Through the Peyton Manning years, the Indianapolis Colts were fortunate enough to have truly great supporting pieces around their franchise quarterback. Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and several others were pivotal in developing one of the most dynamic offenses in NFL history.
Something the team hasn’t seen in a while is a defense as opportunistic as the centerpiece Colts of that same era. Bob Sanders, Gary Brackett, Cato June, Nick Harper and two bookend pass rushers in their heyday – Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis – played critical roles in helping the Manning Colts flourish.
Now following a second sweeping roster facelift in five years, which players define what the Colts want to embody as they attempt to build a Super Bowl contender? The team is an entirely new animal right now. Here are my five most important players for the future of the Colts.
Andrew Luck, QB
Surprise! It certainly doesn’t take a chemist to figure out that Luck is the straw that stirs the Colts’ drink. He set the world on fire to start his career — 33-15 with three straight trips to the playoffs — and broke the rookie passing yardage record and Manning’s single-season passing yardage record. He led the league with 40 touchdowns in 2014 and largely did it with a substandard defense, offensive line and running game.
Luck’s injury-plagued 2015 season allowed the roster to be viewed for what it truly was, but even a healthy Luck having perhaps his best statistical season as a pro couldn’t lift an injury-riddled and largely talent-deprived roster out of mediocrity in 2016. Plain and simple, Luck is the guts of the Colts. With any help at all from the rest of the roster, he can lead this team to the promised land.
Donte Moncrief, WR
In his first few seasons in the league, Moncrief has given us flashes of what he can do when healthy and given the opportunity to shine. While his touchdown count has risen each year, his effectiveness has wavered and his consistency has decreased.
The Colts know exactly what they have in T.Y. Hilton: five to seven touchdowns every season while challenging opposing defenses deep, early and often. The Colts’ No. 2 receiver of the future has yet to be defined, though Moncrief has all the makings of someone who can wear that skin.
Moncrief is in a pivotal season for his career, and it’s just as pivotal to the Colts that he succeed and prove he’s their guy for the future.
The greatest Colts teams had multiple trusted receiving weapons and a dominant pass catcher playing second fiddle. If there’s anything the Colts’ offense needs, it’s for Moncrief to come into the 2017 season creating space between himself and those battling for snaps who are currently behind him. If he can remain healthy and then show everything on the field during the season with a No. 1-level campaign, the outlook for this franchise can markedly improve.
Ryan Kelly, C
Kelly, theoretically, is likened to Jeff Saturday as a great Colts center. Kelly is extremely smart at the position, has already been able to call out protections and line shifts, and ultimately gives the offensive line a foundation for the future. Kelly started his career very well, being just outside Pro Football Focus’ top 10 in protection for the position. He didn’t relinquish a sack in the 2016 season.
With so much youth on the line, and a real lack of continuity in recent years, Kelly’s importance to the Colts’ future simply cannot be overlooked. The Colts haven’t had a stalwart at the position since Saturday left for Green Bay. Kelly is expected to build on his rookie season and trust the skills of the two people who touch the ball every single snap. That trust is paramount to the rebuild currently underway.
Johnathan Hankins, DL
Not only is Hankins possibly the most important signing of the offseason, but for the position he was brought in to fill, his skill set serves more than one purpose. Hankins is a true nose tackle with the ability to hold down the middle of the defensive line to make a serious impact in stopping the run. He can also move off the center to a one- or three-technique to add a much-needed pass rush.
The Colts fielded one of the oldest defenses in the league the past few seasons, and free agency typically isn’t the way to get both younger and better. This, however, is exactly what the Colts have done. Hankins’ youth and ability provide a pivotal piece to a defense that is being remade.
The fact that the Colts hadn’t previously been able to find a true zero-technique with the ability to potentially dominate, and with youth to boot, could give the team the chance to focus on the rest of its needs over the course of the next few seasons. Hankins could possibly become one of the best free-agent additions in the organization’s history, and that’s exactly what this defense needs him to be.
Quincy Wilson, CB
Attempting to nail this down to just five players isn’t easy, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge how huge Wilson is to the Colts’ future. Which Colts draft picks at the position not only stuck, but ascended and were unquestioned starters? Jerraud Powers, or maybe Tim Jennings? Certainly none since 2009.
At the moment Vontae Davis is the Colts’ most notable man-corner, and his unfortunate attraction to nagging injuries over the past few seasons leaves a very questionable future for the team at the position. Wilson was brought in to become the Colts’ heir to the No. 1 corner, but following a pathetic season for the defense with only eight team interceptions, his presence is badly needed.
The Colts have been in the top half of the league in interceptions only once since 2012, and twice in the top half of the league in passes defensed in that same time span. To say that the Colts are desperate to get Wilson’s ball skills, athleticism and coverage ability at a high level — and to have it remain there for several years to come — is a massive understatement. Wilson’s development could be more important to the future of the team than any of the Colts’ young additions.
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