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The Hopes for Indy’s Offense

With Andrew Luck back at full health, can the Colts’ attack finally become the juggernaut it has the potential to be?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m willing to pretend that Andrew Luck’s 2015 season didn’t happen. His numbers from last year are horrific. In seven starts, Luck completed 55.3 percent of his passes. Ryan Mallett was better (55.7 percent), and only T.J. Yates (49.1 percent) fared worse among QBs with at least 50 attempts. That’s real. Beyond that, when Luck’s passes were caught, they were often grabbed by guys wearing the wrong-colored jersey. Blaine Gabbert, Matt Cassel, and EJ Manuel all posted lower interception rates than Luck’s 4.1 percent.

Luck missed nine games of last season due to rib and shoulder injuries; it was later revealed that those injuries occurred long before his name appeared on any report. During Luck’s first three years in the league, he was asked to carry a larger burden than most other QBs, and Indianapolis’s shoddy offensive line play and slow-developing scheme left him at constant risk of getting hit. Any drop-off in mobility or accuracy, and things could go miserably wrong. Last fall, he experienced a drop-off in both, and guess what? The Colts went 2–5 in his seven starts, and ultimately plummeted to 30th in the NFL in offensive DVOA. It was a lost season for the 2012 no. 1 pick and the franchise that drafted him — so lost, in fact, that I’m fine striking it from the record.

Owner Jim Irsay and Colts management appeared to do the same last month when they handed Luck a five-year, $123 million contract extension with $87 million guaranteed, making him the richest player in NFL history. It’s telling that no one blinked at the size of the deal. Luck’s numbers are lacking in some areas, but he was nothing short of magnificent the last time he played at full strength. Indy has a fighting chance whenever he’s on the field and right, but as Luck enters his fifth season, a few questions remain about whether the Colts have done enough to build an offense worthy of their prized quarterback.

How will the receiving duties shake out?

By now, we know what T.Y. Hilton is. He’s a very small wideout who runs very fast, torches defenders, and reels in throws down the field. Hilton gets the targets and the paychecks of a no. 1 receiver, and even with his limitations, he’s thrived in that role. He’s caught at least 69 passes for 1,080 yards in each of the past three seasons, and since he came into the league in 2012, only 12 players with a minimum of 100 receptions have averaged more yards per catch than Hilton’s 15.6.

Donte Moncrief (Getty Images)
Donte Moncrief (Getty Images)

How the rest of the roles and resulting target distribution will work out for the Colts is far less certain. Donte Moncrief should emerge as the no. 2 option; he averaged 7.7 targets a game when Luck was the starting quarterback last year, not far off Hilton’s pace (9.3). During this fantasy draft season, we’re bound to hear over and over about Moncrief’s ridiculous measurables. He’s 6-foot-2, 221 pounds, and ran a 4.4 40! But his style of play often negates the size portion of that equation. He’s only two inches shorter than A.J. Green, but his propensity for catching the ball against his body makes his presence more closely resemble that of the 5-foot-10 Hilton. And while the threat of Moncrief’s speed allows the former Ole Miss star to exploit the underneath areas of defenses, the ceiling for this Colts receiving corps is limited by the skill-set redundancies among him, Hilton, and diminutive but speedy 2015 first-round pick Phillip Dorsett.

Indy’s biggest middle-of-the-field target will be the 6-foot-3 Dwayne Allen, who, for a tight end, isn’t that big. The Colts gave him a four-year, $29.4 million deal in March, and I understand why. When healthy and a functioning part of the offense, Allen has been better than Coby Fleener, who got $2 million more in guaranteed money from New Orleans than Allen got from the Colts. Still, Allen’s $16 million in guarantees is tied for 10th among players at his position. It’s a significant contract for a guy with 45 receptions over the past two seasons combined. By the end of last year, Allen’s role as a receiver had been so diminished that his return to the Colts was considered unlikely. He’s back, though, and head coach Chuck Pagano has been vocal about rectifying his lack of involvement in 2016.

Given the makeup of the Colts’ receivers, the best version of their passing game will need to include a healthy dose of Allen. The good news is that we’ve seen that version — bolstered by down-the-field receiving threats and an oft-targeted tight end — of new coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s offenses in the past. When the Panthers finished 10th in offensive DVOA in 2012, tight end Greg Olsen racked up 104 targets and 69 receptions. When the 2007 Browns — one of the great footnotes in NFL history — went 10–6 and ranked 10th in offensive DVOA, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. caught 82 passes for 1,106 yards. There’s a track record here, one that’s allowed Chudzinski’s offense to slot among the top 10 in DVOA in three of his four seasons as a coordinator. He did that with Derek Anderson and early-career Cam Newton as his quarterbacks; now he has Andrew Luck.

