Our 2019 NFL Preview continues it’s stroll through the AFC South, with a stop in Indianapolis to check on the Colts, who after experiencing a major rebirth last season, returning to the Playoffs after a three-year hiatus, have just been dealt the most crushing of blows, imperiling their upcoming campaign altogether. That’s because before the conclusion of their third Preseason Game, news broke that their Franchise Quarterback, Andrew Luck, was to abruptly announce his retirement from the sport. With Head Coach, Frank Reich, and General Manager, Chris Ballard, having cultivated the team into what looked to be a serious contender, this is as shocking and debilitating a turn of events that one could imagine. Now, with the Colts effectively stuck in immediate damage control, where exactly does that leave them in the hierarchy of the AFC? With Luck calling it quits, will Jacoby Brissett be able to fill the considerable void? Will the Supporting Cast continue to blossom? Will Ballard ace a third consecutive Draft? Let’s take a look and find out, shall we?
It’s certainly remarkable as to how things can change in the NFL from one day to another. Take this shocking situation at Quarterback for example; after missing all of the 2017 Campaign due to a serious shoulder injury, Andrew Luck (67.3% 4,593 YDS, 6.79 NY/A, 39 TD, 15 INT, 71.5 QBR) reemerged as a bonafide superstar in 2018, guiding the Colts to a 10-6 finish, and their first trip to the Playoffs after a three-year hiatus. An unknown commodity entering the season due to his mysterious rehab from shoulder surgery, the former No. One Overall Pick looked better than ever in 2018, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including Completions (430), Attempts (639), Completion Percentage (67.3%), Passer Rating (98.7), and QBR (71.5), all the while suffering from the lowest Sack Percentage (2.7%) of his career, en route to claiming the league’s Comeback Player of the Year honors. However, speculation steadily mounted that the four-time Pro-Bowler wouldn’t be available for the beginning of the 2019 Season, with Indianapolis’ brain-trust once again remaining very coy on the origins of his ailment. Some said it was a calf injury, while others claimed it was a bone bruise, and then most recently it was cited as a high ankle injury. As a result, Luck had participated sparsely throughout Training Camp, and had yet to appear in any of his team’s three Preseason competitions. And then on Saturday Night, the most unexpected of bombshells dropped on the city of Indianapolis: Luck was formally retiring. Though the official announcement wasn’t to be made until after the weekend via Press Conference, the news was leaked prematurely during the club’s Preseason meeting with the Bears, while Luck was standing on the sidelines. Needless to say, the fans did NOT take the news very well, booing their Quarterback off the field. The Press Conference that ensued after the game was of the sensationally awkward variety, with Owner, Jim Irsay, Ballard, and Reich all present and confirming the reality of the situation. At just 29-years Old, with a staggering $58.1 Million left in guaranteed money on his contract, the face of their franchise was seriously calling it career, citing that he had been “mentally worn down” after the series of injuries that have plagued him over the past few years. Now, the question is where the hell do the Colts turn from here? The obvious answer will be their Backup, Jacoby Brissett, who started in all but one of their sixteen games back in 2017 when Luck was on the mend. While still young with plenty of upside and held in high regard around the league, the fact remains that Brissett could only muster the Colts to a woeful 4-12 record in that season after acquiring him via trade late in Training Camp, leaving many in Indianapolis franticly pushing the panic button. Will he thrive with a stronger Supporting Cast this time around, or will he steer the team back into mediocrity once more? Only time will tell…
Behind every successful rebuild, you’re likely to find a smart General Manager, and the Colts are no different with their lead Executive, Chris Ballard, calling the shots. When he arrived in Indianapolis back in 2017, he was met by a roster that was littered with holes, thanks in part to a largely inept Front Office that overspent on overrated and undeserving talent in Free Agency, and routinely botched the NFL Draft, leaving the Supporting Cast around his Franchise Quarterback barren to say the least. Now heading into 2019 and it’s rather remarkable just how quickly he’s remade this team. For Ballard, it all starts with the Draft, where he’s unearthed gem after gem, no matter the round they were chosen. Starting in 2017, he set out to bolster the Secondary with Defensive Backs, Malik Hooker (No. 15 Overall) and Quincey Wilson (No. 46 Overall), while finding the team’s leading Rusher in 2018, Marlon Mack (No. 143 Overall), in the Fourth Round. In 2018, he made waves by taking Quenton Nelson (No. 6 Overall), a Guard, higher than most would have preferred, only for his convictions to be repaid, with the rookie being selected as an All-Pro, while transforming the Offensive Line as a whole. It didn’t stop there though, for in the Second Round, he chose Darius Leonard (No. 36 Overall), a little known Linebacker out of South Carolina State, who went on to join Nelson as an All-Pro, locking down Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in the process. Immediately following Leonard, Ballard further augmented his Quarterback’s protection with Braden Smith (No. 37 Overall), who went on to start thirteen games at Tackle. Furthermore, he found Nyheim Himes (No. 104 Overall), a versatile Tailback that went on to amass 739 Total Yards from Scrimmage as a Backup, in the Fourth Round. With that said, his talents haven’t simply been exclusive to the Draft, for he’s made some very shrewd moves in Free Agency too, making a habit of giving discarded players second chances; after underwhelming in Detroit, Eric Ebron (66 REC, 750 YDS, 11.4 Y/R, 13 TD) flourished in Reich’s scheme, while Denico Autry (37 TKL, 13 TFL, 11 QBH, 9.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 PD) and Margus Hunt (30 TKL, 13 TFL, 6 QBH, 5.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 PD) have enjoyed new leases on life on Defense. Finally, it should also be noted how Ballard handled the coaching search following the 2017 season. Left at the proverbial alter by Josh McDaniels, he ultimately settled on the aforementioned Reich, who stabilized the Offense and got the most out of Luck, while furthering the development of so many young talents. Now we’re going to see him really earn his money in the aftermath of Luck’s retirement, which will no doubt create ripple effects throughout the franchise this season.
