INDIANAPOLIS — What a difference a year makes.
This time last year, the national media was nothing if not uncertain about the Indianapolis Colts. They were heading into the second year of general manager Chris Ballard's remodel, also welcoming a brand new, first-time head coach in Frank Reich, and quarterback Andrew Luck wasn't back back quite yet from his 2017 shoulder surgery.
This year, those uncertainties have been laid to rest. Ballard was lauded for his draft haul, which helped him earn the PFWA's Executive of the Year award, Reich was one of the top Coach of the Year candidates, Luck had one of the best seasons of his career, and the Colts not only made it, but also won a playoff game.
This year, expectations are quite different, as the Colts are a popular pick to make a deep playoff run in the AFC.
CBS Sports Senior Writer Pete Prisco recently unveiled his list of the top 100 players in the National Football League, and four Colts find their way into the rankings. That's the kind of notoriety being on a good football team can help get you.
No. 20 Andrew Luck
"He returned last season to remind the league that he's still among the game's best. Luck carries the Colts."
In 2018, Luck picked up where he left off when we last saw him play in 2016. He earned his fourth Pro Bowl appearance and was named the league's Comeback Player of the Year.
Luck led the Colts' offense to one of its most prolific seasons in recent memory and set several new single-season career highs along the way, including completions (430), pass attempts (639), completion percentage (67.3 percent), passer rating (98.7), ESPN QBR (71.6) and Pro Football Focus grade (91.3).
One of Luck's most impressive feats in 2018 came between Weeks 4-12, when he threw at least three touchdown passes in each game. The mark tied Luck with Peyton Manning (eight) for the second-most consecutive games with at least three passing touchdowns in NFL history, trailing only Tom Brady, who did it in 10 consecutive games in 2011.
2019 means another year of continuity between Luck, Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni. All five starting linemen are back, and wide receiver Deon Cain and tight end Jack Doyle are expected to be back and healthy. The Colts also added wide receivers Parris Campbell and Devin Funchess. Everything is set up for Luck to shine.
No. 52 Quenton Nelson
"He was impressive as a rookie starter, going to the Pro Bowl. With a year of seasoning, he might be the best in the league in 2019."
If you're going to take an interior offensive lineman in the top 10 of the NFL Draft then you better hope they pan out. Nelson already exceeded expectations by becoming a First-Team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler as a rookie.
He's been named to just about any "All-NFL Player" type of list you can find, and he's only scratching the surface. The Colts recently brought in Chris Strausser as the new offensive line coach as well as Howard Mudd as senior offensive assistant. Both are considered specialists in teaching the fundamentals and mechanics, which Nelson felt he needed to improve upon even as a dominant rookie.
No. 65 T.Y. Hilton
"This smaller receiver continues to have a big game. He had 76 catches with six touchdowns and averaged an impressive 16.7 yards per catch, despite missing two games."
Hilton was banged up for most of the season, but it was arguably the gutsiest performance of his career.
He managed to lead the NFL in receiving yards per game over the second half of the season (including playoffs) despite battling through both a low and high ankle sprain on the same leg, and he even averaged more receiving yards per game (90.7) for the season than he did in 2016 when he led the entire NFL in receiving yards (1,448 yards, 90.5 average). "The Ghost" also posted his highest single-season Pro Football Focus grade (87.7).
There's no telling what a healthy T.Y. Hilton could do in this offense.
No. 88 Darius Leonard
"As a rookie, he was named first-team All-Pro and helped solidify the middle of the Colts' defense."
You'd be hard pressed to find an NFL player who burst onto the scene at the level that Leonard did in 2018. Out of FCS school South Carolina State, the Colts made him an early second-round pick, and he performed at a high level from Day 1.
Leonard became the first rookie to lead the NFL in tackles since Luke Kuechly in 2012, and he also broke the Colts' single-season franchise record with 163. He was a clutch performer and a stat sheet-stuffer, filling out his line with 12 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered and two interceptions.
Playing on a bum ankle for the majority of the season — even missing one game because of it — it's scary to think how much better Leonard could be in 2019.