The Indianapolis Colts took a step in the right direction in 2023 in Shane Steichen’s first season as the head coach.
Before turning the page to the offseason, let’s look back on how each position group performed this season:
It was a brief stint for the new franchise quarterback for the Colts but Anthony Richardson certainly provided some optimism for the team’s future. Playing in just 173 snaps in four games, AR threw for 577 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception with a 59.% completion percentage.
On the ground, he finished with 136 yards and four touchdowns on 25 attempts. The flashes of what he can bring to the offense with his legs and arm should provide more explosive plays in 2024. Only time will tell if the time spent on the sidelines learning behind Gardner Minshew helps him improve on the mental aspect of the game.
For Minshew, it was a mixed bag of what he provided to the offense. At times, he managed the game well and took the necessary shots when he needed to. Then he had moments where he couldn’t get into a rhythm, which would stall out the offense, and he had his problems with giving the ball away.
Minshew threw for a career-high 3,305 yards but threw a career-high nine interceptions and his eight fumbles were the second-most he’s had in a season. It will be interesting to see if Chris Ballard tries to re-sign him to the backup role or if they explore finding a new backup quarterback that offers a similar skillset as Richardson.
The Indy backfield was sparked this season by Zack Moss when Jonathan Taylor was on the PUP list at the beginning of the year. Both backs were in and out of the lineup this season but ended the season with similar numbers. Moss led the team with his career-high 794 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 183 carries. JT ran for 741 yards and seven touchdowns on 169 yards.
As far as through the air, Moss had 27 receptions for 192 yards and two touchdowns. His seven total touchdowns were a career-high. Taylor grabbed 19 balls for 153 yards and a touchdown. The pair accounted for 40.5% of the team’s total touchdowns.
This group was the most consistent skill position group for the Colts in the 2023 season.
The receiving corps was led by their most reliable player Michael Pittman Jr. who led the entire team across the board in receiving stats by a wide margin. This was despite missing a game due to a concussion. MPJ had career-highs in receptions (109) and receiving yards (1,152). He also led the team in receiving touchdowns (four) and tied for the most 20+ yard receptions (10) this season.
Pittman Jr. is set to be a free agent this offseason and has set himself up for a big payday after having his best season as a pro. While he was the consistent player in the group, the player that left you excited for his future was rookie Josh Downs.
In his first season with the franchise, he finished with the second-most receptions (68) and receiving yards (771) on the team. Downs is the player that tied MPJ for the most 20+ yard receptions. He will be a vital piece in elevating the passing attack in Anthony Richardson’s Year 2.
The receiver room is rounded out by Alec Pierce. He didn’t have the Year 2 that was expected but a big factor was that he was supposed to be a deep threat but it didn’t come to fruition due to AR’s season-ending injury. He flashed what that could look like in 2024 throughout the year, especially on his 55-yard reception that set up the game-winning touchdown in the last matchup against the Tennesee Titans.
Pierce’s numbers were down in comparison to his rookie season. He saw a drop in his targets with thirteen less than he got in Year 1 but still increased his yards per reception from 14.5 to 16.1. He also finished with eight 20+ yard receptions after having two in his first season. If AR can have a healthy season, Pierce could be in store for a Year 3 explosion.
The trio did a solid job considering the circumstances at quarterback. If MPJ is back in 2024 then I do believe they offer a high floor for the passing attack with Richardson but finding a WR4 that brings more explosiveness to the offense should be explored through free agency or the draft.
The tight end room had a somewhat underwhelming season. It was one of the deepest groups on the roster heading into the year and there were question marks surrounding who would make the 53-man roster. All five did make it but Jelani Woods was placed on IR and stayed there for his entire second season.
This was disappointing to see because he was supposed to be the player that emerged from the group as the threat in passing attack. The leader of the 2023 season was Kylen Granson. He had a career-high receptions (50), and receiving yards (368), and scored his first career touchdown.
Granson had some nice moments which made you think he could carve out a larger role in the passing attack but that never came to be. One player who had flashes was fifth-round rookie Will Mallory. I like how he gets up the field after the catch and shows some good blocking ability despite being viewed as more of a receiving tight end entering the league.
