Coming off a mediocre 8-8 record last season, the Indianapolis Colts clearly needed to spend this offseason improving a lackluster defense and providing star quarterback Andrew Luck with a strong supporting cast. Most of the team’s time and money went into the former and so they fell short with the latter.
That failure is made even more unfortunate given the recent news that Andrew Luck will be spending some, if not all, of the preseason on the PUP list with a shoulder injury. Luck himself admitted he hasn’t even been able to get back to throwing a football and may not be ready for the start of the regular season.
The Colts currently have two other quarterbacks on the roster in second-year man Stephen Morris and a seasoned backup Scott Tolzien. While neither option particularly inspires hope for the team, Indianapolis likely won’t sign a more viable backup until Luck’s situation is more clear.
So the performance of both backups will without a doubt be at the top of every fan’s mind throughout the preseason. The only thing that would ease this pressure would be Luck’s recovery and until that becomes more clear, people will always assume worst case scenario.
While Luck works on his rehabilitation, the Colts will be focusing on position battles and improvements on both sides of the ball. Let’s take a look at some of the main storylines other than quarterback that will define the Colts’ preseason.
Can Their Lackluster Running Game Improve?
Last year, the Colts ranked in the bottom half of the league in terms of total rushing yards, yards per attempt and yards per game. A lot of that can be blamed on the fact that they are still relying on 34-year-old Frank Gore to be their main ball carrier. It could also be the fact that the Colts’ offensive line has had injury and consistency issues over the past few seasons.
The team’s rushing attack is in such a sad state that it was ranked last by Pro Football Focus heading into the season. The Colts have invested some resources into improving the offensive line, which will be discussed later, but the real spark that could reignite some life into the running game could be rookie Marlon Mack.
Mack was drafted in the fourth round out of the University of South Florida and drew praise from many draft experts regarding his big play ability. In his last season at USF, Mack scored six touchdowns from 43-yards out or more.
Despite missing mandatory minicamp in June with an undisclosed injury, Mack is already drawing high praise from head coach Chuck Pagano.
“He jumps off the tape,” Pagano said last week. “He’s got a ways to go, like everybody else, but he’s picking things up. If he can master all three phases of being a good running back, he’s going to be a special player I think.”
If Mack can successfully translate his big-play ability to the NFL, he’ll prove to be the big piece missing from the Colts offense and finally allow some of the pressure to be taken off of Luck.
Will Malik Hooker Live Up To The Hype?
A large part of the preseason for fans is dedicated to watching highly-touted draft picks take the field for the first time with their new team. For Colts’ fans that attention will largely be focused on second-round pick Quincy Wilson at cornerback but even more so on first-round pick, and what many considered a steal at fifteen overall, Malik Hooker.
Hooker’s selection was intriguing for a number of reasons. Firstly, despite being mocked in the top ten by most draft experts, with many thinking he would go to Indy’s rival out west, the Chargers, injury concerns caused him to fall. Second, safety is one of the Colts’ few strengths on defense with starters Clayton Geathers and Darius Butler. Hooker’s selection is looking genius now as it was announced in late-July that Geathers will be out for the first six weeks of the regular season.
While that validates the already-heralded selection, it puts more pressure on the rookie to succeed right away. Pagano has also praised Hooker saying he is far ahead of what the coaching staff predicted he would be at this point in camp.
The Colts have a more favorable than not schedule in terms of opposing quarterbacks as they take on the Rams and Browns in two of their first four games along with having the Jaguars and Texans in their division. Hooker’s progression will be one of the most important storylines for the Colts not only in the preseason but throughout the regular season as well.
Will The Offensive Line Woes Continue?
As stated previously, last year’s offensive line unit was plagued with injury issues but at times was so inconsistent their lackluster play would cause the whole offense to suffer. Pro Football Focus ranked the squad as the 25th line in the league last year citing guard Jack Mewhort’s six game absence due to injury and highlighting Ryan Kelly as the only all-around consistent lineman.
The real concern about the line is the fact that the Colts only made two moves, signing Brian Schwenke who has been a career backup in Tennessee and drafting the 6-8 behemoth Zach Banner out of USC in the fourth round. While both moves weren’t necessarily bad ones, they aren’t the game changers Indy’s line clearly needs.
The team is experimenting with switching some players around namely Joe Haeg and Jack Mewhort switching guard positions. While fans will have to wait and see if that switch will make any real difference, the lack of change among the starting five isn’t necessarily cause for celebration.
Other Storylines To Watch
- Undrafted rookie receiver Chester Rogers out of Grambling State is reportedly the favorite for the number three receiver position. He’s apparently been impressing coaches more than the recently signed Kamar Aiken and 2015 first-round pick Phillip Dorsett.
- The battle for the two inside linebacker starting positions is a frenzy between new signings Sean Spence and Jonathan Bostic and returning veterans Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morrison. It will be the first real test of new general manager Chris Ballard’s offseason ability.
- The Colts pass rush was the very definition of mediocre last season. Can the additions of Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, and Barkevious Mingo improve the pass rush to the point where it’s a difference maker for the team? They will likely help it get better but there is still definite room for marked improvement.