The Indianapolis Colts are having a surprising season as no one expected this team to be a playoff contender in the AFC already. Most experts thought the Colts would win two to three games max and contend for another top pick in next April's NFL draft.
The Colts have far exceeded those expectations. They've already won seven games and look primed to not only make the playoffs, but could make a good playoff run. All of this is coming very soon, though—the Colts still have some work to do to become a true title contender.
Indianapolis has the most cap room out of all 32 NFL teams for free agency next offseason and can shore up some problematic areas to become a Super Bowl threat as early as next season.
The Colts are vastly improved on the offensive side of the ball after ranking in the bottom half of nearly every offensive stat in 2011. This year, they rank fifth in total offense and in the top half in both passing and rushing. This is remarkable with so many rookies playing and making an impact on this team.
There's still a big problem with this side of the ball, and it's the offensive line. If it wasn't for Andrew Luck's athletic ability to break tackles and either scramble for help or run out of the pocket and hit a receiver this team could still be searching for its first win.
Luck has single handily kept this offense going by evading pressure and keeping plays alive. That can't happen for his whole career or the Colts would never get out of the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Next season, there's some big-name free agents on the offensive line. Guys like Jake Long, Sebastian Vollmer and Duane Brown are all free agents. If the Colts could sign one or two of these guys, they'd have the personnel to give Luck plenty of time to hit his speedy receivers.
Can you imagine a starting unit of Jake Long, Mike McGlynn, Samson Satele, Sebastian Vollmer and Anthony Castonzo? Or even worse-case Anthony Castonzo, Joe Reitz, Samson Satele, Mike McGlynn and Vollmer? Either way, getting some help is a serious upgrade that could lead this team to a Super Bowl.
This isn't a problematic spot for the Colts, but there's some serious talent available in free agency next season, and another piece could make this offense the best in the NFL. The receiving corps has done a tremendous job this season for being so young. Reggie Wayne is the only guy on the unit with 3+ years experience. The team is leaning on two rookie speedsters in T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill and two rookie tight ends in Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener.
Many of you may be asking, why add another veteran to this young talented group? The issue is Donnie Avery has been a huge surprise this year and has been a good go-to guy when Luck has been in trouble. Avery, though, is a free agent, and someone could pick him up. But, there's plenty out there for upgrades.
Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings and Wes Welker are all free agents. With Collie likely done with Indianapolis and Avery probably landing elsewhere, why not bring in one of these three? It would be an upgrade for sure. I believe Wallace could be the most likely out of the three.
Wallace played for this same system in Pittsburgh and thrived in it. He's a young, small, speedy guy who fits what Indianapolis is doing right now. He's not happy in Pittsburgh and would open up to leaving next year. Can you imagine that offensive line I mentioned in the previous slide with Andrew Luck, Wayne, one of these receivers, and Allen and Fleener in tight end sets. That would open up Hilton and Brazill to still grow more and take on the slot role.
There's not one defense that could stop this speedy and dominant lineup if the Colts do plan to go forward with a similar plan.
The Colts have been weak up front in their new-look 3-4 defense. It's not their fault—they just don't have the personnel to play in that system yet. Outside of free-agent pickup Cory Redding, this unit has been the biggest issue on this team.
With the guys being smaller than a traditional 3-4 scheme, they need to add some beef up front. There are a few guys out there in the free-agent market they could get, or they could utilize this position in the draft.
I'd like to see what rookie Josh Chapman can do this season. He's set to return from an injury that has kept him out all year. He's the big nose tackle this team needs. If he pans out, then all they need is an end opposite Redding, and they would have their line for the next three to five seasons.
The team will stop the run more with some more beef and talent up front. Fili Moala, Drake Nevis and Ricardo Matthews aren't built for this system.
The defensive line is problem area No. 1 for this team, but the cornerback situation is No. 2. This team hasn't received the production it has needed this year, going long spells without creating turnovers. That could be because of a lack of pressure by the front seven and a lack of tight coverage on the outside by the corners.
Jerraud Powers has been getting beat all year, and now that he's out for the season and a free agent next year I don't expect him back. Cassius Vaughn and Darius Butler have done the best in filling in for injuries, but they're not your go-to corners for the future.
The Vontae Davis trade is looking more and more like a bust. He's been getting beat badly when he plays, but he's been injury-prone as well. Davis has missed a big amount of time this season and doesn't look like the shutdown corner that they said he was.
With Powers likely being gone, that means the Colts need at least one shutdown corner and a couple of others to play in the nickel and dime situations. Corners like Brent Grimes and Tracy Porter are free agents and would be big guys to bring into this system.
The team desperately needs at least one of these guys, and that should help tremendously. With over $70 million in cap room, the Colts can sign four guys to max deals if they choose to. This is a position where I'd use that money.
The final spot the Colts need to upgrade is outside linebacker. The team moved former defensive linemen Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to these two starting spots in the offseason to anchor the new system. Both have been injured this year, but Mathis looks like he belongs. Freeney has been injured and unproductive.
With Freeney being a free agent next season and coming off of being the highest-paid player in the NFL this year, I don't think he's going to be a Colt anymore. Why in a rebuilding mode would you re-sign a player who's making $18 million a year and is unproductive and injury-prone?
I'd expect the Colts to use their first-round pick on this position. There's some talent in college right now that could fill in and start immediately. I don't think the coaching staff trusts Jerry Hughes to step in and start, so this is more than likely where they're going to go in the draft.
With an outside linebacker to go with Mathis, Kavell Conner, Pat Angerer and Jerrell Freeman, that could make this unit one of the strongest on the team.