Can Andrew Luck Rejoin NFL's Elite Quarterback Class in 2016?

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJuly 3, 2016

What will it take for Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to rebound in 2016?
What will it take for Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to rebound in 2016?Michael Conroy/Associated Press

The Indianapolis Colts have finally signed star quarterback Andrew Luck to a long-term contract extension. Barring a trade, the standout Stanford product will remain in Indianapolis through at least the 2021 season.

There was never much speculation that Luck would hold out for a new deal or had ideas of playing for a different team, of course. Yet Colts fans should take comfort in the fact that their team looks to be set at the most important position for the next several years.

Now that questions regarding the quarterback's financial future have been answered, Luck and the Colts can turn their attention to the other big remaining question.

What will it take for Luck to again be an elite signal-caller?

We're well aware that the "elite" label gets thrown around all too casually these days, but Luck certainly played to that standard in 2014. He finished the regular season with 4,761 yards passing, 40 touchdowns and a passer rating of 96.5. He also rushed for 273 yards and three more scores. Oh, and he helped lead the Colts to the AFC title game.

It was Luck's overall performance in 2014—along with the fact he took Indianapolis to the postseason in each of his first three pro seasons—that prompted the team to agree to the recent megadeal. As ESPN's Adam Schefter recently pointed out, the Colts value Luck enough to guarantee him $60 million by the start of next season:

What's easy to forget in the haze of Luck's injuries last season is the fact that his play—even when fully healthy—was not indicative of an elite talent. In fact, Luck was downright bad at times last season, something he has even admitted himself.

"Injuries aside, I was not playing very good football—before they happened," Luck told ESPN (via Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk). "I've got to be better. Toward my last couple games, I felt like I was playing much better, trending in the right direction."

In seven games last season, Luck completed just 55.3 percent of his passes, tossed 12 interceptions to 15 touchdowns and posted a career-low passer rating of 74.9.

If Luck and the Colts are going to justify the new deal, both parties are going to have to get the quarterback back on the path to success.

Make no mistake: Luck can return to being a top-tier quarterback in 2016. We're going to take a detailed look at what each party needs to accomplish in order for that to happen.

Protection

Naturally, the Colts need to protect their quarterback investment as well as possible. Luck simply cannot be an effective quarterback if he cannot stay on the field. The Colts took a big, if underrated, step in the offseason by drafting former Alabama center Ryan Kelly. 

People often overlook the center position in today's NFL, but quarterbacks such as Luck can benefit from having a quality one in the middle of the line. Not only will a top-flight center be able to strengthen the interior of the line, but he will help recognize opposing defenses and take some of the pre-snap pressure off the quarterback.

While the addition of Kelly should help improve the line in front of Luck, it's worth noting that the Colts line wasn't exactly a disaster last year. Pro Football Focus actually rated the Colts a respectable 12th overall in pass blocking last season.

Luck was only sacked 15 times in his seven appearances last season, which should stress the importance of the quarterback learning how to protect himself.

Although teams usually like to see their quarterbacks stand in the pocket and take the occasional hit while delivering the ball, Luck seems to take far too many shots while doing so. Luck also has a habit of fighting for extra yards when running the ball and attempting tackles following turnovers. These are habits that a $140 million quarterback has to break.

Luck's willingness to initiate contact dates back to his college days.

It was a scrambling play gone wrong that led to Luck's lacerated kidney and ultimately the end of his 2015 season. The quarterback knows this is an area in which he must improve.

“Part of it I brought upon myself for not sliding in certain situations,” Luck said, per Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star. “There’s a time and a place for taking a hit; I’m not going to apologize in that sense, because sometimes it’s appropriate. But sliding is something I need to improve on, but we’ve talked about that before. It’s no secret.”

If Luck cannot learn to protect himself, he'll never stay on the field long enough to become a truly elite quarterback.

Field an Effective Running Game

One way the Colts can help protect Luck is by fielding an effective ground game. This would help take some of the pressure off Luck's shoulders and reduce his injury risk. The team averaged just 89.9 yards per game on the ground last season—29th in the NFL—which naturally left the Colts quarterbacks lifting the heavy end of the offense.

