INDIANAPOLIS — How will Andrew Luck bounce back after missing the entire 2017 season? What will the effect on the Indianapolis Colts' new-look offense be on the team's running backs, wide receivers and tight ends? Will the Colts be able to generate more pressure with the switch to a 4-3 base defense?
These are all key questions for the Colts heading into the 2018 season, and until the team actually takes the field — beginning Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals — it's tough to speculate the answers with any degree of certainty.
Thankfully, ESPN's Mike Clay is here with his annual offseason projections.
It was on this day last year that we brought you Clay's 2017 Colts projections, but a good chunk of them depended on Luck playing the entire season, so, unfortunately, they were kind of placed in the "forget about it" category.
But this time around, with all indications Luck will be ready to go for the start of the season, Clay's projections are, once again, an interesting way to predict how the 2018 season will play out:
We'll get to individual player projections in a minute, but as a team, Clay projects the Colts to finish with 7.8 wins, finishing 14th out of 32 NFL teams, but still last in what should be a very competitive AFC South Division race. That would give Indy the 18th-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Individually, it's important to remember Clay, who made these projections last month, doesn't have intel on every single player, so keep it in perspective that he's not going to mention every person that might actually end up making an impact. One guy that fits that mold is defensive end Tarell Basham: Basham was working with the first-team defense during offseason workouts, but Clay projects him to be a very minor playmaker during the 2018 season with just 52 total snaps and two tackles.
*UPDATE:Clay has since updated his projections on ESPN's website, and now believes Basham will be more of a major contributor for the Colts' defense; he projects Basham will produce about 23 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.*
Here are a few individual highlights:
» Clay believes Luck will definitely return to form in 2018. He has him completing 376-of-600 passing attempts (62.7 percent) for 4,403 yards and 30 touchdowns to 16 interceptions, while also running 61 times for 289 yards and another two scores. That would have Luck ranked, according to Clay, as the sixth-best quarterback in the NFL. That projection puts Luck very near his 2016 totals, when he completed 346-of-545 passes (63.5 percent) for 4,240 yards and 31 touchdowns to 13 interceptions.
» At running back, Clay seems to buy into the Colts' new running back-by-committee approach; he has Marlon Mack leading the way with 151 carries for 608 yards and four touchdowns, followed by two rookies in Jordan Wilkins (106 carries, 431 yards, three touchdowns) and Nyheim Hines (57 carries, 219 yards and 1 touchdown). These guys also also projected to be heavily involved in the Colts' passing game, as Clay has Mack with 30 receptions for 260 yards, Wilkins with 13 receptions for 107 yards and Hines with 25 receptions for 207 yards. While there's only so many carries to go around, one might believe Robert Turbin will also play a major role in this offensive attack. Clay projects just 38 carries for 149 yards and a touchdown, and 13 receptions for 109 yards and a score through the air for Turbin, so depending on if the Colts want to go with more experience in 2018, Turbin could see a better season than that.
» With Luck back, T.Y. Hilton is projected to have another monster year: 75 receptions for 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns (tying a career-high). Ryan Grant (47 receptions, 577 yards, four touchdowns) and Chester Rogers (31 receptions, 420 yards and three touchdowns) are also projected to have decent years. The wild cards are the Colts' rookie receivers in Reece Fountain and Deon Cain, but they're only projected by Clay to combine for 17 catches for 214 yards and two scores. Again, depending on how they develop in the next couple months, it's hard to really say for sure what those guys' roles will be.
» Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron seem in line to benefit from head coach Frank Reich's new offense in 2018. Doyle is projected to have another career year in 2018: 73 receptions, 667 yards and a career-best six touchdowns, while Ebron is expected to catch 46 passes for 517 yards and four scores. Overall, the Colts are expected to have the eighth-best tight end group in the NFL.
» Defensively, how will the Colts respond to a change to the 4-3? Clay is expecting 2018 to be a learning year for this Colts unit, ranking them 18th in edge rushers, 26th in safeties and 32nd, last, in linebackers and cornerbacks.
» The top two interior defensive linemen in these projections are Al Woods (45 tackles [6 for a loss] with one sack) and Denico Autry (29 tackles [7 for a loss] with three sacks).
» Clay believes Jabaal Sheard will have a 54-tackle (11 for a loss), seven-sack campaign, while John Simon won't be far behind with 56 tackles (10 for a loss) and five sacks.
» At linebacker, Antonio Morrison is projected to be a major playmaker with a career-best 125 tackles (six for a loss) with one sack, one interception and two passes defensed. Rookie Darius Leonard is projected to have 81 tackles (seven for a loss) with one sack and three passes defensed, but no other linebacker is predicted to have more than 51 tackles or one sack on the year.
» In the secondary, Clay believes Quincy Wilson will get a ton of snaps and earn 62 tackles (four for a loss) with two interceptions and 15 passes defensed, which would be along the same production Rashaan Melvin had for Indy last season. At safety, Malik Hooker is expected to have three interceptions for a second straight season.
» Clay believes kicker Adam Vinatieri will have another solid year in 2018: 28-of-33 field goals (87 percent) and 39-of-41 extra points (96 percent), which would translate into him becoming the NFL's all-time leader in points scored and made field goals. Punter Rigoberto Sanchez, meanwhile, is projected to average 45 yards per punt and place 25 punts inside the 20-yard line.