INDIANAPOLIS – The offseason has been filled with lists and rankings and projections.
One that always creates the most discussion: Which players are among the NFL’s top 100? Most lists agreed on a handful of Indianapolis Colts: guard Quenton Nelson, linebacker Darius Leonard, running back Jonathan Taylor, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and cornerback Kenny Moore II.
Pro Football Focus’s position-by-position rankings had a definite Indy flavor. Taylor and Leonard were No. 1 at their areas of expertise, while Moore was the top-rated nickel corner. Nelson was No. 3 and Buckner No. 4.
That’s fine and makes for interesting debate.
So does this: Who are the most indispensable Colts? Which player’s prolonged absence would most impact the season?
Everyone has an opinion. So do we with the opening of training camp at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield right around the corner.
Before we dive into my list, I have to admit mine is a bit skewed because the NFL is skewed. It’s an offense-driven league. Of the 14 teams to reach the playoffs last season, eight rode a top-10 offense. Five had a top-10 defense. That’s not an overwhelming edge, but give us a potent offense every week and we’ll take our chances.
Here we go.
1. QB Matt Ryan
If you’re a serious playoff/championship contender, the quarterback has to be the most indispensable player. Period. Aaron Donald is the best player in the NFL. The Rams won the Super Bowl because they traded for Matt Stafford. The Colts quickly determined Carson Wentz wasn’t the answer. Ryan must be, or all of the other offseason moves won’t really matter.
2. RB Jonathan Taylor
As critical as Ryan is to ’22, the offense only works if the running game works and the protection holds up. Frank Reich prefers a 55-45-ish pass-run ratio, and that hinges on Taylor remaining a season-long force. The running backs’ room is among the NFL’s best because of Taylor and his sidekick, Nyheim Hines. But JT is the relentless heartbeat. If he gets injured, too much burden likely falls on Ryan.
3. WR Michael Pittman Jr.
It’s hard for to me place him this high, but I can’t get the numbers out of my mind. Returning wideouts not named Michael Pittman Jr. had 28 receptions and 387 yards last season. The 2020 2nd-round draft pick has to carry a heavy load until we find out if Parris Campbell can stay healthy, Alec Pierce can make a serious impact as a rookie or Ashton Dulin, Dezmon Patmon or Mike Strachan can elevate his game.
4. DE Yannick Ngakoue
Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush. Schemes are great and everyone is optimistic Gus Bradley’s version will help lift the defense to the next level. But pressuring the quarterback and the ability of someone winning one-on-one matchups makes every scheme work. Acquiring Ngakoue was one of our top-5 offseason moves, and that’s because he’s expected to be the reliable edge pass-rush threat. If not him, who? Kwity Paye showed flashes last year, and Dayo Odeyingbo still was recovering from a torn Achilles. Maybe they emerge in year 2. But Ngakoue must be the catalyst.
The stat that stands out: Ngakoue has 55.5 sacks in 95 games. The other edge candidates have combined for 26 sacks in 143 games.
5. G Quenton Nelson
I thought about Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly, but Nelson’s value is increased by the uncertainty at left tackle. Whether that spot goes to Matt Pryor or Bernhard Raimann, Nelson’s presence will help immeasurably. It’s hard to quantify his impact, but it’s huge.
6. LB Darius Leonard
We’ll see if his role changes in Bradley’s defense, but there’s no dismissing his ability to create game-changing plays. The Colts ranked 2nd in the league a year ago with 33 takeaways despite an unreliable pass rush, and Leonard accounted for 12 with eight forced fumbles and four interceptions. He’s a true difference-maker. We’re not in panic mode with him on PUP following June back surgery, but Leonard needs work in the new defense.
7. DT DeForest Buckner
He’s simply one of the best interior players in the league. He’s led the Colts in sacks in each of the past two seasons – that’s great for Buckner, but an indictment of his supporting cast – and is an interior disruptor.
8. C Ryan Kelly
Sometimes a player’s value is boosted by the proven depth behind him. Danny Pinter started three games for Kelly last season, and the Colts were 3-0. He’s proven his worth as an interchangeable part on the interior. But Kelly remains one of the NFL’s better centers with three straight Pro Bowl selections. He’s adept at getting into the right blocking schemes.
9. CB Kenny Moore II
At times he’s proven to be a player the defense can’t play without. Moore is without question one of the league’s top nickel corners, and his versatility is impressive. He works out of the slot and can slide outside. He’s a threat to blitz. We considered slotting Stephon Gilmore here, but opted for Moore.
10. RB Nyheim Hines
The league is all about playmakers, and Hines is a playmaker. He’s an explosive complement to JT as a running back and represents a matchup nightmare in the passing game. Hines’ career high in receptions is 63 (as a rookie in 2018 and again in ’20). He might approach 80 this season.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.