2020 NFL Team Previews: Indianapolis Colts
2020 NFL Team Previews
By Professor MJ
Franchise QB Andrew Luck stunned the NFL world a few weeks before the 2019 season began by announcing his retirement at age 29. I really felt sorry for Colts fans; that had to be a devastating blow. The timing also prevented the team from drafting accordingly.
Indianapolis rolled with Jacoby Brissett and they were right in the thick of the playoff race. They were sitting on a 6-4 record before a four-game losing skid crushed their hopes.
2. Offensive Position-by-Position Breakdown
2.1 Quarterbacks (QBs)
After spending 16 seasons with the Chargers (!!!), Philip Rivers will be wearing a Colts uniform in 2020. That’s going to look weird.
Last year, Rivers had his fourth-highest passing yard output with 4,615, but the problem lied with his poor TD-to-INT ratio. Indeed, 20 interceptions represented the second-most of his career, while his 23 TD passes were its lowest in 12 years.
Rivers has never been much of a runner. Now in his late thirties, things are looking even worse. He seems to get bottled up easily. Also, he appeared dead armed at numerous times. We’ll see if a change of scenery will rejuvenate his career, but it seems doubtful at this point.
Jacoby Brissett has to be one of the top backup QB in the league. With Andrew Luck announcing his surprise retirement a few weeks before the 2019 season began, Brissett took over under center.
Brissett didn’t have a great year. Throwing just six interceptions was nice, but racking up just 18 TD passes just won’t cut it in the NFL. Granted, he didn’t have a lot of weapons at his disposal with the Colts lacking a #2 WR and their top wideout T.Y. Hilton missing six games. He still represents a good insurance policy in case the Rivers experiment doesn’t pan out.
2.2 Running Backs (RBs)
After missing to hit the 1,000 rushing-yard mark by 92, Marlon Mack accomplished the feat in 2019 with 1,091 rushing yards. He’s not much of a receiver, though; he caught just 14 passes last year.
My opinion may not be very popular, but I’m not sold on him. I believe he benefits a lot from the great blocking in front of him. He rarely gets much more than what’s blocked ahead of him. Still, he’ll remain Indy’s top back, while splitting time with a few more guys.
Jordan Wilkins added a bit over 300 rushing yards by posting a nice 6.0 yards-per-rush average. The year before, that average turned out to be 5.6. Those are great numbers, but the team seems reluctant to increase his workload.
Nyheim Hines is mainly used as a pass catcher. He might take on an Austin Ekeler-type role with Rivers this year.
Considering the depth at the position, taking Jonathan Taylor early in the 2nd round of the draft may sound puzzling at first. Perhaps the organization agrees with me about Mack not being as great as he looks. The fact that Mack is set to hit free agency at the end of the year also played a role in the decision as well.
Taylor carried the ball 926 times for the Wisconsin Badgers. He rushed for at least 1,975 yards in each of his three college years, which is unreal! He is a great runner with cement hands; he fumbles the ball too often and doesn’t catch very well out of the backfield.
2.3 Wide Receivers (WRs)
T.Y. Hilton had missed just four games during his first seven seasons in the NFL; he missed six matchups in 2019 alone. He ended with career-lows in receptions (45) and receiving yards (501).
He stormed out of the gate with 30 receptions, 306 yards and 5 TDs over the first five games. During the next five: 15 catches, 195 yards and 0 TD. He had an injury-riddled season.
I believe he can revert to his old self. He showed he could still play at a high level early in the season, but injuries got the best of him. We’ll see how his 30-year old body reacts in 2020.
The undrafted receiver from Old Dominion, Zach Pascal, showed some flashes last year. He led the team with 45 receptions and 5 TDs. I don’t believe he can do much better, though.
It’s difficult to evaluate Parris Campbell’s first year as a pro. He had a sore hamstring, a sports hernia, a broken hand and a broken foot in 2019. It’s hard to show off your skills under such circumstances.
The speedy receiver out of Ohio St. will have a chance to prove his worth in the upcoming season. He was selected in the 2nd round of the 2019 draft at the #59 overall spot.
Another candidate to start opposite Hilton is second-round rookie Michael Pittman from USC. The word on him is he’s a hard worker with a good mix of size and speed. He also does a great job with contested catches and he has reliable hands, as shown by his five drops out of 254 targets in college.
2.4 Tight Ends (TEs)
The Colts had a nice combo of pass catching tight ends with Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron. Both finished with similar above-average marks from PFF, but Ebron packed his bags to head to Pittsburgh. His presence will be missed, even though he’s known for his tendency to drop passes.
Doyle’s numbers decreased last year, but they are likely to shoot up following Ebron’s departure. After catching 59 and 80 balls during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, he missed most of the 2018 season before hauling in “just” 43 passes last year. He struggled down the stretch with just 7 receptions in four contests, but the 6’6’’ guy is likely to bounce back.
