Indinapolis Colts: Most improved AFC team on paper?

Oct 8, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker (24) returns the interception during the second half against the Indiana Hoosiers at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes won 38-17. Mandatory Credit: Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 8, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker (24) returns the interception during the second half against the Indiana Hoosiers at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes won 38-17. Mandatory Credit: Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports /

Are the Indianapolis Colts the most improved team in the AFC on paper? We take a look at some of the moves Indy has made in 2017…

As lame as it sounds, watching replays of last year’s NFL Red Zone channel has satisfied my desire for some football this offseason. As I was watching a week nine replay, I was reminded of the greatness of Andrew Luck as he led a first-half two-minute drill against the Green Bay Packers.

It was about as perfect as you can draw up a two-minute drill, and it got me thinking…

Is there any team in the AFC that is better equipped to dethrone the Patriots this year than Luck’s Colts?

Under general manager Ryan Grigson, that would have been laughable, even simply as a question. The Colts were terribly managed under Grigson, who had the easiest task in football:

Step 1: Draft Andrew Luck.

Step 2: Build around Andrew Luck.

Grigson was unable to do the latter, although simply the presence of Luck in his first three seasons in the NFL provided the Colts with enough to do some damage in the playoffs. Still, they have only gotten as far as the AFC Championship game where they were destroyed by the New England Patriots.

Luck suffered a shoulder injury in the 2015 season that lingered through 2016, and he also found himself in concussion protocol this past year. It has not been an ideal couple of seasons for the former top overall pick, to say the least, but Luck’s quarterback rating of 96.4 was not far off of his 96.5 in 2014, when he was an MVP candidate throwing 40 touchdowns.

Still, despite his efficiency statistically, Luck was hit far too often. He took 41 sacks in 2016, tying the most he has had in his NFL career (rookie season).

In addition to Luck taking too many sacks, the Colts weren’t really producing much defensively. They ranked 22nd in points allowed, 30th in yards, and they finished last year with 33 sacks (11 from Erik Walden).

New general manager Chris Ballard came over from the Kansas City Chiefs, who have set a pretty excellent model of building a roster around a quarterback, even though Kansas City has been under the delusion they have a good one in Alex Smith. Ballard knows what pieces to put in place around a quarterback to make the team successful, and he’s started putting some of that into play already.

Upgrading the Defense

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Ballard set out to improve the Colts’ defense this offseason, and he did just that. He added Johnathan Hankins, Margus Hunt, and Al Woods to the defensive line. He added pass rushers Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, and Barkevious Mingo. He also brought in linebackers Jon Bostic and Sean Spence to compete for starting jobs.

Ballard also showed off nice patience in the draft when addressing the defensive front, cashing in on Tarell Basham’s fall to the third round and picking up a very talented edge defender there. I also really like  the pick in the fourth round of nose tackle Grover Stewart, who will have a chance to rotate as a rookie and earn his way onto the field.

Perhaps the biggest moves the Colts made this offseason were in the defensive backfield, where they snatched up safety Malik Hooker in the first round (15th overall). Almost nobody saw Hooker falling past the seventh overall pick, where the San Diego Chargers were slotted. The Chargers have clear needs in the secondary, but they passed on Hooker for wide receiver Mike Williams.

Hooker’s fall didn’t end until the Colts, and they had to be one of the happiest teams in the league on the first night of the draft. Things got even better on day two when Quincy Wilson, a talented cornerback with great size out of Florida, fell into their laps in round two.

Adding Offensive Pieces

It won’t get a ton of publicity, but the Colts also made some shrewd moves to get some more speed offensively. Kamar Aiken was brought in from the Baltimore Ravens to be a third or fourth receiver for this team, and I think with Luck’s ability to make guys around him better, it’ll end up being a great fit after Aiken sort of had a down year in 2016.

Perhaps my favorite move the Colts made on day three of the draft was the selection of South Florida running back Marlon Mack, a playmaker with big time speed who has drawn comparisons to Reggie Bush for his ability to both run the ball and make an impact as a receiver.

With Wilson and Hooker added to the secondary, some nice pieces on the defensive front, and a couple of interesting role players added to an offense that should be gaining a healthy Andrew Luck, the Colts could be this year’s breakout team in the AFC.

Luck is obviously the key to everything there, but having the right pieces around him is essential to the Colts taking a step forward. I think this offseason was a big one and a great debut for Chris Ballard.