2019 NFL preview: After a big season, Colts didn't follow the normal NFL path

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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 2019 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on July 31, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
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Here’s what teams coming off an unexpectedly great season generally do: They take all their resources and try to take the ultimate step.

The Colts had more resources than any other team this offseason. They had about $106 million in cap space before free agency. They had a young roster that was boosted in a huge way by a phenomenal 2018 draft. The rebuild came together much faster than expected. There weren’t many veterans to pay, so a team that won nine of its last 10 regular-season games to make the playoffs found itself with the most cap space in the league. Theoretically Indianapolis could have signed the eight most expensive free agents on the market (combined 2019 cap hit of $97 million, according to Spotrac). They could have landed anyone they wanted.

Then a funny thing happened. The Colts didn’t do much at all.

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The Colts gave out three contracts of more than $2.75 million total: $24 million over two years to former Chiefs pass rusher Justin Houston, $22.5 million over three years to resign cornerback Pierre Desir, and $10 million for one year to former Panthers receiver Devin Funchess.

“We thought there were some good players on the market and we dabbled in to see if we could get something done,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said, according to the team’s site. “Just couldn't get a price point where we felt comfortable with what the player was gonna give us.”

It was surprisingly quiet. That doesn’t mean the Colts’ approach is wrong. It’s just not what most NFL teams would do. If you’ve seen the Colts’ excellent in-house video series “With The Next Pick,” chronicling their 2019 draft process, you know Ballard and his staff are very deliberate in building a roster.

“We think our young players (will) continue to improve,” Ballard said about the Colts’ lack of big spending this offseason. “And, look, everybody has a different way of team building and I don't know if you can sit here and say any way's right or wrong. This is what we believe in and this is the path that we're going to go. And look, if we get to a point — and you can read this as you want to read it — a true difference maker in the free agent market, I'm good paying for. But they have to be a true difference maker, unquestionably. Not the media saying he's a true difference maker; the tape saying he's a true difference maker.”

Most NFL teams don’t worry about tomorrow. Everyone in the NFL cooks with a microwave. There are no five-year plans because nobody will be given five years to see a plan through. If you have a small glimmer of hope, you play for today. That can be prudent, given the constantly changing nature of the league, and also frustrating. When you see the GM of your favorite team make a big free-agency move that makes no sense for the future of the franchise, he might be doing it to save his job. If that big-money defensive end doesn’t work out, it’ll be someone else’s problem to deal with anyway.

That’s what makes the Colts’ approach interesting. Think of it this way: They could have signed defensive end Trey Flowers, who most people figured was the top free agent available, and it wouldn’t have made a dent in their cap situation. Even if Flowers was overpaid (he got five years and $90 million from the Lions), he would have unquestionably helped the Colts and Indianapolis could easily afford it. They passed. They took a blank check to the store and were happy to shop for bargains. They paid a little more to Funchess and Houston to make sure they weren’t wed to them beyond a year or two. Even in the draft they didn’t move up for a big-ticket item. They traded back to get extra picks and ended up with Temple cornerback Rock Ya-Sin in the second round as their top pick. The Colts, as shown in that draft video series, are intensely focused on only acquiring players who fit their exact preferences.

“That locker room is not just open to any great player,” Colts coach Frank Reich said, according to the Indianapolis Star. “You gotta be the right guy, the right player, you gotta wanna join the other players on this team on the mission that we’re on, to get to the top of the mountain.”

It’s hard to argue with the results. Indianapolis finished last season as one of the best teams in football. They started 1-5, and then were unstoppable. They went 9-1 the rest of the way and absolutely dominated the Texans on the road in a wild-card game. They had a strangely awful performance on offense against the Chiefs in the divisional round, but entered the offseason with a wave of momentum.

All the pieces are in place to be good again. Andrew Luck looked healthy after missing 2017 and threw for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns. The offensive line has become one of the best in the NFL. The defense made enormous strides under new coordinator Matt Eberflus. Even though it took the Josh McDaniels fiasco for the Colts to land on Frank Reich, it looks like the Colts hit a grand slam with that hire.

