The Indianapolis Colts have only played seven games this season, but with the bye week now behind us, it seems as good of a time as any to begin our midseason review of the team's roster.
The Colts are 5-2 after seven games and have looked like the class of the NFL at times with quality wins over Seattle, San Francisco and Denver. Of course, there are those pesky losses to Miami and San Diego on the schedule, but overall, it's tough to complain about where the Colts are at this point in the season.
Indianapolis has a two-game lead in the division and is in the running for a bye in the playoffs, and the team is infected with an energy and confidence that makes them a threat to any team in the league.
So who has gotten the Colts here? Which units have played well, and which ones have played phenomenally?
Based solely upon each unit's performance throughout the Colts' first seven games, here is a grade for each positional unit.
Andrew Luck had a phenomenal rookie season, but he has improved by leaps and bounds in his second NFL season. Luck is more accurate, is making better decisions and has taken on more responsibility, both pre-snap and in the huddle.
As a result, Luck has improved his stats across the board. He likely won't throw for as many yards this season (he's on pace for about 3,600 yards after throwing an NFL rookie-record 4,374 yards last season), but his rate stats have improved tremendously.
Last season, Luck's biggest faults were his accuracy and his tendency to turn the ball over, whether that was via interceptions or fumbles in the pocket. This season, he's been noticeably more accurate (although it's not one of his particular strengths), and he has been exceptional at taking care of the ball. Luck has just three interceptions and one lost fumble through seven games after turning the ball over 23 times as a rookie.
Because of the leap in his play, Luck is getting plenty of praise, both locally and nationally. He's been included in multiple MVP lists and has been playing like a top-five quarterback this season. With his superb play, the Colts are 5-2 and have the league's most impressive slate of wins with victories over Seattle, San Francisco and Denver.
Midseason Grade: A
Running back is a hard position to grade at this point in the season.
The Colts' top-two backs at the beginning of the season, Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw, were the Colts' best runners and backfield pass-protectors. Both players are now gone for the season, but both players performed well when they had a chance.
The two halfbacks the Colts have left are contrasting stories.
Trent Richardson has disappointed since coming to Indianapolis in return for a first-round pick. As I previously noted, the trade has been a massive bust thus far, and Richardson has looked indecisive and slow in his first five games as a Colt.
Richardson has done a good job of breaking tackles, but he has struggled to take advantage of broken tackles to gain extra yardage (although he hasn't been aided by a poor usage strategy from the Indianapolis coaches).
The stats tell a similar story: Richardson has averaged just 3.0 yards per carry in Indianapolis and has negative WPA and EPA marks from Advanced Football Stats as well as negative DVOA and DYAR stats from Football Outsiders.
Donald Brown, on the other hand, has flourished in his role as a change-of-pace back for Indianapolis. Used often in passing sets and hurry-up situations, Brown is currently averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Advanced metrics tell a similar story, as Brown has posted exceptional DVOA and DYAR numbers, per Football Outsiders.
Overall, the running game has been a mixed bag for the Colts, and that's probably generous.
Midseason Grade: C
Unfortunately for Indianapolis, this grade comes with an asterisk, simply because they won't be able to expect the same production after losing Reggie Wayne for the season.
Wayne has had a few more noticeable drops than usual this season, but he was still the Colts' most frequent target through the air. Wayne was especially important in crucial situations and was responsible for nearly a third of all of Luck's third-down and red-zone attempts. Because of his play, Wayne was ranked as the 10th-best receiver in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, through the first seven weeks.
The rest of the receivers have been a mixed bag, at best. T.Y. Hilton reminded us of what he could do against Seattle, when he impressed as both a deep threat and a possession receiver, but he's been incredibly inconsistent on the year. Hilton had huge games against Seattle and Miami this year, but he has been held to less than 50 yards in every other contest.
Darrius Heyward-Bey has shown flashes of talent but has been a disappointment overall. He's been a strong blocker, which has helped the running game (when the backs can get to the second level), but he rarely gets separation and rarely makes catches in traffic.
WR/KR David Reed was unimpressive as a returner and hasn't contributed as a receiver. LaVon Brazill should see his role increase in Wayne's absence, but he has not been a big part of the game plan thus far.
Midseason Grade: B-
Injuries have ravaged the Colts here as well. Dwayne Allen, the Colts' No. 1 tight end coming into the year, was lost in Week 1 and won't be back this season.
So, the bulk of the responsibility has fallen on Coby Fleener, who has had his share of ups and downs. Fleener has improved since last year, though, and is currently on pace for 50 catches, over 500 yards and six touchdowns.
One area that has noticeably improved is Fleener's ability to make catches in traffic, which he struggled with last season. He does have one particularly costly drop on the season, but it was his only drop, and he's been fairly reliable.
The one area that's been concerning is his lack of after-the-catch dynamism. Fleener has routinely been asked to run routes short of the first-down marker and has been stopped short of the first down far too often.
