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State of the Franchise: Colts built to win now with Philip Rivers

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? 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 Indianapolis Colts organization, Colts fans around the world and those who miss not only Andrew Luck but updates from the famed Capt. Andrew Luck Twitter account, as well:

Dearest mother,

As you know, I had to step away from football to return to life on the farm. And my Colts took heavy losses last year. But I'm happy to report that the cavalry has arrived via an unlikely source: Capt. Philip Rivers from our rival San Diego (now Los Angeles) regiment has broken ranks to join us. And instead of trying to prevent us from getting to the Super Bowl as he did so many times, he is now leading us.

-- Andrew

Obviously, not as good as the original. And when I say that, I mean my rip-off of the Capt. Andrew Luck account and not Philip Rivers. Because, sure, you would want peak Andrew Luck at this point. After all, it feels like the Colts could be really special this season.

How the Colts got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Defeating the eventual champions on the road. The Colts went into Kansas City on a Sunday night and beat the Chiefs, 19-13, improving to 3-2 entering their Week 6 bye.
  • Starting the season 5-2. After consecutive wins over the Texans and Broncos coming out of the bye, you started to think that maybe they weren't going to miss Andrew Luck at all.
  • I think this bears repeating: Jacoby Brissett led the Colts to wins in five of his first seven starts!

The lows:

  • Andrew Luck's shocking retirement. He announced he was walking away from the game on Aug. 24 last year at the age of 29.
  • Adam Vinatieri's Week 9 miss. The 24th-year kicker's shank of a 43-yard field goal try in the closing minutes sealed a 26-24 loss to the Steelers. Making this even harder to swallow was that you lost to fill-in starter Mason Rudolph.
  • The Colts lost in six of Brissett's last eight starts. It all downhill after the QB was diagnosed with a sprained MCL in early November.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Frank Reich. Let's take a quick look back at the Colts' two seasons under Reich. He got the gig because the guy the Colts originally wanted -- Josh McDaniels -- bailed at the last minute, like the way Chip Matthews ghosted Rachel the night of their prom on Friends. That's when Reich stepped in like Ross rocking that tuxedo to save the day. And I realize this analogy isn't perfect because Chip eventually shows up and takes Rachel to the prom in the show. But Ross does eventually marry her, so there is that.

Anyway, Reich had an amazing first year with the Colts. He led them to a 10-6 record, good for second place in the AFC South. They won a playoff game, and everything was looking amazing. Then you went into last August thinking that Andrew Luck was going to lead your team to the next level (we already covered what happened with Luck earlier in this piece; no need for me to go over it again). Ultimately, 2019 wasn't a great year for the Colts. It seemed like one of those situations where everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Almost like there were forces of nature working against you or something. Take that miss by Adam Vinatieri I mentioned earlier, for example. What in the name of Mike Vanderjagt was that? I'm a Bears fan. I know bad kicking. That was something else. When a guy like Vinatieri -- one of the most decorated kickers in NFL history -- misses a kick like that in the clutch, I wouldn't have blamed the Colts if they had pushed away from the table and said they were done for the season.

Let's talk about the positives, though. Despite everything that was going wrong (and seriously, I can't stop watching that missed field goal), the team still went 7-9. That was pretty incredible. Now, the future looks bright once again. GM Chris Ballard did another stunning job in the draft. I would conclude that the 2018 version of the Colts is more indicative of what you are going to see of the Colts this season. And you have the guy we're going to discuss next ...

Quarterback: Philip Rivers. Listen, Brissett performed admirably in a pretty rough situation last year. But you can't fault the Colts for wanting to bring in one of the best in the business to give it one last run before you somehow end up with Trevor Lawrence next year.

Yes, I was a big fan of the Colts' decision to sign Rivers this offseason. I love how this is the reverse of Johnny Unitas leaving the Colts to finish his career off with the Chargers, although Rivers has more juice than Unitas had for that final season in San Diego. Anyhow, Rivers had 4,615 passing yards last year, which was great. But he had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of nearly 1:1 (23:20). That's an almost Jameis Winston-like level of proficiency. And trust me, I had to live with the emotional highs and lows from the Chargers because my wife is a fan (maybe not as much now with Rivers leaving). And if you've seen one Chargers game, you've basically seen them all. It's like watching NCIS when you have the bad guy figured out in, like, five minutes. But then they spend 30 minutes trying to convince you that it's some other guy. Then by the end you find out, nope, it was the guy you suspected all long. In the Chargers' case, they will lead you to believe they are going to win a game, and somehow they will find a way to lose it. And normally the blame fell on Rivers, who would be sent out there with a minute left to win, playing behind a shaky offensive line so he has to resort to throwing YOLO balls to bail his team out.

