2016 NFL Preview: The Colts, and some questions about Andrew Luck

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

For the first time, I have some questions about Andrew Luck.

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There has always been a small but vocal group of fans who will scream Luck is overrated, but that was mostly contrarian nonsense. Luck came into the NFL as a can’t-miss prospect, and he played very well his first three seasons for the Indianapolis Colts. There were probably a few too many turnovers, but the good far outweighed the bad.

Then in 2015, we saw Luck struggle for the first time.

He made way too many mistakes early in the season, before his shoulder injury (which also included torn cartilage on two of his ribs, the Indianapolis Star reported near the end of last season). Luck missed some time, probably came back too soon, and was up and down upon his return. He was outstanding against the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, but he wasn’t very good in the two games in between. He suffered a scary lacerated kidney against the Broncos and his season was over.

Luck threw multiple interceptions in five of his seven games. His completion percentage dipped down to a poor 55.3 percent. His 6.4 yards per attempt was the worst of his career. Luck had a 74.9 passer rating, which was significantly worse than the 84 rating 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck put up replacing him.

To put Luck’s season into perspective, he finished with a worse passer rating than Johnny Manziel (!). Win-loss record is an awful way to judge a quarterback, but it’s hard to completely ignore that the Colts were 2-5 with Luck and 6-3 without him.

Luck wasn’t a good quarterback in 2015. We can appreciate what he did his first three seasons, marvel at his overall skills, maybe even blame his teammates, and also admit that he played poorly last year. Some of it was injuries, but that doesn’t explain everything.

Luck won’t backslide again. He has too much ability and he should be healthier. We’ll probably see the 2012-14 Luck return. There’s a much better chance of him being NFL MVP than having another rating in the mid-70s.

But for the first time, Luck’s seemingly unimpeded path toward Canton has hit a detour. Heading into this season, he’s not a sure thing like he was in previous years. And there are a lot of questions about his supporting cast.

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The Colts have built in a strange way, and it’s surprising that general manager Ryan Grigson survived last season (we’ll get to that crazy situation with Grigson, coach Chuck Pagano and team owner Jim Irsay in a bit). They have made some big-money signings but many were questionable when they happened and few have worked out.

Gambles on Andre Johnson and Frank Gore last year didn’t pay off. Their drafts have been uneven. The offensive line might not be good enough to play toward Luck’s strengths, which is standing in the pocket and delivering to the deep and intermediate levels. The run game is banking on Gore not falling apart at age 33, a year after Gore averaged 3.7 yards per carry. It was Gore’s 11th season. In his first 10 years he never averaged less than 4 yards per carry.

On the other side of the ball, the defense is average at best. The talent is thin thanks to misguided signings and missed draft picks. It’s a testament to Pagano’s defensive acumen that the Colts ranked near the middle of the league in defense last season, despite their flaws.

This team relies heavily on Luck, and Luck is coming off a poor season. The Colts might exceed this ranking if Luck plays at an MVP level. But I have more questions about that possibility than I did a year ago. And I’m not sure the rest of the roster can pick him up if the slump continues into 2016.

Andrew Luck is trying to rebound from a tough 2015 season (AP)
Andrew Luck is trying to rebound from a tough 2015 season (AP)

The Colts added one free agent of note, cornerback Patrick Robinson. He’s coming off a good season with the San Diego Chargers last year. But that was pretty much it for the Colts in free agency. The first round of the draft brought much-needed offensive line help, with center Ryan Kelly. But Kelly is still a rookie at a tough position. They lost solid starters like Coby Fleener, Jerrell Freeman, Dwight Lowery and other veteran disappointments like guard Todd Herremans, receiver Andre Johnson and cornerback Greg Toler. There’s some addition by subtraction there, but the Colts didn’t do much to improve a roster that has some deficiencies. Grade: D+

The first three years of the Andrew Luck-Chuck Pagano era produced a 33-15 record, three playoff appearances, including a trip to the AFC championship game. We might pick apart some weaknesses on the Colts’ roster, but those 2012-14 teams had many of the same weaknesses and won anyway. As long as Luck is right, that might be all the Colts need. And if you want to say I’m being too critical of the rest of the roster, the evidence is the 6-3 record Indianapolis had with Luck sidelined.

Everything aside from Andrew Luck, the receivers and maybe the cornerbacks seems to be a potential issue. Offensive line, running back, tight end because of Dwayne Allen’s health history, defensive line, inside linebacker, outside linebacker, safety … at every one of those spots you can find a reason for concern.

Andrew Luck got a five-year contract worth about $123 million with $87 million guaranteed. So we know who the Colts’ starting quarterback of the present and future is. But after an injury-filled season for Luck, the Colts didn’t do much to improve their backup situation. Scott Tolzien was signed to presumably be the backup after Matt Hasselbeck’s retirement. Tolzien has one touchdown and five interceptions in 91 career attempts. Stephen Morris, who was undrafted last year and signed off the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad late in the season, is probably next in line. Basically, if Luck goes down the Colts are finished.

