Here Comes The Horseshoe
The hallmarks of a “dynasty” are that they are dominant, feared, and respected but amongst all other things you can see them coming on the horizon, starting off small like a puff of dust or a dark cloud in the sky. Looking harmless from afar, you know there is something coming yet you have no idea the damage they can cause until they arrive on the scene. Let me tell you that there in a team hailing from the AFC South that is about to take the league by storm once again.
Led by arguably the savviest GM in the league in Chris Ballard the Indianapolis Colts are in a position to be an absolute powerhouse in the NFL albeit from a position not many people expected such a quick turnaround.
2017: The beginning of Ballard
In the 2017 season, the Colts had limped to a 4–12 season under Chuck Pagano. The changes were swift as new GM Ballard had just replaced the incompetent Ryan Grigson, swung the axe on Pagano and the new era began. Forced onto the IR due to a neck injury, franchise quarterback Andrew Luck watched on from the sidelines as Jacoby Brissett battled manfully in relief for the former No 1 draft pick but ultimately there were a ton of holes that needed addressing.
Armed with the number 3 draft selection in the 2018 draft the colts were targeting help, and the most glaring need was on the offensive line. Grigson seemingly had forgotten about protecting his star quarterback and that had led to Luck taking a ton of damage in his tenure in the league. Lucky for the Colts their savior was on the way, but little did they know what else they would stand to gain
2018: A Draft Like No Other
The 2018 draft was a class that had game changing talent right at the top of everybody’s draft board. There was Saquon Barkley- the dynamite running back from Penn State that was deemed a generational talent and a better prospect then Dallas Cowboys stud Ezekiel Elliot. But at the top of everybody’s list was a quartet of quarterbacks that nobody could seem to split. Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold. But all along at number 3 the colts had their eye on Quentin Nelson- The Notre Dame guard that although was the least ‘sexy’ pick he was arguably the best pro ready prospect in all of football, but would the Colts be ostracised for taking an offensive lineman at #3 overall?? Well… they wouldn't have to.
The New York Jets made a trade with the Colts to take Sam Darnold at #3 meaning the colts moved back to #6 but cashed in massively to do so, acquiring the #6 overall and three second round picks (37,49) and a 2019 second round selection. This would pay massive dividends once the drafts concluded.
Quentin Nelson got drafted to Indy at #6 getting paired with first round center Ryan Kelly from Alabama whom was just starting to blossom in his second season. This was a move that simply HAD to be made as the colts had the worst offensive line in the league giving up the most sacks and a measly 3.2 yards per rush.
This move was a masterstroke as Nelson is a two time all-pro and Pro Bowl guard and was actually ranked as the number 4 overall player on the PFF 2020 list which is a massive honour especially for an offensive lineman. He gave up zero sacks in 2019 and was absolutely devastating as a pulling guard in the run game
If this pick was deemed a Home Run in baseball terminology then the next selection is considered a Grand Slam
In the second round, the colts were sitting at #36 overall and they were desperate for help at linebacker, Harold Landry from Boston College was sitting there ripe for the picking, but instead, they chose Darius Leonard from South Carolina State. It must be noted he was quite raw, coming from the FCS and viewed as a project that could be very handy given time to develop. Well, he immediately stepped in as a starting linebacker in the Colts defense, garnering defensive rookie of the year honours, his talent was evident right from the start as in only his second game (vs Washington) he had a whopping 19 tackles, 1.5 TFL, a sack and a forced fumble. From that point on the Colts knew they had something special. Despite being a massive probowl snub Leonard posted historic numbers: for example his 145 total tackles were more than the COMBINED pro bowl AFC linebacker group of Von Miller, Dee Ford and Jadeveon Clowney.
Entering week 17, despite missing 2 games he led the league in total tackles by 22 (which was most in league history based on games played). He was also 2nd amongst rookies in sacks, forced 4 fumbles, defended 6 passes and had an interception. In year 2 Leonard was great again with 121 tackles, 5 sacks, 5 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles.
The Colts pairing of Quentin Nelson and Darius Leonard are only the second pair of rookies to be named All-Pro since the ’56 bears produced All-Pro and future Hall Of Fame rookie pair Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus.
With the 37th pick Ballard decided to make another addition to the offensive line with Braden Smith out of Auburn and the former Tiger has been relatively unknown but one of the most underrated offensive linemen in the league. He was outstanding as injuries forced him to start early in his rookie year and the rest is history. He was the 3rd highest graded rookie lineman behind teammate Nelson and the 49ers first round tackle Mike Mcglinchey. After his second season it became apparent that Smith’s true calling comes in the run game as he was the 5th highest graded run blocker amongst all offensive linemen and 7th overall graded tackle. He was penalized only 5 times all year and missed a single snap since he was promoted to the starting job.
