The Indianapolis Colts will have some important offseason decisions to make as they prepare for a 2015 season with predictably higher expectations after reaching the AFC Championship Game.
Some of these choices will be difficult. Others are obvious. The order in which they can be prioritized is subject for debate, but the Colts must address these five situations moving forward.
1. Bolster D-line — As the 45-7 playoff loss at New England showed, the Colts are not yet tough enough on the defensive front to be competitive against the NFL’s best. Defensive end Cory Redding will probably retire. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois has yet to take that next step as a starter signed to a four-year, $22-million contract in 2013. Nose tackle Josh Chapman demands double teams, but had just 21 tackles. It’s not that the Colts need to cut everybody, but they need to to get better up front with a six-man rotation that doesn’t drop off when subs rotate in. They’ve invested in defensive tackle Arthur Jones, but aside from him, the other five spots are in play for improvement. That means Redding’s replacement, another nose tackle and another defensive tackle at the very least. It’s a lot to assemble in one offseason, but it’s an essential upgrade for this 3-4 scheme, which demands that the front keeps the linebackers free to run and make tackles. The Colts must be able to stop the run first, coach Chuck Pagano’s first priority when he took the job in 2012. They haven’t done that against the best teams, bottom line. No more excuses.
2. Settle O-line — Eleven starting combinations can be blamed on injuries and politics about who should play center, but the Colts need to be stronger at offensive right guard and center to develop much-needed continuity. Even if the braintrusts think Jonotthan Harrison or Khaled Holmes is the long-term answer at center, the Colts must have better depth and not “hope” a guy blossoms. Along those same lines, this team might keep its fingers crossed that offensive right tackle Gosder Cherilus returns to form after his play fell off due to injuries and that left offensive guard Donald Thomas can finally stay healthy after two lost seasons due to torn quads. But keeping fingers crossed isn’t good enough. General manager Ryan Grigson should be looking for a tackle and a guard, be it in the draft or free agency, because the Colts require competition at these positions to produce a more reliable offensive line. It’s not about just protecting quarterback Andrew Luck, who has taken 100 sacks in three seasons. It’s about running the ball consistently well so the Colts don’t have to count on Luck to carry them as much. A balanced attack is more effective than a pass-happy one. And running the football was also a top priority when Pagano was hired. Three years later, the run game has been inconsistent at best. Again, not good enough.
3. Cut Trent Richardson — Grigson took a chance on acquiring the former No. 3 overall pick to fill an obvious need at running back. It just didn’t work. Sometimes, the deals don’t work. The time for being stubborn about him is past. His lack of vision and ability to create for himself was more evident the longer he played. By season’s end, the Colts had finally accepted this reality. His two-game suspension for “personal reasons” during the playoffs should signify the team is ready to move on. This draft is loaded with promising running backs. They can choose one with any one of their first three picks, depending upon other players available to fill need positions. Draft one, sign another in free agency, presumably restricted free agent Daniel “Boom” Herron, and develop another through either avenue to have three options to give the team a reliable two-back tandem.
4. Decide on Reggie — It’s easy to be sentimental about wide receiver Reggie Wayne and say the team leader has earned the right to return for at least one more year, should his 36-year-old body tell him he can do it. But he’s been hurt each of the last two seasons and Father Time catches up to everyone eventually. If the Colts re-sign him for one more year, it’s as a third receiver who can mentor the others and flourish in three wide-receiver sets by using his experience to get open. But he’s no longer the go-to guy. T.Y. Hilton is the obvious No. 1 and rookie Donte Moncrief needs playing time to develop. There’s no need to re-sign Hakeem Nicks. Adding another wide receiver in the draft or through free agency with Wayne back in the fold gives the Colts a solid receiving corps, especially with the talented tight ends that this team must utilize more. If the Colts decide it’s time for Wayne to retire, they need at least three capable pass catchers to bolster the position. Again, they can come from the draft or via free agency. There’s a lot of buzz about Cris Carter’s son, Duron, possibly signing with the Colts and making the jump from the Canadian Football League. But a word of caution here. There’s a reason he wasn’t in the NFL before now, so it’s not like anyone should expect him to step right in and be a starter. He has to earn it. That’s the NFL.
5. Boost pass rush — The return of outside linebacker Robert Mathis will be a big plus for a defense that still managed 41 sacks without him because of a blitzing scheme that proved too much for some opponents to block. But no Mathis meant the Colts didn’t have a consistent pass rusher who demanded double teams and made game-changing plays on a regular basis. If Mathis returns to form after missing 2014, the Colts still have to decide who will help him on the other side. Erik Walden and Jonathan Newsome are options. Former first-round pick Bjoern Werner hasn’t taken that next step. That he was inactive with Newsome getting snaps in January spoke volumes. The Colts need guys who can capitalize on the attention that will be shown Mathis and make the most of getting to the quarterback. Maybe it’s Newsome and Walden. Maybe it’s someone else, too. This defense must bring pressure from all angles and force quarterbacks to throw before desired. Anything less and it will be exposed in the playoffs by the best quarterbacks.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.