Indianapolis Colts March Scouting Report
Hey there Colts’ fans! With all the craziness going on in all our lives right now, many of us would normally have clung to sports as a way to pass the hours in isolation and bring us a small sense of normalcy. However, the coronavirus situation removed that from us as among the first casualties of the self-imposed social distancing. But the small glimmer of hope for us to distract from our difficulties is the official start of the NFL calendar year which signals the beginning of free agency. As most of this is done remotely, the NFL has begun in earnest with "business as usual" and a great many things have happened -- with the Colts being one of the biggest actors in the first week.
The first domino to fall happened during the combine itself when one of the biggest question marks of the Colt of season got answered. Veteran LT Anthony Castonzo decided that he would return to Indy rather than retire, and then ultimately signed a 2-year deal to make him among the highest paid tackles in the game. While Castonzo doesn’t often "wow" you with his play, he is steady and is coming off the best season of his career; according to all metrics, he graded out as one of the top tackles in the NFL and quietly anchored an otherwise young line with some big names on it. With the O-line being the lynchpin of this team and a veteran passer coming on board (more on this later), defending the blind side was crucial to address ASAP. I think his signing also dictated what the Colts could consider with their 13th overall draft selection, as the loss of Castonzo may have meant they needed to consider a tackle there.
Just yesterday though there was an underappreciated loss to the line as young veteran OL Joe Haeg signed a 1-year deal with the Bucs. Haeg can play all along the O-line and was an invaluable insurance policy for this crucial unit. With the line staying healthy all year he played very few snaps in 2019 but he has started more than half of the games in his 4-year career. This is a loss that will sting, not only because of his skill and as injury insurance, but because his versatility basically freed up a roster spot by being the top backup tackle AND the top backup guard. This made it important that they not lose any more depth along the line, and the team quickly moved to sign backup OT LeRaven Clark yesterday. Clark is a lesser talent than Haeg, but he also can play both guard/tackle slots and he has been here and knows the system; he was a necessary add. He was a game-day inactive much of last year with the health of the line, so clearly he was still a work in progress at some level. I suspect that this puts an even greater onus on the team to draft a couple of offensive linemen in this draft, or possibly even to consider using the remaining free agent money towards getting some veteran depth.
As I mentioned above, they had one less option to consider with that #13 pick….nonetheless, they shocked much of the NFL world when they traded that pick to the 49ers for their All-Pro DT DeForest Buckner, one of the keys to the 49ers dominant defense. Buckner is only 26, but has already established himself as one of the most disruptive D-linemen in the league in a class with guys like Chris Jones and many see him as second only to Aaron Donald. He is a brutal run stuffer and has created a lot of havoc in the passing game with an interior rush by getting sacks (29 over 4 seasons, 20 in the last two seasons) and knocking down a ton of passes with his 6’7" frame. Getting this team captain from the 49ers was a surprising coup, and around the league the team has drawn major kudos for this move. This is a game-changer and literally makes this defense a fantasy force immediately; he will make the Freak LB Darius Leonard better and make a slightly-above-average secondary even more formidable. And the double teams he will draw will free up Leonard and Justin Houston even more. The Colts then did make sure this was not a rental by locking up Buckner to a new deal that will average about $21 million a year. In a related move, the team then released rotation DL Margus Hunt as well.
Which of course brings us to the deal with the most direct impact on fantasy football, the signing of veteran QB Philip Rivers to a 1-year, $25 million deal. Knowing that the team was not in the market to move up from their 13th selection to target a top rookie passer, this made it suddenly apparent that they were going to consider one of the veteran free agents. While I am a huge Rivers fan personally and professionally, I am still kind of wondering if this is truly the best move they could have made overall. But in light of their recent changes defined above, it is totally consistent: they shored up the line to protect a very immobile passer, beefed up the defense to reduce reliance on the offense, and added a guy they feel they can trust in clutch situations. Rivers also knows Reich’s offensive system, having run it previously while Reich was with him in San Diego a few years back. I am concerned that Rivers does not have the receiving weapons he has had for much his career, notably the fact that he has generally had multiple big receivers and always had a mismatch tight end. Does he have enough left in his rejuvenated tank for a final push in his quest to get to the Superbowl? This is going to be the gamble that dictates the Colts’ fortunes this season.
Once GM Chris Ballard said "the jury was still out" on QB Jacoby Brissett as being the answer – just a few months after extending him 2 years at top starter money – this told me that they were going to find a stop-gap solution and then look elsewhere into the future. I still believe that they will look at a quarterback on day 2 or 3 of the draft, with several NFL starting caliber guys expected to be available in rounds 2-4. I do believe that Jalen Hurts is a starter with high upside and would love to have him on board as a backup to learn and grow into the role for 2021 and beyond. My big concern is the high money amount that the team has tied up in the quarterback position now with Brissett slated to earn over $20 million also. I also wonder what this will do to his confidence and attitude, although he has never given any sign of being less than a team player and was the team captain in 2019. They could trade him and save some money, but I bet other teams will wait to see what the Colts draft and see if they can get him for free if released after drafting a quarterback. Wouldn’t shock me to see him end up in New England by trade or after waivers and starting for the team and the coach that drafted him a few years back.
I will be back in April to preview the NFL draft (assuming it is still going to occur as planned in late April) to share some more thoughts on what I think the Colts will do, and what I think they should do on that weekend…as well as to assess any additional trades or signings that occur in the next few weeks. I hope all of you stay safe and healthy, and that you manage to avoid going stir crazy while quarantined as we fight this global threat. And for gosh sakes….WASH YOUR DAMN HANDS! Peace out, homies.