Don’t Overthink It; Colts the Team to Beat in AFC South
As of late, plenty of people have begun their premature assault on the Indianapolis Colts’ chances of bringing the AFC South championship back to Lucas Oil Stadium. Last season went off the rails when starting quarterback Andrew Luck missed half of the season due to various injuries, but the Colts still managed to get to 8-8 and narrowly missed the playoffs despite seeing five total quarterbacks take snaps. Football Outsiders predicted that the Colts will finish third in the division in 2016 with a 7-9 record. NFL Network’s Heath Evans said that he doesn’t think the Colts will be close to competing for the division crown. ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters say 8-8.
Sure the rest of the division has done well in their personnel decisions the past couple of osseasons, but this seems much more like vitriol towards the Colts than appreciation for the Texans, Titans and Jaguars. Maybe it's the fact that in our society we like to see the mighty get knocked down a peg, but it seems as if people may be overthinking this thing and overlooking some very critical factors in how the division race may shake out.
The biggest reason being…
Healthy Andrew Luck is back
It can be argued that the biggest factor for a winning NFL team is the performance of their quarterback. How many successful teams do you see with lackluster quarterbacks? In fact, of the 12 playoff teams last season, only one of them had a quarterback that wasn’t considered their franchise quarterback at some point (Brian Hoyer in Houston).
Whether you like him or not, to say that Luck isn’t the best quarterback in the AFC South is asinine. Just look what he has done for the Colts since his arrival in 2012: an immediate nine-win improvement with an almost brand new roster, a 33-20 overall record, two division titles, three playoff appearances (with an advanced round each season) and individually, three Pro Bowls. And let's not forget that he was the league’s touchdown leader in 2014 (43). If he would have played all 16 games in 2015, it would be a safe assumption to add another division title and subsequent playoff appearance, as well as a Pro Bowl, to the list.
Though the rest of the division is absolutely getting better, Luck owns it, holding a 17-2 record against the other three teams combined. Luck’s return alone is almost enough to give the Colts the edge.
Improvement in the trenches
Aside from quarterback play, how teams perform in the trenches might be the next biggest factor in winning and losing. Though the Colts have had a less-than-sterling track record on the offensive and defensive lines in recent years, that should be different in 2016.
By now, you probably know that the Colts invested four of this year's draft picks on the offensive line, including their first and third-round picks. First-rounder Ryan Kelly is supposed to be the prototypical NFL center – intelligence, leadership, size and strength. He should finally stop the carousel that has been the Colts’ center position, and fellow rookie linemen Le’Raven Clark and Joe Haeg may contribute this season as well.
The Colts also return Anthony Castonzo, Jack Mewhort, Joe Reitz and Denzelle Good. The jury is out on Hugh Thornton and Jonotthan Harrison, but the Colts have the tools to replace the two if they don’t take hold of the opportunity to start. The competition for roles along the line this training camp will be the best for the Colts in years.
The team returns much of the same on the defensive line, the biggest differences being the (hopeful) healthy return of Art Jones as well as the addition of fourth-round pick Hassan Ridgeway. Second-year standout Henry Anderson tore an ACL midway through last season, but both he and Jones should be on the field at some point this training camp. Along with Jones, Anderson and Ridgeway, Kendall Langford, David Parry, Zach Kerr and T.Y. McGill contribute heavily.
The defensive line could actually be considered the brightest spot from last year’s defense, so getting Anderson and Jones back healthy for a full year, and adding Ridgeway, should go a long way towards making the unit even better in 2016.
Young starters now more seasoned
The Colts got starting experience out of 2015 rookies Anderson, Parry, Good and Clayton Geathers, plus plenty of extended action from Phillip Dorsett. Third-round pick D’Joun Smith’s season was derailed by a knee injury, and with his inconsistent play in last year’s training camp, 2016 can only go up for him. Second-year cornerback Tevin Mitchel had a similar situation to Smith’s, except he missed the entire 2015 season due to a shoulder injury. He is definitely one to keep an eye on in camp this summer.
What this all means is – barring sophomore slumps – these players will be even better in 2016 than they were in 2015. At the very least, they will be smarter and more seasoned. The solid 2015 rookie class will play a big role in the team’s 2016 outcome.
Special teams X-factors
Sometimes, games in the NFL come down to the special teams X-factors, and the Colts possess one of the best special teams groups in the league, featuring placekicker Adam Vinatieri, punter/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee and return man Quan Bray.
Even at the ripe, old age of 43, Vinatieri still has it. He was fourth in the league in field goal percentage last year (93%), and that includes his 80% from 50-plus yards. McAfee was the third-ranked punter (47.7) and top-ranked kickoff specialist (67 touchbacks, 87%). Among qualifying kickoff returners, Bray ranked sixth in the league (27.1), and he ranked 17th in punt returns (7.9).
