INDIANAPOLIS – Change is inevitable, and often necessary.
Of course, there always are exceptions to the rule. The defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers are “rolling it back’’ and returning all 22 starters from the bunch that manhandled the Kansas City Chiefs in Tampa in February.
For virtually everyone else across the NFL landscape?
“Every year is a new year,’’ Chris Ballard said. “Every year you have to prove it.’’
His Indianapolis Colts are coming off an 11-5 season that saw them earn a wild-card playoff spot and push the Buffalo Bills to the brink before falling in a first-round matchup.
Shortly after that, the Colts waded into an offseason that would require significant change. Ballard and coach Frank Reich still oversaw a roster teeming with young talent – Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard, DeForest Buckner, Grover Stewart, Jonathan Taylor, Ryan Kelly, Braden Smith, Nyheim Hines, Michael Pittman Jr., etc. – but they also faced questions at pivotal positions.
Successors were needed for quarterback Philip Rivers and left tackle Anthony Castonzo, both of whom retired.
The team had to reload at defensive end with Denico Autry’s relocation to the Tennessee Titans and the free-agent status of Justin Houston.
What to do at wide receiver and cornerback, where free-agent losses could be crippling?
Ballard and his personnel staff have had a busy few months. They’ve re-signed eight pending free agents (T.Y. Hilton, Xavier Rhodes, Marlon Mack, Zach Pascal and Al-Quadin Muhammad head the list) and plucked six veterans off the open market (Eric Fisher being the most prominent, and expensive).
Oh, and there was that February trade for Carson Wentz.
So, where does that leave the Colts? Better than last season? Worse? No one stays the same.
“We think we have a very good football team,’’ Ballard said. “Now, we have to go prove it. What I think doesn’t really matter because I could sit here and tell you we’re a no-doubt Super Bowl team, but that’s not reality until you go out and practice and you play, and you get better, and you lose a game that everybody thought you should win.
“You have to go through the process, and then we judge it. Always judge it at the end of the season. Not in March, not in April, not in September.’’
As much as Ballard has done to address positional concerns and upgrade the roster, many of the moves come with some level of risk.
Here’s a look at how the Colts have addressed their top four areas of concern:
QUARTERBACK: Carson Wentz
- How he got here: A trade with Philadelphia. The Colts sent the Eagles a 2021 third-round pick along with a 2022 second-rounder that elevates to a first-rounder if Wentz hits play-time incentives. Indy assumed the final four years and $98 million of Wentz’s contract. He’s due $47 million over the next two years with $35.4 million guaranteed. That’s very reasonable if Wentz is what the Colts believe he is.
- Positive spin: The 2nd overall pick in the 2016 draft was trending in the right direction during his first four seasons in Philly. There were 97 touchdown passes against 35 interceptions along with 14,191 yards, 63.8 completion percentage, 32-24 record as a starter. From 2017-19, Wentz posted an 81-21 TD:interception ratio. Any head coach/coordinator would take a 4:1 ratio without hesitation.
Wentz had the size (6-5, 237 pounds) to stand in the pocket and mobility to avoid the rush, extend plays and, when necessary, do damage with his legs (258 attempts, 1,061 yards, eight TDs).
- Negative spin: Last season seemed to nullify everything that went on before it. The Eagles were a hot mess and Wentz was right smack dab in the middle of it. As things deteriorated for the organization – injuries, abysmal offensive line play – QB1 not only was unable to stop it, he contributed to it. Wentz suffered 15 interceptions and was sacked 50 times, both league highs. He appeared rattled and experienced career lows with a 57.4 completion percentage and 5.2 yards per attempt.
Things got so bad, Wentz was benched in favor of second-round pick Jalen Hurts over the final four games.
One thing to keep in mind: players are available for a reason, especially 28-year old QBs who played at an MVP level in 2017 before a knee injury ended his season after 11 games.
- Wentz on fresh start: “Last year didn’t go personally the way I envisioned it, the way the team wanted it to go. But you live and learn from those things. We’re excited for this new opportunity and hopefully to start building something special here in Indy and be a part of something special that’s already been created here.’’
LEFT TACKLE: Eric Fisher
- How he got here: Agreed to a one-year contract Monday worth a maximum of $9.4 million.
