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Andrew Luck Set Up to Join the NFL's QB Elite in 2015

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterMay 31, 2015

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Entering his fourth season, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is on the verge of becoming a part of the conversation about the great quarterbacks in the gameand, correspondingly, of striking one of the richest deals in NFL history. He is a player who checks off every box on every scouting report, a player who can remind you of Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady.

His pro size, athletic ability, arm strength, vision and natural instincts jump off the tape. He can put the ball on a receiver's upfield shoulder on an inside breaking route, drop a throw in the bucket down the sideline and use his awareness and athleticism in the pocket to create throwing lanes or time to work through his progressions—a key for a young quarterback facing the multiple coverage looks featured by NFL defenses. He understands eye level, can make plays outside the pocket and is advancing from a quarterback who locks on to a receiver to one who may soon be able to manipulate defenses on a consistent basis.

In short, Luck gets it. You can see that in the highlight reels, and you can see it in the stats (4,761 yards, 40 touchdowns) from the 2014 season. 

But we shouldn't get carried away by the skill set, the highlights and the stats just yet. When watching Luck's tape, it's clear that he hasn't fully arrived just yet.

There are areas of Luck's game that must improve in order for him to reach his extremely high ceiling. The Colts upgraded their offense in the offseason, adding speed and proven veterans. Now they need Luck to take his game to the highest level, too.

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Aggressive...or Reckless?

Watching the tape of his 2014 season, you will still see situations in which Luck can play reckless football—trying to make a play in a situation where that should be avoided. He presses at times and takes chances when there's an option to dump the ball or eat it. In other words, he has a little Brett Favre in him.

Now, quarterbacks need to be aggressive and challenge every secondary on Sundays, but the turnovers (16 interceptions) and ball security (eight fumbles) must be improved.

The offensive upgrades the Colts made this offseason will help him improve in this area. Adding more speed and a veteran like Andre Johnson will allow Luck to trust more progressions within a play, come off his top option and spread the ball around.

Watching him against the Patriots in the playoffs, you could see that he can get frustrated when he doesn't have options—and that can lead to a slow start. He missed on some opportunities in that game, and unlike in the divisional round versus the Broncos, when T.Y. Hilton absolutely owned Aqib Talib at the top of his routes, the Patriots played a more lockdown, physical style against the Colts' offensive weapons.

Here's one example of what I'm talking about:

Bleacher Report

This is a dig route against the Patriots' Cover 1 defense. It's a good example of Luck showing signs of panic, which turns into a negative situation because of the pressure up the field and tight coverage from Darrelle Revis.

Luck is trying to make a play here, but he can't set his feet because of the pressure, and Revis is in Reggie Wayne's back pocket. Even with a throw that's on time—and to the proper shoulder—Revis is in a position to play through the catch point or undercut the route given the safety help over the top. The result is an interception.

Here's another example, this one against the Broncos running an OVS (sprint) against Cover 1:

Bleacher Report

With the ball into the boundary and an offset back to the trips alignment, this is an easy pre-snap read for the Broncos secondary and an automatic alert to the sprint game. The Colts run the same three-level concept we looked at above, with Luck attempting to target Donte Moncrief on the deep vertical route.

But with safety Rahim Moore playing with the proper depth, and Luck chucking this throw down the field, it's an easy play for the Broncos safety to drive top-down like a center fielder in baseball. Slide with the quarterback and go attack the ball.

I understand this is a third-down throw, but a jump-ball situation against a single-high safety look never ends well. 

Here's one final example, on a flat route (pick) against the Patriots' Cover 1 defense:

Bleacher Report

I wanted to get this one up because Revis baits Luck into making this throw when the ball doesn't come out quick enough off the pick from a bunch alignment.

As you can see, the Colts are trying to set a pick for Hilton to move the sticks on third down, with the No. 1 receiver releasing inside to create traffic. That allows Hilton to burst to the flat and get his head around. But once Revis plays off the inside release (and essentially baits Luck into making this throw), the All-Pro cornerback can slide into the throwing lane to make the interception.

