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2017 NFL Preview: The new-look Colts expect a rebound

Frank Schwab
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Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

When you land quarterback Andrew Luck with the first pick of the draft, expectations come with that.

“I’ve said it before – we’re into plural Lombardis,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said at a meeting with season ticket holders according to the Indianapolis Star’s Zak Keefer, via Stampede Blue. “That’s what our goal is. And I’ll be damned if we don’t go out and get them.”

Irsay says outlandish things sometimes, and had he spoke of the Luck era in those terms two years ago, it wouldn’t had seemed out of place. For the first three seasons with Luck, the Colts’ arrow was pointed straight up. They won 11 games each of Luck’s first three seasons. In Luck’s third season, they made it to the AFC championship game.

It has leveled off since then. Two 8-8 seasons brought about significant change this offseason, as the Colts try to turn things back around.

The biggest offseason change was swapping out general manager Ryan Grigson, who got way too much credit for falling into Luck with the first pick and did very little after, for Chris Ballard. Ballard went to work on the roster. The defense was turned over. Tight end Dwayne Allen was traded. The draft produced some intriguing results, most notably first-round pick Malik Hooker, a highly regarded safety from Ohio State.

Even with all the changes, the two most important men in the Colts’ equation are both mainstays.

Luck’s shoulder is a bit of a concern. He had surgery on his shoulder this offseason and hasn’t started throwing yet. The Colts said from the beginning they would take it slow with Luck, but until he throws in training camp, it’s impossible to know how healthy he is. However, if you want to be optimistic, you could note that Luck has played with a bad shoulder since September of 2015 and if he is healthy again, maybe that’s all the Colts need to get back to 11 wins.

We all know Luck will be with the Colts for a long, long time. We can’t say the same about coach Chuck Pagano.

Pagano has had an odd past couple years. It looked like he was going to get fired after the 2015 season, along with Grigson. Irsay surprised everyone by bringing both men back at the last minute, and extending their contracts. With Grigson gone, the Colts are stuck in a weird position of having a new GM who didn’t hire his coach. To say Pagano is coaching for his job is probably an understatement. Pagano came in with a defensive background, but the Colts defenses haven’t been very good. It’s not like the Colts have been terrible the past two seasons, especially when you consider Luck was dealing with shoulder issues, but they weren’t taking advantage of a bad AFC South either.

The Colts are a long way from getting to a Super Bowl, much less winning “plural Lombardis.” The changes are ongoing, and there will be more. Pagano can’t feel too confident about his job security. Meanwhile, the Colts don’t want to waste any seasons of Luck’s prime so any major changes have to be done with an eye on winning now.

Needless to say, if it gets much worse in Indianapolis, Irsay isn’t going to be patient.

Andrew Luck had shoulder surgery this offseason. (AP)
Andrew Luck had shoulder surgery this offseason. (AP)

The defense will look entirely different, which is a good thing. The Colts’ three biggest signings were defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, edge rusher Jabaal Sheard and outside linebacker John Simon. Inside linebacker Sean Spence, outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, defensive tackle Al Woods and defensive end Margus Hunt were added as well. Six of the eight draft picks were defensive players, including the first three picks. It’s not hard to see what new GM Chris Ballard’s priority was. Losing punter Pat McAfee to a strange retirement is a setback that hasn’t gotten enough attention, and trading Dwayne Allen hurts the depth at tight end. But the Colts didn’t lose much else and you have to like the aggressiveness to fix a bad defense. GRADE: B-plus

The defense has to be better. If it’s not, new GM Chris Ballard is going to have a lot of tough questions from Jim Irsay. Indianapolis was indisputably one of the five or so worst defenses in the NFL last season, unable to stop the run or the pass or even come up with any turnovers. The draft class is really intriguing. Safety Malik Hooker was a gift at No. 15. Florida cornerback and second-round pick Quincy Wilson should contribute right away and Ohio defensive end Tarrell Basham, the Colts’ third-round pick, has a chance to be a nice pass rusher. If the defense improves from bottom five to the middle of the pack, an 8-8 team might be right back in the playoffs.

