The Indianapolis Colts have taken a few strides forward this off-season toward their goal of becoming competitors in the AFC again. Getting Andrew Luck back to full strength this season will of course be the biggest difference between last season and this upcoming season. Having their franchise cornerstone at 100% will transform this team into something completely different than what Colts fans were forced to endure last year. In addition to a healthy Luck, the Colts also made it a priority to address the offensive line in the NFL draft by adding two talented guards, Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith, to their roster. However, the Colts still have several key questions to answer before they take the field in Week one. Here we look into those concerns:
Who will play at the inside linebacker position?
The Colts have been desperately seeking a formidable presence at inside linebacker since the departure of Jerrell Freeman two seasons ago. And while the defense has since shifted from a 3-4 front to a 4-3 front, the position has remained a question mark. The candidates to start at the position include: Anthony Walker Jr., Najee Goode, Skai Moore, and Antonio Morrison. Walker Jr. was drafted in last year’s NFL draft and Morrison the year before. Walker Jr. is an intelligent and incredibly athletic linebacker who appears to be the favorite to start if the season began today. Morrison is a hard-hitting, high-motor type whose energy makes up for his lack of speed and athleticism. Goode was signed away from the super bowl champion Eagles in free agency this off-season. He appears to be more of a depth signing with upside because of his combination of size and speed. Moore is a wild card in the competition at linebacker, an undrafted free-agent signing out of South Carolina this year. Moore is incredible in coverage, which could lead to plenty of playing time during third-downs and passing situations. This could give him an advantage over Walker Jr. and Morrison, who struggle in coverage at times. He will likely need an off-season or two under his belt in order to truly make an impact in this system, however.
Each of these players will likely make an impact somewhere on the field during the 2018-2019 season, but the question remains which will come out as the top dog at the position come week one.
Will Marlon Mack be the featured back in the offense this season?
Mack had an inconsistent rookie year last season, in which he proved to be the boom-or-bust option as a ball-carrier many analysts expected him to be early in his career. Mack finished with 93 attempts for 358 rushing yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season. He also grabbed 21 receptions for 225 receiving yards and one touchdown in the air. Mack was often praised for his home-run hitting ability as a playmaker in the offense, nearing the top of the league in the percentage of his attempts going for 20+ yards. However, he also was near the top of the league in rushing attempts that resulted in negative yardage or no gain. This inconsistency will need to be fixed if the Colts plan to use Mack as a featured back in their offensive system this season, especially since the second and third-and-longs on offense killed many drives in the past few years.
The resigning of short-yardage running back Robert Turbin, and the additions of Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins in this year’s draft add to the depth of the group. In my mind, the position should remain wide open at this point in the off-season due to the inexperience and uncertainty of the group as a whole. A more experienced addition to the group could be welcomed as well as the season inches closer.
Who will step up at the wide receiver position to help T.Y. Hilton?
The Colts have had a speedy number one option at wide receiver with T.Y. Hilton for the past several seasons. However, their number two option in a seemingly thin position, Donte Moncrief, was allowed to walk in free-agency and signed with the division rival Jacksonville Jaguars. The third option from a season ago, slot-receiver Chester Rogers, was hampered by injuries and only played in 11 games last year. Due to his small frame and injury-riddled history, his presence will remain murky until proven otherwise.
The Colts did add Ryan Grant from the Washington Redskins in free agency this off-season, as well as receivers Deon Cain and Daurice Fountain during the draft. Grant is the current favorite to line up opposite Hilton on the outside, and should remain so come week one. His huge frame and strong hands should excite quarterback Andrew Luck. Cain is another enticing option due to his success in a storied Clemson program for the past several years. His combination of speed and athleticism give a real chance to compete for the slot receiver position with Rogers.
In new head coach Frank Reich‘s system, the tight ends will also play a large role in the passing game. Jack Doyle and newly-added tight end Eric Ebron will also likely contribute alongside Hilton. Nevertheless, at least one of these options will need to go above and beyond to create a dangerous passing attack next season.
Can the defensive backfield stay healthy this season?
The cornerback and safety positions for the Colts can be described as young and talented, yet very thin and susceptible to the injury bug. Safeties Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers have the ability to become one of the best safety combos in the entire AFC, but remaining healthy will be an issue. Hooker started out strong in his rookie season last year, nabbing three interceptions and four pass deflections in just seven games before tearing his ACL. Geathers missed almost all of last season with a herniated disk in his neck. He was a talented run-stopper at strong safety in his rookie season in 2016, though. Also, Matthias Farley remains a consistent depth piece in the rotation, and T.J. Green has the chance to salvage a disappointing career in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ new system. Both of these players have also struggled with injuries in their respective careers as well.
At cornerback, Quincy Wilson looks to restart after beginning his rookie campaign battling injuries and then being a healthy scratch for many of the remaining games. The former second-round pick should excel in the new system, which will allow him to play less press coverage and back off of the receivers. Nickel corner Nate Hairston will also look to improve if he can avoid injury in his second season.
The defense should see a decent amount of improvement next season under a new 4-3 system with Eberflus, but that is contingent on whether or not these guys can stay on the field.