Burning Questions for the Indianapolis Colts' 2013-14 Season
After the Indianapolis Colts' miraculous 2012 season, they entered the 2013 offseason with more questions than viewers after the Wachowskis botched the end of The Matrix franchise.
An awful offensive line paired with one of the league's poorest defenses left the Colts with numerous holes to fill. One offseason later, the Colts certainly look improved, but plenty of uncertainties remain.
Both sides of the ball have questions as we look toward the season opener against the Oakland Raiders, questions that have significant bearing on how the team performs in the second year of the Ryan Grigson/Chuck Pagano/Andrew Luck era.
Which questions are we focusing on as the season draws ever closer?
Where Will the Pass Rush Come From?
The Colts' defense has added a plethora of parts this offseason, both high-profile and lower-tier.
In the secondary, former Pro Bowler LaRon Landry and Greg Toler join Antoine Bethea and Vontae Davis to form a secondary with extremely high potential.
Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin join the Colts' starting defensive line, while veteran Erik Walden and rookie Bjoern Werner were added to the outside linebacker corp.
But with all the additions, the Colts still don't know where pass rush is going to come from. The team struggled to rush the passer last season, and now Dwight Freeney and Jerry Hughes (two of the team's top three pass-rushers in 2012) are gone.
Their replacements are either poor pass-rushers (Walden) or raw (Werner). The additions on the defensive line aren't strong pass-rushers either, and while they should greatly improve the run defense, their impact on pass rush is going to be marginal.
Robert Mathis remains, but can he handle being the sole threat as a pass-rusher?
Can the Secondary Handle the Load?
This question is twofold.
First, can the secondary handle coverage for lengths of time without the opposing quarterback being pressured? No matter how good a secondary is, they can't cover receivers forever. Whether or not the Colts can make up for their lack of pass rush with a strong secondary likely will decide whether the defense finishes in the top half of the league or the bottom half.
Second, can individuals in the secondary carry a starting load for 16 games?
Out of the Colts' four starters, Antoine Bethea is the only ironman. LaRon Landry has a well-known injury history, playing just nine and eight games in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Vontae Davis missed six games last year and four in 2011. Greg Toler has never played a full season and missed the entire 2011 campaign.
On top of injury concerns, Toler must prove that he can be a full-time starter, something he's never been before. If he can be as good as he's been in limited snaps in a starting role and the Colts can avoid major injury, this secondary has the potential to be a top-10 group.
Will Former Bench Players Be Full-Time Starters?
Among the Colts' free-agent signings in 2013 are several former rotational or bench players who will be counted upon to be starters for the 2013 Colts. Those players' success or failure will go a long way in determining the Colts' future.
While the aforementioned Toler has been discussed already, another defender is also coming from a rotational role: Ricky Jean Francois. Jean Francois was merely a depth defensive end in San Francisco behind Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, two of the best 3-4 ends in the NFL. In Indianapolis, however, Jean Francois will take a starting role, and the Colts will need him to take that in stride.
On offense, key offensive line addition Donald Thomas comes from New England after playing a depth role for the Patriots. Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly were the starters, but missed enough time that Thomas got on the field for over 600 snaps, and he played well. However, the pressure of being a full-time starter is something that Thomas has never had to deal with.
Will Key Second-Year Players Improve?
If all goes according to plan, the class of 2012 will go down as one of the all-time greats in Colts history.
The rookies played a huge role in the 2012 offense, lead by superstar quarterback Andrew Luck. While Luck stole the headlines, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, T.Y. Hilton and Vick Ballard had phenomenal rookie seasons in their own right. Defensively, Jerrell Freeman wasn't a rookie, but was a first-year player who was a major contributor for the defense, leading the team in tackles.
Now, heading into 2013, the team has high expectations. But to reach those expectations they'll need each of those second-year players to improve. Allen has already been one of the league's best all-around tight ends, but improvement along with Fleener's expected rise could give the Colts a potent duo. Hilton was a pleasant surprise as a rookie, but has room to improve as well.
It's been assumed by many fans and analysts that the players will naturally improve without a hitch. If that did happen, the team would be in a fantastic place. But if every rookie took the next step as a sophomore, there wouldn't be any failed draft picks.
Is Andrew Luck Going to Be Elite Sooner Rather Than Later?
While fans are excited about the 2013 Colts, the fact is that the roster is still much weaker across the board than many NFL teams.
