Well, folks, the unthinkable happened. The Indianapolis Colts, rich with talent and a roster studded with seven pro bowlers, lost their sixth straight game in Jacksonville. The lowly Jaguars somehow, even with the win, secured the first overall pick in the 2022 draft. Pathetic. This organization will have a sour taste in its mouth for the next eight months as they pick themselves off the TIAA Bank Stadium grass and head back to Indianapolis. Beyond the shock that fans are currently feeling, there is speculation on where the Colts stand as an organization. Ask a Colts fan their thoughts on Carson Wentz after every game this year and his future as the Colts quarterback, and you’d probably have gotten a different response each time. What about investing in dynamic talent on the perimeter? Or replacing Eric Fisher, who was shaky at best during his first year as the replacement for Anthony Castonozo? Will there be a significant improvement from the pass rush, or should a veteran piece be added to round out the young group? Where do the Colts go from here? What follows is a position-by-position breakdown of where the Colts stand from a personnel perspective and how they can improve upon a disappointing end to the 2021 campaign.
Note: Due to how long this article became, I will be splitting the breakdowns into two parts, with the defensive outlook coming out next.
Is it true that Carson Wentz hindered this team from a deep playoff run? Yes. I wrote earlier this week about the uncanny parallels between the Colts’ current team and the 2012 Baltimore Ravens team that shocked the world on their run to a Lombardi Trophy. The one condition, and the conclusion I came to at the end of that article, was that Wentz would have to perform at or close to the same level he did in 2017 for the Colts to be the last team standing. In other words, he would have to rise to the occasion. Wentz couldn’t even rise to the small challenge the Jaguars presented, ending my query before it had the chance to get off the ground in a playoff scenario.
The majority of the fan base will clamor for the Colts to make a trade for a veteran quarterback who may or may not even be available this offseason. Over the next few days, expect to see Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson jersey swaps floating around the Twittersphere as the fanbase abandons a quarterback they stood behind for a large part of the season. Still, others may call for Chris Ballard to “upgrade” at the position and go after Jameis Winston or another mediocre option in free agency or even trade-up in the draft to select a quarterback. This front office will have none of that. The current frenzy calling for Wentz’s head has no contingency plan in mind, other than someone needing to take the fall for what happened in Northeast Florida on Sunday.
The truth, whether you like it or not, is this, Chris Ballard and Frank Reich relinquished a lot of capital to hitch their wagon to a quarterback they have more faith in than you and I, and they are not going to give up on him after this season. Carson Wentz was extremely volatile over the course of the 17 game season and yet showed flashes of greatness. Right or wrong, Reich and Ballard will talk themselves into trying to harness those flashes next year before finally hammering the gavel on the sound block at the end of next year with a decision on Wentz’s future as a Colt. Until then, Ballard should look to give Carson Wentz no reason to fail. Surround him with a talented wide receiver corps and a tight end that doubles as a safety blanket. In the ideal offseason, I theorized that the Colts would sign a big target out wide and pair him with another receiver with their second-round selection in April. Realistically I expect Ballard to take the route of building around Wentz, which will not be popular but necessary. As it stands today, sticking with Carson Wentz is the only scenario that makes sense for the Colts to be in contention next year that doesn’t involve moving massive amounts of player and draft capital, something Chris Ballard would be hard-pressed to do anyways.
(The rest of this article will assume Wentz is the Week 1 starter to reduce variables and confusion.)
Wide Receiver & Tight End
This group needs to be taken to the woodshed. That may sound like a dramatic claim, but I am impenitent for stating it. The Colts were the only team in the NFL that didn’t have two receivers crest the 400-yard receiving mark, with Zach Pascal being the closest Colt to eclipse that mediocre goal, collecting 384 yards on 38 receptions. Michael Pittman Jr. proved fully capable of being a number one receiver in the NFL, producing a 1,000-yard sophomore campaign and tacking on six touchdowns. However, that is where the bright spots ended for the wideouts. A full retooling is needed for this group to be effective next year, and luckily the Colts have the cap space to invest heavily in making the room above average heading into 2022.
TY Hilton, Zach Pascal, Ashton Dulin, and Quartney Davis are free agents as wide receivers, and Mo Alie-Cox is a free agent as a tight end. I expect both TY Hilton and Jack Doyle to retire, leaving Pascal, Dulin, and Alie-Cox as potential candidates to be resigned. In my earlier off-season preview article, I predicted that all three would be brought back, and I still think all three could agree on team-friendly deals. But, the Colts have a lot of youth at the backend of the roster at wide receiver that I think Chris Ballard will look to use as competition in training camp. Dezmon Patmon, Michael Strachan, DeMichael Harris, and Keke Coutee are all players that could compete for a 5th or 6th receiver spot on the roster. With that said, I think Ashton Dulin will one hundred percent be retained due to his special teams’ prowess, which the coaching staff has noted is a large part of the decision-making when it comes to who makes the roster.
