With the Peyton Manning era fully in the rear view mirror, Andrew Luck has stepped in and led the Colts back to being the class of the division. They made a strong push in last year's playoffs by defeating the favored Chiefs in the Wild Card Round but failed to put up much of a fight against the Patriots in the Divisional Round. This team is still a work in progress as they look to improve by continuing to add weapons around the young franchise quarterback.
The offensive line still needs to show improvement, but the major hindrance keeping the Colts from reaching the level of becoming one of the top offenses in the league could be due to one of their additions from last year, Pep Hamilton. The Colts' Offensive Coordinator has been so determined to implement the power run offense to the point where he would rather have Darrius Heyward-Bey on the field because of his blocking ability in place of one of the most explosive weapons in the league in T.Y. Hilton. There is, however, some hope this year with the hiring of former Cleveland Browns' Head Coach, Rob Chudzinski as an offensive assistant. If he is able to give enough input this year, he could bring more creativity and explosiveness to the Colts' offense that was too conservative and unfitting to the players on the roster last season.
Andrew Luck has the skills that should include him in the elite tier of quarterbacks with Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees. But after throwing for 4,374 yards in his rookie season, he followed it up with only 3,822 in his second year. His upside has been capped by the conservative game planning and an improving defense. In the 2013 regular season, Luck surpassed 300 yards passing only three times and all three were games that they ended up losing. He did lead the Colts to the playoff win over the Chiefs amassing 443 yards and 4 touchdowns but almost cost them the game with 3 interceptions. This is why I cannot see Pep Hamilton completely cutting the reigns loose on Luck and allowing him to average anywhere near the 40+ passing attempts that Manning and Brees are surpassing most seasons. Like Rodgers, however, Luck does have his rushing production to boost his fantasy stock. Last year he averaged 6 yards per carry and totaled 377 yards. Luck is a safe pick for fantasy, but I currently do not see the upside of a top-5 fantasy quarterback for this season in the Pep Hamilton offense.
Matt Hasselbeck has already talked about retiring after this season. He has served well as a mentor to Andrew Luck in Indy and Jake Locker in Tennessee since his starting days in Seattle. The soon to be 39 year old played very well in spot starts due to injuries or when taking over for Luck when the game is well in hand. I believe he still has the skills to perform well if Andrew Luck were to miss time but would likely be limited to mostly handing the ball off as the offense will become even more conservative.
Trent Richardson has not lived up to the value of being selected as the #3 overall pick in the 2012 draft, or even being drafted, for that matter. This has most fantasy owners avoiding him at all costs this season. This will allow for him to be had at a value as a high upside pick later in rounds. The Colts are going to give him every opportunity to prove that he was a worthy investment to trade away their 2013 first round pick for him. After being thrust into the new offense mid-season last year, he now has the full offseason to learn the system and be more mentally prepared for this season.
Ahmad Bradshaw will return to the lineup after going through a complex neck surgery that ended his season last year. In his last game against the vaunted 49ers defense, he gained 95 yards and scored a touchdown after seemingly suffering the injury early in the second quarter. If he is 100% for this season, he should see plenty of carries as the #2 back in a committee and could see a lot more if Richardson continues to disappoint.
Vick Ballard was the Colt's starting running back as a rookie just two years ago but obviously did not win the full confidence of the coaching staff since they signed Bradshaw to be the starter shortly after that season. Last year, he was the victim of a season ending injury as well when he blew out his knee in a practice before the second game of the season. He will return this year and be in the mix to get some carries in the very run heavy offense.
Chris Rainey could be an interesting addition as a change-of-pace back. If Rob Chudzinski gets any influence on the offense, he could find ways to use Rainey as a more explosive option out of the backfield.
A deep sleeper to watch is Zurlon Tipton, a rookie from Central Michigan. If he can make the team, he has the skills of a pure power back that would allow him to excel in Pep Hamilton's offensive scheme.
Reggie Wayne is yet another weapon returning this year after suffering a gruesome knee injury last season. Once he returns to full health, he will continue to be the go-to target for Andrew Luck and should still produce enough to warrant a safe WR4 pick in drafts and could very easily outperform that designation.
T.Y. Hilton is the most explosive weapon available on this roster but has not been used to his full potential in this offense until injuries occur. He is used mostly in the offense as the #3 wide receiver in the sporadic instances they line up in three wide receiver sets. If they decide to use him more in the offense this year, he could end up being a top-15 wide receiver for fantasy. However, all signs so far point to everything staying status quo in Indy. Hilton will continue to be infuriatingly disappointing and inconsistent but have some huge games when the Colts are forced to into shootout situations.
Speaking of infuriatingly disappointing, the Colts took a flier on signing former Giant's wide receiver, Hakeem Nicks. In a contract year last year, he was still unable to muster up enough effort in the lowly Giant's offense to produce as their #1 wide-out or even score a single touchdown. He does receive a major upgrade to his quarterback this year from Eli Manning to Luck but will likely be placed in the Darrius Heyward-Bey role from last year. He is still a much better receiver than Heyward-Bey, but I cannot see him getting anywhere near the amount of targets in this offense that he was seeing in New York as long as Wayne stays healthy.
The NFL just released a statement that LaVon Brazill has been suspended for the entire season for violating the substance abuse policy again. This will free up some opportunity for Da'Rick Rogers and rookie, Donte Moncrief. Rogers made the best of his opportunity at the end of last season as the injuries started to pile, including a breakout game against the Bengals with 6 catches for 107 yards and 2 touchdowns. Moncrief has the size and speed measureables of a prototypical elite wide receiver but his down year last year at Mississippi and work ethic concerns will leave him toward the bottom of the depth chart until he can prove he is worthy to get on the field.
Dwayne Allen is one of my favorite sleepers at tight end this year. The Colts were very disappointed when they lost him for the season because he is a key piece for this offense. The Colts use a lot of two tight end sets, and when they line up in a single tight end formation, Allen will be on the field as the tight end or lined up as a fullback. His versatility is a huge positive that allows for him to line up anywhere and remain on the field to maximize opportunities for production.
Coby Fleener has not been the go-to target for Luck that most have projected him to be due to the familiarity of them playing together at Stanford. Even with the injuries to all of the top weapons, Fleener only averaged 3.3 catches for 41.4 yards and only scored one touchdown in the last half of the season. He did have an 8-catch for 107 yard game against Tennessee in that time period, but his inconsistency should only warrant a late round pick in deeper leagues.
Weslye Saunders is a large bodied, athletic tight end that has not been able to realize his potential to become a steady contributor in the league. He was cut from the team last year after getting busted a second time for using performance enhancing substances then re-signed toward the end of the season.
Erik Swoope is a basketball convert from the University of Miami that did not play collegiate football but has been receiving heavy praise in his development during OTAs.
The Colts offense has the potential to be an offensive juggernaut with the weapons they've added to go along with one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. All they need is a little more innovative game planning from the coaching staff. I could see a similar situation happening with this team to what occurred in Baltimore the year they won the Super Bowl. If the Colts offense struggles, they may elect to replace Pep Hamilton with the in-house candidate, Rob Chudzinski, similar to Jim Caldwell replacing Cam Cameron. If this happens, it would be time to immediately buy on all Colts players for fantasy. The offense will immediately become more creative and dynamic and will be much more appealing to fantasy owners. But for now, all we can do is select these players at the right value and pray that the offense is forced into more shootout situations to help the receiving game.