Mo Alie-Cox could see an increased role in 2020. He has only caught 15 passes in two years, but has received great grades as a blocker.
2.5 Offensive Line (OL)
This unit has to be one of the strongest in the entire league. They do a great job, both in the running and passing game.
After pondering about the possibility of retiring, left tackle Anthony Castonzo opted to sign a two-year deal. He graded as the seventh-best tackle in the league according to PFF, but he turns 32 very soon. Keep that in mind.
Pro Bowler Quenton Nelson has been a star at left guard. The number six overall pick from the 2018 draft out of Notre Dame has not disappointed. He was rated the second-best guard in the league, only behind Brandon Brooks from the Eagles.
Center Ryan Kelly has been a steady guy during his first four years with the Colts. He’s entering his prime years at age 27. He obtained the #8 spot out of 37 centers based on PFF ratings.
Braden Smith was a second-round pick in the 2018 draft. After receiving a very respectable 71.8 grade in his rookie season, he improved upon those numbers to reach a 79.8 mark last year. All signs point towards him being a smart selection.
Right guard Mark Glowinski seems to be the weakest link of the fortress. He was claimed off waivers in 2018 after the Seahawks released him. He has been an average player in his two-year stint in Indy.
In summary, all five starters are returning which is excellent news for the Colts. Having continuity on the offensive line is critical to success.
2020 VS 2019 OFFENSE
The whole QB position received a lift with the addition of Philip Rivers. Whether he’ll be an adequate starter or not remains to be seen, but having Rivers-Brissett has to be viewed as a better alternative than having Brissett-Hoyer, as was the case in 2019.
The RB and WR positions remain fairly intact with the exceptions of a few backups who won’t be there anymore. The team definitely has good depth in the backfield; the same cannot be said about the receiving corps. However, the WR position is much more likely to see an improvement with Hilton having a clean bill of health and Parris Campbell getting a chance to show what he can do at the pro level (as well as rookie Michael Pittman).
At tight end, losing Ebron represents a deterioration for the team.
Finally, how is the 2020 outlook for the offensive line compared to last year? Even though I love the group, you have to expect a downgrade here. These guys played at a high level, and none of them missed a single game last year. Can you really expect them not to miss any game due to injuries in 2020? That seems highly unlikely.
Therefore, we have an expected upgrade at QB and WR, but a likely downgrade at TE and on the OL. The team finished 16th out of 32 teams in terms of points scored per game. I expect the production to stay approximately the same.
Final call (2020 vs 2019):
Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade
3. Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown
3.1 Defensive Linemen (DLs)
The best player on the interior of the defensive line for the Colts has been Denico Autry. After posting 10.5 sacks over his first four seasons with the Raiders, he exploded with 9 sacks with the Colts in 2018, but a disappointing 3.5 last year.
Still, his level of play has been adequate as he finished as the 32nd-best DL among 114 qualifiers. He was a respectable player in all aspects of the game.
Considering Grover Stewart was a mediocre player, the team reinforced the position by acquiring a couple of 49ers players: DeForest Buckner and Sheldon Day.
The Colts sacrificed the #13 overall pick in the 2020 draft in order to get Buckner. That’s a fair price to pay for one of the best interior defenders in the league who is also entering his prime years. He’s been good both against the run and the pass; he has averaged 7.1 sacks per season. What a huge boost for this unit!
As for Sheldon Day, he’s not nearly as good as Buckner. He’s more of a rotational presence. His PFF grades have been a bit below-average thus far in his four-year career.
3.2 Defensive Ends (DEs) / Edge Rushers (ED)
Justin Houston was clearly the most dangerous pass rusher the Colts had in 2019. In his first season with Indy after spending eight years in Kansas City, he led the team with 11 sacks.
Despite missing some games due to injuries during his nine-year career, he has average 9.9 sacks per season. Now on the wrong side of 30, you need to start being concerned about whether his play will tail off or not.
Jabaal Sheard was used on more than 50% of the defensive snaps. He regularly gets 4-5 sacks per season, as was the case last year. However, poor tackling has penalized him in his PFF grades, making him the 81st-best edge defender out of 107 players. He has yet to be signed by any team so far.
Al-Quadin Muhammad played 47% of the snaps and had mitigated success. It was his best season over his three-year career, but nothing spectacular either. He’s not a great athlete and was a former sixth-round pick; he has limited upside.
3.3 Linebackers (LBs)
I don’t think the Colts regret picking Darius Leonard in the second round of the 2018 draft. As a rookie, he led the league in tackles with 163 (19 more than any other player!). Last year, he picked up 121 tackles in 13 games, on pace for 149.
He is the total package. He’s efficient in run defense, in coverage and as a pass rusher. As a matter of fact, he has recorded 12 sacks during those two years.
