2018 NFL Preview: With or without Andrew Luck, the Colts have a lot of work to do

Shutdown Corner

Yahoo Sports 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 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Two Colts previews can be written: One with Andrew Luck, and one without. Neither is particularly rosy, but at least the first one would have some promise attached.

There’s no reliable prediction anymore about Luck. The Colts probably don’t know. When “Andrew Luck finally throws a football” is legitimate news in mid-June, you know how weird the whole ordeal became. Maybe Luck looks as good as ever this season, maybe he’s a shell of himself, maybe he has a setback and doesn’t play at all. We’ll have to wait and see. There have been too many optimistic predictions from the Colts to rely on those anymore. Anyone who says they know what to expect from Luck is lying.

The Colts’ biggest issue is Luck, but a healthy return wouldn’t fix everything. The defense allowed Brock Osweiler to have one of the best games by any quarterback in 2017. The offensive skill-position group is T.Y. Hilton and not much else. The Colts averaged 4.6 yards per play (tied for last in NFL) and allowed 5.7 yards per play (tied for second-to-last in NFL), a staggering minus-1.1 yards per play differential. To put that in perspective, the 0-16 Cleveland Browns were minus-0.2.

While Josh McDaniels deserves to get ripped for how he left the Colts hanging, and his reasons for staying in New England still seem dubious, you can understand the conspiracy theory that he realized how bad the Colts look on paper and got cold feet. And the Colts’ immediate future is even worse if Luck doesn’t come back to form.

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This will take new coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard a while. They know that. The roster is really young. The Colts didn’t do much in free agency, signing some low-cost veterans to fill some gaps. They had 11 draft picks (six in the top 104, including fantastic guard Quenton Nelson at No. 6), and a large number of them might have to play immediately. There was no reason for the Colts to continue the charade that Luck’s return would restore them to a playoff team. This is a rebuild, and they’re going to be prudent about it.

The Reich hire at least went as well as could be expected, given that messy situation. The move was received well after the McDaniels fiasco. While that might be wishful thinking, it’s not a bad idea to test that Doug Pederson tree. If Reich can bring some of the more innovative and aggressive ways of the Eagles’ offense to Indianapolis it could be a huge help to Luck if he … well, you know.

There has been such drastic turnover of the roster since Ballard took over in January of 2017 that most of the Colts haven’t even played with Andrew Luck. He should be the one thing the Colts can depend on, but we all know by now that’s not the case.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck didn’t play all last season due to shoulder surgery. (AP)
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck didn’t play all last season due to shoulder surgery. (AP)

Given where the Colts are as a franchise, I had no problem with their offseason. They gave out only two multi-year deals in free agency: Defensive end Denico Autry (three years, $17.8 million) and tight end Eric Ebron (two years, $13 million). They didn’t overpay to keep players like receiver Donte Moncrief or cornerback Rashaan Melvin. The draft was solid, starting with guard Quenton Nelson (I’m a big fan of second-round linebacker Darius Leonard, too). If the Colts hit a home run with high-upside late-round receivers Deon Cain or Daurice Fountain that would be a tremendous help. This is what a rebuilding team’s offseason should look like.

GRADE: B

We all know what Andrew Luck can do when he’s right. The Colts are 43-27 with him under center. And the 2017 Colts were a little more competitive than their record showed. As NFL analyst Warren Sharp pointed out, the Colts trailed at the half in only six games. They went 2-7 in games they led at halftime. Sharp said the Colts are the only team in the past 27 years to lose at least seven games in which they led at halftime. Also, they led through the third quarter nine times. Sharp wrote the Colts were the only team to lose more than two games after leading through three quarters … and the Colts lost five of those games. Only six NFL teams lost more than once after entering the fourth quarter with the lead, according to Sharp. There are reasons the Colts couldn’t finish games, like a horrible secondary and an offense that lacked pop, but records in close games usually even out to about .500 over time. You’d figure Luck could help in that area.

