Say what you will about the way Indianapolis has conducted business over the past six months, but you have to acknowledge this much: When the Colts rebuild, they don't mess around. This team re-[expletive]-builds.
You'll find new names up and down the depth chart in 2012, plus new coaches on the sidelines and new executives in the front office. The team has jettisoned an inner-circle Hall of Fame quarterback and a head coach who guided the Colts to a Super Bowl. They've also cut ties with a tight end just two years removed from a 100-catch campaign, a former Pro Bowl running back, a five-time Pro Bowl center, two generations of Polians, and a receiver who scored a $42.5 million deal in free agency. And as if that weren't enough, the Colts' defense is transitioning from a base 4-3 to a Baltimore 3-4, forcing a pair of 30-something defensive ends, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, into new roles.
So yeah, this is clearly a transition year for Indianapolis. That would be the new face of the franchise pictured above, rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, looking like a man with a long, difficult road ahead.
The exciting news for Colts fans is that nearly all analysts agree that Luck is a special talent with phenomenal work habits, ridiculous accuracy and terrific instincts. Pro Football Weekly's pre-draft scouting report called him "one of the safest, surefire QB selections in draft history with few discernible blemishes." Luck is perhaps as NFL-ready as any quarterback could possibly be, coming out of a pro-style Stanford offense in which he delivered absurd stats. He completed over 70 percent of his throws in each of the past two seasons, posting QB ratings of 118.1 and 118.0. He finished his three-year collegiate career with 82 touchdown passes and just 22 interceptions, and he averaged 8.9 yards per attempt. We don't often talk about Luck's mobility, but he rushed for 897 yards and seven TDs for the Cardinal on 163 carries (5.4 YPC).
This is simply a tremendous football player, definitely a guy to target in dynasty leagues.
Most fantasy experts prefer Robert Griffin III to Luck in the year ahead, based largely on RGIII's projected rushing totals. But you'd be foolish to completely dismiss a passer with Luck's pedigree and his evident talent. He can be great, soon. No one should be surprised if Luck manages to top Andy Dalton's first-year stats. (If that doesn't excite you, let's remember that only four rookie QBs in NFL history have thrown for 3000 yards and 20 TDs, and Dalton is one of 'em). Luck is the No. 19 quarterback off the board in early drafts (ADP 131.1), going 41 picks later than Griffin. If you're thinking of him as a fantasy back-up or a platoon QB, there's obviously little risk attached to the selection.
Bruce Arians will be the offensive coordinator at the dawn of the Luck era. He was last employed in Indy as the quarterbacks coach in the first three seasons of Peyton Manning's career, and he choreographed a fantasy-friendly Steelers offense from 2007 to 2011. Pittsburgh never actually ranked in the top-half of the league in pass attempts during Arians' tenure, but Ben Roethlisberger still managed to give us a pair of 4000-yard seasons.
The Colts' receiving corps will feature two wideouts who should be familiar to fantasy owners, Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie, and a tight end who should be awfully familiar to Luck — rookie Coby Fleener, another Stanford guy. Wayne is on the wrong side of 30 — hell, he's on the wrong side of 32 — but we're still talking about a player who delivered back-to-back 100-reception seasons in 2009 and 2010. He was reasonably productive last year as well (75-960-4) considering the atrocious team context.
It was a small surprise that Wayne re-committed to Indy during the offseason, but he sounds pleased with Luck thus far:
"He throws a pretty doggone good ball, man," the five-time Pro Bowl selection voiced.
"He has a nice spiral to it, has some zip. He gets it there. He puts it in the right spot. So once we get all our timing down — [and] we'll get that done before training camp and during training camp — we'll have success."
Wayne is being drafted by fantasy owners as a low-end WR3, the No. 30 receiver selected in an average league (ADP 77.7). It's a fair price for a proven commodity, but we need to view Reggie as a high-floor/modest-ceiling option at this stage. He's generally taken in the same range as wideouts who could potentially reach new levels in 2012 — guys like Torrey Smith (73.9), Robert Meachem (79.2), Denarius Moore (84.4) and Titus Young (92.8). If you're the sort of drafter who looks for breakout candidates after the first 5-6 rounds, then you'll probably bypass Wayne, no matter where you've slotted him in your pre-ranks.