The Colts offense isn’t without questions. A mediocre offensive line was left virtually untouched, and that’s troubling considering Luck is coming off surgery. You can’t fix every issue in one offseason, though. And while Frank Gore is one of the all-time greats and one of the toughest players in NFL history, he can’t outrun his age forever. He’s 34 years old and had less than 4 yards per carry each of the last two seasons. If the Colts don’t have a semblance of a running game and the offensive line is still spotty, everything will be on Luck’s (repaired) shoulders.

Even with a bad shoulder, Andrew Luck threw for 4,240 yards, 31 touchdowns and a 96.4 rating. It’s easy to understand why owner Jim Irsay expects multiple Super Bowls before Luck retires. Assuming Luck shows he’s healthy in late July and August, the hope has to be that he can be even better in 2017. T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief are good receivers, Jack Doyle is a dangerous tight end and maybe 2015 first-round pick Phillip Dorsett can have a breakout (though time is running out for him). Luck is going to win an MVP one of these years, and maybe it’s 2017.

There might be as many as six new starters on the Colts’ defense, and maybe seven depending on safety Clayton Geathers’ return from neck surgery. One of the players who survived the purge was cornerback Vontae Davis, and for good reason. Davis has been a top-flight cornerback, though he didn’t play as well in 2016. It’s clear Davis is the most talented member of the Colts defense, and they need a bounce-back. Davis is 29 years old, not a youngster anymore but not at an age where he should fall off a cliff. But if he continues to fade, the Colts don’t really have a great option to replace him.

From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: “Frank Gore — Is the seemingly ageless veteran a vampire? Serious question.

“Though Gore probably witnessed the big bang, it isn’t smart to bet against him. He’s consistent, rigid, tough between-the-tackles and a sound investment at his heavily discounted ADP (89.7, RB35). His 658.2 standard fantasy points accumulated after Age 30 ranks No. 8 all-time among geriatric backs. Expect him to climb that list.

“His secondary profile raises many questions about longevity, but all indications suggest Gore will again secure roughly 70 percent of the opportunity share. The Colts line, which ranked No. 3 in run-blocking last year according to Football Outsiders, is a plus and backups Marlon Mack and Robert Turbin pose little threat. If he again staves off Father Time, it’s realistic he bags his tenth 1,000-yard campaign while chipping in 6-8 TDs. Don’t be an ageist. Gore is a viable RB2.”

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The Colts were 16-2 against the AFC South in Andrew Luck’s first three seasons and posted 11 wins each season. The last two years, the Colts are 7-5 against the AFC South and the Colts dropped to .500 both seasons. The Colts went 3-3 in divisional games last season and the key to them getting back to the playoffs might be dominating the AFC South again, though the division might be getting more competitive.

Can T.Y. Hilton lead the NFL in receiving yards again?

Last season, Hilton’s 1,448 receiving yards were the most in the NFL. Julio Jones, who had 1,409 yards, could argue that he would have topped the NFL had he not missed two games, but it doesn’t diminish what Hilton did last season. He had some huge games and the Colts kept feeding him the ball, targeting him 155 times. There are a lot of great receivers in the league now, so Hilton will have a tough challenge leading the league again, but it’s possible. He’s going to get a ton of targets again, and perhaps Andrew Luck will be even better after shoulder surgery.

Andrew Luck has a 2016 Matt Ryan-type season in him. We all know that. If it comes this season, and the defense with all its new starters improves in a significant way, the Colts will win the AFC South, Chuck Pagano will probably keep his job and we’ll go back to viewing the Colts as a team on the rise.

While Johnathan Hankins, Jabaal Sheard and Malik Hooker are good players, changing out that many defensive starters is a challenge. And even if the defense is better, it has a long way to go to be good. The real fear is if the defense is bad, the running game falters and the offensive line isn’t any better, Andrew Luck will take more punishment. Luck has been sacked 156 times in five seasons. The Colts have to put an end to that at some point.

I assume I’ll be lower on the Colts than other preseason rankings. It’s easy to talk yourself into Andrew Luck and improved defensive personnel taking the Colts from 8-8 back to the 10- or 11-win range. But a lot has changed since 2012-14, when the Colts won 33 games. It’s a defense that might need time to adjust, and I do worry about Luck’s health, especially behind that line. The Colts destroyed the AFC South early in Luck’s career, and the division should be better. Uncertainty about Pagano’s status isn’t ideal either. I think Tennessee is the better team in the division, and the Colts’ playoff drought reaches three seasons in a row.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!