If the Colts are going to use him like that, he must be able to break a tackle or outrun a linebacker in order to pick up the first down.
Midseason Grade: B
The offensive line is definitely still the Colts' biggest weakness on offense. However, they've played surprisingly well at times, even without the services of starting left guard Donald Thomas, who was another victim of the 2013 Colts' injured reserve designation.
The positive for the Colts' offensive line are the tackles, Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus, both of whom have played very well to start the season. Both players have limited the amount of penalties called on them while also either playing very well in terms of run-blocking (Castonzo) or pass-protecting (Cherilus). In their weaker area, both players have been passable at worst, and both are ranked in the top 20 for tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
The interior line, however, has been the opposite. Mike McGlynn, Samson Satele and Hugh Thornton have all played poorly, and the Colts have struggled to run the ball effectively inside. The Colts offensive line's biggest problem is that they're prone to all make mistakes at different times. It's hard to point to a play where every lineman does his job, so there's most likely pressure or a blown run-block on every play.
Midseason Grade: C-
In one sense, the Colts' defensive line has been a pleasant surprise.
No one expected the line to contribute much in terms of pass rush this season, but the Colts have actually been able to get pressure with their down linemen (namely Cory Redding and Fili Moala) somewhat consistently. This hasn't resulted in a huge amount of sacks (although the team is in the top half of the league in adjusted sack rate, per Football Outsiders), but it has been a big help in the Colts' ability to frustrate opposing quarterbacks and get critical stops.
On the other hand, the defensive line that was supposed to make a huge improvement in terms of run defense, but they have struggled in that area thus far. They were able to stifle Denver in Week 7, but they are still 27th in Football Outsiders' run defense DVOA metric. This isn't because the individual linemen are playing poorly, but a lack of linebacker depth and no outstanding run-defenders on the line have led to long stretches where the Colts have been unable to defend the run.
This was an especially egregious problem against San Diego, who controlled the line of scrimmage throughout the game.
Individually, all of the Colts defensive linemen have been passable, at worst, in run defense, but as a unit, they simply aren't clogging running lanes enough.
Midseason Grade: B
Overall, this has been a solid unit for Indianapolis this season—although, again, injuries have caused some very infuriating instances.
Robert Mathis has been the rock of the unit and leads the NFL with 11.5 sacks through seven games. Mathis' only game without a sack came against San Diego, as he's had multiple sacks in five of seven games. He hasn't been great in run defense, but he actually has a positive grade from Pro Football Focus in that regard.
Jerrell Freeman and Pat Angerer have played reasonably well at inside linebacker. Both have been productive blitzers and have had a lot of energy against the run. Pass coverage could use some improvement, but they've been solid overall. Their backups, Kelvin Sheppard and Mario Harvey, however, have been putrid. Angerer and Freeman need to stay healthy for the rest of the season.
Erik Walden has been very Walden-like. He's contributed a few quarterback pressures, but it has not nearly been enough to offset his poor edge-setting in the run game and his horrific pass coverage. Bjoern Werner healing and getting back into the rotation can only be a good thing.
Midseason Grade: B
The most pleasantly surprising unit for Indianapolis thus far, everything has gone right for the Colts' secondary, and it's largely due to the emergence of Vontae Davis as a true No. 1 cornerback.
Davis is allowing just 0.75 yards per coverage snap this season, tied for fourth-best in the NFL among 68 qualifying corners, per Pro Football Focus. Davis' most impressive game came against Denver, when he shut down Demaryius Thomas and any other Denver receiver that he was assigned to, allowing just three receptions for 12 yards. His grade from Pro Football Focus in that game was the highest they've ever recorded for a cornerback.
Davis has had help, however. Darius Butler has played well as a slot corner for Indianapolis, and Greg Toler has been helpful at times as well. Toler is inconsistent, but with the way Davis and Butler are playing, the Colts can live with it.
The improved safety play this season is extremely notable as well. With LaRon Landry next to Antoine Bethea, the duo has been able to lead the secondary to the seventh best pass defense in the league in terms of DVOA, per Football Outsiders. Backup Delano Howell has played well in spurts as well, but the team is much better with Landry, who has yet to miss a tackle on the season.
Midseason Grade: A+
Despite a few shaky games, Pat McAfee was absolutely brilliant against Denver in Week 7, and he is a big reason why the Colts' opponents have the seventh-worst starting field position in the league. McAfee currently has the fourth-best punting grade from Pro Football Focus. Oh, and we haven't even begun talking about the hit he laid on Trenton Holliday.
Adam Vinatieri, meanwhile, continues to defy age. He's missed just two kicks on the year, both from 50-plus yards out. Vinatieri has been asked to make difficult kicks too, as 11 of his attempts have come from 40-plus yards, the most in the league. He's as dependable as it comes.
Overall, the Colts are eighth in special teams DVOA, per Football Outsiders, which would be the highest they've finished since 1996.
Midseason Grade: A-