As the NFL season finally comes to a close weeks after the Colts season ended, Indianapolis have plenty of time to think about what steps they need to take to put them in next year’s Super Bowl next. The Rams and Bengals have shown there is more than one way to make a Super Bowl. The Bengals challenged the conventional wisdom, hard learnt by Colts fans that you need an offensive line to be successful. Joe Burrow does possess a unique ability to deal with pressure, but the Super Bowl showed that there are limits to the ability of even the best Quarterbacks to overcome poor offensive line play in the face of an elite pass rush.
I suspect it is the Rams model for winning the Super Bowl that will interest Colts fans the most. I wrote about why the Rams model might not be directly applicable to the Colts, given they went all in to win with Aaron Donald whilst the Colts window is larger with Nelson, Leonard and Buckner still in their primes. But the fact the last two Super Bowls have been won by the Buccaneers and Rams taking aggressive approaches will rightly prompt Colts fans to ask whether the team does need to be more aggressive in free agency this year.
I expect Chris Ballard to be more aggressive in free agency this year than he traditionally has been. Jim Irsay has told fans that every Colt in the building next year will be all in, It would also appear as if he told Ballard and Reich of his high expectations for next season in their end of season meeting. This doesn’t mean Chris Ballard will suddenly become Les Snead, but I do expect Ballard to be more willing to spend money in free agency given the significantly higher salary cap for next season.
Last season showed us that much of that money will need to be spent on addressing needs on the offense. Despite a brilliant year for Jonathan Taylor, the Colts offense weren’t quite good enough. They were particularly disappointing in the crucial last few games of the season as defences stacked the box to stop Taylor and the passing offense wasn’t able to exploit the holes created in defences.
Carson Wentz must take a significant proportion of the blame for this failure, but I’m not going to focus on the Quarterback situation in this article as I believe that situation is so dependent on whether clear upgrades like Russell Wilson are realistically available.
Whoever is the Colts QB next year, there are a number of other offensive issues that will need to be addressed. Indianapolis simply didn’t have enough talent in the skill positions outside of Taylor and Pittman and could be about to lose two of their most experienced players in TY Hilton and Jack Doyle.
The Colts will have to also improve their offensive line play last year, which was disappointingly mediocre for an offensive line with so many stars on it. Although one upside was the improved depth they managed to find throughout the season in the likes of Reed, Pinter and Pryor. Some of that improvement in the offensive line will hopefully come from having a healthier line and more consistent play from Smith and Kelly. However, some of that improvement will likely have to come from much better play at left tackle in pass protection.
If WR, LT and TE are the three biggest offseason needs for the Colts offense, what is the best way to address them? Which needs should be addressed in the draft and which in free agency?
Shortly after the Colts season ended I thought Ballard should sign a wide receiver in free agency and try and draft a left tackle. There are two truly elite wide receivers scheduled to be free agents this offseason in Davante Adams and Chris Godwin. Even with Godwin’s injury, both should command a high price from whichever team signs them. But beyond those two, there are some talented wide receivers who will be free agents who should offer value. I’ve particularly advocated pursuing Allen Robinson, who has shown he can be an elite wide receiver but whose extremely quiet season this year should significantly lower his price. Outside of Robinson, players like Gallup, Chark and Kirk could be useful additions to the wide receiving corps.
However, I’m now convinced that Indianapolis should target wide receivers in the draft and address Left Tackle in free agency. Recent history shows just how many great wide receivers can be found in the second and third rounds of the draft. Whilst every team wants to draft Chase or Jefferson in the first round, elite players like Samuel, Brown, McLaurin, Pittman and Higgins have all been on the board later in the draft. When free agent wide receivers like Kenny Golladay get paid $18m a year, getting a great prospect on a rookie contract looks very attractive.
