PhilB: What’s the first thing that comes to mind today about the Colts?
Roberto: The first thing that comes to mind is the defense this year, specifically, the new arrival on the D-line, DeForest Buckner. I think the Colts have really been lacking that interior presence that they haven’t had for quite a while. The last time the Colts really had a solid interior presence on the D-line was when they won the Super Bowl with ‘Booger’ McFarland on the line along with the legendary pass rushers (Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis) on the outside. I think that pressure up the middle is something that will set the table for the rest of the season. Without it, I’m not sure how good this defense would be.
PhilB: The Buckner deal was huge, definitely a bold move for GM Chris Ballard. He’s not one to part with picks, but he called it ‘a no-brainer.’ You liked the trade and getting a player of Buckner’s caliber?
Roberto: I liked it. With that pick, the 14th in the first round, the 49ers got the defensive tackle from South Carolina (Javon Kinlaw), which was the best available guy at that position. Who knows how good he’ll be immediately coming into the league. The Colts, it seems like they’re in a win-now mode with the offensive line having all five starters coming back. Making the move to get (running back) Jonathan Taylor in the draft, for me, wasn’t something that I was expecting, but it’s something that says, ‘Hey, we’re ready right now to win.’ We’ve got this one-two punch with Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor, and obviously acquiring quarterback Philip Rivers, he’s obviously not a young, spring chicken. If they want to push the envelope and try to win right now, getting an established guy on the defensive line is something I really liked. Looking back at it now, in light of the recent Jamal Adams trade, where the Seahawks gave up two ones and also a third-rounder in exchange for him and a fourth-rounder and they also threw in a safety there, but they gave up so many picks whereas the Colts just gave up one for one and you get this guy in the prime of his career. He’s only 26 years old. You lock him up for the next four years. The Colts had a ton of cap space. You still have room to make even more moves. And you don’t have to roll all of that cap space over into next year. It will really set the table for everyone else on the defense.
PhilB: Who else do you like on defense?
Roberto: As a Stanford guy, I got to do the radio play-by-play for two years and I’ve seen a lot of (linebacker) Bobby Okereke. I’m really excited about him in this defense. People saw him emerge last year as a guy who could really take the next step this year. Along with Anthony Walker and Darius Leonard as linebackers in the 4-3, I think those guys are going to be the ones that really benefit the most from having an interior presence like DeForest Buckner.
PhilB: Yeah, it’s been a while since we could think maybe the Colts could be pretty good on defense. They’ve been so-so for so long. Now, you could make a legitimate argument the Colts could have a top-10 defense, maybe top-five.
Roberto: I think the sky’s the limit. The big question this year is just going to be health. Assuming everyone opts in, which we didn’t have any issues with the pandemic last year, but the injuries took a huge toll on this team. Staying healthy is going to be a huge priority. From what I’ve been reading, a lot of soft muscle injuries are going to be more prevalent this year with guys not being able to have a full offseason of getting back into workout shape and not being with the team at the team facilities, working out with all those trainers throughout summer. So it’s going to be very different this year. No one really knows what it’s going to look like, but I really like the depth that this team has this year. I’m a huge fan of Chris Ballard and what he’s drafted the last few years. I can’t give enough praise to him. With the depth, hopefully there’s going to be a full season this year, that will play a huge role. There will be attrition.
PhilB: Before moving on, I should probably ask you about the one question on the defense, and that’s the secondary and how it will come together. Obviously cornerback Xavier Rhodes is on a prove-it deal. I think cornerback Rock Ya-Sin will play better this year. He showed flashes as a rookie. I’m not sure about the back line. When your best defensive back is a nickel cornerback in Kenny Moore II, you kind of wonder how everybody else around him is going to play. Do you think that’s the key to this defense?
Roberto: You described the situation very well. There’s a lot of inexperience in the secondary. Where there is experience, it’s not with the Colts. I know that Xavier Rhodes has run a similar system, so I’m cautiously optimistic. He’s on a prove-it deal, but he was pretty cheap. I’m optimistic about (rookie safety) Julian Blackmon coming in, whenever he’s healthy. Safety Malik Hooker is also on a huge, prove-it year as well with the Colts declining his fifth-year option for 2021. I was reading something about (Patriots coach) Bill Belichick from back in the 1990s about how he describes which players he wants to draft on the offensive side of the ball and on the defensive side. On defense, he hammered home that you’ve got to be strong up the middle. Obviously the shortest distance between two points is the line, and the shortest distance between the quarterback and the defensive line is right up the middle. Having a guy like DeForest Buckner up the middle and having athletic linebackers like Okereke, Walker, and Leonard will really help out the secondary and alleviate some of that pressure. Last year, you didn’t have that pressure from the defensive line. In this league, you’ve got to be able to get pressure with four to a certain degree if you want to be successful on the back end, especially in the AFC, where you’ve got Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and all of his receivers running around. If you give him time, he’s going to cut you apart. Just limiting the role of the secondary in that you’re making the ball come out quickly and forcing the ball to the perimeter and being strong up the middle will really alleviate the stress on guys like Rock Ya-Sin in his second year, Marvell Tell III, a guy I’ve seen a lot at USC, who was a safety there and is playing cornerback in the pros. There are a lot of unknowns in the back unit, but I think they’ll perform much better than last year because they won’t have as much pressure.
PhilB: You touched on him earlier, but I usually ask about Philip Rivers. I know there’s a lot of opinions out there. The fan base is divided. Where do you fall on the Colts signing Rivers?