As was mentioned many times in the Bears preview, there should be some skepticism when a team jumps from four wins to 10, as Indianapolis did. Luck’s return explains a lot of that jump, however. The Colts’ foundation is strong, and it looks like they’ll be contenders for a while. One of these years, they might even spend some of that money in free agency.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) celebrates with running back Marlon Mack (25) after securing a win against the Houston Texans in the playoffs last season. (AP)
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) celebrates with running back Marlon Mack (25) after securing a win against the Houston Texans in the playoffs last season. (AP)

As said before, the Colts are taking a patient approach. They did sign pass rusher Justin Houston and receiver Devin Funchess to short-term deals. With health, Houston could be a double-digit sack player the Colts need. Funchess was a bit of a strange investment for a team that was so cautious with its cap space, considering he was mostly a disappointment in Carolina. The team must believe a change of scenery will help. The draft was good, though general manager Chris Ballard probably got extra credit on those post-draft grades for what he did last year. That’s fine; Ballard deserves the benefit of the doubt. Temple cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, TCU linebacker Ben Banogu and Ohio State receiver Parris Campbell all look like they could be immediate contributors.

GRADE: B-minus

The Colts turned around their offensive line in a hurry. It wasn’t long ago Indianapolis’ line was a clear liability. Now it’s one of the best in the NFL. The 2018 draft put the final pieces in place. Guard Quenton Nelson was considered a can’t-miss prospect and that turned out to be true. The sixth pick of the 2018 draft was an All-Pro as a rookie. The Colts found their right tackle with the No. 37 pick, taking Braden Smith. There’s no longer a weak spot on the line, and it is a unit that is great in run blocking and protecting Andrew Luck. The Colts allowed a sack on 2.86 percent of their passing attempts, and that rate led the NFL. Left tackle Anthony Castanzo turns 31 on Aug. 9, but the other four starters are 27, 26, 23 and 23 years old. This line will be good for a while.

The Colts were tied for 19th in the NFL with 38 sacks last season. Justin Houston might fix that problem, but he hasn’t played 16 games in a season since 2014, just turned 30 years old and is adjusting to a new team. Maybe second-round pick Ben Banogu settles into a role as a situational pass rusher and helps. There aren’t many big issues with the Colts roster, but it’s hard to be a great team if you are below average rushing the passer, and the Colts’ pass rush is a bit of a question.

Andrew Luck missed a lot of OTAs with a calf injury, and it wasn’t a big deal. What a change from a year ago, when Luck’s shoulder was the talk of the NFL. Luck missed all of 2017 due to his shoulder and there was no guarantee he’d ever be the same quarterback. Then in 2018 he had one of his best seasons. A huge upgrade on the offensive line and a great coaching staff helped. Luck doesn’t turn 30 years old until Sept. 12, and he’s back to being one of the best quarterbacks in football. Luck hasn’t won an MVP award yet but he’ll be right in the mix this season.

You won’t find many recent second-round picks better than linebacker Darius Leonard. Leonard was the 36th pick of the draft out of South Carolina State, and then made some history. He made first-team All-Pro. Leonard and guard Quenton Nelson became the second set of rookie teammates in NFL history to make first-team All-Pro. Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers did it first, in 1965. Good company. Leonard led the NFL with 163 tackles, 111 of which were solo. He had seven sacks and two interceptions. He was a phenomenal player as a rookie, and he wants more in his second season. A lot more.

"I want 200 tackles. I want 10 sacks. I want to be NFL Defensive Player of the Year," Leonard told NFL Network. "I want to be All-Pro, Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl MVP. Just everything with my name at the top of the charts."

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Eric Ebron had 12 touchdowns, total, in his four years in Detroit. Last year, the Colts turned him into a 14-touchdown man. This is one of the easiest 2018 fades on the board.

“Everything fell Ebron’s way last year, especially opportunity. Fellow TE Jack Doyle had an injury-wrecked season. T.Y. Hilton played through injury. The Colts’ receiving tree is much deeper this year, with Devin Funchess added as a free agent and Parris Campbell landed in the draft.

