After one year on the job, Ryan Grigson is looking pretty good.
The Colts made the playoffs with an 11-5 record just one year removed from a 2-14 reason, the surprise success of the year. With over $40 million in cap room this past offseason, the Colts look primed to build sustained success not unlike that of the Manning/Polian era.
However, the team is not to that level yet, and it’s really not even close.
But Indianapolis did make progress so far this offseason, improving the team via free agency. The Colts replaced a few horrific starters (like Winston Justice, Tom Zbikowski, Cassius Vaughn, etc.) with average or above-average players (like Gosder Cherilus, LaRon Landry and Greg Toler), thus strengthening their roster (even if they overpaid on some contracts).
So without any glaring weaknesses on the starting lineup (aside from Mike McGlynn), what is Ryan Grigson’s next step?
While there are a few different things that still need to happen, the most important step is for Grigson to draft or find some elite talent for the team.
Depth is great and necessary, but every great franchise has elite talent that propels them to a championship.
It starts at quarterback, of course, but every team over the last few years has had great talent at other positions as well. The Patriots of the day had great talent on defense as well as offensive line, then added elite talent at tight end and wide receiver in later years. The Steelers have had great pass rushers and guys like Troy Polamalu. The Manning Colts had Wayne and Harrison on the outside along with guys like Dallas Clark, Freeney, and Mathis.
Teams need to have elite playmakers on both sides of the ball. The Colts have a guy in Andrew Luck who looks to fill that role at quarterback for years to come, but nobody else really fits the bill. Wayne and Mathis are declining, although they may have a year or two left of solid “star” play left in them. But long-term stars need to be found.
Nobody on the offensive line really fits that bill, unless Cherilus’ 2012 is just the beginning of a long stretch of elite pass blocking. The rest of the Colts' offensive skill players are very good role players at best. On defense, Vontae Davis and Greg Toler have a chance to be a very good pair, but neither has shown themselves to be in the upper echelon.
The one couple of players that have a shot at this, long-term, are the two tight ends, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. If Fleener is more comfortable in Hamilton’s scheme, as I expect him to be, he’ll have a big jump in production. Allen already had a fantastic rookie year, and if he improves as a receiving weapon he’ll be a star very quickly.
But the Colts need to find elite talent somewhere in the draft, which is what great drafting teams do.
So, while the Colts likely would get the most value out of this year’s draft by trading down from their first pick, the benefit to keeping their first is that they have a much better chance of finding elite talent if they hang on to it.
It’s also the reason why I’ve proposed drafting guys like Desmond Trufant or Jonathan Cyprien. The starting lineup in the secondary is decent with Landry and Toler added to the list, but the Colts need to add a difference maker.
Other options I see as potential stars at that spot are wide receivers like Keenan Allen or DeAndre Hopkins, or possibly a defensive lineman such as Datone Jones.
The Colts had little chance to do this via free agency, with Andy Levitre, Mike Wallace and maybe a guy like Paul Kruger (although that has more bust potential than elite potential in my opinion).
So, the draft is where it is. The problem Grigson has now is the same one that eventually caught up to Bill Polian: it's hard to find elite talent in the draft when you're consistently drafting at a low position. Fortunately for Polian, he was able to find elite talent early in guys like Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Robert Mathis, etc.
Who has the best chance of being an elite talent long term for the Colts?
Grigson is going to need to find someone like that in the 2013 draft. It may not show up right away, but there needs to be a player who can develop into that. Mathis wasn't an elite player right away. Neither was Wayne or Clark. The Colts don't need an elite player in 2013, necessarily. But they do need one in 2014, 2015, and beyond, when players like Wayne and Mathis move on.
So, as I stated in my case for Jonathan Cyprien, there's nothing wrong with drafting a player who won't start right away if he has the potential to be a difference maker in the long run.
Those difference makers are the ones that propel you to championships.