The league's biggest surprise in 2012, the Colts are much better in Year 2 of the Andrew Luck era
The greatest debate in football right now—Who is the NFL’s best young quarterback?—really isn’t a debate at all. The argument has just been skewed by perception and publicity. Colin Kaepernick was the “out of nowhere” Super Bowl starter last year. Robert Griffin III was the media darling and wounded fighter gutting it out down the stretch. Russell Wilson was the admired underdog. All three young stars were as lethal on the ground as they were through the air, igniting nationwide fervor about the “revolutionary” read-option.
But through all the commotion, one young quarterback was the unquestioned best of the bunch: Andrew Luck. Mobile QBs are sexy, but there has always been, and always will be, a distinct place in the NFL for a superstar drop-back passer. Luck is that and more.
Luck is also part of an organization that’s well-run and primed for long-term prosperity just one year into its post-Manning Era. The Colts are owned by one of sports’ most unique (but dedicated) characters, Jim Irsay. They play in a state-of-the-art downtown venue, in front of a rabid Midwestern fan base. Their second-year head coach, Chuck Pagano, garners immense respect not just from his players, but also from everyone around the league. And their 41-year-old general manager is coming off one of the best debut seasons for any executive in NFL history.
Sure, Ryan Grigson found a once-in-a-generation quarterback in the 2012 draft, his first. But he also landed an entire offensive foundation. After Luck at No. 1, the G.M. drafted two multidimensional tight ends (second-rounder Coby Fleener and third-rounder Dwayne Allen), two speed-burning wideouts (third-rounder T.Y. Hilton and sixth-rounder LaVon Brazill) and a serviceable three-down back (fifth-rounder Vick Ballard). All of them had significant roles as rookies. This offseason Grigson’s focus shifted to the other side of the ball, where he dedicated a sizeable chunk of Indianapolis’s approximately $40 million in cap space to replacing nearly half of the starters from last year’s 26th-ranked defense.
When Peyton Manning and Irsay held their March 7, 2012, farewell press conference, no one imagined the Colts would enter the 2013 season primed for a second straight playoff appearance. Now, with the foundation this “rebuilding” franchise suddenly has in place, just making the playoffs is no longer the goal. A second straight wild-card loss would be a major disappointment.
Here’s what makes Luck special: his toughness and awareness in the pocket; his understanding of the synchronized timing between route combinations, protections and dropbacks; his sense for identifying defensive looks before the snap; his sense for confirming or rethinking defensive looks after the snap; his command for the subtle body-language mechanics that quarterbacks use to manipulate defenders (think Tom Brady’s shoulder flinches or Drew Brees’ hesitation fakes); an arm that is not super strong but powerful enough to always get the ball there on time; his accuracy, both off a plant-and-drive or on the move; his ability to extend plays in and out of the pocket; and, finally, killer good looks (okay, just kidding).
These are skills the soon-to-be 24-year-old has shown, but not yet mastered. As is typical for any rookie, Luck’s performance was fairly erratic last year. He failed to complete more than 50% of his passes in each of Indy’s five final regular season games. This was partly due to Indianapolis’ receivers leading the league in drops, partly due to Luck trying to do too much in an offensive system ripe with downfield temptation. A third of Luck’s 18 interceptions came from his league-high 101 pass attempts of 20-plus yards downfield. But a lot of these temptations were on third or fourth reads in the progressions; that a rookie was consistently in a position to even take such risks is impressive. And there were plenty of times where Luck’s risks yielded rewards—like in his unbelievable 12-point, late fourth-quarter comeback at Detroit or the fourth-quarter game-winning drives he orchestrated against the Vikings, Packers, Titans (twice), Dolphins and Chiefs.
With offensive coordinator Bruce Arians now in Arizona, Luck and the Colts are adapting to a new scheme under Pep Hamilton, Luck’s coordinator during his senior year at Stanford. Hamilton is installing a more conservative West Coast-style system, with an eye on restoring balance in a run game that’s traditional enough to include an actual fullback (former Eagle Stanley Havili). Havili will be blocking for Vick Ballard and veteran free agent pickup Ahmad Bradshaw, whose arrival sends finesse back Donald Brown and interior pounder Delone Carter to the bench. Hamilton presumably learned a host of different run game tactics in his year under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. Harbaugh has successfully implemented a run-first offense in San Francisco, mainly because he’s had the personnel for it.