New coaching hires
What the Colts lacked in offseason player additions, they made up for in coaching hires. While Rob Chudzinski replaced Pep Hamilton as the offensive coordinator midway through last season, it was reported that there were plenty of communication issues in the adjustment period. Now, they will have had an entire half a season plus an offseason to get on the same page.
Perhaps the biggest coaching addition the Colts made this offseason was that of offensive line coach Joe Philbin. In his 14 years of NFL coaching experience, he hasn’t specifically coached the line in 10 years, though he has a total of 21 years of experience coaching the line at both the college and NFL levels. Philbin has a tremendous track record as a coordinator/line coach, so with an offensive line full of young players, Philbin is bound to be a positive asset.
The Colts also brought in Brian Schottenheimer on the offensive side of the ball as quarterbacks coach. The son of Marty Schottenheimer has an iffy background as a coordinator, but in his role as a quarterbacks coach, he has a better reputation. With his role specifically set to help the Colts quarterbacks improve rather than calling plays, perhaps Indianapolis will be a good fit for him.
On defense, the two biggest changes were that of new defensive coordinator Ted Monachino, the former Jaguars and Ravens defensive assistant. He worked with head coach Chuck Pagano in Baltimore, so the two are assumed to work very well with each other. Greg Williams (no, not that one) was also hired as the new defensive backs coach. Williams has experience coaching with Monachino at Arizona State as well as Pagano’s brother John the last few years with the Chargers. Williams was also new Colts starting cornerback Patrick Robinson’s defensive backs coach in San Diego.
“But the Colts didn’t do anything in free agency…”
The Colts entered the offseason with some critical needs at pass rusher, the offensive line and other select areas. However, they were rather dormant compared to their normal buzzing activity in free agency. They lost starting tight end Coby Fleener, starting inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, starting cornerback Greg Toler and starting safety Dwight Lowery (although really, they let them all walk), and their only significant pickup was Robinson. The Colts did re-sign fellow starting tight end Dwayne Allen, but they still had those two big needs at edge defender and on the line by the time the big waves of free agency concluded.
It’s safe to say that, following the draft, the need at offensive line is no more. And while people seem to think that the Colts have not addressed the pass rush, they have. They did not do it in a sexy way, but they did add Ridgeway and edge defender Trevor Bates in the draft as well as undrafted free agent edge defenders Curt Maggitt and Ron Thompson. The Colts really need the rookie edges to pan out, and if they stay in Robert Mathis and Trent Cole’s pockets (206.5 career sacks between the two), they just might learn a thing or two.
“But the Texans are the defending champs…”
In principle, to be the champ, you’ve got to beat the champ. But what if the champ is the champ because another team was too battered to defend their throne? That’s what we're dealing with here.
The Texans are a good team, no doubt – and they should be even better in 2016 than in 2015 – but they went 1-1 against the Colts last year, the loss being at home against backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who had been in the hospital just three nights earlier. In fact, they did not claim the division until the regular season was ending, edging the defunct Colts by a game.
Two big things go into the Colts’ matchups with the Texans this year: First, the combination of Luck and TY Hilton will be back at it. The duo combines for an average of six connections for 110 yards and a touchdown each time they face Houston. Next is the JJ Watt factor. Watt is the best defensive lineman of this generation, and he is the type of player that you cannot stop but can only hope to contain. The Colts have struggled against him since his arrival in the NFL, but with a revamped offensive line, they’ve got to at least fare slightly better now, right?
“But what about the Jaguars?”
The Jaguars have done an excellent job building a highly-talented roster, and on paper their roster should scare the league's other 31 teams, but that has still yet to translate to wins. They are a popular pick to either win the division or claim a wild card playoff spot, but until they actually do it, they are nothing more than a trendy pick.
One thing the Jaguars can do to actually get over the hump is discover some discipline. Last season, their -10 turnover differential was 29th in the league, and 10 of their turnovers came in the fourth quarter (four of those were returned for touchdowns). In the kicking game, they missed a combined 11 field goal and extra point attempts. They are very young, but if head coach Gus Bradley can direct them to get the sloppy mistakes cleaned up, then Jacksonville will absolutely be a team to be reckoned with - especially with the defensive talent added this offseason. But until that time...
This whole thing is not to say that the AFC South cannot crank out multiple playoff teams this year – the arrow on the division is definitely pointing up, and it should no longer be the worst division in football – but since its inception in 2002, the Colts are king, and that can be expected to continue in 2016.
Jake Arthur is the AFC South Newsdesk Manager, Assistant Director of NFL Content and a Featured Analyst for Pro Football Spot. He is also a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @JakeArthurPFS on Twitter as well as on Facebook, Google+ and FanCred.
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