by Greg DePalma, Ourlads.com contributor
2016 (8-8)…Finished at .500 for a second consecutive season. This is the first time since the ‘98/’97 seasons that the Colts have missed the post-season in consecutive years.
Owner/CEO Jim Irsay…Became owner in 1997 following the death of his father, Robert, who purchased the franchise in 1972; joined the organization in 1982 after graduating from college and became the VP and GM two years later when the team moved to Indianapolis; started running the day-to-day operations for the team in 1995.
GM Chris Ballard…1st year; hired as a first-time GM in January after spending four years in Kansas City as Director of Player Personnel and most recently Director of Football Ops.
HC Chuck Pagano…6th-year; first-time HC who came over after a year in Baltimore as their DC; during his first season, Pagano underwent leukemia treatment that kept him away from the game until the final week of the regular season that concluded in a Wild-Card playoff loss to his former team and eventual SB Champion, Baltimore; until last season the Colts had finished first or second in the division under Pagano including a trip to the AFC Championship game in 2014; Wyoming Grad.
OC Rob Chudzinski…3rd-year; spent one season here as Associate HC before becoming the OC; this is his third job in the NFL as an OC; was also a former HC at Cleveland for one season; coached with Pagano at both Cleveland and in college with Miami; started at tight-end for the Miami Hurricanes in college and won two national championships.
DC Ted Monachino…2nd-year; first-time DC who spent six seasons in Baltimore as LB coach including when Pagano was their DC; Missouri Grad.
Assistant HC/OL Joe Philbin…2nd-year; came to Indianapolis after serving four seasons with the Dolphins as their HC; became HC of Miami following a SB win as Green Bay’s OC.
Assistant OLB Robert Mathis…1st-year; retired at the end of 2016 after playing all 14 seasons with the Colts as a former All-Pro linebacker who totaled 123 career sacks; won AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013; won a SB here in 2007.
RB Marlon Mack
WR Kamar Aiken
OT Zach Banner
DE Margus Hunt
NT Jonathan Hankins
NT Al Woods
LB Tarell Basham
LB Jon Bostic
LB Jabaal Sheard
LB John Simon
LB Sean Spence
LB Anthony Walker
CB Nate Hairston
CB Quincy Wilson
S Malik Hooker
TE Dwayne Allen
OT Joe Reitz
DL Arthur Jones
LB D’Qwell Jackson
LB Robert Mathis
LB Erik Walden
CB Patrick Robinson
S Mike Adams
P Pat McAfee
QB…Even though the Colts missed out on the post-season again, Andrew Luck still enjoyed a nice season that included a career-best 63% completion percentage. Luck has been dealing with a bad shoulder for two years now following his breakout campaign in 2014 that nearly resulted in a Super Bowl appearance. Luck also suffered a lacerated kidney injury in 2015 and then a concussion last season. Time will tell if Luck will return to play by Week 1 or if backup Scott Tolzien will get the nod. Tolzien is 0-2-1 in three career starts and there just isn’t enough smoke and mirrors to disguise the major drop-off in talent you’ll see if Luck’s not under center. I thought GM Chris Ballard did a fine job restocking the Colts defense since taking over in January, but his decision to forego adding a competent backup either through free agency or even the draft could end their season before it ever begins.
RB…You have to hand it to 34-year-old Frank Gore who’s only missed one start over his last six seasons. While Gore hasn’t quite returned to that young rusher who gained 1,695-yards during his second season in San Francisco, he has been a model of consistency who can be counted on for another 1,000-yard season here. But sooner or later the Colts will have to pass the torch to a younger player and they’re currently counting on fourth-round pick Marlon Mack to be that guy. Mack is the all-time leading rusher in South Florida history (3,609) and should have little resistance taking over the top backup job from the mediocre Robert Turbin. Mack’s main competition for playing time should actually come from Josh Ferguson. Ferguson is a second-year player from Illinois who owns the Illini career-mark for receptions with 168. Look for Ferguson to play a larger role in the return game as well.
TE…Jack Doyle emerged with a career season and has become one of the most reliable receivers on the team. Thanks to Doyle’s new found ability along with the emphasis on using more three wide-receiver sets, Dwayne Allen was shipped to New England for a draft pick in March. The new No. 2 now is Erik Swoope, whom the Colts are hoping will finally be ready to assume more responsibility. Swoope will miss a few weeks though following a knee injury which could curtail his progress.
WR…TY Hilton is the clear top-dog here following a 1,400-yard season. The question then becomes whether Hilton will receive assistance from the rest of the group including the player with the biggest upside, Donte Moncrief. After a 64-reception season in 2015, Moncrief battled injuries in 2016 that dropped his totals down to more than half even though he still leads the club with 13 TDs since the start of ’15. The time is now for Moncrief to grab the spotlight and help push this offense to new levels. Phillip Dorsett might be one of the reasons why former GM Ryan Grigson is no longer here. Grigson surprised many by going with another offensive player in the first-round when he selected Dorsett in 2015. Dorsett did end up doubling his production last season, but when you’re chosen as high as he was, the Colts need to count on him for far more. Former Raven Kamar Aiken, who couldn’t follow-up on his breakout season of 2015, was signed for added depth while the sleeper to keep an eye on here is Chester Rogers. Rogers is an undrafted second-year receiver from small Grambling State College who played in 14 games with two starts including reps in the punt return game. Rogers has a legitimate shot at the important No. 3 role.