It's a smart play by Revis to identify the route based on the down and distance, but it's also a careless toss from Luck that is predetermined given the route combination.

The Positive Side

It's obviously not all negative in the All-22 tape. It's also clear why Luck is already producing big-time numbers: He can make all the throws, and he has an elite ability to read a defense, the latter of which should—with experience and improved personnel around him—translate into fewer reckless decisions.

Take this deep crossing route against the Bengals, playing Cover 1 pressure:

Bleacher Report

With Cincinnati bringing strong safety pressure to the closed side of the formation, Luck identifies the blitz and is forced to step up into the pocket. But Luck never drops his eye level and targets Moncrief on the deep crossing (or over) route against a single-high look in the middle of the field.

This allows Moncrief to separate from the cornerback in coverage and cut in front of the free safety, with Luck delivering one of the best throws I've seen in years from an unbalanced position.

This is a heck of a toss—on the playoff stage—that started with the awareness of Luck to recognize the blitz while finding an open lane to step up and launch this ball from an unnatural throwing platform.

Here's another example, on a pin route against the Broncos' combo-man defense.

Bleacher Report

Out of an empty alignment, the Colts run the pin (post-dig combo) with wide receiver Hakeem Nicks on the post. This is the perfect example of Luck buying time in the pocket to create an opportunity for his receivers to come back to the ball.

Check out Luck from the end-zone angle. Again, we start with the vision as Luck steps up, and then slides, without dropping his eyes. That allows the quarterback to keep his eyes up the field while using that pocket awareness to create a throwing lane to target Nicks.

The throw? It has some heat on it, and Luck identifies Nicks creating leverage versus the defensive back. This is a good example of the quarterback extending the play to take advantage of the coverage look in the secondary.

Here's one last example, on an OVS against the Patriots' Cover 1 defense:

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The Colts had some real issues against the Patriots secondary in the AFC Championship Game, but I love this play from Luck—a deep, three-level concept with Hilton on the corner route.

This is one of those tosses that you have to rewind over and over again because of the ball placement given the tight coverage and extremely small window into the boundary. From the end-zone angle, we can see Luck throw his shoulder forward versus pressure up the field. That is exactly what you want from the quarterback, as it allows him to reset and throw from a balanced platform.

And the placement here is just beautiful, with Lucking dropping a dime over the upfield shoulder of Hilton. A true, bucket toss.

Offensive Upgrades 

The Colts offense in 2015 will have track speed on the field, a proven veteran at wide receiver to move the sticks and a durable, tough running back to close out games after Indianapolis drafted Phillip Dorsett and added both Johnson and Frank Gore via free agency.

There was some criticism of the Colts selecting Dorsett in the first round, but he has rare speed (4.2-second range in the 40-yard dash) and the ability to produce after the catch, giving their offense an extra dynamic. Put Dorsett and Hilton on the field and let them test the top of the defense.

With Johnson, the Colts get a short to intermediate route-runner with the frame and catch radius to win on inside breaking routes, produce on the quick fade and convert on third downs. Plus, don't forget about Johnson as a top target for Luck once the Colts move the ball into the red zone. At this stage of his career, Johnson isn't going to consistently run past defenders, but his veteran experience and route-running ability is a key part of the Colts wide receiver group.

The Colts will have the option of spreading the field and using an uptempo approach to throw the football given the new additions to go along with Hilton and Moncrief, but don't forget about Gore's ability to get small in the hole and wear down opposing defenses. That's a bonus in the fourth quarter to close out wins with the running game.

Given the contract Luck is expected to get and the skill set that will continue to progress, building around the quarterback is the right idea in Indianapolis. Add talent, speed and veteran production to create an offense that can flip the game plan weekly based on the opponent and defeat man coverage in the secondary.

Luck is right there on the doorstep when looking at the top quarterbacks in today's NFL. The size, skill set, athletic ability...the list goes on with the Colts' signal-caller. He's a true talent with an incredibly high ceiling.

And this year, he is set up to take that next positive step.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.

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