Would a Healthy Andrew Luck Even Make the Colts Playoff Contenders?

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 21, 2018

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is interviewed before an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

The Indianapolis Colts can't make the playoffs without Andrew Luck—that's pretty clear. The possibility only slightly increases with Luck in the lineup.

The team's personnel—especially the defense and skill positions—is filled with question marks, though you wouldn't know it from general manager Chris Ballard's recent comments.

"I think we're sitting on a sleeping giant. I really do," Ballard proclaimed, per Andrew Walker of the Colts' official site. 

The Colts are coming off a 4-12 campaign and have a new coaching staff (after being dumped by their chosen candidate) and a quarterback who hasn't thrown a full-sized football in over 500 days. Optimism needs to be tempered no matter how excited the franchise is about the possibilities. 

"I'm really excited to work with [Luck]," new offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said, per the Goshen News' George Bremer. "He's a sharp guy, off-the-charts intelligence, football IQ. So what a guy to be able to work with. And obviously the sky's the limit when we have a quarterback of his caliber."

A few promising signs emerged for the Colts in the last month, starting with Luck's recovery from 2017 offseason shoulder surgery. 

"He's doing good," Ballard said of Luck, per Walker. "Strongest I've seen him, both mentally and physically."

Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard
Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris BallardDarron Cummings/Associated Press

The Colts have been down this road before. They expected their signal-caller to be ready for the start of the 2017 campaign, but he didn't play a snap before being placed on injured reserve in November.

An injured player becomes part of the forgotten during an extended layoff. Luck's presence has always loomed over the organization, but his overall talent and what he means to the team must be re-evaluated. Will he return from shoulder surgery like Drew Brees did in 2006, or will his career path closely follow Chad Pennington's? 

The first overall pick entered the league as the closest thing to a perfect prospect. His combination of size (6'4" and 240 pounds), athleticism, arm talent, intelligence and polish made him the most sought-after quarterback in the last 25 years.

Luck has fallen short of expectations because of injuries, and how he responds will show his mettle.

"I mean, look, we're sitting on a unique human being; what he stands for [is] everything we want to stand for," Ballard said. "Really, one of the growths that I've seen in Andrew—I mean, Andrew is very talented, and he's been talented his whole life. And we're really getting to see some of his internal grit right now to get over a hump that was very difficult to do."

Upon return, Luck will experience what it's like to play behind a talented offensive front for the first time. Ballard and Co. placed an offseason emphasis on the trenches, according to new head coach Frank Reich, per Colts Wire's Kevin Hickey

"I think this is part of the vision that Chris [Ballard] talked about and I 100 percent agree with really, coming in and Chris talking about building this thing from the inside-out. And I've mentioned here before that up front, we need on offensive line, we need 10 starters and on defense, up front, we need eight starters. That's really the mentality you've got to have. Constantly creating competition there and depth is very important." 

Indianapolis Colts guard Quenton Nelson
Indianapolis Colts guard Quenton NelsonMichael Conroy/Associated Press

Quenton Nelson's selection with the sixth overall pick will become the foundation upon which Luck and the Colts can stand. Nelson is the closest thing to a surefire draft pick. He developed into a dominant force for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and his highlight reel, even as an offensive lineman, is the stuff of legend. 

With Nelson nestled between Anthony Castonzo and Ryan Kelly, the left side of the Colts offensive line is settled. The right is far more fluid. 

Second-round pick Braden Smith is the favorite to start at right guard, while the organization recently signed eight-year veteran Austin Howard to compete at right tackle. 

The potential pitfalls of inexperience along the interior and replacing three starters could have a negative effect despite the overall talent upgrade. Mistakes will be made. Hopefully, Luck won't pay the price again.

And the skill positions didn't receive as much help. 

The team's top two leading receivers, T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle, return. Otherwise, the Colts are lacking proven producers.

Wide receiver Ryan Grant signed as a free agent, but he's never managed more than 45 receptions or 573 yards in a season. The position may have to rely on late-round picks, Daurice Fountain and Deon Cain, to provide a vertical presence. 

At running back, Marlon Mack takes over as the starter after the ageless Frank Gore signed with the Miami Dolphins. Mack averaged 3.8 yards per carry as a rookie. Robert Turbin will provide a physical presence, while two rookies, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, could be worked into the mix.

Beyond Hilton, nothing about Indianapolis' skill positions scare opponents. 

On the other side of the ball, the Colts aren't significantly better today than the unit that finished 30th overall in total defense last season. 

The additions of Denico Autry and Rakeem Nunez-Roches are short-term Band-Aids as the roster transitions from 3-4 personnel to a full-time four-man front under Matt Eberflus' direction. Three second-round defenders—Darius Leonard, Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis—infuse youth and athleticism into the group. How much they can help in the short term is a different matter altogether. 

Leonard has a chance to create the greatest impact. 

"This 4-3 defense, man, I feel like I'm going to love it, because it's like a spot-up defense," the linebacker said, per Walker. "So you're basically going to spot up and hit everything that moves."

The secondary will be helped by a healthy Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson entering their second seasons, but the team lost its best cover corner, Rashaan Melvin, to the Oakland Raiders in free agency. 

The AFC South won't be easy to navigate, either.

Andrew Luck faces the Jacksonville Jaguars during a 2016 contest.
Andrew Luck faces the Jacksonville Jaguars during a 2016 contest.Tim Ireland/Associated Press

The Jacksonville Jaguars are among the league's most talented squads. The Tennessee Titans are coming off a playoff appearance and added a few key components, such as Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis and Rashaan Evans. The Houston Texans, meanwhile, should have a healthy Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt to torture opponents. 

So many moving parts need to come together for the Colts to even sniff the postseason. They're still closer to the AFC South's basement than overtaking the division. 

Luck's eventual return will provide a significant boost. How much, though? 

"I think it's a great thing when you have a great player with a chip [on his shoulder]—and we've got one," Ballard said, per Walker. "And that's going to be fun for all of us."

Will it? 

A two- or three-game improvement over last year's record is the best the Colts can realistically expect, even with their franchise quarterback. 

        

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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