You can fix only so many problems in one draft, but the Colts ignored a glaring need at cornerback. The Colts’ starting cornerback situation might be the worst in the NFL. Pierre Desir has rarely been healthy in his four seasons with three teams (13 career starts), and 2017 second-round pick Quincy Wilson showed little as a rookie. They’ll probably be the starters. Even in a division that doesn’t have the best passing offenses, the Colts might give up a ton of yards.

If Andrew Luck misses more time, at least the Colts have Jacoby Brissett. They stole him in a trade right before the season with the Patriots (it wasn’t even the lightest trade New England made with a backup quarterback last year) and he fared relatively well under difficult circumstances. Despite not joining the team until Sept. 2, Brissett started 15 games behind a terrible offensive line, without much help from the running game and an average-at-best receiving corps. He still posted an 81.7 rating and had some intriguing stretches. A lot of teams have backups worse than Brissett. The Colts just hope Brissett is their backup, and not starting again.

The Colts need to find difference makers on defense. Safety Malik Hooker has to be one. Hooker, last year’s first-round pick, looked like a big-time playmaker early last season, intercepting three passes in just seven games. Then he tore his ACL and MCL. The Colts’ no-name defense needs some names, and they need Hooker healthy. You don’t necessarily want your main building block on defense to be a free safety, but the Colts need to start building a foundation on that side of the ball.

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “Don’t draft Andrew Luck. Not because he won’t bounce back, but because you don’t need to take the risk. QB is ridiculously deep this year. For reference, Matt Stafford – who has posted top-eight fantasy numbers for three consecutive seasons – is available after Luck. Patrick Mahomes – a prospect brimming with upside – is going just ahead of the Colts’ signal caller. There is zero reason to gamble on Luck, not just because he hadn’t thrown “The Duke” for most of the offseason, but also because a quarter of his starts will come opposite the Jags and the Texans defensive units.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Colts.]

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The Colts have a rookie head coach. Here’s how many career games Frank Reich’s offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators have as coordinators in the NFL: 0. Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and special teams coordinator Raymond Ventrone all deserved a shot, as did Reich, but it’s startling to have first-timers in every key position on the staff. They’ll be coaching a Colts roster that will be among the youngest in the NFL. Maybe all that youthful exuberance will be a positive.

CAN THE RUNNING GAME TAKE SOME PRESSURE OFF THE QB?

Frank Gore is a great player, a true professional, but it was time to move on. The Colts, however, don’t have an easy replacement. Marlon Mack, a 2017 fourth-round pick, wasn’t bad last year but had 10 carries in a game only twice and averaged 2.4 yards per rush in those games. Nyheim Hines is an exciting rookie, but he’s more of a third-down playmaker than a foundation back. Jordan Wilkins might ultimately be the answer but he’s still a fifth-round pick who wasn’t considered an NFL starting-caliber back. The Colts could struggle to keep defenses honest with their run game, even with an upgraded offensive line.

The Colts never finished worse than 8-8 in Andrew Luck’s first five seasons, and those rosters had issues. If the Colts are just being extremely cautious and Luck is going to return good as new, we know what an impact he can have. The Colts were in many close games last season and just couldn’t finish. Perhaps Luck returns and the Colts bounce right back to contention in the AFC South. Honestly, Colts fans would probably settle for Luck returning and playing well, regardless of the team’s record.

What if Andrew Luck is never the same? To use a baseball analogy, maybe he goes from throwing 97 mph before his shoulder issues to throwing in the low 90s on his return (for you baseball fans, think Matt Harvey). The Colts shouldn’t go into this season thinking about the playoffs. The roster isn’t good enough. The real trouble arises if Luck returns but looks like just another guy.

I don’t know. The range of outcomes for Andrew Luck is so wide, it’s impossible to have a great answer. I think Luck plays, and plays fairly well. But the Colts’ roster is so thin, it won’t matter much. They’re going to be bad with or without Luck. Figure on double-digit losses no matter who is at quarterback, but the future looks tremendously brighter if Luck looks like himself in 2018. Fingers crossed.

32. Cleveland Browns

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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