Building a Monster
For a franchise that has long been associated with prolific and explosive Offense, it’s rather refreshing to see them building a Defense featuring so many rising stars. Quietly one of the better units in the league last season, we’d forgive you for not realizing that Indianapolis did field a Top-10 Defense in 2018. Indeed, Defensive Coordinator, Matt Eberflus, made a name for himself, as his charges allowed 21.5 Points (10th Overall) on 339.7 Total Yards (11th Overall), including 237.8 Yards against the Pass (16th Overall) on 6.6 Net Yards per Attempt (20th Overall), and another 101.9 Yards versus the Run (8th Overall) on 3.9 Yards per Carry (6th Overall). Furthermore, they proved adept at creating Turnovers, logging Twenty-Six in total (10th Overall), while stiffening considerably in the Red Zone, where they allowed a Touchdown on a solid 53.5% of opportunities (11th Overall). As we mentioned earlier, Darius Leonard (163 TKL, 12 TFL, 8 QBH, 7.0 SK, 4 FF, 2 FR, 2 INT, 8 PD) was an absolute revelation as a rookie, becoming the first player in over a decade to be selected as both an All-Pro and Defensive Rookie of the Year, leading the league in both Total Tackles (163) and Solo Tackles (111) to boot. However, he was far from alone, for after missing all but six games as a rookie, the aforementioned Hooker (44 TKL, 1 FR, 2 INT, 4 PD) routinely showed out as well, while fellow Defensive Back, Kenny Moore (77 TKL, 4 TFL, 2 QBH, 1.5 SK, 1 FF, 3 INT, 11 PD), signed as an Undrafted Free Agent in 2017, led the team with Three Interceptions and Eleven Defended Passes. Furthermore, look for this unit to continue to grow after adding veteran Edge-Rusher, Justin Houston (37 TKL, 8 TFL, 12 QBH, 9.0 SK, 5 FF, 3 FR, 1 INT, 1 PD) in Free Agency, while tabbing physical Cornerback, Rock Ya-Sin (No. 34 Overall) alongside Edge-Rusher, Ben Banogu (No. 49 Overall), in the Second Round of the NFL Draft. Given Ballard’s track record, there is an excellent chance that both rookies wind up contributing this season.
2019 Forecast: 5-11
Before the announcement of Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement, the Colts were thought of as very much a dark-horse contender to sneak into Super Bowl LIV. As we covered earlier, they’ve performed a textbook job of rebuilding themselves, with Chris Ballard and Frank Reich working miracles, as the former continues to unearth gems in the Draft, while the latter develops them on the field. However, his exit from the sport now puts the Franchise in a completely different position heading into 2019, and even though there are many out there that remain high on Jacoby Brissett, there is absolutely no way to view this team’s fortunes as anything but positive. After all, Indianapolis is only 10-15 without Luck since they drafted him No. One Overall back in 2012, including a miserable 4-12 finish in 2017 with Brissett leading them. Yes, thanks to the efforts of both Ballard and Reich, the Supporting Cast is vastly improved, but at the end of the day, how many teams can successfully survive the abrupt departure of their Franchise Quarterback, let alone one who is one of the five or six best at the position? And with that said, a promising campaign now appears to be a very challenging one for the Colts, who must contend with not only a tougher schedule, but a more difficult Division as well, with the likes of Jacksonville and Tennessee improving, while Houston figures to remain the favorite to repeat as champion of the AFC South. So much of their success will depend on Brissett’s ability to carry them offensively, and while nobody expects him to perform in the same manner as his predecessor, he must improve significantly over his previous performance in 2017. Otherwise, the Colts have indeed seen their “Luck” run out.