Mallory ended his Year 1 with 18 receptions for 207 yards. The veteran Mo Alie-Cox was used primarily as a blocker. His 13 receptions for 161 yards was the lowest in his career since his second season but he did lead all tight ends with three touchdowns.
This position group will be one to watch in the lead-up to the 2024 season. There will likely be some names that aren’t back. One player I haven’t mentioned is Drew Ogletree. He had a role in the offense but is on the commissioner-exempt list because of domestic violence charges. Ogletree is on the roster but if the allegations are proven true then he will quickly be off the team as he should be.
The other player’s future to monitor is Alie-Cox. He’s entering the final year of his contract with no more guaranteed money. Chris Ballard can create $5.9M in cap space if he elects to move on from the veteran.
I like what Woods, Granson, and Mallory can bring next season but just like with the receivers, Ballard can’t bet on the potential and if a player like Brock Bowers is on the board in the upcoming NFL draft then that selection has to be heavily considered by Ballard.
The development of Bernhard Raimann in Year 2 was key to getting the offensive line back to playing at the high level that is expected out of them. He gave up fewer sacks (four) and penalties (six) than he did in his rookie season according to PFF. This is great to see considering he started in four more games than he did in 2022.
If Raimann can continue to ascend, he will be blocking Anthony Richardson’s for the foreseeable future. This group would have had an outstanding season but Braden Smith’s constantly battling injuries caused him to play in a career-low 10 games.
When Smith was on the field, he was effective. According to Next Gen Stats, he had the fifth-best pressure rate among right tackles.
The Packers held Micah Parsons to just 1 pressure on 19 pass rushes, his lowest pressure rate in a game in his career (5.3%).
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 15, 2024
His absence led to fourth-round rookie Blake Freeland starting nine games. He was the weakest link in the offensive line in 2023. He had his struggles with good pass rushers and was effective in the ground game. With how Raimann and Will Fries developed under Tony Sprano Jr., the hope is a similar outcome can happen for their swing tackle in 2024.
This was the group on the offensive line that brought back stability to the unit. Quenton Nelson returned to his All-Pro form despite not getting that nod this season. According to PFF, he only gave up one sack and his QB hits allowed (three) were the lowest since his 2019 season.
Getting Nelson back to who he is was huge but having Will Fries taking the next step was vital. He proved that the team didn’t need competition for the starting right guard spot. Fries provided value in improving the rushing attack and got better as the season went along. Because of his improvement, he’s earned his starting role going forward.
The resurgence of Ryan Kelly gave the Colts a strong anchor with their interior offensive line. The longtime Colt put together one of the best seasons in his career. According to PFF, he gave up one sack for the first time since 2019 and six hurries for the first time since 2018. He also didn’t allow a QB hit for the first time in his career.
The future of this position will have to be kept in mind this offseason. Kelly will be 31 next season and is entering the final year of his contract.
The edge rushers for the Colts made a big impact on the 2023 season with four players setting career highs. Samson Ebukam proved to be a free agent hit signing by Chris Ballard. The new addition to the defense had the best season in his seven-year career.
He set a career-high in tackles (57), TFLs (10), QB hits (17), sacks (nine-and-a-half), and forced fumbles. Ebukam’s sacks were a team-high. He just edged out Dayo Odeyingbo for the best season among the edge rushers.
Odeyingbo had a breakout in Year 3. Despite playing in a rotational role, he set career highs in tackles (38), TFLs (nine), sacks (eight), QB hits (17), pass defenses (two), forced fumbles (two), and fumble recoveries (three). He’s proven that he should have an opportunity to earn a starting role in 2024.
Kwity Paye didn’t have the year that was expected in the pass rush department but he was great in defending the run. He still set a career-high in sacks (eight) as well as tackles (52) and forced fumbles (two). A decision will have to be made about his future in the next two years. Paye will be entering a crucial Year 4.
The pleasant surprise of the group is veteran Tyquan Lewis. He put together a healthy season after seeing his two previous years come to a halt due to patellar injuries. Lewis had career highs in tackles (25), TFLs (nine), QB hits (13), and pass defenses (three).
This position group took a step in the right direction in 2023 and set up some building blocks for next season.
Interior Defensive Linemen
To no surprise, the interior of the defensive line is headlined by DeForest Buckner. The best player on the defense was the anchor of the unit. Buckner had carer highs in tackles (81) and pass defenses (seven). His 11 TFLs were the most among all defensive linemen on the Colts.
