INDIANAPOLIS — There is so much to be excited about as the Indianapolis Colts return to regular season football this weekend that it's almost easy to forget that fantasy football begins as well.
If you're reading this, chances are you're a Colts fan, so let's not pretend like you're not hoarding a couple of their players on your rosters right now.
Let's take a look at how they might do Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals in the friendly confines of Lucas Oil Stadium.
*Weekly positional rankings from _FantasyPros.com_, based on Half-PPR scoring.
QB Andrew Luck
FantasyPros Week 1 Position Rank: QB11
If you own any Colts players then you're over the moon about this guy being back. Throughout the entire summer in training camp and the preseason, Luck has looked like his old self. That raises the level of everyone else's play by default.
In three career games (including playoffs) against the Bengals, Luck has feasted. He averages 29.0-for-44.0 passing (65.9 percent) for 348.7 yards, 2.3 touchdowns and a 107.6 passer rating through the air as well as 2.7 carries for 18.3 yards (6.9 avg) per game on the ground.
In those three games, Luck has never completed less than 63 percent of his passes, threw for fewer than 325 passing yards or had a passer rating under 100.
He also has a yards per attempt of 7.9 — which further shows his aptitude for chunk plays — and a total touchdown-to-turnover ratio of 7:1, his only turnover being a lost fumble.
Luck was also dominant in the last regular season home opener we saw him in back in 2016 against the Detroit Lions. That day, he completed 31-of-47 passes (66.0 percent) for 385 yards, four touchdowns and a 119.5 passer rating to go with three carries for 21 yards (7.0 avg) and zero turnovers.
As far as fantasy goes, Luck averages 28.0 fantasy points per game against Cincinnati and 25.0 in home openers.
RBs Marlon Mack, Jordan Wilkins, Nyheim Hines and Christine Michael
FantasyPros Week 1 Position Rank: Wilkins RB41, Mack RB46, Michael RB60, Hines RB64
This group of running backs really doesn't have a body of work for us to analyze.
If Marlon Mack (hamstring) plays — and at this point that looks very questionable — then we know he has a knack for making big plays on the ground and through the air on the edges.
Otherwise, the Colts will roll with two rookies in Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines as well as a veteran seeing his first action with the team in Christine Michael (that's "C-Woke" in the fantasy community).
What we can look at is how Colts head coach Frank Reich has used running backs in the past, as we already have a pretty good idea that this group will operate from a committee approach.
Without there being a clear-cut ball-dominant back on the Colts roster, it is likely that we see backfield touches distributed similarly to how Reich did when he was offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles from 2016-17.
In Reich's first year as coordinator in Philadelphia, they had three running backs — Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood — make up 86.1 percent of their running back touches. By year's end, six total backs had touches.
Things were similar in Reich's Super Bowl-winning season with the Eagles last year. Four running backs — LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement, Jay Ajayi and Smallwood — accounted for 90.4 percent of the backfield touches. Sproles tore an ACL three games in, likely throwing off the distribution. Like 2016, six total running backs had touches on the season.
If things go similarly for Reich with the Colts this year like they did with the Eagles then we're looking at three, maybe four backs dominating the touches with the top two having the most substantially.
If it's just Wilkins, Hines and Michael out there against Cincinnati then there is a likelihood we see Wilkins and Michael get several carries while Hines gets some as well but is moved around the formations, being used in the passing game.
With Mack currently out of the lineup and Robert Turbin serving a four-game suspension to start the regular season, this will be one of the hardest position groups on the roster to forecast.
WR T.Y. Hilton
FantasyPros Week 1 Position Rank: WR11
There are two ways to look at this matchup for T.Y. Hilton. First, it is a tough matchup on paper as cornerback William Jackson III is quietly one of the league's best young cornerbacks following a 2017 season that was referred to as "historically great."
On the other hand, Luck is back, and he and Hilton have almost telepathic chemistry. This game is also indoors, where Hilton averages 80.3 receiving yards per game.
The last time we saw Luck and Hilton together for a full slate of games (2016), Hilton led the entire league in receiving yards (1,448). That combination has actually equaled the the fourth-highest passer rating in the NFL on plays of 20-plus yards during Pro Football Focus’ 12-year history.
For his career, Hilton averages 15.8 yards per catch and 17.7 catches of 20-plus yards per season. He also accumulated 10 games with at least 150 receiving yards in his career, which is the fifth-most in NFL history for a player in their first six seasons.
So, those chunk plays being Hilton's bread and butter, they are almost always going to be there.
