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Talking AFC South: On the Colts

20180705-Colts

JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars.com during July will speak with a writer or media member covering each of the Jaguars’ AFC South rivals. Up today:

Colts.com writer Andrew Walker on the Indianapolis Colts, who went 4-12 in 2017 and finished fourth in the AFC South:

Question: The Colts had a tumultuous start to the offseason thanks to an indecisive Josh McDaniels. Is there a sense that General Manager Chris Ballard and Head Coach Frank Reich might be an unanswered prayer? It seems as if things in Indianapolis are as they’ve been since the last time Andrew Luck was on the field.

Answer: To say that this has been an interesting offseason for the Colts would be an understatement. After the Colts parted ways with Head Coach Chuck Pagano and most of his coaching staff, the team indeed eventually focused its attention on hiring Josh McDaniels to be its next head coach, but it had to follow league rules and wait until McDaniels’ Patriots were no longer playing to officially talk business. So, by the time McDaniels decided to back out of the job in the hours leading up to his introductory press conference, the Colts are staring at mid-February, with the NFL Scouting Combine just a couple weeks away, and they still don’t have a head coach in place. But that’s exactly why the Colts feel fortunate — and, frankly, lucky — that Frank Reich fell in their laps when he did. Reich knew he would be a potential candidate for head coaching jobs as the offensive coordinator of the Eagles, but he decided to dedicate all his focus to their playoff run and was not going to take calls about potential jobs during the postseason. So that’s one of the main reasons why the hiring of Reich — who was on the Colts’ short list of head coaching candidates from the beginning — just has seemed like a “certain things happen for a reason” type of scenario. Coupled with the fact that he started his coaching career with the Colts in 2006, and that he’s worked with the likes of Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz — not to mention what he was able to do to help turn Nick Foles into a Super Bowl MVP — the Colts are extremely satisfied with the way things turned out with Reich.

Q: Where is Luck in his return and what can fans and media expect from him once training camp opens? Will the Colts handle him with as much caution as they did last year or once he’s out there he’s ready to go?

A: By all accounts — from Luck himself, from Ballard and from Reich — Luck should be 100 percent ready to go by the start of training camp in late July. Just how involved he’ll be on the field reps-wise once they reach that point is yet to be known, however. The biggest thing for Luck, outside of his rehab and strength work, has been the fact that he’s been completely ingrained into the installation of the team’s new offense under Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni. Reich and Sirianni have raved about how Luck has been able to grasp everything they’re working into the playbook from a mental standpoint, so naturally the next step — after he begins throwing the football — is for him to take what he has learned in the film room and apply it on the field with actual reps. And then he needs to start building a rapport with the new weapons around him, guys like Ryan Grant at wide receiver, Eric Ebron at tight end and Nyheim Hines at running back. But at no point in recent months have the Colts’ brass, or Luck himself, wavered in their belief that he will not only be under center when the 2018 regular season gets underway, but that he’ll be an even better quarterback moving forward.

Q: Where did Ballard strengthen the roster the most and how will that be felt? Did his work on draft weekend and before the draft give him as much ammunition as it seems to improve in one season?

Q: There’s no doubt Ballard entered the 2018 NFL Draft with a primary focus of strengthening the Colts up front first, then working his way back from there. It’s well known how much Indianapolis has struggled with its offensive line in recent years, so Ballard makes a St. Patrick’s Day trade with the New York Jets that moved Indy from the No. 3-overall pick to No. 6 but netted them three additional second-round picks (two in 2018, and one in 2019) to get started on making the needed fixes. The Colts were barely even on the clock by the time Ballard had called in his pick of Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson at No. 6, and then he used one of the team’s three second-round picks on Auburn guard Braden Smith. Match those two players with left tackle Anthony Castonzo and center Ryan Kelly — both former first-round picks — and Indy could be looking at a much better offensive front for years to come. Then, on the defensive side of the ball, Ballard knows how important a strong front would be to the team’s switch to a 4-3 base defense this offseason under new coordinator Matt Eberflus. So, he makes some moves to eventually get three second-round picks that would be used on that defensive front: South Carolina State’s Darius Leonard (36th-overall pick) looks like an ideal Will linebacker; Rutgers defensive end Kemoko Turay has some freaky, raw traits off the edge; and Ohio State’s Tyquan Lewis can be productive both inside or at defensive end. So, yes, the Colts are going to be relying on a lot of youth in 2018, which will lead to plenty of teachable moments. But the pure talent added to the roster, regardless of its NFL experience, is an exciting prospect as well.

