INDIANAPOLIS — How quickly will Philip Rivers be able to readjust to Frank Reich's offensive schemes? Will the team continue running the ball at a prolific rate? Can a young defense, aided by a brand new star up front, take the next step forward?
And, perhaps most importantly, will the organization return to postseason play?
These are perhaps the hottest of the burning questions for the Indianapolis Colts heading into the 2020 season. So while we wait patiently for the games to begin, ESPN's Mike Clay is here to provide his annual projections for the team, both statistically for the players and for the season itself.
Good news, Horseshoe fans: the Colts are headed back to the playoffs.
That's according to Clay's projections, at least.
His simulations for the 2020 season not only have the Colts winning 10.1 games, but also claiming the AFC South Division title — the team's first since the 2014 season — and entering the postseason as the No. 3 seed, where they'd play host to the Denver Broncos in the Wild Card Round.
According to Clay, the Colts will take advantage of the league's easiest schedule in 2020; in fact, Indy is only projected by Clay to has less than a 50-percent win probability in two games all season — Week 5 at the Cleveland Browns (49 percent) and Week 16 at the Pittsburgh Steelers (36 percent).
The Colts' roster is also going to be strong from top to bottom, Clay believes; he has Indy possessing the 11th-best offensive unit and the fifth-best defensive unit, equating to the seventh-best roster overall.
Some other team items of note, via Clay's projections, has the Colts…
» Allowing the seventh-fewest sacks in the league (35)
» Finishing 11th in the NFL in rushing yards (1,913), a year after just missing the top-five. With every offensive lineman returning, as well as running backs Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, on top of the addition of Jonathan Taylor, some may scoff at this notion. But you also have to remember: the Colts want to get more yardage in the passing game in 2020, so something likely has to give.
» Lighting it up defensively, finishing second in the NFL in tackles (988) and third in the league in sacks (41.9).
Finally, in terms of the 2021 NFL Draft order, if sorted solely by record, with no trades taken into consideration, Clay has the Colts picking at No. 26 overall in the first round.
Here are a few individual highlights from Clay's 2020 Colts projections:
» Leading an offense that's not the Chargers for the first time in his 17-year NFL career, Rivers is set to have a pretty solid 2020 campaign. While his projected numbers might not be as gaudy as he's produced in years past, Rivers has also never really had the all-around run game he's going to have this year with the Colts. Clay projects Rivers will play in 15 games in all and complete 335 of 517 passes (64.8 percent) for 3,834 yards with 26 touchdowns to 15 interceptions. That places Rivers 10th in the NFL in passing yards, but tied for first in the league in picks.
» What about the "1-1" Colts rushing attack, featuring Mack and Taylor? Clay has the two running backs generally sharing the load, with the rookie Taylor taking the slight lead with 198 rushing attempts for 852 yards (4.3 avg.) with seven rushing touchdowns, to go with 24 receptions for 204 yards and one score; Mack, meanwhile, is projected to run the ball 154 times for 676 yards (4.4 avg.) and five rushing touchdowns, and add 16 receptions for 126 yards and a score through the air.
» Rivers has been known to favor his pass-catching specialist running backs through the air, so how will that affect a guy like Nyheim Hines? Clay believes Hines won't see too much of an uptick as a receiver, with 52 projected receptions for 422 yards and two scores; he also has Hines with 53 rushing attempts for 218 yards (4.1 avg.) and another two touchdowns on the ground.
» At wide receiver, Clay sees T.Y. Hilton returning to his productive self after missing a career-high six games due to injury in 2019. In 2020, Hilton is projected to log 71 receptions for 1,015 yards with six touchdowns, confirming his status as WR1 in Indy. Clay believes WR2 will belong to Parris Campbell, as he's projected to have 44 receptions for 548 yards and four touchdowns.
» Second-round pick Michael Pittman Jr., meanwhile, is expected to make a pretty nice impression as a rookie, as he's projected to finish with 39 receptions for 531 yards and four touchdowns. In terms of receiving numbers, that would be about a top-10 all-time finish in franchise history for a Colts first-year pass catcher.
» At tight end, Jack Doyle is projected to have what would likely be another Pro Bowl-worthy season (which would be his third): 50 receptions for 521 yards and five touchdowns. Newcomer Trey Burton, who does have familiarity with Reich's system from their time together with the Philadelphia Eagles, is projected to catch 21 passes for 215 yards and two scores, which might seem low at this point of the offseason, but you also have to remember: there's only one ball to go around.
» Clay projects Chase McLaughlin to win the kicking battle over undrafted rookie Rodrigo Blankenship; on the year, McLaughlin is projected to hit 81 percent of his field goal attempts (that would've finished him about 20th in the league in that category in 2019), and 92 percent of his extra-point tries.
» Defensively, the addition of DeForest Buckner is expected to make waves, if Clay's projections end up working out. Buckner is projected to finish with 62 tackles, 6.8 sacks and rank as the fourth-best player at his position fantasy-wise.
» The defensive ends, as a group, are expected to do well, finishing with 20.8 sacks as a group. Justin Houston, fresh off an 11-sack campaign in 2019, is expected to follow that up with 8.1 projected sacks in 2020. It seems as if Clay is taking more of a wait-and-see approach with Kemoko Turay, however, as he's projected to notch just 4.8 sacks on the year at this point.
» Another All-Pro campaign in the books for Darius Leonard? Clay thinks so; Leonard is projected to finish as the No. 1 player at his position fantasy-wise with 148 tackles, 3.0 sacks and 2.2 interceptions. Anthony Walker is also expected to join Leonard in the 100-tackle club once again.
» According to Clay, the Colts will have the No. 4-ranked interior defensive lineman, the No. 1-ranked linebacker and the No. 1-ranked cornerback, in terms of fantasy points, in 2020. Kenny Moore II is projected to have a terrific year with 87 tackles, 1.8 sacks and 1.2 interceptions.
» At safety, Khari Willis is expected to have a very nice second season in 2020, as he's projected to be the 20th-best safety in terms of fantasy points after finishing with 94 tackles, 0.9 sacks and 0.8 interceptions. Malik Hooker is projected to snag 1.6 picks himself.