Andrew Luck took the NFL by storm last season, along with fellow rookie quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Fans of all three teams hope their respective quarterbacks will lead their teams into a decade-long run of success.
The first step toward those franchise quarterbacks is their second year in the league. The second year, where players often make their biggest leaps, is known for quarterbacks to produce "sophomore slumps."
While the sophomore slump idea may be a bit exaggerated, the second year is a crucial one for young quarterbacks' growth. If Luck is to be the next Peyton Manning for Colts fans, a consistently elite quarterback for years to come, his growth in 2013 will be immeasurably important.
I've already covered a few steps Luck needs to take this offseason, including improving his pocket presence, eye movement and sailing throws. But what can the Colts do to ensure their quarterback's growth and success this year?
Protect the Future of the Franchise
It's been talked about ad nauseum this offseason, but the Colts' pass protection in 2012 was simply horrendous.
There are a myriad of numbers that back that assertion up, although anybody who watched the Colts last season would have recognized it.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required), for example, graded the Colts' team as the second-worst team in pass protection in 2012, with only Arizona grading lower. PFF also charted 268 dropbacks in which Luck was pressured (sack, hit or hurried) 44 more times than any other quarterback. Luck was pressured on over 38 percent of his dropbacks, putting him in the top four for 2012.
Again, it wasn't a controversial statement to say that Luck had the worst offensive line of any of the young quarterbacks, and improving on that was the No. 1 priority this offseason. Not only does the pressure make it more difficult to succeed throwing the ball, but allowing him to get hit that much exposes him to injury at a much higher rate than anybody in the Colts organization would like.
The Colts realized these concerns and have addressed them at every level this offseason.
First, they signed right tackle Gosder Cherilus to a five-year, $34 million contract in free agency. While the contract may be a bit exorbitant for a right tackle, Cherilus had a great year in 2012. Marc Sessler of NFL.com recently called him "arguably the NFL's second-best right tackle," and PFF would agree, grading him as the second-best right tackle (and the best in pass-blocking) and eighth-best tackle overall in 2012.
The Colts also signed guard Donald Thomas to a four-year, $14 million contract in free agency. Thomas isn't a pass-blocking specialist like Cherilus, but he should be a definitive upgrade over the Seth Olsen/Joe Reitz/Jeff Linkenbach trio at left guard.
But the upgrades didn't stop there, as the Colts drafted G Hugh Thornton and C Khaled Holmes in the third and fourth rounds of the NFL draft. Thornton will compete with Mike McGlynn for the right guard spot, and Holmes will compete with Samson Satele to start at center.
Holmes should have a better chance than Thornton during his rookie year, but both could potentially start, giving the Colts four possible new starters in 2013.
Finally, the Colts just signed running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who will be a key player in the running back rotation. Bradshaw is talented in varying areas, including pass protection, where Vick Ballard and Donald Brown struggled in 2012.
The Colts certainly addressed the issue, and it should pay off in 2013. Luck's development depends on it.
Provide Check-down Options
Another move the Colts need to make in 2013 to help Luck's development is to vary his targets' route trees. In 2012, the downfield nature of Bruce Arians' offense sent just about every receiver deep downfield on each and every passing play.
That's an exaggeration, of course, but not as much as you might think. Luck led the league in deep passing attempts (targeting a receiver 20 yards downfield or more), and numerous drives stalled because of the lack of short check-down routes available to Luck.
That lack of checkdowns halted drives in two distinct ways.
First, the lack of route diversity allowed defenses to sit back on deep routes, giving their defensive line time to get to Luck. Take this play against Houston in the season finale for example.
As you can see, the Colts only send three receivers on this play. Wayne runs a 10-yard out on the right side, Donnie Avery runs a streak on the left side and Coby Fleener runs a 15-yard post down the seam.
I've highlighted the empty space in the middle of the field on this play to show how easily the Texans could defend this play with just four defenders (red). While going deep on 2nd-and-5 isn't a bad strategy in and of itself, not giving Luck any short options in the middle gave the defense enough time to get to him for the sack.
