be kept together for 2024.
Michael Pittman Jr took a step forward and answered questions of whether he could be a #1 receiver or not. Josh Downs was an extremely productive rookie and has the makings of a star. After those two studs, it was a lot of nothing as Alec Pierce failed to do anything outside of a couple of big catches and Isaiah McKenzie and the other backups had little to no impact. This is a top heavy group and the Colts will need to invest in some depth. Pittman Jr is a free agent and keeping him must be one of the biggest priorities this offseason.
While they caught enough touchdowns to get noticed, this group overall was underwhelming. The Colts used a rotation strategy and they never relied on one guy. Early on in the season we saw more of Kylen Granson and by the end of the season we saw more of Will Mallory.
The blocking from the group was average and it’s worth noting that Granson improved as a blocker. The occasional chunk plays didn’t make up for the fact that this group was underwhelming in the pass game. It lacks a true receiving threat at tight end and I don’t believe the answer is in this current group. This is one of the worst 5-6 tight end rooms in the league and the Colts will need to look for upgrades that mesh well in Steichen’s offense.
You can argue that the offensive line was the strongest group of the Colts in 2023. Each of the five regular starters were consistently strong performers, with the occasional speed bump performance.
Bernhard Raimann was a breakout star, probably the biggest on the Colts, with an incredible season at left tackle. For a 2nd year player to allow 4 sacks and 35 pressures and play every single game is extremely encouraging. While not as good in the run game, he was still well above average and the Colts were well ranked when running to his side.
Quenton Nelson nearly returned to his old form. If he used to be a Tier 1 player, he is safely in the Tier 2 category. He is mean, aggressive and a killer in the run game. On top of being a strong run blocker, especially on pulls, he allowed only 1 sack and 21 pressures this year.
Ryan Kelly had a resurgence and was phenomenal in the pass game and decent in the run game.
Will Fries was a pleasant, holding his own at right guard. It helps that he’s masked by Ryan Kelly and Braden Smith, but even when tasked with tough players (Aaron Donald, Vita Vea, Jeffery Simmons to name a few), he more than held his own. He is an encouraging piece moving forward.
Braden Smith suffered some injuries in 2023, but when healthy his play was stellar. His pass blocking stats were incredible (0 sacks allowed, 14 pressures total) and when running to his side, the Colts were one of the highest ranked teams when Smith was healthy. He is a strong player.
The unfortunate part of the Colts offensive line is the lack of depth and if it was possible to have a grade between A and A- I would have them at that. Blake Freeland struggled mightily in his rookie season and no other players did anything special or proved they could be a starter.
This group had a lot of good moments and was one of the strongest units on the entire team. DeForest Buckner, in my opinion, was an All Pro player in 2023. He had a big impact in the pass game, but his presence in the run game was really felt when Grover Stewart was out and he had to take on more responsibilities and even play some 2-gap.
While I can individually break down the remaining players, it’s worth noting that the success of this group came because of its collectiveness. Some games Samson Ebukam was fantastic, other times it was Tyquan Lewis or Kwity Paye. This group ranked in the top 5 in sacks in the NFL, but not highly in pressures, which is strange but tells me that they probably allowed a lot of quick passing plays in the secondary. When given a chance to get to the quarterback, they capitilized. They still lack a consistent star on the edge (shown by the lack of quick pressures from the group), but they’re getting away with it for now.
There weren’t many other players to gush over. Grover Stewart, when playing, was his usual great self. Dayo Odeyingbo was a curious case because his numbers would indicate he’s a potential star, but he’s very inconsistent and offers zero in the run game. Besides him, Taven Bryan was a big disappointment.
This group needs a star on the edge, but they are more than fine if they went with this group again for next season.
Despite the loss of Darius Leonard, this group took a big step forward in 2023. Zaire Franklin has become the true leader of this defense and maybe the entire team. He has become a tackling machine, being involved in every play and being disciplined with his gap control. He plays like a true MIKE linebacker since his coverage skills aren’t up to par, and he plays it extremely well. It’s important to have a MIKE who can clean things up since it frees up the outside backers and the defensive ends to be more aggressive in all aspects.
EJ Speed showed a lot of flashes, especially in the run game. He’s always good for 2 or 3 good plays a game, despite some poor play in coverage. Even Ronnie Harrison and Segun Olubi had occasional flashes.
While this group occasionally flashed potential, it was weak and hurt the Colts many times in 2023. To be fair, this group wasn’t aided by many of the coverage calls, which is why their grade isn’t lower, but the group overall was poor. If it weren’t for Kenny Moore, this group would be a D. Tony Brown, Darrell Baker Jr and Chris Lammons are not NFL quality players, let alone starters. Those 3 players had passer rating allowed figures of over 100, which is well below average, and Baker for example was heavily picked on in many matchups. Jaylon Jones has the potential, but he is far from ready.
The Colts need a major upgrade in this area and keeping Kenny Moore is somewhat important since he kept this group afloat.
Julian Blackmon led the way for this group, as he played like a top 10-12 safety in this league this year. He was even rewarded with a few votes for the All Pro team. His good versatile play, with his especially good play as a centerfielder in the Cover 3 base, is what helped keep things afloat on the back end.
Rodney Thomas unfortunately took a big step back this season and was not the player he was during his rookie season. He missed a lot of tackles, had blown coverages and allowed a lot of big plays (his passer rating allowed went up 50%). His future as a starter is certainly in question.
Nick Cross, on the other hand, took a step forward and is definitely the better choice as the compliment to Blackmon. He was far more responsible in coverage and as a run stopper, he didn’t miss many tackles and had a good amount of stops.
This group showed potential, but in most regards was an average group in 2023.
The Colts had a great performance against the Titans that essentially won them the game. In the weeks that followed, they had some awful performances (bad coverages, missed kicks, fumbles, etc). What made this group an above average unit in the end was the great play of Matt Gay, who was amongst the 6-7 best kickers in the NFL this season.
Steichen’s score alone would be around an A/A-, but Gus Bradley and the defensive coaching staff brings this grade down a little bit.
Steichen would’ve earned an A+ if it weren’t for his strange personnel decision at the end of the season that ended up costing the Colts.
Gus Bradley hurts the grade a little bit because of his overuse of Cover 3 and lack of mixing up different coverages for certain teams. The Colts didn’t have great personnel on the back end, but oftentimes bad players were left on islands against elite players, which is a coaching issue. On top of that, Bradley was responsible for a defense that allowed the 5th most points in the NFL and considering the great players up front, that should not be the case.
A grade of B indicates the Colts were an average middle of the pack team, which to me was the case. Fourteen teams make the playoffs and the Colts just missed out which puts them in the 15 to 18 range of teams in the league, which further validates the grade given.
The Colts were fun to watch, but the holes in the secondary as well the average at best play from the quarterback are the main reasons why they couldn’t take a major step forward. Improvements at quarterback and the secondary while maintaining good play in areas graded B+ or better will surely make the Colts a playoff a team in 2024.