With several key players over 30 and a quarterback who could be the league's best, the Colts are in win-now mode.
For the third straight season, the Colts finished with an 11–5 record. They've been a remarkably consistent machine in Andrew Luck's first years as a pro and stitched together a trip to last season's AFC championship game with three top-tier players: Luck, receiver T.Y. Hilton and cornerback Vontae Davis. Everything else was up in the air except for the rushing attack, which ranked 27th in the league and was weighed down severely by the epic bust that the Trent Richardson trade turned out to be. Chuck Pagano's team came four quarters from the Super Bowl with a middling offensive line, a pretty good receiver corps, barely any pass rush, and a fairly decent secondary outside of Davis.
More than anything, the 2014 season proved the true worth of Luck. In his third NFL season, Luck became the best play-action quarterback in the game, the most prolific deep passer, one of the more effective passers under pressure and a true leader on the field. When using play-action, per Pro Football Focus, Luck threw 13 touchdowns and one interception. No quarterback attempted more passes over 20 yards in the air than Luck's 106, and he completed 44 of those throws for a total of 1,561 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. No quarterback had more dropbacks under pressure than Luck's 298, and he completed 118 passes in 248 attempts with 13 touchdowns and seven picks.
This utterly ridiculous touchdown pass to rookie receiver Donte Moncrief in the Colts' wild-card win over the Bengals typified Luck's efforts: pressure all around him doesn't affect the perfect throw over two defenders that beats the defense as Luck is falling down.
The good news for Colts fans is that general manager Ryan Grigson did all he could to add to the team's arsenal in the off-season. Grigson signed three major free agents, each expected to fill a major hole: running back Frank Gore, receiver Andre Johnson and defensive end Trent Cole. Gore may be 32 years old, but he topped 1,000 rushing yards for the fourth straight season in 2014 behind a declining San Francisco line. He's the perfect foil for Luck's play-action game, and he'll add more toughness than Richardson ever displayed in every possibly dimension. Johnson was lost in the debacle that was Houston's quarterback situation last year, but he still managed to catch 85 passes. Johnson, who will turn 34 before the season starts, feels reborn with the best quarterback he's ever had.
“He's goofy,” Johnson said of Luck last month. “Really goofy. But he's smart as hell. He says, ‘Do this,’ and on the next play, I'm wide open.”
Bringing in Cole to bolster the pass rush was a move made out of necessity. Last season, he amassed seven sacks, 14 quarterback hits and 26 quarterback hurries in the Eagles' hybrid defense, and he'll be expected to do the same for a front that has been far too light on quarterback disruption. Erik Walden and Cory Redding were Pagano's primary pressure players last season, and neither was as effective as Cole. If Robert Mathis can come back from a torn Achilles tendon, the Colts could have a new level of effectiveness in a front seven that needs to match its secondary for play-to-play value.
In many ways, the Colts are in win-now mode. They enter the season with 12 players over 30, eight or nine of which are in line for starting spots. Right guard Todd Herremans joins Cole as another veteran addition. Indy knows it's close—that's how it got to the AFC title game in the first place. The Colts also know that they're not quite there yet—the 45–7 beatdown at the hands of the Patriots once they got there made it abundantly clear.
Now, with a tantalizing mixture of youth and experience, the Colts may have what it takes to go all the way.
Best acquisition: Andre Johnson, WR
Yes, Johnson had a down year in 2014, his 12th NFL season. But if you're attributing that entirely to his age, you may be in for a surprise this year. The regrettable trifecta of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum and Ryan Mallett finished the season with perfectly ordinary numbers, and with head coach Bill O'Brien promising to reduce Johnson's role without significantly improving the quarterback depth chart, it was time for the longest-tenured Texan to move along.
It can't be emphasized enough just how huge the upgrade from Houston's quarterback du jour to Luck will be. On Luck's side, the upgrade to his receiving corps is pretty substantial. There wasn't a player like Johnson on Indy's roster last season, with the route understanding to beat complex coverages and the speed to still get downfield. Gore and Johnson talked about coming to Indianapolis because of Luck's potential, and nobody should be surprised if Johnson turns in a mammoth comeback performance with his new team.
Biggest loss: Cory Redding, DE
Pagano had Redding in Baltimore when he was the Ravens' secondary coach and defensive coordinator in 2010 and '11, and it was an easy move for the Colts to acquire him in '12, when Pagano became the Colts' head coach. Redding led an undermanned defensive front with 22 quarterback hurries last season but racked up just four sacks and was decent against the run. After considering retirement this off-season, Redding reconsidered and signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Cardinals. He isn't the player he used to be, but as the guy who best understands what Pagano wants to do on defense, his absence will be felt.
Underrated draft pick: Henry Anderson, DE, Stanford (round 3, pick No. 93)
When Chris Burke and I put together the SI 64 list of the 2015 draft's top prospects, we had Anderson ranked 63rd, so we're in favor of the Colts getting him 30 picks later. With Redding moving along, Anderson could have a bright and fairly immediate future as a pass-rushing end in this defense. The 6'6", 294-pound Anderson led Stanford in sacks (8.5) and tackles for loss (15) in '14, and Pro Football Focus liked him even more. Anderson ranked fourth among all interior defenders in PFF's run stop percentage metric, third in run stop percentage among Power 5 opponents, second in pass-rushing productivity, and first in pass-rushing productivity against Power 5 teams.
Based on overall productivity, it could be argued that Anderson merited a first-round grade. Of course, he was set back to a degree by the high number of pass rushers in this year's draft class, and there are other concerns. While he's got obvious positional versatility and a great first step off the snap, he needs more varied and effective hand movements, and he'll need to improve his lower-body strength. Still, he's in the perfect defense for his specific skill set, and that could show up right away.
“I don’t know if I saw one clip of film that [Anderson] wasn’t playing with great effort and intensity,” Pagano said of Anderson after the pick was made. “He’s strong at the point. He can knock offensive linemen back. He can get off blocks. People won’t look at him and say he’s twitched up and he’s got all this hey, hey, but he finds a way to get the job done.”
Looming question for training camp: Do the (new) old guys still have it?
Of course, the danger with these high-profile veteran signings is that the old guys will all drop off at the same time. We saw it with the Buccaneers last season after Tampa Bay signed all kinds of experienced players, only to release many of them after one season with nothing to show for their spending spree. It's possible that Gore is on his last legs, that Johnson won't be able to show that quick burst off the snap anymore, that Cole can't get around the edge like he used to. And if that all happens, the weight of expectation would come back to exact a heavy toll on Grigson and Pagano.
In other words, this had better work, and it had better work right away.