NFL 2014 Preview: Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck has the Colts primed for another AFC South division title. (David J. Philip/AP)

Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams—including why you should or shouldn’t be rooting for them this season—in the month leading up to NFL kickoff on Sept. 4. Today, the Indianapolis Colts.

Last year’s record: 11-5

Coach: Chuck Pagano

2014 is about… Making life easier for the starting QB. It is no secret that the key to the Colts’ success over the last two years has been the play of Andrew Luck. He is the best young quarterback in football. However, after allowing the third most quarterback hits in 2013, this season has to be about protecting him. That won’t be easy. The team is relying on three interior offensive lineman with a combined 12 starts and a running back in Trent Richardson who had a disastrous campaign after a mid-season trade with Cleveland. The Colts will need more from Richardson in 2014 especially with Ahmad Bradshaw’s durability concerns and Vick Ballard already out for the season. If the Colts can find a way to give Luck more time in the pocket mixed in with improvement from the running game, the quarterback should be even more dangerous. And that’s a scary thought for opposing defences.

Core players: Andrew Luck (QB), T.Y. Hilton (WR), Robert Mathis (OLB)

But they lost… Antoine Bethea (S), the long-time leader of the defensive backfield who had been with the Colts since 2006. He exceeded the 100-tackle mark in five of the past six seasons; Donald Brown (RB), who joined ex-Colts executive Tom Telesco with the San Diego Chargers. Brown had a career year in 2013 in which he scored eight touchdowns and averaged over 5.0 yards per carry; LaVon Brazill (WR), a talented young receiver who couldn’t stay out of trouble off the field. The Colts released Brazill after he was suspended for the entire 2014 season.

Yeah, but they got… Hakeem Nicks (WR), the ex-Giant who exceeded the 1,000-yard mark twice in his first four seasons before injuries derailed his production in 2013. Still only 26 years old, Nicks is looking to revive his career after failing to score a touchdown last season; Arthur Jones (DL), the brother of MMA star Jon (Bones) Jones. The former Raven is very familiar with the Colts’ scheme having played under Pagano in Baltimore. He started 19 games the past two seasons; D’Qwell Jackson (LB), a 31-year-old linebacker that has been one of the league’s most reliable tacklers. He should fit in nicely beside Jerrell Freeman in the middle of the 3-4 defence after a tough tenure in Cleveland where Jackson never made a post-season appearance.

Growing from within: Bjoern Werner (OLB), a second-year pass rusher, needs to step forward in 2014. He failed to make an impact during his rookie year, finishing with only 2.5 sacks and routinely struggling in pass coverage. With Robert Mathis suspended for the first four games of the season, Werner will see an extensive boost in playing time. Josh Chapman (DT), who was an elite run stuffer at Alabama, hasn’t been the same player since tearing his ACL in 2011. But early reports indicate his knee is finally healthy, and that would be a massive addition to a team that couldn’t stop the run in last year’s divisional playoff loss to the New England Patriots. Delano Howell (FS) is an undrafted free agent from Stanford who has never played in more than six games in an NFL season The third-year player will be competing with veteran Mike Adams to replace Bethea at free safety.

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Why this team? Because they have Andrew Luck. It’s that simple. Luck has carried flawed teams to the playoffs and this one should be even better in 2014 with the addition of Nicks and with Dwayne Allen (TE) and Reggie Wayne (WR) coming back from season-ending injuries. The Colts play in a rather lousy division that lacks overall quarterback talent so Indianapolis has a sizable advantage at the most important position in the sport. And hey, maybe Richardson will even contribute. He can’t be worse than last year, can he?

Why not? The Colts are a perfect example of the value of the quarterback. If Indianapolis had a replacement-level player at the position, they would likely be a five- or six-win team, considering some of the issues on the roster. Even with Luck, they have some concerns. They struggled to run the ball after the costly acquisition of Richardson and their defence was inconsistent against the run and the pass. They solved some of their defensive woes with veteran free agent additions but the unit lacks blue-chip players outside of Mathis, who had a career year in 2013. The biggest issue with the roster comes on the offensive line where the Colts didn’t make many personnel improvements. Khaled Holmes takes over for Samson Satele at centre after just playing in 12 offensive snaps last year, while rookie guard Jack Mewhort (G) will be immediately forced into action after projected starter Donald Thomas suffered a season-ending quad injury early in training camp.

Perfect for fans of… The Houston Rockets. Luck is the equivalent to James Harden in this case. They are both franchise players for teams that lack a defensive presence, which has hindered them in the post-season. Remember, this is the team that allowed 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns to LeGarrette Blount in the post-season. Just like the Rockets, the Colts are a surefire playoff team, but not yet at a championship contender.

How much hope? 8/10. When you have a franchise quarterback—especially a young one—you always have significant hope. Indianapolis also benefits from playing in a terrible division and the conference as a whole lacks firepower outside of New England and Denver.

Will you be mocked for front-running? No, because this version of the Colts haven’t really won anything under Luck. It took a historic comeback to beat the Kansas City Chiefs, who were without Jamaal Charles, in the playoffs. And that was a home game.

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