When I wrote the “32 Teams in 32 Days: Tennessee Titans” article, I had the AFC South being the one of the better divisions in football with the following projected standings:
2017 AFC South Projected Standings
1. Tennessee Titans (10-6)
2. Indianapolis Colts (9-7)
3. Houston Texans (8-8)
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)
With the news that Andrew Luck may miss nearly half the season recovering from a recent shoulder surgery from a not-so-recent injury, the AFC South may look fairly different by season’s end. This division was already going to be close, and the loss of the Colts’ elite quarterback for a large chunk of the season may prove devastating.
Only three quarterbacks rank ahead of Andrew Luck in the NFL in my book: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees. Having an elite quarterback is an outstanding commodity, but it will never matter if he’s hurt and part of a dysfunctional organization. The Colts have allowed their star quarterback to play with a shoulder injury through multiple seasons, and now they are paying the price. Andrew Luck is still recovering from a major surgery in his throwing shoulder. As far as I’m concerned, their 2017 is already over if Luck misses the speculated six weeks of the regular season. Maybe the Patriots could get away with it, but not the Indianapolis Colts-the least talented team in the AFC South.
If Matt Hasselback were still the backup in Indianapolis, then I could believe there are still playoff aspirations for the Colts if Luck misses games. Their first six games only have one intimidating team: the Seattle Seahawks. Scott Tolzien on the other hand may be one of the worst backup quarterbacks in the league. Without a decent defense to keep games low-scoring, Scott Tolzien will find himself in shootouts just as Luck has his entire career. Tolzien won’t have the firepower to overcome those leads. I mean common. Its Scott Tolzien.
Last year, I traded Latavius Murray for Frank Gore in fantasy football, and that move played a huge role in winning my league. Although he was consistent in fantasy football, Frank Gore was still just a washed up running back in the NFL. Averaging less than 4.0 yards per carry, Gore benefitted from high volume and flukey receiving touchdowns. Robert Turbin will compete for the starting job, but Marlon Mack is the only real chance this Colts backfield has at efficient productivity. The 4th round pick out of South Florida is currently a fantasy football sweetheart, and has the potential to take over the starting role. Even so, this backfield is clearly a weakness.
Receivers and Tight Ends
TY Hilton is quietly established himself as an elite wide receiver in this league. In his forth season in a row of at least 1,000 yards and 5 touchdowns, TY led the NFL in receiving yards in 2016. He’s outstanding, and Donte Moncrief has the potential to be an elite number two receiver. If he can overcome injury, Moncrief is one of the most underrated redzone targets in the league. Behind them though, there isn’t much. Philip Dorsett has the potential to go deep on any occasion, but he has yet to break 100 yards in any single game. They signed Kamar Aiken who disappointed Ravens fans after a seemingly breakout season in 2015, and there are even more question marks behind them. The Colts have to rely on Donte Moncrief to stay healthy for this receiver group to be considered a strength, but that seems unlikely as of late. The tight ends may be one of the worst groups in the league heading into 2016. Jack Doyle’s fantasy breakout projected by many analysts is entirely reliant on sheer volume of targets because of the lack of talent behind him. With Andrew Luck at quarterback, these weapons are clearly enough for the Colts’ offense to thrive, but Scott Tolzien would likely struggle with such depthless talent.
The Offensive Line
The Colts are heading into the 2017 season with the same starters they had in 2016. No. That is not necessarily a good thing, but it may not be a terrible thing. All of the starters except for LT Anthony Castonzo are still on their rookie contracts. In other words, there is a lot of room for growth. Because this offensive line struggled in 2016 and is entirely reliant on the improvement of their young offensive linemen looking forward, this offensive line may still be below average in 2017.
Five of the projected starters of the Colts’ front seven were signed during the 2017 free agency period. New outside linebackers John Simon (Houston) and Jabaal Sheard (New England) have shown flashes, but they will not be overwhelming presences by any means. Both were role players on their previous team. Sean Spence (Tennessee) and Antonio Morrison (returning 2016 fourth round pick) look to stuff the interior defense at the inside linebacker positions, but they are also far from prime starters in the NFL. Margus Hunt (Cincinnati) and Kendall Langford are projected to start on either side of the defensive line. In a combined 22 games in 2016, Hunt and Langford both put up goose eggs in the sack column. Johnathan Hankins comes over from the New York Giants to play nose tackle and has bee one of the most underrated interior defenders in the NFL. In fact, he should be the best player on this front seven in 2017. Rookies Tarell Basham, Grover Stewart, and Anthony Walker were drafted respectively starting in the third round in the 2017 NFL Draft and look to make an impact this season. Its clear that the Colts’ front seven will still be a weakness for this franchise.
Second round rookie Quincy Wilson and veteran Vontae Davis may end up being a great tandem out the cornerback positions, but the depth behind them might be the worst in the NFL. The Colts’ 2017 first round pick, Malik Hooker, may be a defensive rookie of the year candidate if he can overcome his college injuries. Hooker will walk into the league with elite center field range and instincts, and he should take pressure off the corners on the outside. Clayton Geathers is set to start at strong safety, and he has played decent when he is not injured. Behind Hooker and Geathers though, there is some unproven talent including 2016 second round pick T.J. Green out of Clemson. The starting defensive backs may be enough to get by, but the depth behind them brings this unit into question.
The following schedule prediction includes Scott Tolzien starting the first six games, but if Andrew Luck is healthy, I have this team going 9-7.
Colts’ 2017 Schedule and Record
Week 1: L @ Los Angeles Rams
Week 2: L vs Arizona Cardinals
Week 3: W vs Cleveland Browns
Week 4: L @ Seattle Seahawks
Week 5: L vs San Francisco 49ers
Week 6: L @ Tennessee Titans
Week 7: W vs Jacksonville Jaguars
Week 8: W @ Cincinnati Bengals
Week 9: L @ Houston Texans
Week 10: L vs Pittsburgh Steelers
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: W vs Tennessee Titans
Week 13: L @ Jacksonville Jaguars
Week 14: L @ Buffalo Bills
Week 15: W vs Denver Broncos
Week 16: W @ Baltimore Ravens
Week 17: W vs Houston Texans
Final Record: 7–9
If Andrew Luck misses the first six games, I have that costing them two wins against the 49ers and the Rams. Without Luck, the offense will struggle to move the ball. I could even see them struggling against the Browns. Because all but one of the divisional games are after Week 6, this team should still finish 3-3 in the division.
Best Case Scenario: If Andrew Luck plays all 16 games, the defensive starters can stay healthy, and they find some kind of rhythm in the run game, the Colts can go 10-6. As I mentioned before, if Luck plays the entire season, I have the Colts going 9-7.
Worst Case Scenario: If Luck misses 6 games or more, the defense can’t stay healthy, and they continue to struggle running the ball, then this team could stumble all the way to 5-11. If their schedule wasn’t the easiest in the NFL in 2017, it may have been one of the worst in football.