OL…The last smart roster decision Grigson made was selecting three lineman from last year’s draft who are now starting for this year’s team. Out of those three, center Ryan Kelly had the biggest impact and has the talent to become an elite-level player while Joe Haeg showed promise in the run game as a 14-game starter at both guard and tackle. Fellow classmate Le’Raven Clark made just three starts at right tackle, but he’s expected to start from Week 1 in year-two. If Clark happens to regress this season then rookie fourth-round pick Zach Banner might get the first shot there. Kelly did just sustain a recent foot injury which is expected to keep him out for about two months and place the all-important pivot position in the hands of rookie free agent Deyshawn Bond from Cincinnati. If Bond fails in that role then the Colts could turn to free agent pick-up Brian Schwenke, who is currently sidelined with an ankle injury. The Colts are also making a position change in an attempt to balance out the line by moving top guard Jack Mewhort over to the right side and replacing him on the left with Haeg. This places Haeg right next to the team’s top lineman, left tackle Anthony Castonzo.
DL…Adding Johnathan Hankins late in free agency was a bold stroke by Ballard. The goal is for Hankins to team up with Henry Anderson, who tore his ACL late during his rookie season in 2015 and then re-injured his knee again last season. As long as Anderson can remain healthy, both he and Hankins should form a nice run-defending duo for seasons to come. The player currently in the lead to start alongside those two is eight-year vet, Al Woods. Woods is on his fifth team in eight years, but he’s having a good offseason and with Kendall Langford recently departing the job is now wide-open for Woods to take. The rest of the rotation up-front will be a battle for reps between David Parry, Hassan Ridgeway, TY McGill and Margus Hunt. Parry was a starter last season, but he’s now fighting for a roster spot after an ugly arrest in February. Also keep an eye on fourth-round pick, Grover Stewart, who will need time to develop after playing Division II football at Albany State.
LB…Ballard added six linebackers between free agency and the draft who should all play significant roles with the defense. Jabaal Sheard and John Simon will impact the Colts the most from the outside while rookie third-round pick Tarell Basham is being counted on as the edge disrupter that this team sorely lacks. Meanwhile, Jon Bostic and Sean Spence are battling for time inside with rookie fifth-round pick Anthony Walker. Bostic missed last season with a foot injury and Walker is a former All-American from Northwestern who slid a few rounds to become a nice bargain for the Colts. The only holdover who could end up starting for this group inside is the physical Antonio Morrison. Akeem Ayers, Barkevious Mingo and Edwin Jackson are also battling for roster spots.
DB…The feel-good stories last season from journeymen defensive backs Rashaan Melvin (fifth team in four years) and Darryl Morris (fourth team in four years) will help with team depth this time around, but Ballard knew he needed a major talent infusion that could provide more than just depth which is why he went out and grabbed three key players in the draft. Rookie corners Quincy Wilson (2nd-round) and Nate Hairston (5th-round) will compete with both Melvin and Morris for immediate playing time while safety Malik Hooker (1st-round) is expected to start Week 1 as long as he doesn’t encounter any additional setbacks from two offseason surgeries. Right now Hairston appears to have a small lead in the battle of the rookies over Wilson. With last year’s top safety holdover Clayton Geathers still recovering from a serious neck injury sustained late last season, the door has opened for former cornerback Darius Butler to start on opening day opposite Hooker. Top corner Vontae Davis hasn’t appeared himself lately due to several injuries and is set to become a free agent after the season. The Colts need Davis to be inspired and healthy so he can return to his old self and help lead the young secondary. Last year’s second-round pick TJ Green is getting a look over at corner after receiving ample playing time last season including four starts at safety. Matthias Farley is another young safety defender looking to make a contribution.
The Colts will miss punter and kick-off specialist Pat McAfee, who retired after leading the league in average (49.3) and finishing third in net average (42.7). McAfee was only 29 and 15 years younger than future Hall of Fame place-kicker, Adam Vinatieri, who does intend to return for his 22nd season.
The ability to have a successful season starts and ends with the health of Andrew Luck. If he can get back to full health and is allowed to perform at his maximum potential, the Colts could be a dangerous team once again. But if Luck ends up missing several games, then the decision to trust Scott Tolzien as the team’s primary backup could come back to haunt GM Chris Ballard.
Ballard should be applauded though for using his top three draft picks and spending nearly $100 million on defenders. It’s those new defenders who are going to have to make all the difference for this team to truly earn a return trip to the post-season. If they do end up producing as planned and Luck is fully healed, this particular Colts team just might have the necessary balance they’ve lacked since winning their lone Super Bowl just over 10 years ago today.