The biggest issue with Collie, as everyone no doubt knows, is his multiple concussion history. The injury risk is definitely built into his current draft price, as he's falling beyond pick No. 150. Collie didn't assist many fantasy owners last year, as he caught only 54 passes on 96 targets for 514 yards and didn't find the end zone until Week 17. It's tough to give him a strong endorsement at the moment, because this offense is no lock to produce more than one every-week starting WR option.
As for the rest of the Indianapolis receivers ... well, this quote from new GM Ryan Grigson should tell you what you need to know:
"Speed is an extreme priority."
To that end, the Colts have added Donnie Avery to the mix — he's a former second-round pick with injury red flags, but he can fly — and they drafted receivers T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill in Rounds 3 and 6. Avery is basically a lottery ticket; Hilton should go ahead of Brazill in dynasty formats. (You can check the tape on Hilton right here). None of those three wideouts needs to be considered in public leagues. If the Vikings ever seriously start fielding offers for Percy Harvin, you have to think the Colts would be interested in bidding.
Fleener has excellent speed for his position, and he obviously has a nice history with Luck. Those two connected for 10 touchdowns last season with the Cardinal — here's a fine example of an NFL-quality reception — as Fleener averaged 19.6 yards per catch. Tight end is a deep position for fantasy purposes, and no rookie is guaranteed to crack the top-12 in the year-end ranks. But if any player is going to do it, bet on Fleener. He's drafted just outside the first 10 rounds in 12-team leagues, with an ADP of 121.8. The Colts actually selected two of the top tight ends available in April's draft, also snagging Clemson's Dwayne Allen with the first pick in Round 3.
Indy invested eight of ten draft picks on offensive players in 2012, surrounding Luck with whatever young talent could be found. However, the team didn't grab any of the marquee running backs. Why? Well, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano recently referred to Donald Brown as "an every-down back" and a "bell cow." So there's little doubt regarding the name currently atop the backfield depth chart.
Brown had a nice season in 2011 (finally), leading the team in rushing (645 yards), averaging a career-best 4.8 yards per carry, and easily outproducing Joseph Addai and Delone Carter. Brown isn't exactly the buzziest back in our game, but if the team is seriously going to lean on him in 2012, he'll deliver a profit for fantasy owners. Right now, he's the 33rd running back taken in drafts (ADP 80.7). Following Carter's disappointing first season, he figures to battle fifth-round rookie Vick Ballard -- another big back with little flash -- for a rotational/short-yardage role. The Colts signed Mewelde Moore this week, too, reuniting the vet with Arians. He doesn't belong on your draft board if you're involved in a standard-sized league. Addai has relocated to New England, so at least he's out of the picture.
There's no obvious reason for fantasy owners to take an interest in the Indianapolis defense, except maybe as a deep league streaming option (and they only play Jacksonville twice). As we mentioned above, Pagano is trying to fit square 4-3 pegs into a round 3-4 defense. This is a transitional year for the D (and the O), and there are a few killer match-ups on the schedule: Chicago, Green Bay, New England, Detroit, Houston (twice). IDP owners will draft Antoine Bethea, Pat Angerer, Kavell Conner, Mathis and Freeney, but there's no need to reach for any of 'em.
This should be a fairly entertaining year if you're an Indy fan, really. Instructive. Hopeful. Occasionally frustrating. It may not be a clinic at all times, and the Colts no longer offer an unlimited fantasy buffet, but Luck is a cornerstone. Put down that sign, sad pony...
2011 team stats: 15.2 PPG (NFL rank 28), 99.6 rush YPG (26), 201.4 pass YPG (29), 25.7 yards/drive (27), 0.16 turnovers/drive (26)