INDIANAPOLIS — For the Indianapolis Colts, the last three months have brought quite a turnaround when it comes to outside expectations.
When their season ended on Dec. 29, Indy had lost seven of its last nine games and was perceived by pundits to be entering the offseason on a downward slope. However, that's not what many people are saying anymore as we sit a couple weeks away from the 2020 NFL Draft.
The Colts had among the most salary cap space in the league entering the new league year and turned it into an offseason that many around the NFL world consider significant enough to plop them back into the playoff race in 2020.
We've seen teams with cap space before "win the offseason" by spending much of their money on several high-priced free agents, but the Colts took their cap space and did big things in a calculated way that should still bring results.
In short: the Colts spent big money on the most important position on each side of the football.
On offense, they signed quarterback Philip Rivers to a one-year deal to give the passing game a jolt and to keep the offense moving. The eight-time Pro Bowler is already familiar with head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni's offense from their days together with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers.
On defense, the Colts uncharacteristically flipped their first-round draft pick this year for San Francisco 49ers All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner — who most consider to be among the top three defensive tackles in the NFL — and then locked him up with a reported four-year contract extension. Also on defense, the Colts signed cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who has three Pro Bowls and an All-Pro selection under his belt as well.
The Rivers and Buckner moves alone have been enough to gets people talking about the Colts being one of the NFL's most-improved teams.
ESPN NFL expert Dan Graziano answered with "the Colts" when asked which team in the NFL improved the most after the first wave of free agency.
"The DeForest Buckner move isn't getting the attention it deserves. He'll play the vital three-technique defensive tackle position in the Colts' defense and make everyone around him better," Graziano wrote. "And the big signing on offense was, of course, quarterback Philip Rivers, who will play with better pass protection than he has had in years and should rebound for a late-career shot at that elusive Super Bowl.'"
NFL Columnist Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report also included the Colts in his analysis of teams whose arrow is pointing up this offseason.
"Last season Philip Rivers looked, well, done. He threw 20 interceptions, and his deep passes resembled ducks flying on one wing through a thunderstorm. Yet the Colts have a number of weapons on offense and a better offensive line than the Chargers. It's worth the risk. Also, getting defensive lineman DeForest Buckner was big. Stock: Up"
While the Colts have had a solid offseason on the surface, the fortification of their roster began much earlier than March.
Shortly before the 2019 regular season ended, the Colts re-signed Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle, who was set to become a free agent this March. It would be no surprise if Doyle becomes a big-time favorite of Rivers'. As soon as their season ended, the Colts then re-signed Zach Pascal, who was their top receiver for much of the season, and tight end Mo Alie-Cox, who has started and played significant snaps for the team over the last two years.
Not to be forgotten, the Colts also re-signed young placekicker Chase McLaughlin, who filled in admirably when the legendary Adam Vinatieri was placed on season-ending Injured Reserve. McLaughlin made a combined 16 of his 17 kicks in the Colts' final four games.
With those significant role players back under contract, attention shifted back to Indy's blindside protector, Anthony Castonzo, who was still weighing his football future. However, once he gave the Colts the green light that he'd continue playing, they secured him for another two years as well.
Most recently, the Colts signed free agents Sheldon Day and T.J. Carrie, both of whom should prove to provide tremendous depth on the defensive side of the ball.
Day — an Indianapolis native from Warren Central High School who went on to star at the University of Notre Dame — played with Buckner in San Francisco and is expected to provide key depth in the middle of the defensive line. Carrie may potentially play a critical role as starting cornerback Kenny Moore II's primary backup, as both players are capable of moving between outside and inside corner. With the dip that the Colts saw defensively late in the season as Moore II sat out with an injured ankle, having a quality backup moving forward was deemed a substantial need.
The Colts even had answers for the three players that they released in Pierre Desir, Margus Hunt and Brian Hoyer, as they were replaced by Rhodes, Day and Rivers (with last year's starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett, becoming the backup), respectively.
While it's easy to shine a light on the Colts' acquisitions of Rivers and Buckner, their offseason has been much more than those two moves.
They also re-signed five guys who are projected to be starters, and acquired another three starters and two players who should play significant snaps for the defense.
They now will enter the draft with no dire needs and can use the process to add immediate depth and playmakers throughout the roster.
It's a young roster that got hit with a bolt of lightning, and will now have higher expectations from the outside.