The Colts are about three years ahead of the rebuilding plan they started when general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano came aboard after a two-win season in 2011. Fueled by a 75% turnover in the roster, Indianapolis grabbed an AFC wild-card spot in '12, then went even further last year, reaching the divisional round despite season-ending injuries to top skill players Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw, and to left guard Donald Thomas (all before November, no less).
The catalyst in both seasons was Andrew Luck, a first-class athlete with unbelievable football instincts. In just his third year Luck is already an elite quarterback, causing Indy to update its rebuilding schedule: The plan now is to appear in the AFC championship game this winter—if not in Super Bowl XLIX. The QB now has the supporting cast to make it happen.
The question is, Which system best suits this group? Down the stretch last season offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton abandoned his preferred power-run scheme and went with more spread concepts, compensating for an anemic backfield and a lack of talent at wide receiver. The spread forced defenses to simplify and, thanks to crafty route design, allowed Indy's receivers to release cleanly off the line of scrimmage. Luck, with his ability to anticipate passing windows, extend plays and complete contested throws, took care of the rest.
While these aerial ploys were too effective to abandon, the 2014 Colts won't be as dependent on them. They have a healthy Wayne, at age 35 one of the most intelligent and fundamentally sound receivers ever. They also have a motivated Hakeem Nicks, the Giants' castoff who's great at creating separation late in a route, which is perfect for Luck's style of play. Those two will allow deep burner T.Y. Hilton, who served as a No. 1 receiver last year because of injuries, to fill the far more fitting slot role almost full-time. And with Allen, a '12 third-round tight end, back from a right hip injury, the Colts now have more dimension underneath. That should alleviate pressure on the other tight end, Luck's former Stanford teammate Coby Fleener, an underachiever who shouldn't be written off yet.
Allen can also operate from the backfield, where he'll join either Trent Richardson or Ahmad Bradshaw. Richardson was acquired last September for a 2014 first-round pick but proved to be no better in Indy than he had been in Cleveland; he gained 2.9 yards per carry for the Colts, a half-yard less than with the Browns. The No. 3 draft choice out of Alabama in '12, Richardson has a tendency to overread the field, causing him to hesitate. It's almost as if instead of just bursting through a hole, he first waits for it to clog.
Don't be surprised if Bradshaw surpasses Richardson on the depth chart, much like Donald Brown (now a Charger) did last season. The 28-year-old ex-Giant is excellent out of passing formations, not just with picking up blitzes but also in executing screens and draws.
The biggest concern for the Indianapolis offense is whether the line can support the skill players. Besides his depleted backfield, one reason Hamilton drifted from his run-oriented system was that his front five lacked the power inside and the athleticism to maintain blocks long enough for play-action passes and other deep-drop designs to unfold. By going to the spread, Luck, who took far too many hits last year, was able to get rid of the ball more quickly.
The interior of the line has since been retooled. With Donald Thomas out again after suffering a season-ending quad injury in training camp, the left-guard job goes to second-round rookie Jack Mewhort out of Ohio State. At center, they're banking on last year's fourth-round pick, Khaled Holmes, who played all of 13 snaps as a rookie. If Holmes proves sturdy, returning right guard Hugh Thornton, a third-round pick of a year ago, will have someone to lean on.
Outside, tackles Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus are good but not quite top shelf, as they go through too many highs and lows. Nevertheless, the front five is certain to be better—which, with the Colts' weapons at the skill positions, means there's no limit to how far Luck can take them.
2013 Record: 11--5
PHI MON [HOME]
NYG MON [AWAY]
The defensive middle
Ryan Grigson may regret letting strong safety Antoine Bethea leave for the 49ers. While it's understandable that the GM didn't want to pay a nine-year veteran $21 million over four years, Bethea is only 30 (and a young 30; his birthday is July 27), and he had shown no signs of decline. In fact, after Robert Mathis and formidable man-to-man corner Vontae Davis, Bethea was the team's third-most valuable defender in 2013. Now in Bethea's stead is 33-year-old Mike Adams, who's intelligent and versatile (and much cheaper) but who's also a journeyman because of his limited physical tools. If inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, signed from the Browns, doesn't prosper in Indianapolis, then the defense up the middle could be very weak. And Jackson might well struggle, given that he and returning starter Jerrell Freeman both depend on being kept clean from blockers—which is difficult for any D-line to accomplish. This defense could be weak up the middle.
THE CASE FOR
Defensive end Arthur Jones
In 2012 the Colts signed veteran free agent Cory Redding to a three-year, $10.5 million contract and got the high-energy, savvy defensive end they expected. In '13 they signed 49ers backup end Ricky Jean Francois to a four-year, $22 million deal, and so far they've gotten their money's worth. And this year they signed Ravens end Arthur Jones for $33 million over five years, hoping to get more playmaking up front. Jones, as Redding did, brings experience in a 3--4/4--3 hybrid scheme similar to Chuck Pagano's in Indy. Those multifarious concepts demand much from the ends—more so this year because of questions at nosetackle, where '12 fifth-round pick Josh Chapman could start for the first time. Jones's arrival has taken on greater importance now that reigning NFL sack leader Robert Mathis (19½) will miss the first four games after a failed PED test (which he has blamed on a doctor-prescribed fertility medication). In his absence at outside linebacker, the Colts will rely on the thoroughly average Erik Walden and unimpressive '13 first-round pick Bjoern Werner. Which means that Jones, the latest end addition, will also be their best chance to create disruption in the opponents' backfield.
ANDREW HANCOCK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
QB ANDREW LUCK
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED