The Lions play the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium to open the 2016 NFL regular season. Indianapolis has sustained quite a few injuries already before the action has even begun, but questions remain about the overall state of the team, questions that are of interest to Lions fans. To answer those questions, we spoke with Josh Wilson of SB Nation’s Colts blog Stampede Blue.
1. Indianapolis has sustained quite a few injuries before the season has even kicked off. The injury report out Wednesday already looks moderately extensive. What are the key positions facing injury risk and how do the Colts plan to address any weaknesses?
The defensive side of the football has been hit pretty hard by injuries. Three of their four best defenders (and perhaps their three best period) have all been dealing with significant issues: cornerback Vontae Davis has an ankle injury, defensive lineman Kendall Langford has a knee issue and had it scoped during training camp, and defensive lineman Henry Anderson is still recovering from a torn ACL. There's a decent chance that Langford will play, but Davis and Anderson will both almost certainly be out. Furthermore, starting safety Clayton Geathers was injured this offseason and hasn't practiced since. Starting inside linebacker Sio Moore suffered a hamstring injury during the preseason and isn't expected to play on Sunday. And depth cornerback Darius Butler is also dealing with an ankle injury and might not play, either. So the Colts will likely be without four or five defensive starters on Sunday, and that's from a unit that already had question marks. So basically, their approach this Sunday on defense is to just manage to stay afloat and count on the offense to score enough to get the win. On the offensive side of the football, starting left guard Jack Mewhort isn't expected to play due to a knee injury suffered in preseason, and his backup (rookie Joe Haeg) is also injured and isn't expected to play. Quarterback Andrew Luck also appeared on the injury this week (which was a surprise) with a right shoulder injury and has been limited in practice. Luck will play and limiting him in practice sounds like it's just precautionary, but that's something we've been paying attention to this week as well. So even though it's just week one, the Colts are pretty beat up at the moment.
2. Over the summer I think I saw for the first time a somewhat widespread national opinion forming that expressed doubt in Andrew Luck being an all-time great quarterback. One of our writers recently put together a piece claiming that Andrew Luck really isn't that different from Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in production. On the other hand, I keep looking at the receiving threats Luck has had and can't really find any that pique my interest. Either way, he is the future for Indianapolis; but how are we feeling about Andrew Luck going into this season? Is there a need for him to prove something substantial this year?
I remember reading that post when you guys published it, and I certainly thought it was an interesting read and a job well-done by Mike. Statistically, Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck seem closer than I think many would expect. But here's what I would add: stats aren't what makes Andrew Luck special. There's a certain aspect of his game and his play in the past four years that's unquantifiable, and I think that's probably a large part of why Luck's doubters don't think he's very good - because you can't quantify this aspect of it with numbers, it means that you actually have to watch the games, understand the team, and most of all be somewhat subjective in your opinions. I think that's why some people consider Luck to be the next great quarterback, while others consider him to be nothing special. Here's the thing about Andrew Luck: he's played on a bad team that has been pretty much devoid of talent. He's been hit more than any quarterback in football since he entered the NFL. Outside of 2012 (and we maybe could throw 2015 in there too), he's had only one legitimate receiving threat in T.Y. Hilton. In 61 career games (including playoffs), the Colts have had a 100-yard rusher in exactly one of them (which came in 2012). He's had an average to below average defense for all four years. The coaching staff has undergone some change (Luck is on his third offensive coordinator) and hasn't been great (Chuck Pagano and his staff have received plenty of criticism and he was nearly fired last year), and general manager Ryan Grigson has done a questionable job overall of infusing the Colts' roster with talent. I realize that some of those things can be said about the Lions with Stafford as well, but I don't think any quarterback in the NFL is asked to carry his team to the level that Andrew Luck is. The Colts simply aren't that great when you take Luck out of the equation, or when he's not playing great (like last year). If you look at just 2015, you'll see a quarterback who struggled and was turnover-prone, but if you look at Luck's entire career you'll see a guy who has had to carry a bad roster and has done so admirably from day one. I'm not going to get into "quarterback wins" (which I think is a terrible metric of evaluating quarterbacks), but I do think that Luck brings something special to the table when it comes to his playmaking ability (making plays out of nothing) and his ability to carry an overall average (and at times bad) roster. But because that can be so subjective, I think that's why you get varying opinions of the Colts' quarterback.
As for expectations for this year, I think it's perfectly reasonable to think that he will return to form after an injury-plagued disaster in 2015. He's had three very good seasons and one bad season, so it's expected that he'll bounce back. I don't necessarily think there should be added pressure on Luck, but there certainly is: he's heading into year five, has a new $140 million contract, and has an increasing number of doubters. He has some talented receivers this year and (hopefully) an improved offensive line (but we'll see if that's actually the case), so if he stays healthy he should be set up well for a good season.
3. Let's talk about the 2016 draft. Will we be expecting to see any of the Colts rookies on Sunday? Have any shined in the preseason? Will first round pick Ryan Kelly (C, Alabama) help to improve the offensive line or is he still some time away?
Ryan Kelly is obviously the Colts' starting center, and he'll be an immediate upgrade at the position. It has been the weakest spot along the offensive line since Andrew Luck arrived in 2012, and the team finally made a serious effort to address it this offseason by using their first round pick on Kelly. He was impressive in the preseason and didn't look like a rookie, and no matter what he does he's sure to be an upgrade at the spot. I'm certainly expecting some rookie struggles from Kelly this year, but so far he looks good and looks like the real deal. We'll also see a couple of other rookies on Sunday too. Rookie safety T.J. Green, the Colts' second round pick, will start at safety alongside Mike Adams in place of the injured Clayton Geathers, and Green has looked surprisingly capable this preseason (I thought he'd need some time to adjust to the NFL level early on). Fourth round linebacker Antonio Morrison is likely to see significant playing time at inside linebacker with Sio Moore out, though it's unclear who will get the start alongside D'Qwell Jackson (it'll likely either be Morrison or Josh McNary, though they both will play). Fourth round defensive lineman Hassan Ridgeway also will probably get into the defensive line rotation a bit on Sunday, especially if Kendall Langford can't go.
4. I know we usually don't talk about the defense when talking about the Colts, but they've come in around 13th in defensive DVOA for the past two seasons. Do you think that the defense improve or regress this year?
When it comes to the Colts' defense, we're talking about a unit that hasn't been great, isn't that talented, and has older veterans at a few key spots. That's not exactly the recipe for success, but the hope was that they could be an average unit this year - but that was before all the injuries. Now, it's nearly impossible to know what to expect from them early on because of the shuffling, but I'm not expecting it to be anything great. At best, I think this defense will be average. I have big questions about their pass rush and their ability to get after the quarterback, but as long as the defense does enough to let Andrew Luck outscore the other team, the Colts should be ok. At this point, though, there are plenty of questions about the unit and not a ton of reasons for optimism.
5. Who had the best story out of training camp and the preseason this year in the eyes of Stampede Blue? Got an undrafted free agent rookie or ex-practice squad guy who has become a fan favorite?
He's not an undrafted rookie and was actually on the team last year, but defensive lineman T.Y. McGill has really stepped up this preseason and has really impressed. He was the star of training camp and the star of preseason for the Colts, as he was always proving to be a disruptive force in the backfield. He actually recorded two sacks and a safety in week 16 last season, so he's had some success with Indianapolis, but I think he really emerged this preseason in particular. He should be a key factor in the defensive line rotation, and he's a guy that I'm sure many Colts fans will be keeping an eye on to see how he does now that the games actually start counting.