How We’d Fix It: Three Ways the Colts Can Keep Andrew Luck HappyAl Bello/Getty Images
Danny Ferry didn’t have much time to waste when he took over as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ general manager on June 27, 2005. The NBA draft was the next day, and although Cleveland was without either of its picks that year, Ferry still orchestrated two trades in his first full day on the job. The previous afternoon, Ferry had been introduced while sitting at a table with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and recently hired head coach Mike Brown. LeBron James, fresh off his second season and first All-Star appearance, was there, too. “We have a pretty good player,” Ferry said that day, as he looked James’s way.1 “We want to build a team around him that he has fun playing with, that he believes in, and that he’s excited to come to work with every day. That’s important to me. We all have a responsibility to him to do that.” That feeling of responsibility — which would become increasingly evident over the next month — was the real source of urgency for Ferry and the Cavs.
What James brought to the franchise was status as a perpetual contender, the feeling that with him in the fold, Cleveland was a handful of favorable breaks from competing for a title every year. What he also brought was the obligation to create those breaks as soon as possible.
In many ways, Andrew Luck has brought that same combination of opportunity and obligation to the Indianapolis Colts. Entering the 2012 draft, Luck was the closest thing to a James-like NFL prospect in years. He was the surest sure thing, a quarterback with so much promise and so little risk that Jim Irsay and the Colts felt comfortable moving on from a quarterback who will end his career with every passing record imaginable.
So far, it seems to have worked out. The Colts have won 11 games in each of Luck’s first three seasons, and made it to the AFC Championship Game this past year. But the other factor that comes with having a generational talent as the centerpiece of a franchise is how quickly the definition of success can change. The trajectory of any roster in sports is rarely linear. When the Cavaliers made the NBA Finals in 2007, it felt as if James had finally broken through, that this was the first trip of many. Cleveland never made it back. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson has made several moves that have contributed to Indy’s stretch of playoff trips, but the Colts also have a roster in desperate need if they want that stretch to continue.
The Problem: A Wasted Pick, a Disappeared Running Back
The Solution: Learning a Lesson From the Trent Richardson Deal
Grigson may not deserve much credit for taking Luck no. 1 in 2012, but he does deserve some for what the Colts brought in with the rest of that draft class. Indianapolis hasn’t gotten the return on Luck’s Stanford tight end Coby Fleener that it might have from players taken after Fleener in the second round,2 but the team did come away with another useful TE, Dwayne Allen, in the third. The real find of that draft, though, came 28 picks later. It cost the Colts a fifth-round pick the following year, but by moving up five spots, from 97 to 92, Grigson ensured that he came away with T.Y. Hilton. Only nine players in NFL history have had more receiving yards through their first three seasons than Hilton’s 3,289. At just 5-foot-9, Hilton has emerged as one of the best deep threats in the league. Among players with at least 25 targets on passes 20 or more yards down the field, only Dez Bryant and Mike Evans caught a higher percentage of passes thrown their way. Hilton has become a central figure in an offense that has the ninth-deepest average target in the NFL.
By the end of Luck’s first season, it looked as if the Colts had found another late-round contributor in fifth-round running back Vick Ballard from Mississippi State. Ballard averaged 4.1 yards per carry during the second half of his rookie season, and it seemed that he’d gained a firm hold as the Colts’ starting running back. In Week 1 the following season, Ballard hauled a team-high 13 carries before tearing his ACL in practice the following week. Six days later, the Colts traded their 2014 first-round pick to bring Trent Richardson over from the Browns.
There’s a chance that without Ballard’s injury, the Richardson trade never would have happened, and the move wouldn’t have become the low point of the Grigson era to this point. There’s also a chance that Ahmad Bradshaw’s injury a week later would have set the same wheels in motion. None of that matters anymore. Richardson is a Colt, and his performance has been a punch line. Only three backs averaged fewer yards per carry among qualified players last season. Richardson reportedly ended his season with a series of fines for not meeting weight requirements before being a healthy scratch for the divisional-round win in Denver and getting suspended for two games by Grigson following the AFC championship. Fun times.
The suspension stems from Richardson missing a team walk-through the day before the Colts’ trip to New England. A report last week from the Indy Star’s Stephen Holder said that sources claimed Richardson’s reason for missing that walk-through was a middle-of-the-night trip to the hospital with his girlfriend, who was apparently experiencing contractions at just 28 weeks into her pregnancy. The same sources saw the suspension as a way for the Colts to get out of paying the final year — and $3.18 million — of Richardson’s contract. If the information from Holder’s report is true, and the Colts still try to cut Richardson at no cost — with blowback from both the public and NFLPA certainly coming — it’s proof of just how desperate they are to get rid of him.