TEs Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron
FantasyPros Week 1 Position Rank: Doyle TE11, Ebron TE22
Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron each played against the Bengals once last year, and both had a great showing.
In four career games against Cincinnati, Doyle has a higher catch rate (89.5%) and yards per reception (9.3) than he does against any other team's he's faced at least three times.
Ebron has only faced Cincinnati once (last year), but he made it count with five catches (eight targets) for 83 yards and one touchdown.
With Reich now calling the Colts offense, it could mean even bigger things are ahead for the tight end duo.
According to Scott Barrett of Pro Football Focus, Reich could be a large benefit to the fantasy prospects of Doyle and Ebron:
"In each of (former Colts offensive coordinator) (Rob) Chudzinski's six full seasons as an offensive playcaller, we've seen a tight end finish among his top-two receivers in targets. On surface level, this might imply a downgrade for TE1 Jack Doyle, who has lapped Eric Ebron in preseason usage this year. However, in actuality, this might be an upgrade for Doyle. Reich's TE1s have averaged 2.0 more expected fantasy points per game than Chudzinski's throughout their respective careers. Among active playcallers, his TE1s rank first in expected fantasy points per game (12.1) and first in percentage of team expected fantasy points."
Since we expect to see a heavy dose of both Doyle and Ebron in the Colts offense — being used in different ways to utilize different strengths in their games — this bodes well for both players.
K Adam Vinatieri
FantasyPros Week 1 Position Rank: K12
Do you really ever have concerns about Adam Vinatieri? The oldest player in the league — who turns 46 this season — is still kicking like he's in his prime. He has hit nearly 90 percent of his field goal attempts over the last five seasons, which includes going 23-of-29 from 50-plus yards (79.3 percent).
In 11 career games against Cincinnati, Vinatieri averages 1.7-for-1.9 on field goal attempts (90.5 percent), 2.9-of-.2.9 on extra points (100 percent) and 8.1 points. He has only missed two field goals in that span, one of which was blocked.
In 132 games indoors, Vinatieri averages 1.6-for-1.8 on field goals (90.8 percent), 2.3-for-2.4 on extra points (98.7 percent) and 7.3 points.
Although we are accustomed to seeing Vinatieri cruise through the season, sometimes it takes him a game or two to get into a groove. September is statistically his least productive month, although that's splitting hairs when you're talking about the soon-to-be NFL all-time scoring leader.
In September, Vinatieri has a lower field goal percentage (81.5 percent) than in October (86.5 percent), November (83.7 percent) and December (84.0 percent). He also just barely has a better extra-point percentage in September (97.3 percent) than in October (97.0 percent) before going back up in November (99.0 percent) and December (99.1 percent).
We already knew Vinatieri is automatic in January, averaging 93.3 percent on field goals and 100 percent on extra points.
Colts Defense/Special Teams
FantasyPros Week 1 Position Rank: DST29
This is an interesting matchup. If you're going off of last year's performances, then it's a total head-scratcher. However, if you examine the Colts defense against the Bengals offense for what they are right now, you can see clear advantages for both sides.
First, we do have to address 2017 because it's the most recent sample we've seen that truly counted.
The Bengals offense underachieved behind a rough line. They actually ranked last in the NFL in total offense (280.5 yards per game) and time of possession (27:18), and ranked near the bottom in points per game (18.1) and turnover differential (-9).
Cincinnati does appear to have four new starters on the line, however, adding left tackle Cordy Glenn, center Billy Price and right tackle Bobby Hart this offseason and moving right guard Alex Redmond into the lineup at right guard.
They have also seen improvement from second-year running back Joe Mixon and fellow sophomore wide receivers John Ross and Josh Malone this offseason, and they get back a healthy Tyler Eifert at tight end. And then there's that guy A.J. Green, who happens to be an All-Pro wide receiver.
The Colts' defense has undergone great change this offseason, injecting a ton of speed, athleticism and youth. This summer has shown the appearance of a "bend but don't break" unit. That style of defense with the youth they have may mean more mistakes at times, but they should also be an opportunistic bunch. Reich and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus have pointed out numerous times over the last several months how hungry these players are.
From Week 1 of 2017 to this week, the Colts have about five new starters listed on their unofficial depth chart, including at least three who were not with the Colts last year.
One area the Colts defense could exploit actually takes advantage by using the veterans the they have, matching the left side of their defensive line with the Bengals' right side. Left defensive end Jabaal Sheard and defensive tackles Al Woods and Denico Autry may have the upper hand against the inexperience of Hart, Redmond and Price, who have just 21 starts between them — all of which belong to Hart.