But part of that code is already fixed in Indianapolis. The Chargers' offensive line has been deficient for years (and go back to read my entry on the Chargers from this series to see how I feel about them getting a good offensive line after Rivers left). They were never the same after Nick Hardwick left. That is not going to be a problem for the Colts, who have one of the best offensive lines in the league. In fact, they might have the best offensive lineman in the league ...

Projected 2020 MVP: Quenton Nelson, guard. Rivers is an upgrade at quarterback, there is no doubt about that in my mind. But again, let's not pretend that Brissett wasn't serviceable last year, winning five of his first seven starts. But I love Rivers. I really do believe he can have a career sendoff similar to the one Peyton Manning (remember him?) had in Denver. However, that won't happen without the continued stellar play of this offensive line, led by Nelson. He's been one of the highest-graded offensive linemen in the league in his two NFL seasons. And check this. He's so good. I mean, there are Giants fans who will tell you that their team should have picked Nelson over Saquon Barkley in 2018. Quenton is a rock star. 

New face to know: DeForest Buckner, defensive tackle. Ballard made a pretty bold decision in March when he traded away a first-round pick (13th overall) for Buckner. I loved this move, though. Buckner is a great player, and the 49ers were kind of in a bind with having to pay a bunch of great players in the next couple years. They couldn't keep all of them, so the Colts took advantage. It's kind of like when my neighbor was moving and needed to sell his beach cruiser. He wanted $75 for it. I offered $20, and boom! Normally, such an offer would be insulting, but because the U-Haul was coming that day, I made off like a bandit. And before you ask, no, my neighbor was not Bill O'Brien and it's almost insulting that you would ask that question, imaginary reader. 

Anyhow, Buckner is one of the most reliable players in the NFL, having missed only one game since entering the league in 2016. He's frequently double-teamed and still has managed to post 19.5 sacks with 34 quarterback hits over the last two seasons. The pressure he can provide from the interior is important not only when it comes to defending against the QB for a division rival like Deshaun Watson, but overall in the AFC, as well. This was one of the biggest upgrades in the offseason, in my opinion.

Projected 2020 breakout star: Kemoko Toray, defensive end. Another benefit of adding a player like Buckner is that his presence can help the rest of the defensive linemen, especially Toray. It looked like he was in line for a breakout season last year before he went down in Week 5 with a season-ending broken ankle. He was one of PFF's top-graded pass rushers in the four games he played last season, and I expect him to have a monster year in 2020. The Colts tied for 15th in sacks last year with 41. They should pass that number this season.

ANOTHER player to watch: Bobby Okereke, linebacker. The 2019 third-round pick was one of the top rookie linebackers last season, and he was a member of colleague Marc Sessler's recent All-Under-25 Team. He's great in pass coverage and is expected to make another leap this season with an improved defensive line in front of him.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: SUPER HIGH. Yes, Ballard is building a foundation for years to come with many of his moves, but you don't bring in a veteran quarterback like Rivers and give up a first-round pick for Buckner if you're not planning to make a run for the crown right now. The Colts should be considered the favorites to win the division.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Jaguars. One of the reasons we love the marriage between Rivers and the Colts is that the veteran signal-caller had some of his best seasons when Reich was on the Chargers' coaching staff from 2013 to 2015. Rivers should be good with the scheme and concepts right off the bat. We'd like to see the Colts hit the ground running here and build some momentum.
  • Week 10 at Titans (Thursday night). The Colts' schedule is backlogged with five games against division opponents in the second half of the season, so this is the first time Indy will square off against one of the division's two playoff teams from last year. The Titans handled the Colts in Week 13 last season, 31-17, on their way to the playoffs. But the Colts have the more complete team this year. 
  • Week 16 at Steelers. I really believe the Colts and Steelers will be in the running for the top spot in the AFC this season, so this game could have major postseason implications.

Will the Colts be able to ...

Improve their pass defense? We spent some time talking about Buckner and the impact he will make on the front seven. But let's not underestimate what an improved defensive line could do for a team that ranked 23rd against the pass and 27th in third-down-conversion percentage last year. The Colts do have a pair of nice young players at corner: Rock Ya-Sin and Kenny Moore II. Each player has a bright future with the Colts. But Ballard signed T.J. Carrie and Xavier Rhodes this offseason to add some veteran depth at the position. Rhodes was a cap casualty of the Vikings after taking a big step back last season, and Carrie is on his third team in seven seasons. But Both guys are entering their age-30 season on one-year deals. They will either bring some much-needed help to the secondary or push the younger guys to get better. This seems like a win-win situation.