The group’s performance was weighed down because of Grover Stewart’s six-game suspension. During his absence, opponents took advantage of it and gashed the defense on the ground. In the 10 games Stewart was in the lineup, Kyren Willams and Derrick Henry were the only running backs to run over 100 yards.
Even with his suspension, he still set a career-high in QB hits (eight). The rest of the group didn’t make an impact but there were some flashes in moments for the 2023 fourth-round pick Adetomiwa Adebawore. It would be a boost for 2024 if he develops and earns a bigger role in the rotation.
Buckner is entering the final year of his contract and Stewart is set to be a free agent this offseason so this is another group on the roster that has to have the future in mind this offseason.
This group ended the season with a different rotation than what was expected entering the season. Because of Shaquille Leonard’s decline in his performance from his injuries and E.J. Speed taking the next step, the team decided to release Leonard and gave Speed the larger role he earned.
Speed had the best season in his four-year career. He set career highs tackles (102), TFLs (12), QB hits (two), pass defenses (four), and forced fumbles (three). Speed led the Colts in TFLs.
His counterpart Zaire Franklin set a new franchise record with a new career-high tackles (179) and had the second most in the NFL despite missing one game. The Indy defense quietly has an underrated linebacker tandem.
After Leonard’s release, that created an opportunity for players to step up. Behind the scenes, Gus Bradley was grooming Ronnie Harrison Jr. in a money-backer role. In his first game, he got an interception and also returned one for a touchdown later in the season. It showed Harrison Jr.’ earned the coaching staff’s trust when he was moved to a starting safety spot after Julian Blackmon was placed on IR.
Segun Olubi was already getting snaps when Leonard was on the roster and he filled in nicely when Franklin missed a game. He showed that he can be counted on for depth and give special teams value in 2024.
This group was carried behind the bounce-back season from veteran Kenny Moore II. His run defense and ability to defend screens led to him setting a career-high in TFLs (eight). Moore II also had two pick-sixes that won the game over the Carolina Panthers.
He’s a key free agent for Chris Ballard to bring back in 2024. The rest of the cornerback room’s inexperience was on display. Opposing offenses took advantage of the young players and when the defense had to rely on backups at times this season.
While they had their struggles, rookies JuJu Brents and Jaylon Jones showed some potential as starters next season. Both need further development but their time spent on the field should provide dividends.
It was just the first-year corners that had some good moments in 2023, Dallis Flowers was showing promise before his Year 2 was cut short due to an Achilles injury. There is hope among these three players but to avoid another letdown from the position group next year then Moore II has to be brought back and a proven veteran should be considered in free agency.
The safeties were a mixed bag in 2023. The star of the group was Julian Blackmon who had the best season in his four-year career. He set carer highs in tackles (88), TFLs (five), pass defenses (eight), interceptions (four), and fumble recoveries (two). Unfortunately, he missed the final two games of the season.
His absence was glaring in the Week 18 loss to the Houston Texans. Blackmon joins the list of players that are set to be free agents this offseason. Unless Chris Ballard believes there is a better option on the market, this secondary needs him back on the roster in 2024.
The promising player in the safety room is Nick Cross. At the end of the season, he earned a starting role that sent Rodney Thomas II to the bench. He had his flashes in defending the run and pass. His development for Year 3 is vital for next year’s secondary group.
It appeared Thomas II lost some trust in the coaching staff because not only did he lose his starting gig because of his performance when Blackmon was sidelined, but they elected to play Ronnie Harrison Jr. over him. It would be ideal for Ballard to add a veteran for depth purposes this offseason.
Matt Gay looked like a great signing when he became the first kicker to make four 50+ yard field goals in a game this season. That was a big part of him setting a career-high with eight 50+ yard field goals made. But he had his moments with missed kicks that did cost some games. His 80.5% field goal percentage was the lowest of his career since his rookie year.
Chris Ballard pointed to a hip issue for his struggles at the end of the season. It was nice to see Rigoberto Sanchez return to form after his Achilles injury that cost him his 2022 season. His 48.3 yards per punt were a career-high.
Sanchez is also a player who is set to be a free agent. For continuity on special teams, he should be back punting for the Colts and holding the ball for Gay in 2024.