INDIANAPOLIS — After finishing a disappointing 7-9 in 2019, the Indianapolis Colts headed into this offseason with a checklist full of needs they wanted to address.
Both on the offensive and the defensive sides of the ball, there were a few key areas in which general manager Chris Ballard and Frank Reich knew with a few tweaks — some major, some minor — that the team could be in much better shape moving forward.
And now, more than six months later, where do the Colts stand as they prepare for the start of training camp, which is expected to begin in late-July?
"I think we made the progress we wanted to make," Reich said.
The third-year Colts head coach then explained the process by which the team addresses and prioritizes those needs.
"One of the first things we do as soon as the season is over, we go through our assessment of our own personnel. Then we develop a needs list. We develop a needs list offensively and defensively," Reich said. "The way it's organized is very good. The way that I'll work with the staff on it, Chris (Ballard) works with everybody on it to assess the needs. We get into an offensive unit, defensive unit (and) we talk about needs in-depth – our roster, what we need, what we're planning on doing, so on and so forth.
"Then we prioritize those," Reich continued. "The offense will prioritize their needs, the defense will prioritize their needs. Then basically, Chris and I will take that and then we'll meld that together to see who gets – and it's always a big joke by the way, right? — who is going to get preference: offense or defense? Whose needs – how are they going to get stacked when they actually get together?"
So what were the Colts' main needs heading into the offseason, and how did those end up playing out? Here's our list:
☑️ Anthony Castonzo deciding to return for a 10th season in 2020: Heading into the offseason, Castonzo, the Colts' starting left tackle the past nine years, wasn't quite ready to commit to a 10th season in Indy in 2020. A free agent-to-be, Castonzo had indicated the two options he was weighing were returning to the Colts or retiring.
Fortunately for the Colts, by the time the NFL Scouting Combine came rolling around in late-February, Castonzo had officially made his decision: retirement was going to have to wait.
On March 15, the two sides made it official, as Castonzo signed a two-year extension to remain in Indy through at least the 2021 season.
Castonzo is coming off arguably his best-overall season in 2019, one in which he allowed just three sacks and five quarterback pressures all year, according to Pro Football Focus, which named him to its 2019 All-Pro Team as a second-team selection at left tackle.
Castonzo was also named a Pro Bowl alternate for the first time last season, and sees no reason why that strong play can't continue heading into his age-32 season.
"After having a healthy season, I kinda looked back on the season and I said, 'Do I think that that is the best that I'm going to be able to play?' Having been healthy and gotten through the season, kind of looking at it like, 'Do I think I can play better than that, or is that the best that I think I can play?' If I had come away from that saying I think it's the best that I can play and it's downhill from here, then I probably would have decided to retire," Castonzo said. "But after doing some offseason training and kind of getting going and thinking about things, I think that I've got a lot of better football and a lot more in me. So I decided that I want to keep playing. And I love the Colts and I love football, so I think that decision (had) absolutely nothing kind of swaying me in the other direction."
☑️ Finding a dominant three-tech for the defensive interior: Colts general manager Chris Ballard didn't exactly mince words at his end-of-season press conference in January.
"We've got to be able to get some more interior pressure," Ballard said. "The three-technique, the three-technique drives this thing. It does. Every time I've been a part of this, the three-technique drives this."
Enter: DeForest Buckner.
The Colts on March 18 sent their first-round (13th-overall) pick to the San Francisco 49ers to acquire the All-Pro Buckner, who at just 26 is considered one of the top defensive tackles in the league, and is expected to play virtually the same three-tech role in Indy that he did in San Francisco.
The Colts also immediately inked Buckner to a reported four-year contract extension, keeping him in Indy through at least the 2024 season.
"When you have an opportunity to acquire what you think is an elite player at a premium position, who's just turning 26 years old, still has three-plus years of high-level play, who's a unique, physical talent — plus a unique individual in terms of his character — we thought it was a great move for us," Ballard said. "You know, most of the time when you acquire elite players they're usually on the down side of their careers; you don't get an opportunity to get them. And if it happens in free agency there's usually a reason they're hitting the market. So we just saw a unique opportunity. The 13th pick was a lot, but we think his play, both on the field and what he's going to bring to the locker room, warranted the 13th pick of the draft."
Buckner has been an absolute monster since entering the league as the seventh-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, collecting 262 career tackles (38 for a loss) with 28.5 sacks, 11 passes defensed, seven fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles. He also has one fumble recovery for a touchdown and six career multiple-sack games.