Not only would an effective rushing attack help slow the opposing pass rush, but it would limit Luck's exposure to big hits and potential injury. The Stanford product is far less apt to take hard shots if he doesn't have the football in his hand.

Producing a top-level ground game is easier said than done, of course, and Indianapolis has taken steps to address the issue in recent years. The team traded for former third overall pick Trent Richardson a couple of years ago and added five-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore last offseason.

Unfortunately, Richardson was a complete bust, and Gore averaged just 3.7 yards per carry last year.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 03:  Frank Gore #23 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball against the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Indianapolis needs to evaluate its rushing options heading into this season. The 33-year-old Gore is again looking like the team's top option—other backs on the roster include Robert Turbin and Jordan Todman—but if he cannot be an effective starter, the Colts need to search elsewhere.

One of the worst things the Colts can do this season is allow Luck to lead a one-dimensional offense. He'll have a heck of a time trying to be a successful quarterback if opposing defenses can sell out to stop him.

Establish an Outlet Receiver and Get the Ball Out Quickly

We've talked about Luck's tendency to take hits even while getting the ball out to his receivers. If Luck wants to eliminate this trend, he needs to start getting the ball out quicker. He and the Colts need to identify a couple of reliable checkdown options to utilize in order to make this happen.

A couple of seasons ago, Luck was able to rely on veteran running back Ahmad Bradshaw as an outlet option. Bradshaw caught 38 passes for 300 yards and six scores in his 10 appearances in 2014. Luck took just 15 sacks in those 10 games; he took 12 in the six games without Bradshaw.

Gore caught just 34 passes for 267 yards all of last season. Luck and the Colts need to take better advantage of his receiving ability or find a pass-catching back who can help fill the receiving role.

Using the tight end position should also help Luck deliver more quick checkdown passes under pressure. Now that former Stanford teammate Coby Fleener is a member of the New Orleans Saints, Luck will need to rely on fifth-year tight end Dwayne Allen.

Indianapolis handed Allen a new four-year, $29.4 million contract this offseason. If he isn't a major part of the offense moving forward, then there's something seriously wrong.

If the Colts can provide Luck with adequate checkdown options—and Luck is willing to utilize them—then his injury risk should decrease. In addition, short, reliable passes should help Luck increase his completion percentage and his chances of overall success.

Limit Turnovers

This one is all on Luck himself. Though he is blessed with all the physical talent a quarterback could want, Luck still hasn't shaken his penchant for head-scratching decisions.

In his four years as a pro, Luck has thrown 55 interceptions and has lost 14 fumbles. This is inexcusable for any quarterback hoping to earn that elite label. Not only is Luck hurting himself by turning the ball over, but he consistently puts his team in a bad position.

Luck has to learn to make better decisions on the field. He has to start taking the easy completion from time to time, stop forcing the ball downfield into tight coverage and stop holding the ball long enough to fumble it. Fortunately, this is the one area that Luck can mentally address on his own.

He just has to be willing to accept the fact that he can't always will himself to that game-changing play. Punting the ball isn't always a bad thing. Repeated turnovers can be a killer.

The Bottom Line

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The reality is that Luck has shown in the past that he can be a top-flight quarterback. His mechanics are solid, his talent is extraordinary, and he is blessed to have a cadre of high-caliber pass-catchers. 

In order for Luck to establish himself as a truly elite quarterback, he needs to change the way he plays—but not drastically. He needs to be a bit more conservative and learn to make better decisions, but Luck doesn't require a drastic overhaul.

The Colts must protect their quarterback, but they also need to bring more balance to the offense itself. Finding some ways to improve a defense that Pro Football Focus rated 22nd overall last season would help. The overall goal for Indianapolis should be to take pressure off Luck's shoulders as much as possible.

The Colts don't need to turn Luck into a game-managing quarterback, but they should afford him stretches of playing time in which he only needs to manage the game.

If the Colts and their quarterback can accomplish these goals, Luck should be back to bordering on elite status in 2016—and Indianapolis will have a good chance to get back to the playoffs as well.

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