INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts have raised some eyebrows this offseason.
While "big splash" signings and trades haven't been the norm for the team the past few seasons, the Colts certainly caught some by surprise in March after making a couple of notable moves.
The Colts made a trade to acquire defensive tackle DeForest Buckner from the San Francisco in exchange for the 13th-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and then signed him to a large contract extension. They also signed free agent quarterback Philip Rivers to one of the more lucrative one-year deals at the position across the league.
The Colts weren't just doing this to add talented players to their team, though. They added proven playmakers to arguably the two most important positions on their roster, quelling concerns about being one of those teams that gets trapped into "winning the offseason."
A couple of national outlets recently acknowledged the value of what the Colts did in adding Buckner and Rivers, with ESPN and Bleacher Report both ranking the moves individually among the top moves made by NFL teams this offseason.
ESPN's article (first blurb for each player) focuses more on the upgrades that each player are to the team's roster while Bleacher Report's (second blurb) is more of a ranking of moves made during the offseason.
1. Indianapolis Colts, DT DeForest Buckner replaces Margus Hunt
Hunt's 2019 stat line: 17 tackles, 0 sacks
Buckner's 2020 projection: 62 tackles, 7 sacks
Colts general manager Chris Ballard said early in the offseason that the Colts' defensive scheme runs through the 3-technique tackle. He put his money where his mouth is not long after, trading for Buckner. The 26-year-old was arguably the 49ers' best player during a 2019 season that saw the team advance to the Super Bowl. Buckner's 7.5 sacks tied for sixth, his 12 tackles for loss fifth and his 61 total tackles ninth among interior defensive linemen. Buckner was a key acquisition for an ascending defense that includes the likes of Justin Houston, Darius Leonard, Kenny Moore and Malik Hooker. This unit is now good enough to help get the Colts back into the playoffs.
4. Indianapolis Colts Trade for DeForest Buckner
Certain players change the entire complexion of a defense. DeForest Buckner is one of those individuals.
For all of the attention multiple players from last year's San Francisco 49ers defensive line received, Buckner served as the unit's leader and top performer.
The 49ers weren't in a position to re-sign him long-term, though, and the Indianapolis Colts took advantage of the situation by trading a first-round pick for the defensive lineman's services.
'I said, 'At least you know what you're getting with DeForest, exactly what you're getting,'' Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus told reporters. 'You're getting a Pro Bowl talent, a high-level player that's dominated his position.'
Buckner has consistently been one of the league's better defensive linemen since he entered the NFL, and the Colts paid him as such with a four-year, $84 million contract extension. The 26-year-old defender will now be the focal point of an Indianapolis defense that lacked punch the last two seasons, especially along the interior. He'll serve as the unit's 3-technique (defensive tackle who lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard).
'The 3-technique is the engine that drives the D-line, and it drives the whole defense,' Eberflus told reporters.
Draft picks are great. Defensive difference-makers are even better. Bucker is a true difference-maker.
Buckner wasted no time establishing himself in the NFL, as he's been known as one of its better interior defenders since he arrived.
After getting adjusted to the league as a rookie, he took a big step forward in his second year in 2017. Since then, Buckner has compiled a pass-rush grade of at least 73.0 and ranked among the top 15 defensive tackles in the NFL, according to PFF, and he's had at least 50 quarterback pressures in each of those seasons.
Any quarterback or offensive coordinator will tell you that the interior pass rush that Buckner provides is a game-wrecker for opposing offenses.
Buckner does provide an upgrade at defensive tackle for the Colts, but it's at three-technique and not nose tackle, although he may see the occasional rep at nose.
The Colts got just 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss out of the three-tech position in 2019. While there were some injuries to the position, they critically need more production than that, which is where Buckner comes in moving forward.
The Colts now have locked up the services of an elite, 26-year-old player at their most important position on defense for at least the next five years.
