The Ringer: Colts Are AFC South's Most-Improved Team

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INDIANAPOLIS — This was a unique offseason for the Indianapolis Colts.

New starting quarterback. First-round draft pick traded straight-up for a single player. Some big new names joining the team as well as some departing town.

However, although there were some significant changes made to the Colts this offseason, they were made under the circumstances, and met the guidelines, that general manager Chris Ballard always said that they would if they ever happened.

New Colts Philip Rivers, DeForest Buckner and Xavier Rhodes are all tough players and known leaders who work hard to earn their spot on the roster and are positive influences in the locker room; then factor in another solid nine-player 2020 NFL Draft class, headlined by wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., running back Jonathan Taylor and safety Julian Blackmon — all solid players and character fits in Indy.

If the Colts are going to take the next step as a team this year, they believe they've made the right moves and acquired the right players to do it.

Their offseason recently caught the eye of Robert Mays of The Ringer, who declared the Colts as the team in the AFC South that improved the most:

What a profoundly weird offseason in the AFC South. The Titans used the majority of their available cap space to retain Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry and keep the core of a top-10 offense intact. Imagine reading that sentence a year ago. The Jaguars auctioned off the final pieces of their excellent 2017 defense for scraps as the franchise hit the reset button. And the Texans, well … ask Bill O'Brien.

Among the teams in this division, the Colts added the most talent. Philip Rivers is an upgrade over Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, with head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni (both of whom coached Rivers with the Chargers) forming the perfect duo to get the most out of the veteran's final seasons. The Colts also traded away the 13th pick in the draft to acquire DeForest Buckner, who was then signed to a monster four-year, $84 million deal. Players of Buckner's caliber rarely hit free agency, and Indianapolis felt that splurging on him was the right move with its ocean of cap space.

In the draft, the Colts added freight-train running back Jonathan Taylor and playmaking outside receiver Michael Pittman Jr. to complete their offense. That may not seem like a blockbuster offseason, but that speaks to how stagnant the rest of the AFC South was this spring.

Just about as important as anything else, the Colts made sure to retain many of their own this offseason, re-signing starters like left tackle Anthony Castonzo, wide receiver Zach Pascal, tight end Mo Alie-Cox and kicker Chase McLaughlin, as well as key depth pieces in wide receivers Marcus Johnson and Daurice Fountain, offensive lineman Le'Raven Clark and safety/slot defender Rolan Milligan.

It can be difficult to "improve" your roster if you aren't retaining your own quality free agents.

At quarterback, the Colts took advantage of a unique opportunity to bring in Rivers to become the new starter. Jacoby Brissett now becomes the backup, and one that the Colts are very comfortable with having. They also took Jacob Eason in the fourth round of the draft, although he is more likely to be a factor in the future rather than immediately.

By adding Rivers, the Colts' passing game opens completely at all levels of the field and in all situations. Although this is a new team for Rivers, he is already very familiar with the offense from his time with Colts head coach Frank Reich, offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni and tight ends coach Jason Michael while the group was together with the Los Angeles Chargers (San Diego then).

The Colts no longer have tight end Eric Ebron and wide receivers Devin Funchess, Dontrelle Inman and Chester Rogers, but the Colts replaced them and reinforced things around Rivers with rookie draft picks Michael Pittman Jr. and Dezmon Patmon, as well as free agent tight end Trey Burton. The three players are all big, athletic targets who can make plays all over the field.

Both Rivers and Burton have flourished with Reich earlier in their careers, as Reich was also the offensive coordinator for Burton while the pair was winning a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles just a few years ago.

Perhaps the biggest jolt to the Colts' offense is going to be in the run game, however.

After finishing No. 7 in the NFL in the category last year with an average of 133.1 rushing yards per game, the Colts added a former Pro Bowl fullback in Roosevelt Nix, who will be a key run blocker along with tight ends Burton and Jack Doyle, the Nos. 1 and 4-rated run-blocking tight ends in the NFL in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus.

In the second round of the draft, the Colts added running back Jonathan Taylor, who is one of college football's most accomplished running backs ever. Adding him to a backfield featuring reigning 1,000-yard back Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins is likely to signal long days ahead for opposing front sevens, especially since they have to be cognizant of what Rivers can do to them through the air.

Play-action in the Colts offense is bound to become deadly while defenses respect the threat of the run game and T.Y. Hilton and Parris Campbell are going over the top.

"We know we want to run the football," Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni told reporters this week. "We know a lot of the good running teams in this league and in the past have had good one-two punches. It feels like it's just a one-one punch though because we have two such exceptional backs. We've seen it work in the NFL so much where you have different styles of guys, right? Both these guys can do multiple things though. Jonathan is a little bigger than Marlon, but they both have exceptional speed, and they both have ability to make you miss, and they both have the ability to break arm-tackles and run with power. They have some different running styles, but again they're both complete backs. I think that's a fantastic problem to have, is to have two guys like that you can feed the football to. It's only going to help our running game."

On the offensive line, the Colts did lose two of their top reserves in Joe Haeg and Josh Andrews, but they drafted Danny Pinter as a replacement, who they are very high on. The Colts also signed one of the top Canadian prospects and a highly-regarded undrafted free agent in Carter O'Donnell.

The defensive line underwent a good bit of change, but was upgraded overall. At defensive end, starter Jabaal Sheard remains an unsigned free agent while they signed one of the protégés of pass rush consultant Robert Mathis in Kendall Coleman as an undrafted free agent.

The interior of the line underwent the bulk of the change, with Margus Hunt and Trevon Coley being replaced by the All-Pro Buckner, Sheldon Day and Rob Windsor. Adding Buckner and Day will give the Colts the freedom to allow tackles Denico Autry and Tyquan Lewis to play more end moving forward, which helped make the pair so dangerous with their first seasons with the Colts in 2018.

"You're getting a Pro-Bowl talent, a high-level player that has dominated his position," Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said about the impact adding a player like Buckner has on the defense. "So the trickle-down effect to answer that is whenever you have a defensive line – DeForest, Justin (Houston) and different guys up front – that can dominate their spot up front, it is easier to play linebacker and easier to play in coverage because everything is sped up and the line of scrimmage is changing for the run game."

"So there are a lot of things that are beneficial in having a really good three-technique," Eberflus continued. "I know that we have talked about that as a franchise. I know it is so important to be able to have that. So it all starts up front. You've got to coach to it, you've got to harder it and you've got to do a great job of just putting the resources there which we have done in the past."

After overhauling the linebacker group over the last couple years, the Colts did very little to it this year. While they didn't lose anybody, they added rookies Jordan Glasgow and Brandon Wellington. Glasgow was taken in the sixth round of the draft, and the Colts plan for him to be a big part of their special teams groups.

The Colts' secondary got a little bit of a facelift as well, with Pierre Desir, Quincy Wilson and Briean Boddy-Calhoun being replaced at cornerback by Rhodes, T.J. Carrie and Isaiah Rodgers, and Julian Blackmon being added at safety, while longtime member of the defense, Clayton Geathers, remains an unsigned free agent.

One of the biggest factors in the secondary is relying on the continued growth of young players like cornerbacks Rock Ya-Sin and Marvell Tell III as well as safeties Malik Hooker, Khari Willis and George Odum.

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