While 14 NFL teams began their postseason journey over the weekend, the Indianapolis Colts were not one of them. Instead of continuing their "climb up the mountain," they watched as others began their home stretch toward the summit.
"Certainly no one including myself really ever thought it would end like it did the last two weeks," Colts head coach Frank Reich reflected after the team lost two play-in games to conclude their season. "That’s something that can’t be undone. It’s part of our record. It’s part of my record."
Now Reich, general manager Chris Ballard, and the rest of the Colts organization must focus on what they need to do over the next eight months to put the team over the hump and reach their goals.
Looking at the roster, here are arguably their biggest needs.
- Under contract in 2022: Carson Wentz, Sam Ehlinger, James Morgan
- 2022 free agents: Brett Hundley
Last offseason, the Colts traded a 2021 third-round draft pick and a 2022 first-rounder for polarizing quarterback Carson Wentz. He performed his best when working with Reich while the two were together with the Philadelphia Eagles from 2016-17, but given Wentz's erratic play since then, the quarterback position remained some fans' biggest desire for the Colts.
Up to the midway point of the season, it looked as if maybe the whole thing could work out and that the Colts could win with Wentz under center. However, the wagon of the opposition got much heavier after the Colts' final two games of the regular season as Wentz combined to go 33-of-56 passing (58.9%) for 333 yards (5.9 YPA) with 2 touchdowns and 2 turnovers, took 7 sacks, and had a passer rating of 80.7. In fact, over the final 11 games of the season, Wentz had seven games with fewer than 200 yards and a rating below 90.0.
The sixth-year pro did have a handful of solid performances for the Colts but the erratic play that wore out his welcome in Philadelphia continued in Indianapolis, and he didn't seem to grasp why the critical mistakes or unnecessary risks that he took were poor choices. The Colts' margin for error down the stretch was razor-thin and Wentz often failed to do his part to keep the team afloat.
While we've gotten used to hearing Reich heap praise and support upon his players — particularly the quarterback — he was uncharacteristically wishy-washy in regard to Wentz after the season ended.
Also, while he didn't necessarily say one way or the other whether Wentz would be the quarterback in 2022, the most damning comments about Wentz came from Ballard.
"At the time of the decision (to trade for Wentz), we felt good about it," Ballard said. "And I still don’t regret the decision at the time. I won’t make a comment on who’s going to be here next year and who’s not going to be here. We’ll look at everything. There’s solutions, sometimes they’re not ideal, but there are solutions. Sometimes they’re long-term and sometimes they’re not."
Ballard would go on to remark that the Colts must have stability at the quarterback position and that the team has been pretty good during the years that they've had it.
"I’d like to quit band-aiding it (the quarterback position)," Ballard said. "I’d like for Carson to be the long-term answer or find somebody that’s going to be here for the next 10 to 12 years. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. I can dream about it and wish about it, do everything I can to figure out the solution but you do the best of what you can do at the time that you have to make a decision."
Needing to address your quarterback spot isn't an easy thing to do, especially when you don't have a first-round pick in the current draft to use yourself or offer in a trade. With that in mind, what is the Colts' stance on the position in 2022?
They could go in-house and keep Wentz in the driver's seat or switch to Sam Ehlinger, which both seem unlikely at this point. There are high-ticket trade pieces like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, or Deshaun Watson (I'm only including him because some readers will bring it up), which are also unlikely. There are also guys who may be a little more attainable for the Colts, such as Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Baker Mayfield, Gardner Minshew II, or Tua Tagovailoa.
Then, there's the thin free-agent market, made up of the likes of Teddy Bridgewater, Andy Dalton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Marcus Mariota, Cam Newton, Tyrod Taylor, and Jameis Winston.
- Under contract in 2022: Braden Smith, Shon Coleman, Carter O'Donnell
- 2022 free agents: Eric Fisher, Matt Pryor, Julién Davenport, Sam Tevi
The Colts signed who they thought would be a reliable left tackle option last offseason in Eric Fisher. He was coming off of an Achilles injury that ended his previous season but he'd always been solid throughout his career.
Although Fisher had a quality season in run blocking in 2021, he was an abysmal pass protector, finishing 43rd among qualifying NFL offensive tackles with a Pro Football Focus grade of 61.0. His pass-block efficiency rating of 94.7% ranked 54th after tying for the 11th-most pressures allowed on the quarterback (41).
It would be football malpractice to "run it back" with that sort of performance in 2022, so Ballard all but declared they're looking for other options moving forward.
"The left tackle is what the left tackle is," Ballard said. "We short-term fixed it. We still have to be looking for a long-term solution there. And if we have to short-term fix it again because the long-term solution doesn’t show up, that’s what we’ll do."
Aside from the majority of players they used at the position in 2021 being non-ideal options moving forward, they simply don't have many in-house solutions. Essentially their entire left tackle lineup from the 2021 season are free agents this offseason.
We saw last offseason that the Colts are really, really picky when it comes to who they consider to be a true left tackle. Several fan-favorite options were passed up in the draft, and other seemingly wise options were also bypassed in free agency in favor of Fisher.
So, although the Colts will be looking for help at left tackle this offseason, don't expect everyone you're hearing about in the rumor mill to be a true fit for them.
- Under contract in 2022: DE — Kwity Paye, Dayo Odeyingbo, Ben Banogu, Kameron Cline | DT — DeForest Buckner, Grover Stewart, Chris Williams
- 2022 free agents: DE — Al-Quadin Muhammad, Kemoko Turay, Tyquan Lewis, Isaac Rochell | DT — Taylor Stallworth (RFA), Antwaun Woods, Rob Windsor (ERFA)
The Colts have some nice young pieces at defensive end with rookies Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo. However, they still need to have players that can produce right now while their young guys continue developing. Ballard also acknowledged the defense has to be better at getting after the quarterback and that they have to have at least eight starting-level defensive linemen.
Currently, players responsible for 17 of the Colts' 33 sacks (51.5%) in 2021 are slated to become free agents, so they'll obviously want to begin their search in-house.
The defense tied for 26th in the NFL in sacks, and their team PFF pass-rushing grade of 71.3 ranked 18th. Only two individual players from the defensive line had a pass-rush grade of 70.0 or better; DeForest Buckner with a 77.1 and Paye with a 71.3.
The Colts had six games with either one or fewer sacks, and they averaged just 2.5 hits on the quarterback in those games.
For a team that is dominant when it comes to forcing turnovers (finished second with 33), imagine what the defense would look like with a consistent pass rush.
Other areas to consider: Pass-catchers, right guard, cornerback