As the Indianapolis Colts (7-8) prepare for Sunday’s season finale at the Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10), it’s time to look ahead to what the team needs to improve in 2020.
The first in a three-story installment analyzes the offense, which ranks 16th in points (16.7), 25th in total yards (330.9), 28th in passing (197.7) and fourth in rushing (133.2).
The Colts have an estimated $97.8 million in cap space, the second-highest total in the NFL, so general manager Chris Ballard won't have any limitations in terms of what he wants to spend on bolstering the roster.
Quarterback — The most important position will be the subject of debate as Ballard must decide if sticking with Jacoby Brissett for another season is worth the investment. When Andrew Luck retired in August, Brissett received a two-year extension befitting his promoted status to starter. He’ll cost $21.5 million that includes a $9 million roster bonus if kept. That’s a lot to spend on an inconsistent quarterback who ranked 25th in passing yards.
Brissett’s shortcomings should have become obvious as this season unfolded. While his play continually dropped off after suffering a left MCL knee sprain at Pittsburgh in Week 9, Brissett has typically had issues seeing the field and spotting open receivers. Late in the year, even when he made correct reads, his throws were off target too many times.
It’s not that Brissett was bad all the time, but the Colts are accustomed to great quarterback play after having Peyton Manning and Luck. Anything less becomes even more obvious. The Colts were 5-6 in one-score games and in all but one of those losses, the offense failed to finish. That trend can’t continue. And it starts with who’s playing quarterback. As much as Ballard would like to be proven right by instilling his faith in Brissett, he would be wise to cut his losses and save cap money by cutting him and starting over by drafting a promising, young talent. Nothing is guaranteed with a new player, but standing pat suggests there’s only so far Brissett can take the Colts, and that won’t be far enough.
Offensive line — Left tackle Anthony Castonzo’s contract expires after this season and it’s a rather important position to fill. He cost $11,050,000 against the cap in 2019, and it makes sense to re-sign him to a short-term deal because he proved as a first-time Pro Bowl alternate that his play is still solid enough. If the Colts had another young talent groomed for the spot, letting Castonzo test free agency would make sense. But they don’t. Even if they used a high draft pick on the position, thrusting a rookie into that spot doesn’t make sense unless he’s as talented as Castonzo promised to be when selected in the first round in 2011. Expect Ballard to keep Castonzo.
The rest of the line should return intact. Pass blocking dropped off with 29 sacks allowed, far more than the league-best 18 allowed in 2018. Some of that can be put on Brissett holding the ball too long, another of his liabilities, but the Colts often struggled to make switches when defensive lines stunted or blitzed. There were far too many free rushers. Because the personnel didn’t change from the previous year, it would be understandable if Ballard and head coach Frank Reich had faith in sticking with their front five of Castonzo, center Ryan Kelly, All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson, right guard Mark Glowinski and right tackle Braden Smith. Nelson is one of the best blockers the Colts have ever drafted and Kelly is a solid anchor. It’s imperative that the right side gets better. Glowinski signed a new contract before 2019 and Smith was a second-round pick in 2018. The lack of depth means neither were pushed for their position this season. Perhaps both should be in the future, if the Colts can find quality players to bolster that depth.
Wide receiver/tight end — Four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton got hurt for a second consecutive year, and the Colts were reminded of his value in losing all but one of the six games he missed. That his five TD receptions are still tied for team high with Zach Pascal speaks volumes. His 42 receptions are also tied with Jack Doyle for the team lead. The problem of being too reliant on Hilton necessitates adding quality playmakers. Ballard tried to do that by signing free-agent wide receiver Devin Funchess and drafting wide receiver Parris Campbell in the second round. But Funchess was lost for the season after the opener and Campbell also fought through a series of injuries before being shut down after missing eight games.
Ballard could decide to re-sign Funchess, who didn’t do enough to command a huge contract in free agency but is still a talent and capable player coming off a broken collarbone. The price might be just right. That said, the Colts still need more help. Pascal evolved into a capable No. 2 option, taking advantage of increased playing time with 40 catches for a team-best 597 yards. But he didn’t make nearly as many big plays when Hilton was sidelined. If Funchess could stay healthy, he can be that guy. That said, it’s risky to rely upon so many guys who are coming off injuries. Hilton is a proven commodity, but there’s no guarantee Funchess or Campbell will be able to stay healthy. That’s why using another draft pick or two on wide receivers or drafting another in the early rounds makes sense.
Tight end Eric Ebron also fell far short of his 2018 Pro Bowl season before being shut down with ankle injuries. Ballard might roll the dice and re-sign him, although Ebron’s penchant for drops is maddening and his decision to shut it down early this past season when the Colts were still in playoff contention probably didn’t sit well with the team. The Colts were wise to give Doyle an extension. Doyle is a solid blocker and pass catcher, as reliable a player as the offense has, and keeping him was a smart move. But Ballard must add more playmakers and hope that history doesn’t repeat itself. No team can absorb this many injuries to such an important part of the offense.
Running back — Although Marlon Mack couldn’t escape getting hurt again, he missed just two games this season, hence he rushed for 1,014 yards, the first 1,000-yard season of his three-year career. Ballard and Reich have every reason to be confident in who they have at the position, considering Nyheim Hines is so effective as a third-down back used in the passing game as a receiver and Jordan Wilkins provided some quality runs late in the season when given a chance. Even when the Colts turned to Jonathan Williams, he delivered back-to-back, 100-yard games, the first of his career. The Colts’ O-line answered the call in opening holes for the team to make good on its season goal of being a top-five rushing team. The Colts have this part of the equation in place, they just have to upgrade everything else around it because defenses were effective at times in stacking the box and forcing Brissett to beat them in the passing game. Better balance should only make the run game stronger.