The NFL season is approaching and Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams, counting down our power rankings with one team a day until No. 1 is unveiled on Aug. 4, when the preseason kicks off with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton. Go to our Facebook page after you read the preview for all airing of grievances; we’ll have a daily discussion there to go with each preview.
There are a few ways to look at the Indianapolis Colts.
One angle is it's a young, up-and-coming team that can build off a shocking 11-5 season. Another is to wonder how hard the regression stick is going to hit them.
Many statistics indicate the Colts' 2012 record was a lot better than it probably should have been. Indianapolis had a minus-30 point differential, and teams with that point differential should win about 7.2 games, based on Pythagorean expectation. They ranked 25th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. Football Outsiders' "estimated wins," based on a variety of statistics, said the Colts played like a team that should have won 6.2 games.
Nobody is taking the great, close 2012 wins away from the Colts or dismissing their inspiring story. But, in trying to assess them for 2013, it's pretty obvious they were a bit lucky last year.
However, the mitigating factor in all of that luck is Andrew Luck. It's pretty easy to imagine last year's No. 1 overall pick taking a huge leap this year and being a top five or six quarterback in the NFL. He's special. That might keep the Colts marching forward.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Better, but only because last year's roster wasn't very good from top to bottom. The Colts added players like defensive linemen Ricky Jean Francois (his $22 million deal was a head scratcher, given he's a career backup) and Aubrayo Franklin, safety LaRon Landry, offensive linemen Gosder Cherilus and Donald Thomas. At very least, the depth is better.
Biggest hole on the roster: The entire defense has to get better if the Colts want to get back to the playoffs. Indianapolis allowed 6.0 yards per play last season, tied for second worst in the league. The front seven just wasn't strong enough, allowing an unacceptable 5.1 yards per carry. The defensive line additions might help. Somehow, the Colts need to be tougher on defense.
Position in flux: At outside linebacker, Robert Mathis will start at one spot. Last season he made the switch from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, and took to the move relatively well. The other spot is murkier. The team signed former Packer Erik Walden, who was last seen looking like he was stuck in cement as 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran by him in the playoffs. Walden got a shocking four-year, $16 million deal from Indianapolis. Despite that investment, the team would obviously like Bjoern Werner to play a big role since they took the Florida State product in the first round. Werner is also transitioning from end to outside linebacker, but he was a great college pass rusher and if he makes the transition to the NFL quickly enough, he could push for a lot of playing time.
Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon: Darrius Heyward-Bey isn't a new name to anyone, of course, but he might have slipped off your radar. He's known as the player the Raiders laughably reached for with the seventh pick of the 2009 draft. Given that burden and mostly terrible quarterback play, he never lived up to his draft status. The Colts signed Heyward-Bey to a relatively small one-year contract with a $1.5 million signing bonus. It's a pretty good gamble. Heyward-Bey still has the skill set that earned a first-round grade a few years ago, he's just 26 and his 2011 season wasn't bad (975 yards with a 15.2-yard average). And going from mediocre Carson Palmer to a quarterback like Luck could do wonders. There have been weirder NFL stories than a former top 10 pick getting with a great quarterback and turning his career around.
Stat fact: Luck will be great and did some great things last year, but he still has some work to do. He finished 19th in Football Outsiders' DVOA among quarterbacks and his 76.5 rating ranked 26th. Those numbers are misleading, as Luck didn't have a great supporting cast and he was running an offense that wasn't like the West Coast system he was used to at Stanford (new coordinator Pep Hamilton will bring most of those Stanford elements to Indianapolis this season). But it's worth noting that he's not a finished product yet.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: It all revolves around Luck. If he becomes the star everyone assumes he will be, that will cover up a lot of the Colts' deficiencies. It's hard to see Indianapolis winning the AFC South, but in a league that revolves around quarterback play, Luck could carry the Colts to another surprising season.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: There's a decent probability the Colts play much like they did last year and the record reflects it this time. Many would view a 7-9 or 8-8 season as a big step back after 11-5 last year, but it would simply be understandable regression. The defense still isn't very good, and another 18-interception season by Luck might not be so easy to overcome again.
The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Safety LaRon Landry has had some good seasons, but his career has been up and down. He is a strong tackler for a Colts defense that desperately needs some toughness against the run. If the former sixth overall pick of the draft is healthy and puts together a good season playing in the box, he can help turn around one of the Colts' biggest weaknesses.
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32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Dallas Cowboys
17. Detroit Lions
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
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