Galloping Toward Elite Status

By Adam Hocking

Special to Pro Football Guru

Last year it was business as usual in the AFC. Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to an almost now run-of-the-mill 12-win campaign. Peyton Manning did his standard record-breaking rampage through the regular season, guiding the Denver Broncos to 13 wins in the process. The AFC’s elite teams and its quarterback hierarchy are well established.

After an offseason that saw Denver land the most high profile free agency class in recent memory and New England sign two excellent cornerbacks in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, it would be easy to predict more of the same. After all, no team in the AFC was really all that close to the Broncos’ or Patriots’ level last season, and on paper both teams have improved markedly.

The success of the Patriots and Broncos--or perhaps better stated, Manning and Brady--can lull fans into thinking it will always be this way. As long as those two remain under center, the AFC Championship Game will be a foregone conclusion. However, under the surface there is a team simmering, ready to bubble up and join the AFC’s upper crust, and that team is the Indianapolis Colts.

Andrew Luck now enters his third year as a starter, traditionally a time when young quarterbacks master their offensive system and begin to thrive as veterans rather than precocious upstarts. Luck has been fantastic in his first two seasons. Another step forward could mean entrance into the elite club of Aaron Rodgers, Brady, Manning, and Drew Brees.

As a rookie Luck pulled an undermanned team to the playoffs, an astounding feat given that the Colts had won just two games in the prior season. Last year he lost his top target, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, to an ACL injury and still managed to win a playoff game.

The Colts finally got Luck the help he deserves this offseason. Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks came aboard on a one-year deal that will require his best efforts to earn a lucrative contract at the close of next season. Nicks has number one receiver potential, having twice topped 1,000 receiving yards in a season and at just 26 years old is very much in his physical prime.

Wayne will be back and healthy, and prior to his injury last year he was on pace to easily surpass the 1,000 yard receiving mark. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton broke out as a star and deep threat last season and is the type of speedster that will nicely complement the more possession styles of Nicks and Wayne.

Ahmad Bradshaw was retained, a proven running back with versatile skills. He forms a solid duo with Trent Richardson, who to this point has been a disappointment, but certainly talent is present. Richardson was drafted third overall for a reason. His physical ability is undeniable. Perhaps with more playmakers now surrounding him and expectations lowered substantially, Richardson will be free to simply play his game.

While the offense should be explosive due to Luck’s advancement, Wayne’s health, and Nicks’ arrival, the defense could be even more improved.

Indianapolis re-signed Vontae Davis, and depending on your perspective he is either a good cornerback or a guy with the talent to be great. Either way, his retention was important for the Colts’ continued defensive progression.

D’Qwell Jackson was brought in and gives the Colts their most productive middle linebacker since Gary Brackett. Just turning 30, Jackson still appears to be on top of his game. He has finished in the top-10 league-wide in tackles three times in his career, including last season. His presence should shore up the middle of the Colts defense, an area that has been unreliable in seasons past.

Former Ravens’ defender Arthur Jones joins the Colts defensive line and brings versatility, size, and toughness. Jones can play defensive end or defensive tackle and was a key cog in a good Ravens defense over the past two seasons in particular. At 6’3” and 315 pounds, Jones adds needed bulk to what has traditionally been an undersized Colts defense. Jones’ presence should help star pass rusher Robert Mathis pick up where he left off last season when he tallied 19.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles.

Jackson and Jones were added to help remedy Indy’s biggest weakness last year, their twenty-sixth-ranked rush defense. If they can simply move from bottom of the barrel to middle of the pack, that would be a crucial improvement. The additions to the front seven should also help reduce strain on the secondary, which was already solid, ranking thirteenth in pass defense last year.

Outside linebacker Bjoern Werner needs to shake off a disappointing rookie campaign and live up to his first-round pick status. The new acquisitions should help Werner see more favorable matchups, and a full offseason may help his progress as well.

Losing long time starting safety Antoine Bethea will no doubt hurt, but the Colts have added considerable talent to their defense and still have the draft to make further acquisitions.

After winning 11 games in each of the last two seasons the Colts didn’t need much help. What they did was invest smartly in areas of need. Wayne will return and along with Nicks and Hilton should provide the maturing Luck his best array of targets to date. The defense added two high level starters that should introduce add physicality, experience, and toughness.

Denver and New England are the name brands in the AFC, and deservedly so. Accepting newcomers and fully respecting their credentials takes time. The Colts will have to earn their adoration with continued success and a deep playoff run. With a well-planned offseason and their incisive acquisitions, a Super Bowl run is very much a possibility for Indianapolis.

Adam Hocking is from Saint Paul, Minnesota where he covers the sporting world on his site: The Day in Sports.  You can also check out his podcast by searching “The Day in Sports” on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter at @tdis_humblebrag.