This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Colts hired a new GM after missing the playoffs for just the third time in 15 years. With the revamping of the defense, it may appear to be a rebuilding year. However, any team with Andrew Luck at quarterback – assuming he can return from offseason shoulder surgery – can't be counted out.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
WILL LUCK BE HEALTHY?
Andrew Luck underwent surgery in January to repair what Colts owner Jim Irsay called a "slightly torn labrum," an issue that had lingered from a 2015 injury. The team's franchise signal-caller played through right shoulder discomfort last season, which required the 27-year-old to regularly miss practice time each week. With Luck unable to begin a throwing program until just before training camp, he landed on the PUP list at its outset. Keeping the top overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft on the field continues to be an issue, as Luck missed one contest last season due to a concussion and nine games in 2015 due to shoulder woes and a lacerated kidney. Since he entered the league, no other NFL quarterback has been hit (while throwing) more times than Luck. In that vein, Indy's offensive line has been a constant problem and last year earned Pro Football Focus' third-worst pass-blocking rating since 2006. The unit did show improvement late last season by allowing just six sacks in the last five games and returns players who started at all five positions. Despite obvious room for improvement, the Colts didn't acquire any high-profile offensive line talent in the offseason. Free-agent center Brian Schwenke and tackle Zach Banner (a fourth-round draft pick) were added for depth, however.
CAN THE DEFENSE BE REBUILT IN A YEAR?
New GM Chris Ballard spent most of the offseason rebuilding a defense that finished 30th in yards allowed per game and was poor against both the pass (25th in net yards per attempt) and run (30th in net yards per attempt) in 2016. He signed four free agents who will likely be starters; nose tackle Johnathan Hankins as well as linebackers John Simon, Jabaal Sheard and Sean Spence. Ballard then used six of eight draft selections on defense, with a focus on the secondary. First-rounder Malik Hooker has a chance to be a much-needed playmaker at safety. Second-round pick Quincy Wilson could add needed stability at cornerback. Third-round selection Tarell Basham is a big, athletic edge rusher (10.5 sacks in his final season at Ohio) who could surprise. While the Colts ranked 19th in sacks (33) last season, their pass rush has been below average the past two campaigns. The team lacks explosive playmakers on that front, especially following the retirement of Robert Mathis and with the Colts failing to re-sign Erik Walden. A weak pass rush could be offset if the team's secondary can become an above-average unit led by Vontae Davis, who, despite an off-year in 2016, has been one of the league's best cornerbacks in coverage. Even a modest improvement on defense could give Andrew Luck and the offense more opportunities to score.
WHEN WILL Frank Gore RUN OUT OF GAS?
No running back older than 32 had rushed for over 1,000 yards since 1990. That is, until Gore rushed for 1,025 yards last season. With a body that shows few signs of wear, Gore hasn't missed a game in six years. That said, he's displayed signs of decline of late, as Gore's average of 3.9 yards per carry marked his second straight campaign below 4.0 YPC. Now 34, Gore can't avoid Father Time forever. As a result, Indianapolis took Marlon Mack in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft as insurance. Mack is an explosive back who enjoyed success at South Florida, running for 3,609 yards (6.2 YPC) and 32 touchdowns in 36 games. The Colts could also try to reduce Gore's workload with something of a committee approach. Robert Turbin (seven TDs) was effective as a goal-line back in 2016 and GM Chris Ballard has suggested that Turbin could get more early-down work this year. Meanwhile, Josh Ferguson showed promise in the passing game last season, with 37 receptions in just nine games. Both could see their share of snaps in 2017 if the workload is further distributed. With regard to the run at the least, the Colts' line was somewhat unheralded, ranking third in Football Outsiders' 2016 offensive line run blocking rankings. With that in mind, any backup could sparkle if given a larger role.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Andrew Luck
Luck continues to improve as he threw for 31 TDs and a career-high 7.8 YPA last season, despite missing a game due to a concussion. His accuracy, smarts and mobility can cover flaws and almost single-handedly give the Colts a top passing offense. Offseason shoulder surgery is a worry though, and a below average offensive line remains a concern.
RISING: Jack Doyle
Doyle had a breakout season in 2016 and took over as the primary receiving tight end, producing 59 receptions for 584 yards and five touchdowns. His role in the offense should grow with the departure of Dwayne Allen.
FALLING: Phillip Dorsett
A 2015 first-rounder, Dorsett has been a disappointment thus far, with just 51 receptions for 753 yards and three touchdowns in 26 career games to date. He's now set to face competition from free-agent signee Kamar Aiken.
SLEEPER: Erik Swoope
The former college basketball player showed explosive ability (averaging 19.8 yards per reception) in his first real playing time last season. He could break out in the No. 2 role like Doyle did in 2016.
KEY JOB BATTLE – THIRD WIDEOUT
Phillip Dorsett, a 2015 first-round selection, hasn't developed as expected through two seasons, catching 51 passes for 753 yards and three touchdowns in 26 games. He'll face competition for the third receiver role from free-agent signee Kamar Aiken and Chester Rogers, who showed promise last season as an undrafted rookie. Whoever wins the role could have sneaky fantasy value in an offense that features Andrew Luck at quarterback.
Malik Hooker – S (Rd. 1, No. 15 – Ohio State)
Colts hope the ball-hawking safety improves their secondary.
John Simon - LB (from Texans)
Brings both run-stopping and pass-rushing ability to the OLB mix.
Jabaal Sheard - LB (from Patriots)
Will look to bounce back after a subpar campaign with New England.
Sean Spence – LB (from Titans)
One of several veterans brought in to overhaul the linebacking corps.
Robert Mathis – LB (retired)
The franchise's all-time sack leader won't be easy to replace.
THE INJURY FRONT
Andrew Luck, QB – Luck is coming off shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. While he finally started throwing in the lead-up to training camp, the PUP list came calling for the five-year pro in late July. The Colts will continue to take a cautious approach with Luck, who hasn't committed to being ready for Week 1.
Clayton Geathers, S – He didn't participate in spring practices after undergoing offseason neck surgery. Geathers looked like an impact player in a hybrid linebacker/safety role with 59 tackles, five passes defensed, and one forced fumble in nine games last season before the injury. Nonetheless, he's expected to miss the first six weeks of the upcoming campaign.
Malik Hooker, S – Indy's 2017 first-round draft pick underwent labrum and core muscle surgeries in January and proceed to miss the entire offseason program. After seemingly getting the all-clear for training camp, he tweaked his hamstring and landed on the PUP list. He has since been activated, but the safety's health is worth monitoring during the preseason.