“As Wayne Gretzky might say, we want to skate to where the puck is going, not where it’s been. Ebron’s ADP is around the 72nd pick in Yahoo (and a round later in NFFC formats). There are a handful of ticklish upside tight ends in Ebron’s neighborhood, some a round or two more expensive, some a little cheaper — and I prefer pretty much all of them to Ebron. It’s just regression, friends. Gravity always wins.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: Indianapolis Colts]

The Colts clearly liked the makeup of their 2018 roster, because they made it a priority to keep it together. The Colts return 21 of 22 starters and 35 of the 40 players who played at least 200 snaps on offense or defense (h/t Indianapolis Star). The Star said the five 200-plus snap players the Colts didn’t retain were receivers Ryan Grant and Dontrelle Inman, guard Matt Slauson, defensive tackle Al Woods and safety Mike Mitchell. None of those players were crucial to the Colts’ core. If you believe continuity matters, you should like this year’s Colts.

IS THIS ANDREW LUCK’S BEST SUPPORTING CAST?

The Colts have hit on many recent additions at running back, receiver and tight end. Tight end Eric Ebron, the 10th pick of the 2014 NFL draft by the Lions ahead of players like Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald, was a huge disappointment in Detroit. Then he more than doubled his career total with 13 receiving touchdowns in his first Colts season. That number is likely to regress, but it was yet another shrewd move by the Colts last season to grab Ebron for $13 million over two years. Between Ebron, fellow tight end Jack Doyle, receivers T.Y. Hilton and Devin Funchess and pass-catching running back Nyheim Hines, there are a lot of good targets for Luck. Marlon Mack isn’t a great pass catcher out of the backfield but established himself as a fine runner, rushing for 908 yards and nine touchdowns in 12 games. It could be the best group Luck has been with since at least 2012, when he was a rookie throwing to a prime Reggie Wayne and young Hilton.

By the time the playoffs came around last season, it wasn’t crazy to think the Colts could make a run to the Super Bowl. That possibility disappeared when Indianapolis’ offense had a no-show in a divisional round game at Kansas City, but it didn’t erase how good the Colts were over the final half of last season. If Justin Houston can recapture his All-Pro form and give the Colts an elite pass rusher, the secondary continues to play at a high level and Andrew Luck makes a run at his first MVP, the Colts could enter the playoffs not as a dark horse to make a Super Bowl run, but a favorite to do so.

One reason the Colts didn’t go all-in after taking a big step last season is the roster hasn’t necessarily arrived just because of a good stretch to end last season against a favorable schedule. The Colts themselves acknowledge that.

“We’re young, it’s a young locker room,” GM Chris Ballard said, according to the Indianapolis Star. “Do I feel a little better than I did a year ago? Yes. Are we quite there? No. No.”

Maybe the Colts have to take a step back before they realize all their potential. They aren’t immune to regression just because they have Andrew Luck. A young team has some expectations that weren’t in place a year ago and that can be tricky to navigate. A year ago at this time, an 8-8 season for the Colts in 2019 wouldn’t have seemed so bad. After last season’s breakthrough, a .500 encore would be a disappointment. That might happen if certain things don’t go right.

I like what the Colts are building. Seeing Andrew Luck return and be as good as ever was one of the NFL’s best stories last season. Frank Reich was a great hire as Indy’s head coach. There’s an exciting young core. But I’ll follow the Colts’ lead and not push all my chips in on the 2019 version of this team. The Colts will win the AFC South but I’m not sure they’re ready yet for a run to the Super Bowl. There does seem to be one in their future, however.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

23. New York Jets

22. Denver Broncos

21. San Francisco 49ers

20. Jacksonville Jaguars

19. Atlanta Falcons

18. Tennessee Titans

17. Carolina Panthers

16. Minnesota Vikings

15. Seattle Seahawks

14. Baltimore Ravens

13. Pittsburgh Steelers

12. Houston Texans

11. Dallas Cowboys

10. Cleveland Browns

9. Green Bay Packers

8. Philadelphia Eagles

7. Chicago Bears

6. Los Angeles Chargers

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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! Follow @YahooSchwab

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