Rounding out the 2018 draft they addressed the pass rush with Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis who have added speed to situational defensive schemes, and were also perfect rotational pieces to spell alongside the ageless Justin Houston. Hyheim Hynes, a pass catching and return specialist and bulldozer Jordan Wilkins were added to the running back stable to assist the oft-injured Marlon Mack.
2018: Here Comes The Stampede
The season began rough as the Colts were sitting at 1–4 after the first 5 games and had some horrible outings, including losses to the lowly Bengals and Jets as well as division rival the Houston Texans, but this is where things started to change... In his comeback year from a serious shoulder problem the Colts offense was carried by the arm of Luck who was called upon a massive amount early on (with games of 53, 31,40,62,59,43 attempts).
Then with an upcoming game vs the elite Bills defense and the Colts season at a crossroad Quentin Nelson made the call to Reich and suggested a move to a power run offense, from that moment the Colts offense was transformed as with a reliant run game Luck was able to implement a successful ground game coupled with his elite play-action skills the Colts ran through the Bills with the highly efficient Luck (17/23 for 156 yards and 4 scores) picking apart the Bills while the Colts three headed monster at running back accounted for nearly 200 yards rushing at 8.5 YPC. This was a sign of things to come particularly from fourth round running back Marlon Mack. The phrase “RUN THE DAMM BALL” became the colts calling card as their road graders- led by Nelson paved the way for a devastating ground attack. Mack finished the season with the 9th most rushing yards and third string running back Jordan Wilkins finished second in the league with 6.3 yards per carry average. The future was looking good at that position
The Colts were the form team in the NFL and became the third team in history to make the playoffs despite being 1–5, they defeated the Titans in the last game of the season to earn a Wild Card berth, they defeated the Texans but were then defeated by the Kansas City Chiefs the following week.
2019 Off-season- Upgrades Part 2:
Entering the 2019 draft more upgrades would be needed. Despite finishing 11th in total defence the year before their secondary was a massive concern but that would be addressed. Firstly the Colts took Temple corner Rock Ya Sin, who showed good signs in his rookie year despite entering a zone defense scheme having played mainly man coverage in college.
With TY Hilton and Jack Doyle as the two primary pass catchers on the offense they had reliable hands in their reciever game yet lacked speed, that would be addressed with Parris Campbell from Ohio State in the second round. Campbell had the equal fastest 40 yard combine time and gave the Colts a dangerous weapon in the open field and an absolute burner that they have not had since the ill-fated experiment with Darrius Heyward-Bey a few years prior.
The gem of the draft though was Stanford linebacker Bobby Okereke. Taken in the 3rd round (89th overall) after his rookie season he was graded the highest rookie linebacker in the PFF rankings despite being the 7th linebacker taken. Okereke was dubbed a “future Hall of Famer” by former Colts punter Pat McAfee in one of the funniest draft announcements in history. Now while that might be a stretch at this point Okereke is off to a great start as along with his lofty rookie ranking he also graded out as the 16th highest linebacker in the whole league. No doubt the colts were extremely impressed considering not only was he a 3rd round rookie but also a subpackage and situational linebacker.
In total it was another great draft haul for the colts as they had four rookies in the PFF top 50 with Okereke (8th) joining fourth round safety Khari Willis (26th) alongside corners Marvell Tell (5th round 31st ranked) and Ya-Sin (46th) with Campbell missing the majority of the season due to injuries (hamstring,abdominal and a broken hand).
Back To Brissett:
The Colts believed the foundation was in place but just before the season started franchise cornerstone Andrew Luck walked away from the game at age 29, citing mental fatigue and a raft of injuries and rehabilitations taking his love away from the game. This move was met with widespread criticism from colts fans as not only had the draft passed but also it was 10 days before the season began. Luck had been dealing with a troublesome calf injury during training camp that he could not shake and another bout of rehab and recovery was enough to mentally break the Colts star.
The offense was left to Brissett to step in again and although he looked good early, once again the offense seemed to falter as he wasn't able to consistently challenge defenses in the pass game, although a banged-up TY Hilton and inconsistent Eric Ebron didn't help. The defense showed their massive potential with shutting down the high powered offense of MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, also completely shutting out the Dallas Cowboys. Ultimately the Colts missed the playoffs and despite not being far off it was evident that upgrades had to be made once again.
Without their star the offense stalled behind Brissett who did ok early on but wore down as injuries began to take their toll, especially at receiver as Hilton, Campbell and off-season acquisition Devin Funchess all missed time. The Colts just missed the playoffs, finishing 7–9 (3rd in the AFC) but the signs were good despite missing the playoffs due to a week 17 loss to the Jaguars
They kept the high powered Chiefs offense to 13 points in an away win, got the better of division rival Houston the following week with Brissett (26–39/326 yards and 4 touchdowns) putting on a clinic and kept All-Pro running back Christian Mccaffrey to 59 rushing yards. But ultimately had a few winnable games that they failed to capitalize on (losses to Miami and San Diego in OT) and were 3–3 in games decided by a field goal or less. Not only was quarterback a problem but ageless kicker and future Hall Of Famer Adam Vinatieri kicked a career-low 68% on field goals and 78% on extra points, the 46-year-old was released at seasons end.