If Luck didn't get sacked on these plays, he too often would attempt to force the ball down the field, with no check-down options to take the short gain on the play. For an example of this, we look to the Colts' loss to the Jaguars.
Once again, the Colts send just three receivers downfield, with two streaks and one post down the seam. No short or intermediate routes are used on the play.
With a lack of options (depth-wise), Luck tries to force the ball down the seam to Wayne. The ball is slightly underthrown and results in this interception.
Admittedly, Luck stared Wayne down on the play, something he needs to improve on next season, but regardless, the design of the play doesn't give him the options he needs. It was first down, in the second half of the game where the Colts needed a long, time-consuming drive to put the game in their control. Taking unnecessary shots downfield without giving Luck an out was simply reckless.
Pep Hamilton's West Coast-centric offense should give Luck the shorter options desired, such as the Spider 2 Y Banana play made famous by Jon Gruden's session with Andrew Luck prior to the 2012 draft.
Note: As reader Jared Bowers pointed out, a great example of how the check down options can excel is the Colts' game-winning touchdown against Detroit. Donnie Avery filled the space vacated by defenders covering down the field, and had plenty of room to waltz into the endzone.
Put Him in a (Field) Position to Succeed
The final step the Colts can take is making sure that Andrew Luck is given better field position. The Colts started their average drive on the 24.35 yard line, rating 30th in average field position, according to Football Outsiders' drive stats.
That poor field position was one reason why the Colts were able to move the ball very well (fourth in average yards per drive) but failed to score as many points as expected (just 18th in points per drive).
Luck was able to start a drive inside enemy territory just seven times in 2012, and didn't turn the ball over on any of those seven drives. The Colts also went 5-1 in the six games when it happened, and scored over double the points per drive as their usual number. Unfortunately, it simply didn't happen enough.
With the poor field position, Luck tried to do too much at times, forcing the ball down the field instead of taking what the defense gave him.
The Colts will need to improve that field position in 2013 in two ways.
First is to improve on special teams. The Colts weren't horrible returning the ball in 2012, but there are definite areas that could use improvement.
The Colts were just 20th in the league in yards per kick return in 2012, not a horrible number but not a good one either. Deji Karim, the team's best kick returner last season, is gone as well, leaving a hole that needs to be filled.
In punt returns, T.Y. Hilton powered the Colts to seventh in the league at over 11 yards per return. The problem was, the Colts simply didn't give him a chance to return enough, averaging less than 20 yards per game (20th in the league). If the Colts' punt return unit can give him room to return more consistently, the Colts' field position should improve.
Second, the Colts defense needs to increase their turnovers in 2013.
Averaging just one turnover per game for the season, the Colts finished 29th in the league for the season. They improved near the end of the season, averaging 2.3 per game over the last three games, but they need that kind of effort to be more consistent.
The team tried to fix that by bringing in S LaRon Landry and CB Greg Toler in free agency. Toler has great range at cornerback with good ball skills, and Landry is an enforcer whose constant activity in the defensive backfield will certainly cause some turnovers in 2013. The Colts' secondary should be much better this season, barring catastrophic injuries.
But they won't have a chance to show much if the Colts can't get pressure on the quarterback, something they struggled to do in 2012. Bjoern Werner will play a huge role in that this season, filling the role as pass-rusher opposite Robert Mathis. The Colts will get a slight boost in interior pass rush this season with an improved defensive line, but it won't be nearly enough to offset the loss of Dwight Freeney unless Werner plays well.
Expect the defensive coaches to use a lot of misdirection and confusion to open things up for their pass-rushers as they try to get to the quarterback any way they can.
I don't expect Luck to suffer from a sophomore slump in 2013. He's too talented and the roster around him has improved enough that he should be in a better position to succeed this season.
But if the Colts fail to improve in these areas, especially the first two, all bets are off. Luck can only do so much himself to improve. The team simply has to put him in a position to develop, and improving his surroundings is the biggest key for that.
Based on the steps they've taken this offseason, it seems evident the Colts realize what they have to do and aren't afraid to spend the money necessary to do it. Now we just have to wait and see if it will pay off.
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