Can the running game show signs of life?

Line struggles are typically the first deficiency anyone mentions when breaking down Indy’s offense, but for the past couple of seasons, the running game has been flat-out garbage. The Colts finished 30th in rushing DVOA last season, which is understandable considering Luck’s extended absence. Their no. 27 finish in 2014, when Luck played the best he ever has, is less so. Indianapolis’s trade for Trent Richardson has been discussed ad nauseum, but I don’t think it can be overstated just how terrible it was. Taking into account the cost controls now in place for first-round picks and the marginalized importance of running backs in the modern NFL, the move should go down as one of the worst decisions in league history.

With the Richardson trade, Vick Ballard’s unfortunate rash of injuries, and Ahmad Bradshaw’s glass joints, the tailback position has been a wasteland for the Luck-era Colts, to the point that it was almost hard to blame general manager Ryan Grigson for handing 32-year-old Frank Gore a three-year, $12 million deal in 2015. Anything to stop the bleeding. Given the offense around him — a subpar line and an injured Luck — I’m even willing to somewhat overlook Gore’s 3.7 yards-per-carry average last year, although there’s no denying that he’s a ways down the back side of his career. And with Robert Turbin and Jordan Todman — who’ve been on a combined 10 rosters and are the living, breathing embodiments of replacement-level running backs — filling out the rest of Indy’s depth chart, any resurgence from the ground game probably isn’t going to come from who’s toting the rock.

Is the offensive line finally solidified?

Ah, August: a time for drafting fantasy teams, dreading ACL injuries, and wondering whether this will be the year the Colts’ offensive line can finally prevent Luck from getting ripped apart limb by limb.

The pass-protection woes with this group get mentioned frequently (and we’ll get to them, don’t worry), but this year there’s reason to believe the guys up front can boost Indy’s offense in a different way. After two years of using his first-round picks like a desperate fantasy football player, Grigson appeared to learn his lesson before the 2016 draft. By taking Ryan Kelly — the center of Alabama’s dominant running game during its national title run — with their first-round pick, the Colts may have found their first legitimate answer at the position since Jeff Saturday left in 2012.

Even if Kelly doesn’t turn into the next Travis Frederick this season — or ever — he still represents an upgrade over everyone who’s started in that spot since Luck arrived. A great center creates ripples that impact the entire rushing attack; if the Colts field an above-average ground game this year, it will start with Kelly and left guard Jack Mewhort finally giving the unit some punch on the interior of the line.

Jack Mewhort (Getty Images)
Jack Mewhort (Getty Images)

Mewhort, who has always been best suited to play guard, started last season at right tackle — part of the Colts’ run of misses at that spot. During Luck’s rookie year in 2012, the Colts’ starting right tackle was Winston Justice, whom they got from the Eagles in a trade that allowed Philadelphia to move up 15 spots in the sixth round of the 2012 draft. The following offseason, Indianapolis tried to shore up the position by shelling out a five-year, $35 million contract with $15.5 million guaranteed to former Lions first-rounder Gosder Cherilus. It went … poorly. Cherilus was cut before last season.

Former first-round pick Anthony Castonzo has grown into a reliable left tackle, but a lack of answers and an ill-fitting scheme have otherwise led to a continual onslaught on Luck. Since coming into the league, he’s been hit 375 times, more than any other quarterback. The fact that he started 48 games in his first three seasons is a miracle. The guy is a cyborg. Luck getting hurt last season was essentially the T-1000 falling into that vat of molten steel. There is a way to get him; it just takes a while.

The Colts’ offensive approach has been part of the problem. Indianapolis has loved eschewing quick, efficient throws in favor of pushing the ball down the field. Luck has never completed more than 61.7 percent of his attempts in a season, but the Colts tied for the league lead in passing plays of 25 yards or more in 2014 (43). That sort of style puts a lot of strain on an offensive line, and, since Luck’s arrival, the Colts have yet to find the optimal combination of bodies up front. It’s led to a lot of Luck’s dropbacks looking like this.

Continuity has been a major issue, too. Mewhort has ping-ponged between positions, and along with all those right tackles, four different players have had at least nine starts at center since Luck got to town. The right side of the line remains a question, with the right guard spot up for grabs and 30-year-old, two-time practice-squadder Joe Reitz having the inside track to play right tackle. But it’s striking that the Indy line’s best run since Luck’s arrival — the push to the 2014 AFC championship game that featured the Colts shutting out Von Miller — involved Reitz lining up at right tackle. What allowed that group to coalesce was having more than a month of actually playing together.

An infusion of talent on the interior should help, but this group’s best path to success starts with stability. Luck may be back to full health, but to ensure that he plays like the $120 million man he is, he’s going to need the same five guys in front of him all season.