2020: The Finishing Touches
It was widely considered the Colts needed help on the interior of the defensive line. Many mock drafts (and yours truly) had the Colts taking Javon Kinlaw the athletic Defensive tackle from USC yet Ballard once again pulled off a masterpiece, flipping the 13th overall pick in a straight swap with the 49ers for the defensive captain and DT Deforest Buckner. The Chiefs had been forced to make a move considering a few of their star defenders were coming out of contract, so the deal was made and the Colts immediately signed him to a 4 year $84 million contract. He should not only massively upgrade the run defence but occupy multiple blockers and be a weapon Matt Eberflus can use to wreak havoc.
It was no secret that the colts had pieces in play on the offense but it became clear that Brissett was not the guy. There were a lot of rumours swirling around that 41-year-old Tom Brady would be leaving the Patriots and that Indy was at the top of the list, and the move kind of made sense. Brady soon left to join Tampa Bay but there was another veteran that was deemed a perfect fit.
Long-time Charger Phillip Rivers was let go by the organisation following a down year marred by turnovers, yet despite being 38 he could still command an offense and move the football. Rivers was 4th in passing yards in 2019 and since 2012 Rivers has had over 4200 yards in every season and at least 30 touchdowns in 4 of those years, he should be a definite upgrade over Brissett. The Colts swooped on the free agent, signing him to a 1 year $25 million dollar contract. Rivers also brings with him a familiarity of the offense as he had previously been coached by Reich and Colts OC Nick Sirianni. Rivers takes over for Brissett who although was extremely careful with the ball he only threw for just over 2900 yards, Rivers threw for over 4600. The Colts rounded out their notable signings with defensive tackle Sheldon Day from San Francisco, tight end Trey Burton from Chicago and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and TJ Carrie (Minnesota and Cleveland respectively). The most valuble re-signing would have to be starting LT Anthony Castanzo, as retirement rumours circled leading up to the draft the 31 year old finally put pen to paper for a 2 yr/$33 million dollar contract. It was just the news needed for the Colts leading into the draft- though they were far from done.
Due to the Buckner trade, the Colts were outside of the first round once again in the 2020 NFL draft yet for the third consecutive year managed to pull off some masterstrokes (albeit with a slide)
The colts sat through Day 1 watching talent all get dispersed in what was generally considered an excellent draft class, and on Day 2 the colts were welcomed in and made an impact straight away.
With the second pick in the 2nd round it was a foregone conclusion that a receiver would head to Indy, and so with that pick they grabbed USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. The 6’4 220 pound receiver should be an immediate weapon especially in the red zone and provide an awesome aerial threat for Rivers. His size and physicality reminds some of Mike Evans (slightly smaller) and should also ease the burden on Hilton.
The running back class was viewed as being full of top end talent. Game changing runners such as De’Andre Swift, Cam Akers, JK Dobbins and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. But at the top of the pile was Wisconsin running back Johnathon Taylor. Taylor amassed 2003 rushing yards the previous season (4th most in the nation) and 21 touchdowns and despite running back not being of need the Colts saw an opportunity too good to pass up.
They moved up 3 spots by orchestrating a trade with Cleveland, sending them the 44th and 160th pick to the Browns to move up to 41 and draft Taylor. This move further solidified the Colt's stance on being a power offense but with their new starting quarterback in the twilight of his career, they needed to find a successor.
In the 4th round the Colts selected rocket-armed quarterback Jacob Eason from Washington. At 6’6 220 he gives the Colts a big framed pocket passer that isn’t afraid to challenge defenses and hopefully unlocks the offense pass game in the later years, especially with speedster Campbell.
The Colts are perfectly set up for the future as they have an extremely young nucleus surrounding battle hardened veterans, a mastermind GM, a terrific coaching core and to top it all off the best offensive line in football.
They also have magnificently used their cap space as although they shelled out for Buckner and Rivers, not only is Buckner's deal worth it for a top 3 DT but every other addition is signed to 1-year deals, and there is depth if the signings don't work out. At the time of writing this article the Colts still had the 6th most cap space at just over 24 million, giving them not only more flexibility for the future but room to sign their future stars. Playoffs should be a definite as coming into 2020 their opponents had barely over a .500 (.502.) record from 2019, they will do some major damage not just in 2020 but possibly in the next decade. Watch out AFC the Colts are coming.
More from Brett Hodgson at Chewing the Pigskin