I’ll defer to colleagues with more expertise on the draft, but this looks like a class with a lot of talent in it. It’s always hard to predict who’ll be drafted by whom beyond the first round, but David Bell and Calvin Austin III have both been frequently drafted to the Colts in mock drafts. I’d be delighted if then end up in Indiana next season. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Ballard does draft two wide receivers with his first four picks. Whilst rookies will inevitably take a bit of time to reach their peak, players like Bell and Austin could provide a huge boost to the Colts offense.
Great wide receivers are relatively easy to find in later rounds, good left tackles are tough to find even if you’re drafting in the top ten. This draft does look to have some talented tackles in it, especially Evan Neal. However, I’m not sure how many prospects will be available once the Colts make their first selection midway through the second round. It’s certainly difficult to be confident heading into the draft that a starting left tackle you want will still be available.
The limited supply of good starting left tackles means it isn’t simple finding one in free agency either, but there are some viable options available. The cream of the crop is clearly Terron Armstead, a three-time Pro Bowler who has consistently been one of the better left tackles in the league. The biggest knock against Armstead is his tendency to get injured, but the Colts do now have solid depth at LT with Matt Pryor. At this stage, I’d rather have a top left tackle like Armstead who isn’t always available than rely on someone like Fisher who has had his own injuries and doesn’t offer the same quality when he is healthy. Whilst Fisher was considerably better in the run game than pass protection, I’d still be excited to see what Jonathan Taylor could do rushing behind an offensive line that has Armstead, Nelson and half of Ryan Kelly on its left side.
Signing Armstead needn’t break the bank either as his current salary is $13m a year. You would expect the three pro bowls he’s earned since signing his extension to increase his salary, but the fact he’s 31 likely lowers it. Therefore, even if he does get a pay rise, he should still be affordable for a position that often commands the big bucks. Signing Armstead would mean the Colts spending a high proportion of their cap space on their offensive line, but it is a unit Ballard has always prioritised and savings could be found by not resigning Glowinski and starting Reed instead.
Armstead’s age suggests he wouldn’t be the long-term solution for the Colts at left tackle, and Ballard may be reluctant to keep resorting to short-term options at the position given the team’s long term QB is not set in stone. However, the two left tackles in the NFC Championship game were 33-year-old Trent Williams and 40-year-old Andrew Whitworth. This shows we shouldn’t rule out Armstead being elite for several more years.
If Armstead isn’t available or affordable, Cam Robinson could be a competent option who is in the middle of his career. Whilst Duane Brown is 37 but has been a solid and durable left tackle for Seattle for the past few years. Neither are near the level of Armstead and could be expensive given the shortage of serviceable left tackles. But they would be plausible options if the Colts feel they need to use next year’s first round pick to find their long-term left tackle.
Tight End does also need to be addressed this offseason, but is a lower priority than WR or LT. Zach Ertz would be a great option, especially if Carson Wentz remains the Colts Quarterback. Ertz would be the one option most likely to encourage Wentz to take the layoffs and would help Wentz feel more secure and comfortable. Ertz showed last year he’s still got it and would offer more in the passing game than Doyle whilst still being a strong blocker. A contract like his $8.5m deal this year wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive. Dalton Schultz would be a younger and likely more expensive option whilst the likes of Njoku or Engram could be solid and cheap options. If Indianapolis don’t want to sign a TE in free agency, they should be ok resigning Mo Alie-Cox, giving Kylen Granson a greater role and drafting another TE in the 3rd/4th round. I expect Chris Ballard to focus on addressing the needs at left tackle and wide receiver and then seeing what he can do at tight end with the resources he has left.
Last offseason I confidently thought the Colts should sign an edge rusher in free agency and use their first-round draft pick to take a left tackle, with Darrisaw being my preferred option. Of course, Chris Ballard instead took two pass rushers in the first two rounds of the draft before signing Eric Fisher as a free agent a few weeks later. There is more than one way to build a team or to address a team’s needs in the offseason. But I hope this article sets out a roadmap for one way they can do address their offensive needs and take the leap from a good team to a great one.