The Indianapolis Colts have made headlines moves to address their most important positions on offense and defence. This is hugely important as last year they missed out on the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five years.
Quarterback Philip Rivers agreed to play his 17th season with the Colts for $25 million, and the 38-year-old passer is reunited with head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, who helped him thrive as Chargers assistants. Neither Reich nor general manager Chris Ballard were dissuaded by Rivers throwing 20 interceptions last season. They still see the arm strength, a quick release, and the smarts from an experienced leader who was already familiar with 85% of the Colts playbook when he signed.
Ballard raised eyebrows with the March acquisition of All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner from San Francisco for a 2020 first-round draft choice. Buckner, 26, is one of the NFL’s best three-technique players, a position that requires shooting gaps, taking on double teams, and being disruptive. The Colts haven’t had that since coordinator Matt Eberflus was hired with Reich in 2018. Buckner’s ability to rush the passer, play the run, and draw blocking attention will free up All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard to make even more plays.
Rivers joins an offense that ranked seventh in rushing and prides itself in the “Run The Damn Ball” mantra behind a line led by two-time All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson that was the NFL’s only unit without a missed start last season. The O-line returns intact. That means Rivers won’t have to resort to being the hero with desperation heaves, as was the case with the 5-11 Chargers. He has a run game to free up the passing lanes, where the gunslinger will be expected to exploit weaknesses down the field, something 2019 starter Jacoby Brissett struggled to do. Brissett is back to being the backup.
The Colts used a second-round selection on Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor, who joins returning starter Marlon Mack to form what Reich and Sirianni refer to as a “one-one punch.” Rivers loves to dump the ball off to backs, which means third-down specialist Nyheim Hines will get his share of touches.
Four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton returns healthy after missing six games and putting up the lowest numbers of his eight-year career. He’s motivated to prove he’s worthy of a lucrative final contract to stay put. The Colts used their initial second-round pick on USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., who at 6-4 and 223 pounds brings a physical presence to the position. Second-year wide receiver Parris Campbell looks fast and fully recovered from a rookie year slowed by three surgeries. Trey Burton joins a tight-end room led by Pro Bowl star Jack Doyle.
The biggest camp question was kicker, where incumbent Chase McLaughlin appears to have the edge on undrafted rookie Rodrigo Blankenship. The Colts had 15 missed kicks last year, including a league-high six extra points.
Leonard is always excited, but he seems even more ecstatic to have Buckner in front of him. In two seasons, “The Maniac” has 244 total tackles, 12 sacks, seven interceptions, and six forced fumbles. Now he has a defensive tackle who will demand attention, so blockers can’t get up field to negate the linebacker. The Colts’ 4-3 scheme relies on a triangle of key playmakers in Buckner, Leonard, and nickel cornerback Kenny Moore II.
Without a solid three-technique tackle and after Moore was side-lined by injury, the defence faltered in the second half of the season after the Colts got off to a 5-2 start. The offense had its issues, too, but the defence didn’t protect fourth-quarter leads and was unable to get stops as the team lost seven of nine.
Buckner’s presence also means opponents can’t double team defensive end Justin Houston, who led the team with 11 sacks last season. The other defensive end position will be handled by rotation, but Kemoko Turay was emerging before suffering a broken ankle last year and third-year pro Tyquan Lewis can play end or tackle and has been arguably the most improved player on either side of the ball in training camp.
A young secondary added the veteran presence of former All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who was inconsistent the past two years with Minnesota but will be asked to play more zone and read the quarterback instead of receivers. Colts cornerbacks coach Jonathan Gannon was a Vikings assistant who knows Rhodes well, a key reason why the cover guy chose the Colts. Veteran safety Tavon Wilson also provides experience to a young back line with safeties Malik Hooker and Khari Willis. Hooker has added motivation after the Colts didn’t pick up his 2021 contract option.
Predicted Record: 10-6
A favourable early schedule in the first eight weeks with only one opponent which had a winning record in 2019 should translate to a fast start and confidence. How the Colts handle the back end against playoff contenders Baltimore, Green Bay, at Tennessee, and at Pittsburgh will determine whether an AFC South Division title or a wild-card playoff spot is attainable.