Nevertheless, the team certainly could be a double-digit win team in 2013, and the reason lies in the second-year quarterback with poor shaving habits: Andrew Luck.
Fans and analysts alike have raved about Luck throughout the offseason, and for good reason. As a rookie, Luck displayed all of the traits necessary to be an elite quarterback but was unable to consistently put it together while carrying the 2012 team. With a bit more support and a more quarterback-friendly system under new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, Luck should see a notable improvement in 2013.
The question is whether or not the improvement will be enough. It's all but certain that Luck will become an elite quarterback (knock on wood), but when? It wouldn't surprise anybody if it happened this season, and if it did, the Colts would be serious contenders for the divisional crown.
Will the Offensive Line Improve?
Last season, the biggest detraction from the Colts' offense was the sieve of an offensive line.
While Anthony Castonzo was a solid left tackle and improved as the season progressed, the rest of the line was horrific.
At left guard, the Trio of Terror Seth Olsen, Jeff Linkenbach and Joe Reitz provided little continuity and even less praise-worthy play. Samson Satele was a bust of a free-agent signing last year, and was a terrifying pass-blocker. Right guard Mike McGlynn was one of the worst players in football last season and had no business being a starter. At right tackle, Winston Justice couldn't stay on the field, and when he did it produced mixed results.
This year, additions Donald Thomas and Gosder Cherilus attempt to shore up the line, along with rookies Hugh Thornton and Khaled Holmes. But, Cherilus has been less than impressive in the preseason, and Thomas alone won't be enough to improve the interior line if Satele and McGlynn are still starting.
If Thornton can start over McGlynn and Thomas and Cherilus pan out, the Colts' offense has no limits. If the line struggles anywhere near as much as they did last year, offensive improvement will not be as noticeable.
Can Chuck Pagano Coach?
Chuck Pagano's inspirational story was a key part of the 2012 Colts' unexpected run, but the team has to move on in 2013.
The reality is that nobody knows if Pagano can actually coach. While he's a great leader and relational person in the clubhouse, his game-day coaching skills are unknown. The team went 2-2 with Pagano on the sidelines, and his poor decisions at the end of the Colts' Week 2 game against Jacksonville was a key part of that loss.
Can Pagano coach the Colts to as many close wins as Bruce Arians did last year? Can he make effective halftime adjustments?
I'd like to say yes, but frankly, we don't know.
Who Will Be the Second Wide Receiver, Really?
So far this preseason, Darrius Heyward-Bey has been the Colts' second receiver in two-receiver offensive sets. While Heyward-Bey has a lot of natural talent, T.Y. Hilton has earned a chance to be a full-time starter.
Hilton turned in one of the best rookie seasons since 2000 last year and has looked great in the preseason, scoring in each of the first three preseason games and displaying improved hands. Hilton's connection with Luck looked great during training camp, and he's set up for a big year, both in fantasy football and in "real" impact.
Heyward-Bey certainly has potential to break out in Indianapolis, where he'll have a top-tier quarterback for the first time in his career. So far, it seems like the Colts are set on giving him the chance. But will it last? If Hilton continues his tear and Heyward-Bey is inconsistent, don't be surprised if Hilton ends the season with more snaps.
Can Clutch Conduct Continue?
Last season, the Colts were outscored by their opponents by 30 points. They were the first team in NFL history to win at least 11 games while being outscored by their opponents.
How did they do it? Close wins.
The Colts went 9-1 in games decided by seven points or less, something that may not be sustainable in 2013. The biggest reason for their clutch success: Andrew Luck.
Luck had one of the league's best seasons in recent history in the final two minutes of halves, where he stole points by leading incredibly quick scoring drives. He was brilliant in those situations, as Bruce Arians got out of the way and let Luck run the show.
But can he continue that success? He won't surprise anybody this season, and his one shot at a two-minute drill in the preseason (the Colts' third game against the Browns) was a massive failure.
How Will the Season End?
The answer to this question depends on the answer to the previous nine.
While the team's key additions and young players' progression will go a long way in determining Indianapolis' fate, the true steering wheel of this team is Andrew Luck. He can carry this roster to 10 wins, even the division title. Is that fair to ask of a second-year pro with a questionable offensive line and little support from the run game?
But it will get asked of him anyway. Because we think he can do it.