Hamilton’s Indy personnel is better equipped for a flex system—much like the two-tight end foundation that Arians used. Ballard and Bradshaw can both run from single-back sets and are adept in the passing game (Bradshaw is a smart blocker and good screener; Ballard is proficient on swings and can even split into a receiver alignment). Tight ends like Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen could provide great aerial dimension. Fleener, eager to improve upon a lackluster rookie season, is well-suited for seam patterns and intermediate concepts. Allen, looking to build on his growth as a rookie, can create problems for defenses underneath. These tight ends need to play together regularly, as the keys to formation shifts.
Then there’s Indy’s dynamic stable of wide receivers. For an eight-year stretch Reggie Wayne made a living each year catching 1,000-plus-yards' worth of Peyton Manning passes as an X-iso receiver on the left side. Last season he morphed into a more versatile flanker, frequently aligning tight to the formation, off the line, in the slot or going in motion. The new role put more emphasis on football IQ and less emphasis on pure physical ability—a change that Wayne, though still spry, needed. Now 34, Wayne is coming off his second 1,355-yard campaign in three years and is primed to once again be the go-to target.
Regardless of how Hamilton’s system shakes out, Wayne will almost certainly play flanker a majority of the time, especially considering Indy has three wideouts—T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill and ex-Raider Darrius Heyward-Bey—with enough speed to stretch the backside as an X-iso. The question is whether these players can get themselves open. Hilton, who led the league last year with six touchdowns on balls that traveled at least 20 yards downfield, has shown terrific separation quickness against man coverage. But being a diminutive 5-9 and 183 pounds, he needs initial spacing off the line. Hence, he’s projected as the long-term slot receiver. Brazill—whose standing with the team took a blow after his four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy—is similar to Hilton but less polished, which is why Heyward-Bey was brought in. It took the 2009 seventh-overall pick long enough, and a lot of his mechanics remain fairly undeveloped, but Heyward-Bey started to ripen over his last two seasons in Oakland.
Heyward-Bey and Bradshaw weren’t the only free agent signings. Over-correcting the offense’s longstanding weakness at right tackle, Grigson paid sticker price for ex-Lion Gosder Cherilus (five years, $34.5 million, $15.5 million guaranteed). Cherilus is no longer a mistake-riddled bumbler, but he’s not an All-Pro. Grigson’s impetuousness here was understandable; last season Luck was sacked 41 times and hit another 75 times (unofficially). That’s way too much punishment for a franchise quarterback to take. As nice a guy as new backup Matt Hasselbeck is, the Colts never want to see him on the field.
Cherilus was just one part of the line’s makeover. There could be a new center, with undersized incumbent Samson Satele being challenged by fourth-round rookie Khaled Holmes. There will be a new left guard, with journeyman Donald Thomas starting ahead of Jeff Linkenbach (aka the Weak Link). There might be a new right guard, too, depending on whether third-round rookie Hugh Thornton can beat out Mike McGlynn. McGlynn, a sixth-year veteran, has good power in the run game—especially when on the move—but he’s susceptible against bull-rushers in pass protection. The only incumbent lineman sure to start is left tackle Anthony Castonzo who, with graceful athleticism and a feel for the physics of the position, is turning into one of the brighter young blockers in the league.
It seems Grigson’s plan was to reconstruct the offense in Year 1 and the defense in Year 2. This offseason he used his first-round pick on outside linebacker Bjoern Werner. He also signed defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois to a four-year, $22 million contract ($5.5 million guaranteed). He signed strong safety LaRon Landry for four years, $24 million ($11 million guaranteed). He also bolstered the linebacking depth with free agents Erik Walden and Kelvin Sheppard, and added another corner, ex-Cardinal Greg Toler. All of these newcomers will play meaningful roles in a hybrid defense that’s built on variety.
In order to reach his desired level of multiplicity in both his 3-4 and 4-3 looks, Pagano needs a firm secondary that can hold up in every sort of coverage (especially quarters, the zone-man mix that many of the scheme’s disguises come out of). The Colts are slowly accumulating the pieces in their defensive backfield. They traded for a really good one last year in ex-Dolphin Vontae Davis. The immature but gifted fifth-year corner can handle most wideouts man-to-man on an island, plus he’s one of the best open-field tacklers in the game.