Rely on Michael Pittman Jr. to be a solid WR2? The wide receiver class in this year's draft was one of the best I've seen. There were a lot of big-name prospects at the position that were selected early on. And I'm not sure many (if any) will have a better rookie season than Pittman. I think he was somewhat overlooked this year because USC is no longer the team that dominated college football during the Pete Carroll era. Instead of a big-time national powerhouse, USC felt like more of a Pac-12 After Dark team. It was like watching How I Met Your Mother on reruns. You remember really loving it a few years ago, but now it's just kind of there. Still good, but not the same. But back to MPJ. Love this fit for the Colts, who were in desperate need of some receiving help. T.Y. Hilton is awesome when he's healthy. Parris Campbell should be considered a breakout candidate in Year 2. I love MPJ as a chain-mover who can get those tough yards. I believe he had the best hands of any receiver in the draft. And Rivers has thrived throwing to that type of receiver over the years: Vincent Jackson, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams. I expect MPJ to play that role.

Find a kicker? Adam Vinatieri battled a knee injury and his share of struggles last season before eventually being placed on I.R. He was replaced by Chase McLaughlin, who was fine (5-of-6 field goals, 11-of-11 XPs). The Colts haven't publicly shut the door on re-signing Vinatieri, but he's currently a free agent while McLaughlin remains on the roster. Speaking of free agents, Ballard brought in a guy after the draft and it looks like we're going to have a kicking competition. The Colts signed Rodrigo Blankenship. You know him as the bespectacled kicker from Georgia. Yes, that guy. He's awesome, right? But you don't outbid other teams for the Lou Groza Award winner if you're super stable at the kicker position. Weird to think the Colts might go into the season without Adam V. as their kicker. Just as it's hard to believe that Adam has spent more time with the Colts (14 seasons) than he did with the Patriots (10 seasons). Herschel Walker was still playing football when Adam first got into the league.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: Just how great the 2018 draft was for the Colts. It seems like every NFL team that enjoys sustained success has that one draft that turned the tide. As mentioned previously, Ballard deserves a lot of credit for taking Nelson sixth overall in an insanely stacked draft. But not only did Ballard get an All-Pro guard (Nelson) and the guy I have picked to be the breakout star of this year (Kemoko Turay), he also selected 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard and starting right tackle Braden Smith. PFF graded Smith as one of the best run blockers in the game last season.

... people are overthinking: The running back situation. And when I say "people," I'm talking about fantasy enthusiasts who are trying to figure out which running back to select in their upcoming drafts. The Colts double dipped in Round 2 of this year's draft, selecting Pittman and then trading up for Jonathan Taylor, the prolific running back from Wisconsin. Maybe Rivers only feels comfortable with Wisconsin running backs? I don't know. But that move might have been a mild surprise to some because the Colts ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing last year, when Marlon Mack, who's entering a contract year, became the first Colts back since Frank Gore (2016) to top 1,000 rushing yards. It feels like the Colts have an embarrassment of riches at the position when you consider Nyheim Hines (also part of that great 2018 draft class) is also in the mix. I will say one thing, though: the Taylor pick was the most draft capital Ballard has invested in the position since he became the GM. So it's significant to me that he did trade up for Taylor, a running back who perfectly fits the Colts' system. Also, the Colts return all five starters to the offensive line. And seeing that there are some of you who have relied on me for fantasy advice (probably to your own peril), I envision a scenario where the abbreviated offseason might slow the development of Taylor early in the season. But there is no denying his talent. At some point, he is going to take over as the RB1 and lead the Colts down the stretch, similar to the way we saw Derrick Henry do it for the Titans last year.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Colts MUST:

  • Make the playoffs. You don't bring in a quarterback like Rivers to get some moral victories. The playoffs are nice, but maybe win the division, too? The Texans made some interesting moves this offseason. The Titans are the biggest regression candidate in the league (more on that later this week). The AFC South feels like it's there for the taking.
  • Finish off close games. That will be the key to accomplishing the first item on this list. The Colts' fell by a score or less in each of their first five losses last season, including the Week 1 overtime loss to Rivers and the Chargers. 

In closing

I really love what the Colts have going on. Given everything that went wrong for them last year, it feels like they are due for some good luck in 2020. But who needs to rely on good fortune when you have been able to draft the way Ballard has over the last couple of years? This just feels like a really good football team.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter at @adamrank.

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