Whether Richardson is on the roster or not shouldn’t play a role in how the Colts address their running back situation, though. There’s a chance a player like Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley will be available with the 29th pick, but considering their needs elsewhere, taking another running back might mean postponing other issues this roster has faced for the past three years. Grigson spoke at the combine about needing a running game late in the playoffs, but with Dan “Boom” Herron coming back and Ballard (hopefully) available for at least some work, the Colts would be better served finding additional running back help at a more reasonable price.
The Problem: An Uncertain Defense
The Solution: Shell Out Cash, Draft Like Geniuses
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When the Colts traded a first-round pick for Richardson in 2013, he essentially became their first-round pick in last year’s draft. Losing out on that type of asset just one year later would be almost unprecedented, but Indy’s lack of draft success goes beyond one frittered-away first-round pick. Outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, the Colts’ first-round pick in 2013, joined Richardson among the inactives for the AFC Championship Game. Grigson later claimed that the choice was a result of Werner dealing with a couple of injuries that had slowed him down late in the season. But even as he started 15 games, Werner’s production was wanting in his second season. He finished the year with four sacks, and even that number doesn’t fully explain his lack of success as a pass-rusher.
Without a leap from Werner, and with Robert Mathis gone for the season, the Colts struggled to find anything resembling a pass rush without manufacturing one. With Mathis there to disintegrate right tackles in 2013, Chuck Pagano’s defense blitzed on only 31.5 percent of opponent dropbacks — the 18th-highest rate in football. This past season, with Mathis on the sideline, 34-year-old Cory Redding was the only player left on the roster consistently creating one-on-one pressure. So Pagano started throwing extra rushers at the problem. The Colts sent more than four rushers on 44.2 percent of dropbacks last year, the second-highest rate in football. How the Colts managed a top-10 pass defense3 with below-average pass-rushing talent is another example of mixed results in Grigson’s tenure.
The Colts went without a second-round pick the year they drafted Werner, after trading it to the Dolphins for Vontae Davis before the 2012 season. Just like Richardson, Davis is essentially a Grigson draft pick, and the return on that trade has proven it to be the best move the GM has made in his three seasons. A former first-round pick with a never-ending reservoir of talent, Davis has developed into one of the league’s best corners, a true shutdown cover man who allows the Colts to compensate for having to consistently send extra pressure. Grigson also deserves plenty of credit for finding 33-year-old Mike Adams off the scrap heap. Adams started every game for the Colts last year, leading every member of the defense in snaps before being named an alternate for the Pro Bowl. Finding a way to keep Adams around on an affordable, stopgap deal should be a priority in free agency.
Indy is so dependent on its secondary because it has gotten so little from the free agents it’s signed to play in the front seven — and in turn, Davis and Adams seem even more vital to the franchise. Before Luck’s second season, the Colts doled out several free-agent deals, including contracts for both Ricky Jean-Francois and Erik Walden. Both were scrutinized at the time. Two years later, that criticism is justified. Yesterday, the Colts cut Jean-Francois and saved more than $4 million as a result. That move comes about two weeks after Indy parted ways with safety LaRon Landry, which saved about $2.25 million. Those moves (and even cutting Walden) are a reminder that even though that 2013 free-agent class didn’t pan out, most of the contracts were structured such that most of the guaranteed money came in the first two years.
Still, cycling out free agents while failing to develop any homegrown talent isn’t the best formula to build a reliable defense. Redding is apparently mulling retirement. If he does leave, the Colts will be without two starting safeties and their two interior offensive linemen who saw the most snaps last year. Even Sergio Brown — a possible contingency plan for Landry — is a free agent. The nice part for the Colts is the pile of money sitting around: After cutting Jean-Francois, the Colts are looking at about $44 million in cap space.4
But finding players in the front seven — on the interior and pass-rushers — is the Colts’ no. 1 need this offseason. Indy finished the season ranked 19th in run-defense DVOA, and ranked 23rd in yards before contact allowed per rush. Both the pass rush and stopping the run are major concerns. The name getting thrown around is Ravens linebacker and unrestricted free agent Pernell McPhee. Pagano, a former Ravens coordinator, is obviously familiar with him, and McPhee could be the exact type of player the Colts need. His best trait is his versatility. McPhee can play both inside and out, and he’s a constant mismatch for guards in pass-rushing situations.