That being said, Colts fans have to be concerned about some comments he made last year. He was concussed for three weeks following a big collision with Derrick Henry and he experienced painful headaches for a while. During his absence, he debated his NFL future. If he suffers another concussion, he seems to be thinking already about a potential retirement.
Anthony Walker’s job could be in jeopardy. He played many more snaps than rookie Bobby Okereke, but the latter is definitely breathing down his neck.
Walker graded as an average linebacker with the number 42 spot out of 89 players. His grade took a huge hit because of poor run defense.
Meanwhile, the rookie from Stanford obtained the 9th-highest grade in the league! He was an every-down linebacker in college, and is very likely to get an increase workload in 2020.
3.4 Cornerbacks (CBs)
Rock Ya-Sin enjoyed a satisfying rookie season. He is an interesting story. After playing three years at a Divison-2 college, he transferred to Temple for his final year. Despite not being particularly fast, his sheer will helped him earn amazing grades. He yielded a meager 53% completion rate and not a single one went above 20 yards. He finished as an average corner in 2019; with one full year of experience under his belt, he is likely to improve this season.
Pierre Desir obtained the second-highest playing time among the team’s cornerbacks. He took a step back after a breakout 2018 campaign and the team decided to release him. The Jets signed him the next day.
It remains to be seen which player will benefit the most from Desir’s departure. The Colts acquired T.J. Carrie and Xavier Rhodes, formerly of the Browns and the Vikings, respectively. Both of them are coming off a very disappointing season.
Rhodes used to be a pretty solid corner, but his play has deteriorated a lot recently. After receiving 73.8 and 72.4 grades from PFF in 2016 and 2017, he earned a disappointing 58.2 mark in 2018 and a dreadful 47.9 last year. Did injuries slow him down, or is he done?
Carrie was pretty ineffective with the Browns last year. After a few fairly good seasons with the Raiders, his play took a dip in each of his two years in Cleveland. I don’t have much faith he can rebound.
Don’t count out Kenny Moore though. He was surprisingly good in the slot last year. We’ll see if he can solidify a starting spot in this now crowded secondary.
3.5 Safeties (S)
Malik Hooker and Khari Willis finished the 2019 season with an identical PFF grade: 69.5. That mark put them in the number 37 spot out of 87 safeties.
Hooker is a former first-round pick out of Ohio State that has picked off at least two passes in each of its first three years as a pro. He has done a fine job and is still very young.
The Colts traded up to select Willis in the 4th round of the 2019 draft. His first season exceeded expectations as he shared time with Clayton Geathers, who has yet to sign a contract.
2020 VS 2019 DEFENSE
Will the 2020 defense be superior to the 2019 unit?
I love the fortification on the interior of the line with the big-time acquisition of DeForest Buckner, and to a lesser level Sheldon Day.
The CB position may also see an upgrade with Ya-Sin’s sophomore season coming up and the additions of Rhodes and Carrie (with the hopes that one of them will bounce back after a frustrating 2019 season).
At safety, Hooker and Hillis could also elevate their play because of their young age and added experience.
However, as a whole I see a downgrade in the edge / linebacking corps. Justin Houston is not getting any younger, and Jabaal Sheard could be missed. The team must also cross its fingers that Darius Leonard won’t suffer another concussion.
Overall, I see a small upgrade here. Adding Buckner coupled with young talented guys like Leonard, Ya-Sin and Hooker makes me predict they will finish around the 12th-15th place in terms of points allowed (as opposed to 18th last year).
Final call (2020 vs 2019):
Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade
4. Regular Season Wins
According to sportsbooks, the Colts are expected to win 8.5 games this season. Should we bet the “over” or the “under”?
Here is the methodology I used in order to answer this vital question:
- Use BetOnline.ag’s point spreads on all 256 regular season games.
- Convert those point spreads into win probabilities.
- Simulate each of the 256 games, according to those win probabilities, via the R statistical software.
- Repeat the previous step one million times (you get 1M simulated seasons).
- Count the proportion of seasons where the Colts won more or less than 8.5 games.
Here are the results:
- Tip: Bet OVER 8.5 wins
- Return On Investment (ROI): +13.7%
- Rank: 20th-highest ROI out of 32 teams
- Minimum odds required to bet (i.e. ROI = 0%): -202
Here are BetOnline’s point spreads for the Colts’ 16 regular season games:
- HOME: +2.5 vs BAL, -9 vs CIN, -2.5 vs GB, -4.5 vs HOU, -10.5 vs JAX, -2 vs MIN, -6.5 vs NYJ, -3 vs TEN.
- ROAD: +1.5 @ CHI, +1 @ CLE, -1.5 @ DET, +2 @ HOU, -6.5 @ JAX, -2 @ LV, +2.5 @ PIT, +2.5 @ TEN.
Note: The “Best odds” from the table above were obtained after looking at 13 well-known online sportsbooks on May 18th, 2020.
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