Looking at Big Mo, I think he has been a solid, surprising development for the Colts coming out of VCU as a basketball star. He has become a plus blocker, which is astonishing considering he hadn’t played football since high school before signing with the Colts in 2017. Assuming Jack Doyle retires, I don’t think it is time to resign Alie-Cox and crown him TE 1. You could, however, resign him to a small two-year 7 million dollar contract to be TE 2 and then pay Zach Ertz the money the Jack Doyle retirement leaves open to reunite with Frank Reich and Carson Wentz. Another option would be letting Alie-Cox test free agency and then drafting a tight end to rework the group completely. In a recent mock draft simulation, I had the Colts take Jeremy Ruckert, a solid blocker, and athlete from Ohio State, in the third round. This specific scenario would lead to the Colts’ tight end room, including Ertz, Ruckert, and Kylen Granson, heading into 2022.
Back to the wide receivers, resigning Ashton Dulin would leave the corps with Michael Pittman Jr, Parris Campell, Dulin, and then the plethora of guys I mentioned earlier competing for a back-end spot on the final roster. The responsibility then falls on Chris Ballard to add to this receivers’ room so Carson Wentz has multiple targets he feels comfortable with and who can raise his level of play.
My colleague Austin Isaac just recently detailed some of the free-agent options the Colts could look at, descending from most to least expensive. Personally, I would like to see Chris Ballard double-dip at the position in both free agency and the draft. In my ideal off-season article, a scenario I have proposed details signing a big target on the outside to pair with Michael Pittman Jr. and then drafting star Alabama receiver John Metchie with the 47th pick. The only reason Metchie would be available at that spot is because of the injury he suffered in the SEC Championship Game, as he was once considered a consensus first-round selection. Chris Ballard has shown no fear in drafting or signing players coming off major injuries, highlighted by examples such as Julian Blackmon, Dayo Odeyingbo, and Eric Fisher. Metchie can play the outside Z if need be or slide inside to the slot while also having electric speed and an excellent release package to boot. The Alabama star could truly be a significant upgrade at WR 3 for the Colts if Ballard were to pull the trigger. As a big body target, I would like to see the Colts add either Mike Williams or Allen Robinson. These two are coming off seasons that couldn’t be more polarizing. Robinson had a down year after playing on the franchise tag for the second year in a row while dealing with inconsistent quarterback play and injuries. His value in the open market could be brought down because of this, leaving Chris Ballard the opportunity to bring in the 29-year-old to fill out a now above average receiving core. If you want to read my thoughts on Mike Williams, I’ll link that article right here.
My edition of taking the pass-catching groups to the woodshed yielded the following results:
WR Room 2022 Top 4 options: Michael Pittman Jr, Allen Robinson/Mike Williams, John Metchie, Parris Campbell
TE Room 2022 Top 3 options: Zach Ertz, Mo Alie-Cox/Jeremy Ruckert, Kylen Granson
Compared to 2021, I think all four receivers listed and Zach Ertz could realistically surpass 400 yards. This would be a massive upgrade for the entire group in 2022 and desperately needed.
One quick note on Parris Campbell. I still believe in the talent he has, even if many have forgotten about him. While I wouldn’t rely on him to be the third or even fourth receiving option next year, I think he has the ability to play up to the third option if he stays healthy. I fully expect Parris to make the roster in a year that will ultimately decide his future not just as a Colt but as being seen as a viable receiving threat in the NFL.
The running back position has been in good hands for years with Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines. Everyone knows about Jonathan Taylor’s MVP-like season, a conversation that would have picked up even more steam had the Colts gone to the playoffs. However, I don’t think Taylor should be expected to meet or surpass his production from this year going forward, as he had 332 carries on the season. Runningbacks tend to regress when they have such a heavy workload from the previous year. That being said, he will still be terrific again next year.
If Carson Wentz is the quarterback again, I hope Frank Reich makes it a point to get Nyheim Hines the ball out of the backfield more in space. Using Hines’ hands-on angle and wheel routes against slower linebackers is a lethal combination that felt a bit underutilized in 2021, with Wentz at the helm.
The only free agent running back to speak of is Marlon Mack, who was fantastic for the Colts earlier in his career before tearing his Achilles at the beginning of 2020. I hope Mack finds a home where he can rejuvenate his once-promising career and can cash in in the process, as he was never resigned to the deal he probably deserved after his rookie contract due to the injury.