Opposite Davis, the hope is that Greg Toler can stop the precarious revolving door at No. 2 corner. Doing so would allow resurgent ex-Patriot Darius Butler to play fulltime from his more natural slot position. And, it would push Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy to the bottom-feeder roles they belong in. Toler vacillated between starter and backup in Arizona; if he doesn’t flourish here, Butler can again be tried on the outside, where he adequately filled in last season, using his agility to snag four interceptions (albeit mostly on inaccurate balls) and return two for touchdowns.
There’s a potentially formidable safety duo supporting these corners. LaRon Landry’s incredibly fast—at times reckless—playing style works well for the cross-field chase assignments that some disguised coverages demand. Eighth-year veteran Antoine Bethea’s awareness and well-honed fundamentals will be a steadying counterbalance. Bethea doesn’t have the range of Ed Reed, but he can offer a comparable understanding of field angles and route designs. Like Landry, Bethea is also a proficient hitter in space.
Boosting the pass rush is also essential. Theoretically drafting Bjoern Werner was a step in the right direction, though some scouts worry about the ex-Seminole’s ineffectiveness on plays where he doesn’t initially win the positioning battle. In the beginning Werner will back up veteran Robert Mathis, who is moving over to the more-fitting weak side position after playing the strong side opposite the now-departed Dwight Freeney last year. Starting on the strong side will be Erik Walden, who has sound athleticism but not a lot of initial burst. Indy’s pass rush overall will remain a work in progress, as backups Justin Hickman and Lawrence Sidbury (an explosive ex-Falcon who never developed) are not world-changers.
Indy’s more pressing concern is solidifying a run defense that got manhandled last season by large zone-blocking fronts (178 rushing yards allowed at Houston in Week 15, a mind-blowing 352 yards allowed the next week at Kansas City). The addition of rising two-gap plugger Ricky Jean-Francois is expected to help. The ex-Niner will start ahead of end Fili Moala, who struggles with shedding blocks, and Drake Nevis, who hasn’t made much noise since being selected in the third round in 2011. Both will compete for playing time with fifth-round rookie Montori Hughes and backup Ricardo Mathews, who doesn’t show great strength or, frankly, much upside. Starting opposite Jean-Francois will be tireless veteran Cory Redding.
At nose tackle, the hope is last year’s fifth-round pick, Josh Chapman, can win the job after sitting out his rookie season with knee problems. If he can’t, either steadily declining veteran Aubrayo Franklin or squatty ex-Raven Brandon McKinney will get the nod.
The men these defensive linemen are tasked with keeping clean must be more consistent when it comes to reading running backs and blocking angles in outside pursuit. Pat Angerer, originally drafted as a 4-3 linebacker, mostly just played rotational snaps after missing the first six games last season with a foot injury. A healthy Angerer plays with better downhill speed than lithe competitor Kavell Conner, who lacks great anticipatory instincts. However, a “healthy Angerer” has not really existed since last August, as the fourth-year pro has been slow to recover from multiple foot surgeries.
Ideally, Conner will vie for top backup snaps with resoundingly average ex-Bill Kelvin Sheppard while Angerer starts next to weak inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. The 27-year-old Freeman spent three years playing for the Saskatchewan Roughriders before unexpectedly claiming a starting job here last fall. He has good run recognition and downhill quickness when afforded initial spacing.
You know the book on kicker Adam Vinatieri. At 40, he still has plenty of range, and though not quite as consistent in recent years, he was still 10-for-12 on field goals when his team was tied or trailing by 1-2 points in the final five minutes of regulation/overtime. Punter Pat McAfee was deemed valuable enough to warrant the franchise tag this offseason despite having mundane numbers across the board in 2012. Shifty speedster Hilton will handle punt returns, while the kick returner will be determined by an open competition. That may not solve anything given that last year, seven different Colts had at least three kick returns and none had more than 10.
This team is markedly better than it was a year ago, though that may not translate to a better record. Nevertheless, if the offense adjusts well to Hamilton’s new system, the Colts will be a tougher out in January.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team's prospects for 2013. Read what he's done so far.