INDIANAPOLIS — It’s been an active offseason that has analysts from CBS Sports’ Adam Schein to NFL Network’s Steve Mariucci predicting the Indianapolis Colts could be one of the league’s most improved teams in 2020.
But which moves have been the most important? And where is there still work to be done?
In the first installment of a weekly series leading up to (hopefully) the start of training camp in late July, CNHI Sports Indiana looks at the five most important players on this year’s roster in terms of the Colts’ ability to fulfill their turnaround potential:
1. Deforest Buckner
It’s been a long time since any player entered with more weight on his shoulders than the 26-year-old defensive tackle. Andrew Luck’s arrival as the No. 1 overall pick in 2012 might be the most recent comp.
Buckner didn’t get a welcome party hosted at Lucas Oil Stadium after Indianapolis traded its first-round pick for his services in March, but the expectations greeting him nearly match those of the former franchise quarterback.
At 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds, the seventh overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft has the presence and power to be a force against the run. He also has the explosiveness and athleticism to collapse the interior of the pocket and make life chaotic for opposing quarterbacks.
In his four-year career, Buckner has 28.5 sacks, 38 tackles for loss and 74 quarterback hits. He’s also recovered seven fumbles — including four last season, one of which resulted in a touchdown. He’ll be expected to change the way offenses game plan for the Colts and affect everything from opponents’ third-down conversion rate to their average yards per carry.
“Watching some film, everybody is talented, so we’ve got a really good group,” Buckner said. “I’m just excited to get on the field with them because I think that we have a lot of potential, and we can take it a long ways this year.”
2. Ryan Kelly
For all the work general manager Chris Ballard did this offseason, there remains a lack of depth along the offensive line.
Kelly is uniquely important because he’s the only player on the roster — other than long snapper Luke Rhodes — who’s ever snapped the ball in a regular season NFL game. There are hopes fifth-round rookie Danny Pinter can develop into a solid backup at both guard positions as well as center, and Jake Eldrenkamp has some experience at center during a three-year NFL career spent mainly on practice squads.
Javon Patterson, a seventh-round pick in 2019 who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is the only player besides Kelly listed purely as a center on the roster.
Add it all together, and it would be in the team’s best interest if the 27-year-old can repeat his feat of starting all 16 games from last season. Kelly has focused on maintenance and nutrition in the offseason with a goal of remaining durable.
“For me, having a few injuries early in my career and still having to deal with a few things — for me, it’s about how can I stay on the field as much as possible?,” he said. “We were able to start all 16 games as an offensive line (last) year. It would be incredible to do that again next year as well.”
3. Kenny Moore II
One look at the struggles in the passing game the final month of last season reveals all the evidence needed in favor of the versatile slot cornerback.
With Moore sidelined by an ankle injury, the Colts were unable to stop Drew Brees, Jameis Winston and Gardner Minshew during a 1-4 finish that ended the team’s postseason hopes. Ballard signed veteran T.J. Carrie and drafted UMass corner Isaiah Rodgers in the sixth round to help boost the depth behind Moore in the slot this year, but the 24-year-old remains essential to the defensive backfield.
“Look, to replace a Kenny Moore with another guy is tough,” Ballard said in January. “It’s tough, especially at that position. It’s such an important position on the field. But, no, we do need to get better play out of the backup nickel.”
4. Michael Pittman Jr.
New quarterback Philip Rivers has made a living targeting big, physical receivers during his 16-year career. The 6-foot-4, 223-pound second-round pick out of Southern California certainly fits the bill.
There are high hopes for Pittman, despite the lack of reps he’s received in a coronavirus-restricted offseason. He’ll be expected to provide a serious threat opposite veteran T.Y. Hilton and help open up the field for all of Indianapolis’ receivers.
“Probably the ‘X’ (receiver’s) responsibility is to go deep, to block, run slants, go’s and posts and really have those tough-down catches,” Pittman said. “I feel like that’s what I can do because I am a big body, strong, fast guy, and I feel like that is made for me. So I’m excited for it.”
5. Philip Rivers
Indianapolis finished 30th in the league as a passing offense in 2019 and averaged just 5.7 net yards per attempt. Even in a down year with the Los Angeles Chargers, Rivers directed the league’s sixth-ranked passing attack on a team that averaged 7 yards per attempt.
There is legitimate concern about the wear-and-tear on the 38-year-old QB, and he’s coming off a season in which he threw 20 interceptions. But the Colts believe a sturdy offensive line and a strong running game will help bring out the veteran’s best.
“I don’t feel like I have anything to prove,” Rivers said, “but I am excited to go have a better season and go play better and help this team win a bunch of games and obviously try to accomplish our goals.”