The Colts don’t have many playmakers on defense, but outside linebacker Robert Mathis is one. How much longer can Mathis play at a high level? Mathis is 35. He needed 10 surgeries after tearing his Achilles tendon, an injury that caused him to miss all of 2014. His seven-sack season last year had to be considered a bit of a bonus for the Colts. If Mathis hits the wall at age 35, that’s a problem. Only one other Colt had more than three sacks last season, and that was 30-year-old lineman Kendall Langford, who had seven sacks in 2015 after posting 15.5 his first 112 NFL games. You don’t want to rely heavily on a 35-year-old pass rusher who isn’t far removed from a serious injury, but that’s where the Colts find themselves.

Cosell: “I think last year [Andrew] Luck wasn’t as good of a decision maker as he was in previous years. I think every once in a while he struggles with that. There’s so many things you do like about that. He’s certainly an aggressive player. I think he believes that no play is over and he can make something happen, and as he gains experience he’ll probably realize that’s not always the case in the NFL. Overall his decision making was not as good as it had been in previous years, and I think he needs to improve in that area.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Colts and the rest of the AFC South.]

From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: “Josh Ferguson will be on point in PPR. Soon the Illinois product will join the likes of Arian Foster, Pierre Thomas and Thomas Rawls at the round table of notable undrafted running backs. Though diminutive in stature, the rookie is highly elusive in space, possesses plus hands and is polished in his routes. Hyped by Indy beat writers and Jim Irsay alike this offseason, he is a strong candidate to leapfrog Jordan Todman and Robert Turbin on the depth-chart, eventually becoming Frank Gore’s direct backup.

“Considering the Colts’ ongoing offensive line concerns, Ferguson is the ultimate safety valve for Andrew Luck. He’ll only sporadically carry the rock, but it’s conceivable he’ll be deployed as a gadget back, similar to Detroit’s Theo Riddick and New England’s Dion Lewis. If the Colts are again faced with numerous deficits, it’s conceivable the youngster sails past 50 receptions in Year 1. Keep preying on the blind at his 190.4 (RB61) average draft position.”

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T.Y. Hilton had 69 catches for 1,124 yards last year, posting a 16.3-yard average. Considering he spent most of the season catching passes from Matt Hasselbeck, who is retired now, it was impressive. It’s not like the Colts didn’t understand how good Hilton was before last season, but seeing him maintain a high level of production without Andrew Luck reinforces he’s one of their building blocks. Hilton is one of the best receivers in the NFL, and that’s not because he catches passes from Luck.

HOW WEIRD WAS THE WHOLE CHUCK PAGANO-RYAN GRIGSON DRAMA LAST SEASON?

Colts owner Jim Irsay can be unpredictable, and he certainly was when he announced after last season that GM Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano would return. There were numerous reports last season that Grigson and Pagano had pretty much stopped speaking to each other. Practically everyone assumed one or both would have to go, then Irsay announced they were both returning. Huh? It’s not often you see a news conference with a GM and a coach to announce they’re both staying, much less one in which they all hug the owner and smile for the cameras. Both men had their contracts extended through 2019. Nobody saw that coming. Nobody can be sure it was the right move, either.

Maybe the hard feelings are behind them and Grigson and Pagano will live happily ever after. It wouldn’t be the first time the pressure of a losing season caused a relationship to briefly go sideways. It’s also OK to be skeptical. A fractured relationship between a coach and front office has wrecked talented teams before. It was a distraction for the Colts last year.

A year ago, a lot of people were picking the Colts to win a Super Bowl. It’s OK to admit it; a lot of people were on that bandwagon. Nobody is rolling those dice again this year. But Andrew Luck could be MVP of the league and nobody would be surprised. And if Luck returns with a vengeance after a down season and has one of those all-time breakout seasons he’s capable of … I’ll stop before I say something I regret.

Jim Irsay can be impulsive. Sure, he extended Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson less than a year ago, but a bad season might make him do a 180. And it might get bad for the Colts. Maybe we see Andrew Luck’s 2015 struggles continue behind a leaky offensive line with little help from the running game. And the defense doesn’t have much top-end talent. The Colts feasted off a bad AFC South in Luck’s first three seasons, going 16-2 against divisional foes and 17-13 against everyone else. The AFC South is improving, and the Colts can’t plan on getting fat by playing in a bad division anymore.

I keep going back and forth on the Colts, and I was down on them when I set these initial rankings. I am worried that placing them third in the AFC South is due to recency bias, and it ignores that for most of Andrew Luck’s career he has been very good and the Colts have won. But I don’t think the rest of the team is very deep and the Colts can’t pad their record by destroying the AFC South anymore. Look at the roster, outside of Luck, and tell me if it looks like a potential division champion on paper. And if Luck gets hurt, it’s over. The Colts are a tough team to gauge heading into this season. I’ll be watching them closely through August and adjust if necessary.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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