Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the Colts organization, Colts fans around the world and those who understand that St. Elmo's is dandy, but it's not the only great part of downtown Indianapolis:
It's a new year, which means it's time for a new quarterback in Indy. (I'm not sure if you're aware of the rules, Colts, but you are allowed to have the same quarterback from year to year.) Still, despite another quarterback change for this franchise, there is plenty of reason for optimism. In fact, Indianapolis might just be one of my favorite low-key Super Bowl contenders in the AFC -- despite the fact I'm way too old to be using the phrase low-key. Let's take a look.
How the Colts got here
Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.
- Beating the Pack. You know, this might just be because I'm a Bears fan. But I loved the Colts' overtime victory over the Packers in Week 11. I hope Colts fans also enjoyed it, because I sure did.
- The Autumn WIN. My guy Philip Rivers was able to get one last win over the hated Raiders. I mean, Rivers had a relatively modest game with 244 passing yards and two touchdowns, but one last win over the Raiders was sweet for the former Charger. Speaking of the quarterback ...
- Iron Phil. Rivers retired at the end of the season, having never missed a start (252 NFL games) since earning the Chargers' starting job back in 2006. He even played in the 2007 AFC Championship Game with a torn ACL. Dude was a legend and did well to get the Colts back to the playoffs in his final NFL campaign.
- Opening stumble. I thought the Jaguars were going to be much better in 2020, so losing in Week 1 to my friends down in Duval County didn't seem like such a huge deal at the time. But looking back ... uh ... that was Jacksonville's lone victory on the season.
- The Rivers runs dry. The Colts lost on Super Wild Card Weekend to the Buffalo Bills. This was the only time Rivers ever lost in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. This seems impossible, right?
Head coach: Frank Reich. History might look at Reich as the true genius behind the Eagles' run to Super Bowl LII. Like the NFL version of Cliff Burton, with what he meant to Metallica and the band's second album, "Ride the Lightning." Doug Pederson is already out as coach of the Eagles. The Colts have won at least 10 games and made the playoffs in two of their three seasons under Reich. And the most important factor here is the Colts have started a different quarterback in each of those three seasons. Last year, of course, was Philip Rivers, who gave it one last chance before his career faded to black.
I bring up those quarterbacks because the Colts are going into Reich's fourth season with a fourth different signal-caller. But one with whom the head coach should be very familiar, considering they spent a magical 2017 season together in Philadelphia. Since we're here, let's talk about that signal-caller.
Quarterback: Carson Wentz. Reich was Wentz's offensive coordinator with the Eagles during his first two pro seasons (2016 and '17). Wentz was playing at an MVP level before he was injured late in the 2017 campaign. Then he was replaced by Nick Foles, who led Philadelphia to the franchise's first Super Bowl win. Wentz was second in the NFL in TD-to-INT ratio (33:7) and fourth in passer rating (101.9) when he went down that season. After Reich's departure to Indy, though, Wentz's production declined significantly, bottoming out this past season. He ranked second-to-last in passer rating among qualified quarterbacks in 2020, with a 72.8 figure just above Sam Darnold's NFL-worst mark. His accuracy percentage (46.6) in 2020 ranked worst in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. He also led the NFL with 24 turnover-worthy plays, per PFF. Pretty wild, considering dude didn't even play in the last four games.
But I think this is a risk worth taking. I know this is kind of like when Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn tried to recapture their chemistry from Swingers by making the ill-fated Made. And kinda similar to the rationale behind teams continuing to give Foles opportunities to start over the last few years. OK, those are terrible examples for you Colts fans, because they didn't work out. But hey, Star Wars: The Force Awakens kind of killed it as A New Hope reboot, so there you go. Let's go with that example for the Indy faithful.
Projected 2021 MVP: Quenton Nelson, guard. Nelson has Pro Football Focus' second-highest overall grade (90.4) among guards since he entered the league in 2018. Only the Cowboys' Zack Martin has a higher mark (90.9). He also carries the highest grade in run blocking (90.0). Nelson is one of just five players to be selected first-team All-Pro in each of his first three NFL seasons -- and first lineman to do it. Since you are asking about the others, it's OLB Lawrence Taylor, RB Barry Sanders, RB Earl Campbell and TE Keith Jackson. So yeah, that's some pretty decent company.
2021 breakout star: Tyquan Lewis, defensive end. Lewis made some great strides last season, racking up four sacks and eight tackles for loss. But the Colts need him to continue on an upward trajectory. I have high hopes for the Colts' defense this year, but we will get to that in a moment.
New face to know: Sam Ehlinger, quarterback. Obviously, no threat to unseat Wentz as the starting quarterback. But are the Colts trying to send a message to Jacob Eason? And given Wentz's injury history, it's notable that the Colts will be rolling into the year with two backup QBs who are untested on the NFL level. Ehlinger is kind of a wild card here. He was a solid college quarterback. But I'm not saying we have another Gardner Minshew situation brewing here in the AFC South. I'm just curious to see what he's able to do in training camp and those preseason games. Although, if Ehlinger shows up in a mullet, we're on!
The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. The Colts are coming off a playoff appearance. Reich has been great over his first three years. The Colts should be in the mix for the playoffs. Maybe more.
Three key dates:
- Week 3 at Tennessee Titans. The Colts and Titans both went 11-5 last season, splitting the season series with each road team taking the win.
- Week 5 at Baltimore Ravens (Monday night). The Colts open the season with back-to-back home games against the Seahawks and Rams, but then go on a three-game roadie against some pretty decent teams. It begins with that Titans game in Week 3, followed by a jaunt to Miami, and then a trip to Baltimore for a prime-time clash. The Colts are one of three teams that will play three consecutive road games. But they also have three straight at home, too, in Weeks 8 through 10.