This leaves the Colts with a hole at RB 3, a role that was filled by UDFA Deon Jackson this past year. Jackson saw action in garbage time, where he averaged 2.4 yards per carry on 13 attempts. Jackson hasn’t done anything to cement a roster spot next year, so I expect the Colts to bring in another RB for the competition via the draft or maybe even in the form of a very cheap free agent. A 6th round investment in BYU’s power back Tyler Allgeier would be an interesting development for the running back room. Allgeier could be used in short-yardage situations so that Jonathan Taylor doesn’t have to take the beating that often accompanies those goals to go and 4th and one runs. Overall, this group needs competition and depth, which can be said for well-rounded position groups on most teams.
Chris Ballard has invested over 167 million dollars into the O-line that the Jacksonville Jaguars dominated on Sunday. Yes, Carson Wentz played horrifically in that game, but the offensive line is partially to blame. The line as a whole regressed significantly from last year statistically, giving up 11 more sacks, a 35% increase from when Phillip Rivers was under center. Now, an argument can be made that sacks are as much a quarterback stat as an offensive line stat, but consider this; Ben Baldwin, a contributor for The Athletic, combined both PFF and ESPN’s pass-blocking grades to compile a composite score in which the Colts’ 170 million dollar group was ranked 23rd. That’s simply an abysmal ROI or return on your investment, and there is certainly no profit being made. Of course, the run blocking was much better than league average, and the pass blocking wasn’t as dreadful all year as it was Sunday, but upgrades are needed.
The O-line room may see some new faces starting for them in 2022. Eric Fisher, Mark Glowinski, Chris Reed, Matt Pryor, Sam Tevi, and Julie’n Davenport are all set to be free agents. A case can be made for only retaining one, Chris Reed. Reed was a free agent addition by Chris Ballard for depth purposes this last offseason, and he filled in admirably at guard in many pressing situations. I believe Reed would be more cost-effective and play at or close to the same level as Mark Glowinski if retained. I would also argue for Matt Pryor to be brought back as a swing tackle, much like the role Joe Haeg played for many years. Pryor played well whenever he had to fill in at right or left tackle, looking better than Eric Fisher in his one start on the left side. That brings me to Eric Fisher. Fisher was an above-average run blocker but noticeably deficient in pass blocking. While I think he would be better next year with another full offseason of recovery after tearing his Achilles, the Colts should look at other options.
Some fans have called for throwing a blank check at Terron Armstead, something to consider, but I think the Colts cap space would be better utilized if it were spent in the pass-rushing department. Instead, the Colts should look to pursue Duane Brown in free agency. Brown is older at 36 but is coming off a solid campaign as the blindside blocker for Russell Wilson. Brown will likely cost around what Eric Fisher did this year and has said he would be interested in a one-year deal. Duane Brown, however, is not the future for the Colts at left tackle even if he were to sign a one-year deal with the team. Instead, the Colts should draft a left tackle with one of their day two picks and develop him behind Brown for this upcoming season. You will never acquire a finished product at left tackle in the third round of the draft, which is why sitting behind a former all-pro in Brown would be beneficial. I have not thoroughly scouted the tackles that would be available for the Colts in round 3 or 4, but when Chris Ballard gets down to those rounds, he will be drafting for traits. Two tackles that fit the bill are Zion Nelson of Miami, Florida, and Braxton Jones of Southern Utah. The former being who I mocked to the Colts in my ideal offseason article.
Bringing in another band-aid for the left tackle position may not be the most exciting proposition, but the idea of Chris Ballard taking a swing on a toolsy tackle prospect later in the draft is promising. With the addition of Duane Brown, the starting offensive line in this vacuum would be Brown, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Chris Reed, and Braden Smith, with Matt Pryor and Danny Pinter being the primary reserves. I would also expect Ballard to add depth to this position group again so that the 8th, 9th, and 10th spots aren’t filled with liabilities like Julie’n Davenport proved to be.
This “state of the union” style dissection of the offense could be tossed into oblivion if the front office decides to part ways with Carson Wentz, a move that would surprise me. Unless the Colts trade for a clear upgrade, such as Russell Wilson, or Aaron Rodgers, I find it hard to believe the organization will give up on Wentz after one shaky year. Allowing Wentz to have an entire offseason to work with a new compliment of weapons may very well improve his play in 2022 enough to make the Colts a legitimate contender. I tried to assess and address all of the Colts offensive realistically needs heading into the next year so that everyone, Jim Irsay included, will be delighted with the outcome in 2022. When it comes down to it, though, no amount of optimism and ignorant hope can solve what needs to be done in 2022 for this Colts offense to be potent again. Action needs to be taken plain and simple. Chris Ballard, you’re on the clock.