Q:You don’t draft two guards in the first two rounds and not get better in the running game. Where will the production come from now that Frank Gore has moved on to Miami? And do you get the sense the Reich will run the ball more than we’ve become accustomed to from the Colts?

A: First off, it doesn’t get much better than Gore when it comes to a veteran presence both on the field and in the locker room. A future Hall of Famer, Gore is one of the most respected players across the league, and the Colts’ feelings of him haven’t changed just because they had a desire to get younger at the running back position. But there are now obviously questions about how the Colts will approach the run game with Gore — their starter the past three seasons — no longer in their backfield. The short answer about that approach is the Colts will likely no longer utilize a “bell cow” running back; it’ll be more “running back by committee.” Look at how Reich and the Eagles utilized the running back last year with LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement splitting carries. Every one of those backs brought a different flavor to the offense and kept opposing defenses guessing, and it worked extremely well as Philadelphia ranked third in the league in rushing. Indianapolis has a similar situation brewing right now: Marlon Mack — who showed tons of flashes last season as a rookie working behind Gore — has breakaway speed off to the outside; veteran Robert Turbin is a bruiser and about as dependable as they come on third down, both blocking and churning tough yards into first downs; and the Colts are salivating at the potential of fourth-round pick Nyheim Hines, who can literally line up anywhere on the field and be dangerous as both a runner and as a pass catcher. And, just for good measure, the team also selected Jordan Wilkins, who is more of a traditional, between-the-tackles type of back, in the fifth round this year. Again, there’s a lot of youth and a lot of questions still to be answered, but with a better line up front and with a deeper pool of talent, the run game could very well be Andrew Luck’s best friend in this new offense.

Q:Besides the draft class, which players arrived in free agency or return from injury who you have reason to believe will offer the greatest impact for Reich and his staff this fall?

A: I’ll stick with the “up-front” theme and say that guard Matt Slauson seems to be a huge addition for this Colts offense. He’s not only a veteran with a ton of experience (nine NFL seasons) and position flexibility (can play guard or center), but he’s being counted on to mentor the younger Indy offensive linemen. So, despite the fact he’s been penciled in as the starting right guard during offseason practices, Slauson isn’t going to blink at the opportunity to groom a guy like second-round pick Braden Smith, even if Smith could one day take over his spot with the first-team offense. But if you’re talking about the potential for the greatest impact production-wise, I see tight end Eric Ebron as a guy who could come in and be an absolute star in Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni’s offense. The Colts already have a Pro Bowl tight end in Jack Doyle, but while Doyle is your steady-Eddie, ultra-dependable security blanket in the pass game, Ebron is your havoc-wreaking, mismatch-causing big-play threat at the position for Indy. You want to line up a cornerback against Ebron? He’ll out-muscle them across the middle. You want to line up a linebacker or a safety on him? Ebron can blow by them over the top. Ebron also has a huge chip on his shoulder after how his first four seasons wrapped up with the Lions, so he’s a player to watch this season.

Q: If Luck is healthy can the Colts rebound and contend in the South or is the roster still in need of more talent?

A: First and foremost, there’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of questions to be answered before the Colts feel they will be at a point where they are once again considered the frontrunners in the division. Of course, the three other teams have done a ton of work to improve their rosters, too, so this isn’t your big brother’s AFC South — that’s for sure. But I don’t think it’s unrealistic to say that having Luck back in the fold makes the Colts a legit contender in the division once again. Jacoby Brissett should be applauded for the work he did last season coming in via trade the week before the start of the regular season, being handed the starting job by Week 2 and then having to learn on the go from there. But Luck just adds that “elite” quality to the offense; the type of player that can help you overcome shortfalls in other areas and win close ballgames. And I think the Colts are going to have a ton of just that this season — close ballgames. With brand new approaches being implemented on offense and defense, as well as the infusion of youth all over the roster, there’s no doubt this will be an interesting year in Indianapolis. Having Luck back and fully healthy should certainly help expedite the “getting-back-on-track” process.

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