With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
Nobody expected the Indianapolis Colts to take a dramatically re-hauled roster and a new coaching staff to the playoffs, but that’s just what they did last season. Not only did the Colts do that, but they did it despite (or because of) new head coach Chuck Pagano’s leukemia diagnosis and ultimate recovery from the disease. Offensive coordinator and interim head coach Bruce Arians put a workload on Andrew Luck that few rookie quarterbacks have ever seen, and first-year general manager Ryan Grigson put together one of the better drafts in recent memory, as the kids he selected all the way up and down the draft helped the team in obvious ways. Arians was able to parlay his incredible coaching job in Indy into his current status as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, and he’ll be replaced by Pep Hamilton, who used to run the Stanford offense with which Mr. Luck is very familiar.
The Colts had a magical season -- there’s no doubt about that. Going from 2-14 one year to 11-5 the next is impressive, no matter how it happens. But this is also a team that finished 25th in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ team efficiency rankings, racked up 6.2 Estimated Wins, based on consistency in the game’s most important situations, and ranked 20th in Pythagorean Wins, based solely on points scored and allowed. That’s not to say that the Colts lucked (sorry) into their actual win total last year, but it does indicate that more will be required for a repeat performance.
• Biggest storyline: How the offense changes for Luck in Year 2.
Arians likes schemes in which quarterbacks take deep drops, roll out and make throws downfield. As a result, his quarterbacks face a lot of pressure. Last season, Luck set a rookie record for attempts (627), but he also had 83 quarterback hits (20 more than any other quarterback) and 122 knockdowns (29 more than any other quarterback). Luck was one of two quarterbacks to play 100 percent of his team’s snaps last year (Philip Rivers was the other), and if that’s to happen again, more protection will be required … and it ain’t coming from Indy’s porous offensive line.
Fortunately, Hamilton understands how to protect with scheme. Stanford’s offense during Luck’s time there was heavy on power runs, extra tight ends helping inside blockers and quicker, more repeatable throws. You can expect a lot more of the same with this reunion.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Running back.
Rookie Vick Ballard was one of Grigson’s home-runs last year as he led the team with 814 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 211 carries. Free-agent acquisition Ahmad Bradshaw will try to replicate the best of his time with the New York Giants once he’s healthy, and Donald Brown is still trying to live up to the first-round pick the Colts spent on him in the 2009 draft. It’s easy to assume that there will be a rotation at the position, but Hamilton may want more of a feature back in production, if not in name, over time.
• New face, new place: WR Darrius Heyward-Bey.
The Colts got a lot of deep-ball presence from rookie T.Y. Hilton (Grigson, again), but Heyward-Bey could up the ante if he can stay healthy and hold onto the football. Indy signed the Raiders’ former first-round pick to a one-year deal in April, and the best-case scenario involves him stretching defenses with Hilton and the underrated tight end Coby Fleener (yep, another 2012 rookie) blazing up the seams. Heyward-Bey has become a punchline, yes, but he’s also been a reasonably productive receiver in his last two seasons.
• Impact rookie: DE/OLB Bjoern Werner.
At Florida State, Werner was a great all-around end, but some questioned his speed to the quarterback -- especially when his bookend Tank Carradine was healthy, Carradine looked more powerful and explosive when bending the edge. That said, the Colts believe that in Werner they have the pass rusher who can replace Dwight Freeney. Right now, Werner is behind Robert Mathis at the “rush” position in Pagano’s hybrid defense, but they’re looking for him to be the long-term answer at that position.
• Looking at the schedule: Good news here. Not only did the Colts have the easiest schedule in 2012, per FO’s Average Opponent efficiency metrics, but also their Projected Opponent metrics for 2013 look to be similarly favorable. Outside of the two games with the Houston Texans (which the Colts split last season) and battles with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, there are few worrisome games on the schedule -- at least, on paper. The Sunday night game against Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos on Oct. 20 will be interesting from a narrative perspective, of course. If the Colts are inching toward a playoff berth late in the season, the last two regular-season games -- against the Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars -- should provide reasonable relief.