7. Indianapolis Colts, QB Philip Rivers replaces Jacoby Brissett
Brissett's 2019 stat line: 272-of-447, 2,942 yards, 18 TDs, 6 INTs
Rivers' 2020 projection: 334-of-516, 3,807 yards, 26 TDs, 15 INTs
One year after being forced to roll with Brissett at quarterback following Andrew Luck's shocking August retirement, the Colts signed Rivers to a one-year deal. The former longtime Chargers quarterback is coming off an underwhelming campaign in which he completed 66% of his passes (10th in the NFL) and averaged 7.81 YPA (11th) but also tossed 20 interceptions (third most) and posted a 48.6 QBR (22nd). Rivers' age (38) and turnovers are a concern, but he's a clear upgrade over Brissett, who protects the ball well but struggles with accuracy (61% completion rate, 18% off-target rate last season) and impact plays (6.6 YPA). Rivers, who will benefit from one of the league's best offensive lines, joins the aforementioned Buckner in positioning the Colts as the favorites in the AFC South.
12. Indianapolis Colts Sign Philip Rivers
Certain matches make too much sense not to happen.
Once the Los Angeles Chargers decided they wanted to move on from longtime franchise quarterback Philip Rivers, the Indianapolis Colts become the 38-year-old's logical landing spot on account of his previous work relationship with offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, who was Rivers' quarterbacks coach in San Diego.
'One thing about Philip is, he knows how to create big plays in the play-action game, and on the trend that we're on, I just think he's the playmaker and leader that can help take us to the next level,' head coach Frank Reich said, per ESPN's Mike Wells.
Rivers' fit extends beyond his personal connection with Sirianni. The Colts feature one of the league's best offensive lines to help protect the statuesque quarterback. Furthermore, Rivers won't have to carry the unit because the run game will be prominently featured.
The difference lies in the veteran's creativity and willingness to push the ball down the field after the Colts struggled to manufacture offense with Jacoby Brissett leading the way.
Although it had its moments in 2019, the Colts' passing game was inconsistent overall when you look at the final tallies.
The Colts finished 30th overall in both passing (194.3 YPG) and yards per attempt (6.5), the latter being arguably the biggest measurement of passing success. Indy was also 21st in passer rating (85.0).
PFF measured the Colts as 25th in the passing game with a grade of 60.0, and 31st in receiving with a 65.9, so they really needed a jolt in the entire passing game and not just at quarterback.
In his 14 seasons as a starter, Rivers has never had any single-season outputs less than those mentioned for the Colts in 2019, with the exception of a passer rating of 82.4 in 2007.
After being reunited with head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni — both of whom he played for with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers — things are looking up for Rivers and his new offense.
He will be behind arguably the best offensive line that he's ever played with, which helps stoke a terrific run game that finished seventh in the NFL in 2019 and looks to be top-five in 2020.
The Colts also added some pass-catching pieces on offense in Michael Pittman Jr., Trey Burton and Dezmon Patmon, while they get a couple of speedy, playmaking receivers back healthy in T.Y. Hilton and Parris Campbell.
Entering his 17th year in the league, Rivers is comfortable with everything in the passing game and won't hesitate to spray the ball all over the field. While he may be more of a gunslinger at times, he is sure to bring big plays with him.
He is about as accomplished as they come statistically and is likely to pass the legendary Dan Marino in both career passing yards and touchdowns this year. Rivers needs 2,091 yards and 24 touchdowns to pass Marino. He's never had fewer than 3,100 yards as a starter, and he's only had fewer than 24 passing touchdowns in three seasons as a starter.
The Colts selected quarterback Jacob Eason in the fourth round of the draft this year to potentially be Rivers' successor. Eason is a bit of a developmental player, but the Colts felt comfortable having him watch and learn from guys like Rivers and Brissett.
Whether it's Eason or a player yet to be found, the Colts secured the present with Rivers until the quarterback of the future steps forward.