- Week 13 at Houston Texans. Hey look, this might not be a huge game, but Indianapolis' bye is in Week 14. Teams with late byes tend to do better in the playoffs. And the Colts have the easiest final nine games, based on last year's records. Not to mention, Indy can't overlook any divisional foe (SEE: last season's opener against the Jags).
Will the Colts be able to …
Replace Anthony Castonzo? Castonzo, who retired in January, started at least 11 games in all 10 seasons with the Colts. The Colts apparently feel confident in the players they brought in to replace him because they didn't draft an offensive lineman until Pick No. 248. That means the combination of Sam Tevi, who had been with the Los Angeles Chargers since 2018, and Eric Fisher, who tore his Achilles in the AFC Championship Game, will be counted on to man the left tackle position. A huge issue, because one of the biggest selling points for a rebirth of Carson Wentz is Indy's offensive line.
Establish a top-flight receiving corps? The wideouts were also a problem for Wentz in Philly last season, maybe more so than the offensive line. I mean, Travis Fulgham was the go-to receiver for a bit. No disrespect or anything, but the Eagles were thin at WR. And the Colts have some great talent, but need somebody to step up as an alpha. Colts receivers have 4,216 receiving yards over the last two years, which ranks 29th in the NFL. The Colts have not had a 1,000-yard receiver since T.Y. Hilton in 2018. They had 11 touchdowns by receivers last year, which was 26th in the league. Hilton led the team in targets (93) and yards (762) and his five TDs were tied with Zach Pascal for tops in Indy. Hilton is reliable, but sometimes you want to upgrade to a luxury brand. At some point, I would love for Parris Campbell to be that player. I would also love for Daniel Bryan to show up on AEW someday, too. I'm just not sure that's going to happen. Michael Pittman could be that guy. A second-round pick last year, he showed some promise as a rookie. Played well in that playoff loss to Buffalo. If he can make that second-year leap we've seen from other receivers, then this offense could really sing.
Be even better defensively? They might just be. Trading for DeForest Buckner was such an underrated move last season. Not enough people talked about it, nor do they ever seem to give the Colts' front office enough credit for the roster they have built. Buckner was all up in the opposing quarterback's business, leading the team with 9.5 sacks. And then the Colts went out and selected Kwity Paye in the first round. Maybe a gift courtesy of all of the quarterbacks coming off the board early in this year's draft, but Paye is a top-10 talent. Paye was one of the best at getting to the quarterback and stuffing the run in the Big Ten, according to the metrics at Pro Football Focus. He is going to be asked to replace Justin Houston (currently a free agent) and Denico Autry (signed with Tennessee) on a defense that was great down the stretch last year. The Colts allowed 21.8 points per game in Weeks 13-17 last year. And opened the season allowing 14.0 points in the first four weeks. Now, don't ask about that middle stretch -- it wasn't great. But overall, with Buckner, Paye and superstar LB Shaquille Leonard -- the first player with over 400 tackles and 15 sacks in his first three seasons since at least 2000 -- the Colts are loaded and ready to go on defense.
One storyline …
… people are overlooking: Wentz took 50 sacks in 2020. That was the most in the NFL. And Wentz missed four games. I'm willing to say that Wentz really didn't get a fair shot over the last few years because his line let him down. And now he's going to play behind one of the best lines in the NFL -- IF Indianapolis can overcome the loss of Castonzo. But again, I like taking the chance on Wentz.
… people are overthinking: The return of Marlon Mack and the impact on Jonathan Taylor. I'm a huge Jonathan Taylor mark. And I'm sure you probably know why by now. JT had 1,169 rushing yards -- which led all rookies -- in 2020. One of just four players with 1,400-plus scrimmage yards and at least 12 scrimmage touchdowns. The others? Derrick Henry. Dal Cook. And Alvin Kamara. Ever heard of them? He was at his best down the stretch when he had at least 70 rushing yards in six consecutive games and went for 741 total rushing yards in that span. He even had 78 rushing yards and a touchdown against the Bills in the playoffs. And I know that Marlon Mack is going to return this season after missing nearly all of last year due to injury. That's a depth play. The Colts brought back a running back who knew the offense. He's not going to hurt JT's production at all. I know I'm mostly talking to fantasy enthusiasts with that last point, but trust me, this is going to be Jonathan's year.
… people are also overlooking: More Jonathan Taylor. Taylor joined Hall of Famers Edgerrin James and Marshall Faulk as the only rookies in club history with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. And he's one of just five rookies in the past 20 years to average more than 5.0 yards per carry, rush for 1,000-plus yards and score at least 10 touchdowns. The others were Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Adrian Peterson and Clinton Portis. Another pretty decent group.
For 2021 to be a success, the Colts MUST:
- Make the playoffs, minimum. The roster is playoff-worthy just on the defensive side alone. The offensive line has been one of the best in the NFL. The Colts have to get to the playoffs. Especially with two teams in the division not expected to be among the top half of the conference. Getting a definitive answer on Wentz would also be a plus.
This is an interesting year. It's difficult to find stability and consistency if you are struggling to find a franchise quarterback. I'm a Bears supporter, so I know about this all too well. The best-case scenario is Reich turns the clock back to 2017 for Wentz. Pittman turns into Calvin Ridley. And the Colts are clashing with the Chiefs to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The worst would be going 9-8, Wentz missing some games. And you settle for signing Nick Foles in the offseason.