- Positive spin: Fisher has a lot going for him. He’s hardly over the hill – he turned 30 in January – and has been selected to the Pro Bowl in two of the last three seasons, including in 2020. He started at least 13 games in seven of his eight seasons in Kansas City and 113 of 117 regular-season games overall. The 1st overall pick in the 2013 draft was tied for 16th among qualifying tackles last season according to Pro Football Focus (80.1). For context, Fisher was tied with Colts’ right tackle Braden Smith; Castonzo was 32nd with a 73.4 grade.
This is probably a short-term fix at the most influential position on the offensive line, but if Fisher returns and plays at a high level, perhaps Ballard finds a way to extend the relationship. That figures to be difficult with pending extensions for Darius Leonard, Smith, Quenton Nelson, Nyheim Hines and others.
- Negative spin: The bad vibes were created when Fisher tore an Achilles tendon in the Chiefs’ AFC Championship game win over Buffalo Jan. 24. The Colts believe he’s in a good spot with his rehab, but there is no timeline for his return. The best-case scenario is a return for the end of training camp in late August and perhaps being ready for the September 12 opener. It’s more likely Fisher won’t be ready for the opener and Sam Tevi is the Colts’ starting left tackle at the onset. Tevi, Pro Football Focus’ 73rd ranked tackle a year ago (52.9), would hold things down until Fisher is ready. Whenever that is. It seems the signing of Fisher was with a longer lens. They might be fine with having him ready for a mid- to late-season playoff push.
Also, it must be noted Fisher missed eight games in 2019 with a core muscle injury.
- Fisher on fresh start: From his Instagram account: “Super pumped for this opportunity to bounce back and have a great season with an incredible organization. Can’t wait to get to work and win BIG!”
PASS RUSH: Kwity Paye, Dayo Odeyingbo
- How they got here: The Colts selected Paye with the 21st overall pick in the draft and took Odeyingbo with their second-round pick, 54th overall.
- (BULLET) Positive spin: Paye and Odeyingbo check most of the necessary boxes to excel in coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense. They’re fast, aggressive, relentless. The 6-4, 272-pound Paye anticipates being allowed to develop at right end and should represent an outside complement to DeForest Buckner’s inside presence. At 6-6 and 276 pounds, Odeyingbo possesses the type of positional versatility shown by Denico Autry.
- Negative spin: While the Colts gush over Paye’s high ceiling, he generated a modest 11.5 sacks in 38 games at Michigan. Odeyingbo? Well, there’s that torn Achilles tendon in January while working out for the Senior Bowl. The Colts won’t push Odeyingbo’s rehab and it’s possible he won’t be available until October or November at the earliest.
- Paye on pressure of being first-round pick: “I feel like I’ve put enough pressure on myself, so I feel like I’m never satisfied with a practice or with a game. I’m always looking to improve and always looking to be my best self. I just take it on.’’
RECEIVER: T.Y. Hilton
- How they got here: Hilton re-signed in March with a one-year, $10 million contract.
- Positive spin: Hilton is back for a 10th season, and while he’s on the backstretch of his career, he’s hardly washed up at 31. Reggie Wayne was 32 in 2010 when he was named All-Pro on the strength of 111 catches, 1,355 yards and six TDs. A 31-year old Marvin Harrison had 94 receptions, 1,272 yards and 10 TDs in 2003. Three years later, Harrison piled up 95 catches, 1,366 yards and 12 TDs.
The Colts believe Hilton still has value, as evidenced by $10 million investment. He’s been selected to four Pro Bowls and posted five 1,000-yard seasons. When he’s on, he’s a legit playmaker (15.4 per catch and 50 TDs in 133 career games).
- Negative spin: The last two seasons have turned Hilton into just another guy. Maybe a notch above that, but not much. While battling injuries and changes at quarterback (from Jacoby Brissett to Philip Rivers), he’s had just 101 catches for 1,263 yards and 10 TDs combined in 2019-20. More alarmingly, Hilton has averaged a lackluster 12,5 yards per catch.
The Colts clearly are betting on Hilton returning to form while working with his fourth starting QB1 in as many seasons (Andrew Luck in 2018, Brissett in ’19, Rivers in ’20 and Wentz).
- Hilton on staying in Indy: “It’s very special. Not many guys can say that they did that, so for me to be able to get that chance, it means a lot. I love it here. The moment I had the chance to sign back here, it was only right.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.