Buckner had a career-best 12 sacks in 2018 and was selected to his first-career Pro Bowl; in 2019, he was named Second-Team All-Pro and helped lead the 49ers all the way to Super Bowl LIV.
☑️ Figuring out the answer at the quarterback position: The Colts were dealt quite the tough hand just before the start of the 2019 regular season, when their starting quarterback, Andrew Luck, announced his sudden retirement from the NFL at the age of 29.
The team felt fortunate, however, because it had a starting-caliber backup quarterback in Jacoby Brissett that had been leading the offense for most of the offseason and into training camp in Luck's absence.
Brissett started off strong — and the Colts followed suit, going 5-2 over their first seven games, including an impressive road victory over the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. But Brissett would injure his knee Week 9 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, forcing him to miss the next week's game against the Miami Dolphins, and the team would sputter from there, finishing with a 7-9 record.
After going over the film from the entire season, Ballard and head coach Frank Reich came to the conclusion that they would be just fine with Brissett remaining their starter heading into 2020 if needed. But they also knew about a few veteran quarterbacks that were about to hit the open market in free agency, so they wanted to be sure to do their due diligence either way.
One of those veteran quarterbacks, Philip Rivers, was going to be hitting free agency for the first time in his career after spending his first 16 seasons with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers, where he became one of the more prolific passers in NFL history. He also had plenty of familiarity with Reich, Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni and tight ends coach Jason Michael; Reich was quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in San Diego from 2013-15, Sirianni was a quality control coach, quarterbacks and then wide receivers coach in San Diego/L.A. from 2013-17 and Michael was the Chargers' tight ends coach from 2011-13.
Ultimately, it was that familiarity — and the belief that Rivers, at 38, still has plenty left in the tank — that led to a "unique opportunity" for the Colts to sign Rivers to a one-year deal, with the possibility of extending the future Hall of Famer's stay in Indy beyond the 2020 season.
"Philip is one of the most decorated quarterbacks in the NFL and we are fortunate to add an experienced player of his caliber to our organization," Colts general manager Chris Ballard said upon Rivers' signing on March 21. "His familiarity with our coaching staff and offensive system in addition to his experience were attractive qualities during our evaluation process. Philip is a fierce competitor and his veteran leadership will be crucial in the continued development of our young roster."
☑️ Getting more explosive on offense: Rivers' acquisition is expected to provide a major jolt to the Colts' offense, particularly its passing game, which finished 30th in the league in yards per game in 2019.
But the Colts made moves this offseason to address both the pass game and the run game, and together, the team hopes they'll be making explosive plays all over the field in 2020.
Those moves started with the coaching staff. The team hired Mike Groh, who had previously worked with then-offensive coordinator Frank Reich as the Philadelphia Eagles' wide receivers coach, to that same position on the Colts' staff; Kevin Patullo, Indy's former wide receivers coach, has transitioned into a brand new role, "Pass Game Specialist." The Colts also promoted Parks Frazier and Jerrod Johnson to offensive quality control positions.
The trio of Sirianni, Groh and Patullo have been working hard this offseason to find more ways to exploit defenses and get those big chunks in the passing game.
What should help in that process are both the return of some injured playmakers, as well as a few newcomers.
Top receiver T.Y. Hilton is feeling back to 100 percent after playing in a career-low 10 games in 2019 as he dealt with a couple nagging injuries (most notably a calf injury that hampered him most of the second half of the season). Parris Campbell, a second-round pick in last year's draft, is also back to 100 percent after being limited to just seven games his rookie season due to a myriad of injury issues.
New to the Colts are two draft picks at receiver: second-round pick Michael Pittman Jr. out of USC and sixth-round pick Dezmon Patmon out of Washington State. The team also signed free agent tight end Trey Burton, who is expected to help make up for the loss of Eric Ebron, who departed in free agency this offseason.
And while the Colts just missed out on a top-five rushing attack in 2019 — Indy fell 1.5 rushing yards per game short of that mark — the team is expected to be even better in that area this season. Why? Well, first off, look at what's returning: all five starting offensive linemen, as well as starting running back Marlon Mack (who is coming off his first-career 1,000-yard season), third-down back Nyheim Hines and key backup Jordan Wilkins.
But the team also went out and grabbed college football's top running back in this year's draft, moving up three spots in the second round to select Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, to create what Reich and Sirianni have referred to as a "1-1" punch at the position alongside Mack.
So take all those moves together — from the coaching staff to what's returning as well as what's new — and the Colts' offense should be producing a few more fireworks in 2020.