Roberto: I like the scheme fit. I love that he’s got experience with our offensive coordinator (Nick Sirianni) and our head coach (Frank Reich). Philip Rivers isn’t a young guy, but he doesn’t have to learn any new terminology coming to the Colts. I like that we can him be more of a game manager, kind of pay a similar role to Jacoby Brissett, but we’re not going to have him throwing the ball around 40 times a game. It’s going to be run the ball first. Let him throw the ball to the tight ends and make smart decisions. Try not to have him do too much. It’s a young Colts receiving corpse. I personally was really, really rooting for the Colts to get Michael Pittman Jr. in the draft, and they got him in the second round. Hopefully T.Y. Hilton is much healthier this year. There’s a lot of unknowns with Parris Campbell, as far as what he can be when healthy because we haven’t seen him. Also, there’s some optimism with Zach Pascal, who nobody really knew anything about until last year, when he was suddenly thrust into the No. 2 receiver and the No. 1 sometimes. It’s going to be really fun to see him operate as potentially a No. 3 or No. 4 and getting more favorable matchups. And with a guy like Philip Rivers, who likes to push the envelope down the field, I think that’s going to be fun with a guy like T.Y. Hilton. Michael Pittman Jr. is also a big-play receiver, a big target like a lot of the guys that Rivers has had in San Diego and Los Angeles. There’s a lot to be optimistic about. I like the acquisition of Philip Rivers. I don’t necessarily love they paid him as much money as Tom Brady. If you asked me if we’d rather have Tom Brady or Philip Rivers here, I’d say Tom Brady. But Philip Rivers is a scheme fit. I don’t know that Brady would ever consider moving to Indianapolis. As a diehard Colts fan, I think that would be hilarious. The Colts have a ton of cap space, so it’s really not that big of a deal that they signed him for $25 million. It really opens up the question about who is going to be the long-term quarterback for the Colts? I don’t think it’s going to be Jacoby Brissett. I like that the Colts do have depth at the quarterback position in keeping Brissett. Because of the pandemic this year, we don’t know what’s going to happen as far as injuries and illness. (Rookie) Jacob Eason is a huge wild card, a guy with a lot of that proverbial upside, but he hasn’t quite produced as much as you’d like to see. He sat out a year transferring from Georgia to Washington, then didn’t win as much as you would expect. So there’s a lot of unknown about Jacob Eason. He’s got all the physical tools to succeed. It’s going to be really valuable for I’m to be behind guys like Philip Rivers and Jacoby Brissett, who have been in the league.
PhilB: You’ve watched a lot of Pac-12 football, right?
PhilB: How much did you watch Pittman and see what the Colts scouts have talked about, how he doesn’t lose one-on-one battles and can really high-point passes, that X factor in how he abuses cornerbacks?
Roberto: He is a dynamic receiver, a big-play guy, but also a guy you can count on in the red zone. He may not have the game-breaking speed like Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs, but who does? I love his ability to catch contested balls, as you said, high-pointing the ball. You can have him run a pretty diverse route tree but also you can just throw it up there and say, ‘Make a play for me’ when we need it. I like his after-catch ability as well. He’s a strong guy, so he can break some tackles against some smaller guys. He’s a really smart player, too. He knows how to get open. I’m a huge fan of Michael Pittman Jr. coming to the Colts. USC is the team I hate the most in college football, year in and year out, so it says a lot I wanted this guy on the team.
PhilB: What’s your realistic Colts prediction?
Roberto: Let’s assume everybody is healthy, for argument sake, no debilitating injuries. If you look at the schedule, the first eight or nine weeks of the season are really manageable. The second half of the season is going to be much tougher. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the Colts could start 6-3 or 7-2, then kind of weather the storm the rest of the way in. So 10-6 is my prediction for this year. I think the Colts take a step up offensively and defensively. I’m really optimistic about this team. I love the offensive line. I really like the linebackers. Someone I haven’t mentioned yet is the addition of fullback Roosevelt Nix, maybe one of most underrated names in the NFL, a guy who has only blocked for Pro Bowl guys in the NFL. I like that we have a fullback on our team. It says a lot about the Colts culture and the style of football they want to play this year. We’re going to run the football. We’re going to be successful. We’ve got the best offensive line in the league. We’ve got all five of our starters coming back. I really love that. I like the experience with Philip Rivers, what he adds. I’m really high on Frank Reich as a play-caller. I really like Frank Reich and his ability to maximize what he has. He’s not afraid to switch up the offense based on who he has at quarterback. When he was with the Eagles, they had Carson Wentz, then he gets hurt and Nick Foles comes in and they re-design the offense, and then they go win the Super Bowl.
PhilB: How worried are you about the season and playing a complete year?
Roberto: I try to be optimistic. I don’t expect a full 16-game season, let alone the playoffs. I saw that the Patriots have already had six guys opt out. So we haven’t even considered the Colts could have guys to opt out. The numbers say we should expect one or two. Without a bubble, unless the pandemic situation starts to diminish and at least goes down in our country, right now there’s no reason to expect it to go away by September. So we’re going to have the problems that MLB is having. What’s concerning about that is it only took three days for MLB to have these problems. The nature of football, you’ve got the offensive line and defensive line breathing on each other every play. Any receiver and tight end is going to be breathing on a guy in the secondary. It’s going to be extremely hard to keep everyone healthy. It just takes one or two people, given the nature of this sport where everybody is packed in on the sidelines, on the fields, and in the locker rooms. I’m not expecting a full season. It would be really cool if the NFL said, ‘We had a plan, we don’t know if it’s going to work, let’s try something else.’ Unfortunately, I don’t trust NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to come up with any innovative decisions. I’m not sure he’s ever had an original thought in his life. But if you left it up to the Colts to run the season, if you said, ‘Hey Chris Ballard, come up with a plan on how to have an NFL season,’ I’d say we’d have a season. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I hope it happens. I hope we get a few games at least. The health of the players is paramount. I’d hate to see something tragic happen because we tried to force a season when it wasn’t possible. I’m hoping for the best.
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