There’s a question of whether his production would take a major hit if he’s not playing with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, but there’s also a chance that McPhee would become a Michael Bennett–like find from this class — a player who can do so many things well that his value transcends the talent around him. Even if they do sign McPhee, and even if defensive end Arthur Jones comes back healthy next season, the Colts would probably need a couple more bodies in the front seven. Most of the draft’s premier pass-rushing talent will be gone by the 29th pick, but interior linemen like Iowa’s Carl Davis or Florida State’s Eddie Goldman could be options.
For all their pass-rushing woes, the Colts still had an above-average pass defense last year. Getting better against the run is what they have to think about most. There’s always the possibility that this is where Ndamukong Suh lands if he can’t come to a long-term deal with the Lions. That would be a franchise-changer for the Colts — Suh is the rare player available in free agency who’s a true superstar. Which is why it’s hard to imagine Detroit will let him get away.
The Problem: The Offensive Line
The Solution: Get Healthy, Get Consistent
After the Colts took Werner in 2013, their next two picks were both offensive linemen — guard Hugh Thornton in the third round and center Khaled Holmes in the fourth. An injury to free-agent signee Donald Thomas pushed Thornton into the starting lineup as a rookie, and the result wasn’t easy to watch. As much as any spot on the roster, interior offensive line play has haunted the Colts during Luck’s tenure. Overall, the pass protection has improved steadily every year. Luck was terrorized as a rookie, seeing pressure on 28.9 percent of his dropbacks, the third-highest rate in the league. I can see still what J.J. Watt did to Jeff Linkenbach in Houston that year. It was gruesome. By this last season, Indy had gone from the third-highest rate of pressure to the eighth-lowest. Part of that success came from 2011 first-round pick Anthony Castonzo coming into his own during his fourth season at left tackle. The Colts picked up his fifth-year option, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get a healthy extension before becoming a free agent.
Rookie Jack Mewhort, a second-round pick from last year, slid in and gave the Colts an upgrade at left guard, but even if he and Castonzo can solidify that side, the rest of the line is easily Indy’s biggest question on offense. Gosder Cherilus was part of a huge free-agent haul in the spring of 2013, landing a five-year deal with $15.5 million guaranteed. After playing reasonably well in his first season, Cherilus had a lost year in 2014. He dealt with a variety of injuries and eventually landed on injured reserve on New Year’s Eve. Considering his price tag and the other options on the Colts’ roster, Cherilus is likely to be back at right tackle this year.
Right guard and center are the positions the Colts still desperately need to address. The Thornton–Lance Louis combination at right guard last year was a bit of a nightmare, and the Holmes–Jonotthan Harrison snaps at center weren’t a rousing success either. With the Colts’ cap room, Mike Iupati is an intriguing option who would give the Indy offense a massive boost with his running game, but a cheaper alternative like the Bengals’ Clint Boling might also be worth considering. What the Colts are really craving on their offensive line is consistency. They started 11 different combinations along the line last year, and only at the end of the season did they finally play two consecutive weeks with the same starting five. Those two weeks, not coincidentally, were also the two best the line played all season. Adding some higher-level talent while also lucking into some continuity would go a long way.
It seems simple to say that the quickest way for the Colts to turn their roster into the championship-level team some believe they can be is by building up their lines on both sides, but that really is where this roster has been weakest since Luck’s arrival. Even with veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne likely gone and Bradshaw’s future in question, the skill-position players the Colts have found have shown flashes of their ability. By now, Indy has probably learned its lesson about paying top dollar for a running back, and with another offseason, Donte Moncrief has a chance to develop into a starter opposite Hilton.
What’s encouraging about where the Colts stand is that the organization is well positioned to fill in all the holes in its roster. Indy has managed its long-term cap health as well as anyone and figures to be able to take advantage of a solid free-agent crop, and I’ve gone this long without even mentioning that Pagano deserves a lot of praise for how well he’s handled a defense lacking talent.
But it’s hard to be patient when a player like Luck is under center. After all, LeBron actually left Cleveland to join forces with bigger, more talented players. This past season was easily the best of Luck’s career. He’s firmly among the league’s best quarterbacks at this point, and his $7 million price tag this year is likely to be something closer to three times that by the start of next year. The Colts are in a position to redefine their roster this offseason. They’d better — the window is never open as wide as it seems. Just ask Cleveland fans.