Evolution or Revolution is a series that analyzes whether a team needs a few tweaks or a fundamental reboot.
For a second season running, Frank Reich is turning to a quarterback he knows well.
There has been no shortage of churn in the Indianapolis Colts QB room since Reich became head coach in 2018.
Andrew Luck retired before the start of Reich’s second season after winning NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Jacoby Brissett stepped in but couldn’t lead the Colts to the playoffs. That prompted a move for Philip Rivers, who worked with Reich when the pair was with the Chargers.
But Rivers also retired after leading the Colts to an 11-5 record in 2020.
After coaxing a relatively impressive final year out of Rivers, Reich backed himself to get a former star firing again. Indy acquired Carson Wentz from the Philadelphia Eagles to be the newest starter under center.
Wentz’s performance has tailed off in recent seasons, but the impressive start to his career came when Reich was the team’s offensive coordinator in 2016 and 2017.
He will now head to the Colts confident he can rediscover his best form and help a team that competed last season even without significant star power.
Wentz has never been better than he was under Reich.
After starting from the outset in his rookie season, Wentz was flying by the time Year 2 rolled around. He threw 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions for a passer rating of 101.9 in 2017, earning Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro recognition. But a devastating knee injury kept him from playing a part in the Eagles’ Super Bowl success, which came via an improbable run with backup Nick Foles.
There has been a steady decline since Reich departed following that triumph, though, and Wentz led the league in picks (15) and sacks (50) in 2020 despite playing just 12 games.
While the Colts hope a reunion with Reich will help Wentz turn things around, they do not need the former second overall pick to be an elite QB to maintain last season’s standard.
The Colts were unspectacular but comfortably in the top half of the NFL in yards per play (5.86, ninth), yards per game (378.1, 10th) and net passing yards (253.3, 11th).
They also had the second-fewest sacks for negative yardage (19), losing only 133 yards, while the Eagles ranked worst in both (61, 401 yards). Wentz has to be looking forward to playing behind a superior offensive line in Indy.
Quenton Nelson leads the way up front and ranks 13th in the NFL in our 2021 projected offensive lineman rankings at 7.5% better than the league average lineman. Our projected OL rankings are based on combined run block and pass protection data over the past three seasons.
Reich preferred a run-heavy approach in 2020 when the Colts kept 44.5% of their plays on the ground compared to Philadelphia’s 37.8%.
Rookie running back Jonathan Taylor came on strong late in the season. After running for 47.6 yards per game and four touchdowns in his first nine games, Taylor rushed for an average of 117.0 yards and eight scores over his last seven – including the playoffs.
While the 2020 recruitment of Rivers was a low-risk call that ultimately paid off, the Colts went all-in on their big defensive signing. Happily, that deal has so far been an even greater success.
DeForest Buckner signed a four-year, $84 million contract after his trade from the San Francisco 49ers, where he had been a second-team All-Pro selection and starred in the team’s run to the Super Bowl in 2019.
Those standards did not slip in Indianapolis as the defensive tackle led the Colts in sacks (9.5), QB hits (26) and tackles for loss (10). Buckner’s reward was a first-team All-Pro selection for the first time.
Linebacker Darius Leonard, who is still on his rookie contract, was also named first-team All-Pro. Buckner and Leonard led the way as the Colts allowed the eighth-fewest total yards per game (332.1) and the second-fewest rushing yards (90.5) – behind only the champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the latter category.
They should be set to excel defending on the ground again this coming season, but the Colts might be a little more vulnerable through the air, even with Buckner’s all-round talents.
That’s because two of the team’s top edge rushers – Denico Autry and Justin Houston – entered free agency. Autry, who led the NFL with a 6.3 adjusted sack rate, signed with the division rival Tennessee Titans.
While it’s true that the Colts have a new quarterback, Reich’s modus operandi remains the same in terms of him finding a QB he’s comfortable working with.
Free agency has been quiet thus far for Indianapolis, but for good reason. The team appears to be saving money to pay Leonard, who will otherwise be an unrestricted free agent in 2022. On the offensive line, Nelson and Braden Smith are also due a payday.
The Colts have already looked after some of their own by re-signing receiver T.Y. Hilton, defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and running back Marlon Mack, who had eight TDs in 2019 but played only once last year before rupturing his Achilles.
Still, the Colts will have some gaps to fill entering an NFL draft in which they have the 21st overall pick. They have needs at wide receiver, on the offensive line following Anthony Castonzo’s retirement in January and it remains to be seen what they’ll do to replace their edge rushers in the wake of Autry’s $21.5 million deal with Tennessee.
Should they fail to address those issues, the Colts might be in a position where they have to rely on Wentz to lead them into AFC contention.
Design by Matt Sisneros.