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Exit Interview: Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement didn’t shake Indy early in the season, but his replacement’s regression may have doomed the team down the stretch

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It’s getting later in the season, and for many NFL teams, the playoffs are in sight. But some squads are already looking to next year. As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Colts, who were eliminated from the playoff race by getting blown out by the Saints on Monday.


What Went Right

You can make the argument that things should’ve been even worse for the Indianapolis Colts after star quarterback Andrew Luck abruptly retired in August. The team got off to a hot start and sat atop the AFC South at 5-2 at the end of October. Of course, they didn’t stay there because of some bad injury luck and general regression, but head coach Frank Reich deserves credit for keeping the locker room together in the first half of the season.

The roster, which sat at no. 1 in ESPN’s future rankings before Luck’s retirement, still boasts plenty of young talent. In 2018, Quenton Nelson became about as close to a star as guards get; he followed up with a strong sophomore campaign and a Pro Football Focus grade of 91.7. Linebacker Darius Leonard, Nelson’s fellow 2018 rookie breakout, continued to impress in his second season; he currently has a 80.2 grade from PFF to go with five sacks, four interceptions, and two forced fumbles. Both players rightfully earned Pro Bowl nods on Tuesday.

Beyond those two stars, other young players have impressed in spurts, like receiver Zach Pascal—who had five games of more than 70 yards, including a seven-reception, 109-yard performance against the Titans in Week 13—and slot corner Kenny Moore II, who has two interceptions and earned high marks from PFF after signing a four-year extension in the offseason. The Colts should also feel good about young defensive ends Kemoko Turay and Ben Banogu, who could be the building blocks for the next great Indy pass rush. Even without Luck, the Colts’ future is bright, provided they can find an answer to the big question created by Luck’s shocking retirement.

What Went Wrong

You can also make the argument that the Colts shouldn’t be bowing out of the playoff race this early. The second half of their season has been an utter disaster and they’ve lost six of their past seven games. The issues can possibly be traced to the injury quarterback Jacoby Brissett suffered against Pittsburgh in early November. The team lost the next week to the Dolphins with backup Brian Hoyer at the helm, and the offense hasn’t looked right even after Brissett returned. The nadir of Brissett’s season came on Monday against New Orleans, when he completed 18 of 34 pass attempts (52.9 percent) for 165 yards.

It’s a steep fall from the first half of the season, when he threw 14 touchdowns and three picks and earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Texans. Since then, he’s thrown four touchdowns and three picks and watched his passer rating drop to 90.9. On Tuesday, Reich reiterated that Brissett was the team’s quarterback, but the Colts can cut him before June 1 and incur no cap penalty. Given his recent struggles, the Colts could move on just as quickly as they transitioned to him.

We may not be talking about Brissett’s shortcomings if not for Adam Vinatieri’s failures. The most celebrated kicker in the history of the game became a liability for the Colts as he played through injury this season. Three of the Colts’ losses came in games when he missed crucial kicks, and it’s likely we’d be talking about Indy as playoff team if he made them.

The defense also bears mentioning here: While that unit held Patrick Mahomes to one of the worst games of his career in Week 5 and did enough to keep Deshaun Watson in check the following week, it’s fallen apart down the stretch and gave up more than 500 yards offense against the Buccaneers in Week 14 and was thrashed by Drew Brees and the Saints on Monday night.

Free Agency

The Colts are projected to have the second-most cap space in the league this offseason, and GM Chris Ballard has shown he’s capable of spending it wisely, as he did when he signed a rejuvenated Justin Houston last offseason. Ballard will need to use that money thoughtfully—as injuries to T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, and other key contributors showed, the Colts need some depth if they want to be a legitimate contender in the AFC.

Most of Indianapolis’s roster is set to return in 2020, but Ballard has a few big decisions ahead of him. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo was written off as a bust early in his career, but has come to life since Reich took over in 2018, consistently grading out highly on PFF and pairing with Nelson to create an elite left side of the offensive line. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard is also set for free agency this offseason, and while he’s been solid, he’s 30 and the Colts have young players ready to step up. In the passing game, Indy could lose receivers Dontrelle Inman and Devin Funchess and tight end Eric Ebron. (Pascal is a restricted free agent, but it’s difficult to imagine the Colts letting another team poach him.)

Draft

The Colts are currently slotted for a mid-first-round pick. The Brissett question will loom over their draft, but barring a massive trade, LSU’s Joe Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, and Oregon’s Justin Herbert should all be off the board by the time Indy is up. That may leave them looking at quarterbacks like Utah State’s Jordan Love or Washington’s Jacob Eason—or possibly a developmental QB in the later rounds. Should they pass on a signal-caller, they may target players including Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs, Iowa edge rusher A.J. Epenesa, or Clemson wideout Tee Higgins.