If the Indianapolis Colts are going to shock the league during the season and make a playoff run, then it is going to come down to certain individuals making that possible.
Having a talented and deep roster is vital for any team looking to play well into January, but there are also a handful of players and position groups whose performance can drastically change the outcome of the season.
We call them X-factors. Depending on how these certain players perform, it could vault the Colts into a tier of competition higher than expected.
Whether it’s a coach or a player, let’s take a look at the biggest X-factors for the Colts in 2023:
Shane Steichen's impact
Typically when a franchise hires a new head coach, there is some expectation that the first season doesn’t need to end in the playoffs. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. If the Colts are going to make a push to play in the postseason, then that means Steichen has made an instant impact and his offense is firing on all cylinders.
There were a good number of examples of this happening just last season. Brian Daboll, Kevin O’Connell, and Mike McDaniel all led their teams to the playoffs in their first seasons as head coach. It is a different situation since both were previously head coaches, but Doug Pederson and Todd Bowles also got their teams into the postseason in their first seasons in that title with their respective teams.
Half of the 2022 head coach hirings ended in a playoff run. But for every positive case study, there are negative ones like how it ended in just one season for Nathaniel Hackett and the Denver Broncos last season.
For Steichen, he doesn’t have the pressure to win now, but if he is as great of a coach as people believe, then he can be a difference-maker in his first season to get the best out of this roster.
Anthony Richardson exceeds expectations
Making the playoffs with a rookie quarterback is pretty rare. Since 2013 there have only been two first-round quarterbacks who led their teams to the postseason in their first year. That would be Lamar Jackson and Mac Jones.
Dak Prescott and Brock Purdy are the only other rookie quarterbacks since 2013 who aren’t first-rounders that helped get their teams into the tournament. There have been other non-first-round rookies that played in the playoffs but their appearances came due to the starting quarterback being injured.
Anthony Richardson doesn’t need to be Superman like Chris Ballard mentioned after drafting him, but his impact will determine the outcome for the Colts in 2023. There will be highs and lows in Year 1 but if he can be explosive on the ground like Jackson was in his rookie season, then it could help Indy make that push for the playoffs.
Richardson can make the offense more enjoyable, which is a positive thing even if the Colts don’t have a shot at the postseason but for the franchise, they hope his rookie year ends like it did for Andrew Luck in 2012.
Tony Sparano Jr. fixing the offensive line
Arguably the most important hire that Steichen had to make this offseason was who was going to coach his offensive line. It was in the middle of a six-hour interview with Tony Sprano Jr. that Steichen told himself, “This is gonna be the guy.”
Sparano Jr. has the task of fixing a unit that was once perceived as one of the best offensive lines across the NFL. As of now, the Colts are set to open the season with the same starting five that ended the 2022 season. Indianapolis is spending $53.3M on the offensive line for the 2023 season, which is the seventh most spent on offensive linemen across the NFL.
That accounts for 54% of the $97.8 million that they are currently spending on the offense for the year. If Steichen is going to get his offense up and running then he needs Sparano Jr. to get the most out of the heavily invested unit on the roster.
So far, it does sound like he’s having his voice heard from the veterans in the unit.
“He’s been awesome. From day one, he said the integrity of the offensive line room is paramount. That’s number one,” said center Ryan Kelly. “You can have the best schemes, you can have the best guys evaluating defenses, but if you’re not collectively five as one, that room is not a place you want to go and want to be at.’’
One of the leaders of the offense, Quenton Nelson, also showed him some praise this offseason.
“He’s great. You can tell he cares about the guys in the room,” Nelson said. “Nothing is like passed over, glossed over. Everything is very detail-oriented and explained really well to where you know exactly what he wants and exactly how to do it.’’
Only time will tell if Sparano Jr.’s coaching will pay off but if the offensive line gets back on track and plays to their level of talent then that can give the offense a catalyst to develop quickly under Steichen.
Jonathan Taylor returns to MVP form
If Steichen gets the most out of this roster, Richardson has an on-par rookie season, and Sparano Jr. gets the offensive line back on track, then the biggest X-factor that can push the Colts over the edge to make a push for the postseason is Taylor.
Taylor’s down year in 2022 due to injuries and poor play by the offensive line has made some forget how big of an impact he had in 2021. He had a total of 2,171 scrimmage yards and 20 total touchdowns, which put him in the MVP conversation. If Indianapolis doesn’t collapse at the end of that season, then he would’ve been the main reason why that team made it to the playoffs.
The Philadelphia Eagles averaged over 153.6 rushing yards per game over the last two seasons with Steichen as their offensive coordinator. This bodes well for Taylor in Steichen’s system which helped produce Miles Sanders’ first 1,000-yard rushing yard season of his career in 2022.
If Taylor is back to being 100% after offseason ankle surgery, and he can handle his normal workload, then he will make life easier on Richardson. He also can take advantage of his rookie quarterback’s rushing ability, which should open some lanes for the talented back.
The combination of Taylor and Richardson should bring a level of excitement for Indy this season.
Shaquille Leonard's comeback
2022 was a year to forget for Leonard. It was a lost season for the leader of the Colts defense. He missed the first three weeks due to his first back surgery, then suffered a concussion in his debut, and played in limited action a few weeks later for a couple of games before having to shut it down for the season.
To the Takeaway King’s credit, he still managed to get an interception in his 74 defensive snaps. The three-time All-Pro was missed greatly on the defense last year. As well as Indy’s defense played in the first three quarters of last season, there were moments throughout the year where they could’ve used one of Leonard’s timely created turnovers to help win games.
This is especially true in regard to his leadership when everything fell apart in the final month of the 2022 season. Having the voice of the defensive unit will be vital for the Colts and if Leonard is back to being himself, then he will be up for the Comeback Player of the Year award by the end of the year.
Growth of Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo
The Colts defense has two players that are looking to take the next step entering Year 3 of their careers. Their first-round pick of the 2021 NFL draft, Kwity Paye, has shown he has what it takes to be a good to great starting edge rusher, but he’s dealt with injuries that have caused him to miss time.
In just 12 games of the 2022 season, Paye still managed to get six sacks, 10 QB hits, and 10 TFLs. If he can remain healthy for all 17 games, then he should be able to get double-digit sacks and earn some honors.
Then, there is the second selection of the 2021 draft class with Dayo Odeyingbo. He’s been on a steady track since recovering from a torn Achilles that caused him to miss the first seven weeks of his rookie season. Odeyingbo spent his second year in a reserve role but did end up starting in four games.
He finished with five sacks, 11 QB hits, five TFLs, and a forced fumble. After flashing his ability in 2022, he’s set to have a breakout season and has put on some mass to help make it happen.
“I’m probably about 285 (pounds), but I probably put on like 11 pounds of muscle,” Odeyingbo told reporters in May. “It’s been great. I’ve gotten a lot stronger than I’ve been. I’ve put on a lot of muscle and I’m feeling good this offseason.”
The pass rush is going to be a crucial part of Gus Bradley’s defense in 2023. The Colts are betting on a young secondary and one way to make life easy on the backend of the defense is by creating pressure with the front. Paye and Odeyingbo play a huge part in making that happen for Indianapolis.