Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Today we’ll take a look at the Indianapolis Colts, who need to prioritize building depth this off-season in order to help fuel deeper playoff runs. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
ILB Jerrell Freeman, TE Dwayne Allen, TE Coby Fleener, SS Dwight Lowery, QB Matt Hasselbeck, K Adam Vinatieri, CB Greg Toler
Players that must be re-signed
Freeman, Allen, Lowery, Vinatieri: 2015 was another solid season for Freeman, as the four-year veteran logged 112 tackles, three sacks and an interception. With precious little in the way of defensive playmakers and questionable ability to find new blood, Indianapolis should do everything possible to bring Freeman back as the epicenter of this defense.
Allen caught just 16 passes on 29 targets last season, as the team decided to use him far more as a blocker. Allen was obviously frustrated by this plan, but it’s possible that with Rob Chudzinski replacing Pep Hamilton at offensive coordinator, Allen could be more in the mix. He’s a fine do-it-all player at his position, and he’ll be an asset wherever he goes—as long as he stays healthy, of course. Lowery is a decent, if not spectacular player at this point, and as it is with Freeman, the Colts need to keep the reliable players as they continue to build a credible, complete defense. Vinatieri wants to play at least one more year, and why not? He’s still one of the league’s best kickers, making 25 of his 27 field goal attempts and 32 of his 35 extra point attempts in 2015.
Most important position to improve
Offensive line: General manager Ryan Grigson’s iffy ability to assemble talent has shown up at a lot of positions, but perhaps nowhere more than on Indianapolis’s offensive line. There was 2014 second-round pick Jack Mewhort, who gave up no sacks in 1,129 snaps at left guard and right tackle, and ’11 first-round pick Anthony Castonzo, whose selection pre-dated the current front office, who was the team’s best overall blocker.
Other than that, though, things were not good. Right tackle Joe Reitz played a full season of snaps for the first time in his career and allowed eight sacks, and right guard Hugh Thornton was inconsistent at best. Center Jonotthan Harrison may give the franchise something to build on at that position, but it’s clear that more overall talent is required. Andrew Luck was sacked 15 times in just seven games, backup Matt Hasselbeck had the daylights beaten out of him and the Colts’ run game was unspectacular at best.
Other positions to improve
Pass-rusher, tight end, running back: Signing Trent Cole off Chip Kelly’s scrap heap was an interesting move, but Indianapolis got just three sacks and not enough hits and hurries out of the veteran in 2015. Cole could be a cap casualty already. Robert Mathis had a nice rebound season after missing the entire ’14 campaign, but he’ll be 35 at the end of February. Bjoern Werner, a ’13 first-round pick who may go down as Grigson’s biggest reach, hasn’t done anything even close to earning that designation.
With Allen on the free-agent block and fellow 2012 draft pick Coby Fleener also possibly departing via free agency, the Colts will need a solid solution at the position. Fleener has been too inconsistent, but the wise move would be to retain Allen and let him do what he does best.
Of Grigson’s 2015 veteran free-agent signings (Cole, Andre Johnson, Frank Gore), Gore was the best move. He wasn’t quite what he had been in San Francisco all those year, but he did get near 1,000 yards on the season, and provided Luck’s offense with a credible ground game. Too bad Luck was too injured to see most of it. Behind Gore, however, the crater of talent at the position left by the Trent Richardson trade remains.
Overall priority this offseason
Fill out the roster for a bigger playoff run: The common narrative thread of any Colts personnel discussion has to be Grigson’s high bust rate. Luck is his only quality first-round pick, and the Richardson trade may go down as the worst NFL transaction of the last decade. Still, team owner Jim Irsay made a solid commitment to his general manager and coach Chuck Pagano when he decided to retain both men in the organization. Irsay’s rationale seemed to be that he’d come this far with them, and he wanted to see it all the way through.
That’s an admirable sentiment, especially for someone who can be as mercurial as Irsay, but all the way through to where? After three straight 11–5 seasons under Pagano and Grigson, the Colts regressed to an 8–8 mark, which is less impressive when you consider that they did that in the NFL’s weakest division.
Right now, the Colts have things together at some of the most important positions. They have their franchise quarterback in Luck, an outstanding lead cornerback in Vontae Davis, an above-average left tackle in Castonzo and a great speed receiver in T.Y. Hilton. What the Colts do not have is buildable depth at any position, and without that, they’ll always be teetering on the edge. Grigson needs to overhaul his personnel philosophy, and soon.