Make the Right Call  

 

Indianapolis Colts got better on offense, but what about the D?

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It seemed like a chic pick at the time.

Indianapolis Colts vs. Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl 50.

That was my call two months ago. And while I remain pretty confident in the NFC aspect of that prediction, I'm feeling a bit more wishy-washy about the AFC side ...

With how this offseason is playing out, it's beginning to feel like we could be in for the tightest multi-team race in the AFC in years. The reigning Super Bowl champion Patriots are bracing for a potential suspension of Tom Brady after the release of the Wells Report last Wednesday. (UPDATE: It was announced Monday that Brady has been suspended four games.) The Steelers are already set to start the season without one of their best players: Le'Veon Bell, who's facing a three-game suspension of his own. Both of those teams could have some catching up to do after the first month of play. Meanwhile, the Broncos are still in the mix, so long as Peyton Manning stays healthy and the defense plays like it did last season. The Chiefs, Chargers, Bills, Jets and Dolphins all got better this offseason. The Ravens are the Ravens, and always can be a threat. And while we're on the subject of the AFC North, what about the Bengals? Could they finally be ready to get over the playoff hump?

Elliot Harrison examines some of the busiest NFL teams this offseason and attempts to answer whether the moves they've made will pay off in the 2015 campaign.

That's a whole lotta competition for Indy in the conference. So is it high time to stray from my way-too-early Super Bowl premonition? Maybe not, but I'd be feeling much better about it if Colts general manager Ryan Grigson had done some things differently (particularly on one side of the ball).

All in all, have Grigson and Co. done enough this offseason to push Indy to the next level? Do Chuck Pagano and Andrew Luck have the necessary pieces to make a real run at the Lombardi Trophy? That's what this "Make the Right Call" series is all about. Let's examine ...

Old war horses

Signing highly accomplished veterans like running back Frank Gore and receiver Andre Johnson guaranteed the Colts would have a spot in the news pipeline. Throw in the fact that it felt like the Gore acquisition was a literal steal -- from the Eagles, that is -- and the story gets even juicier. (Oh, and it doesn't hurt the news-cycle appeal when LeSean McCoy says he told Gore to spurn his former team -- even if the ex-Eagles star was just kidding.) But will the additions of Gore and Johnson add up to wins? They should, despite the fact that both are over the age of 30.

Frankly, with the strength of Indy's passing game (tops in the NFL in 2014), Gore doesn't need to be the 1,100-yard back he often was in San Francisco. Despite Pagano gushing about Gore's ability to be a 20-to-25-carry back, merely rushing for 800 yards and helping the team close out games would make this signing a success, especially at the affordable rate of $4 million per year. And of course, Johnson's arrival further strengthens that prolific passing game. The 12-year veteran is actually younger than departed franchise icon Reggie Wayne. Also, Johnson will be a man on a mission against Indy's biggest competition in the AFC South: Houston, which unceremoniously released the longtime franchise face after he rejected the idea of a significantly reduced role.

The best move

Bringing in two name-brand offensive stars with 12 Pro Bowls and over 27,000 scrimmage yards between them is sexy. Trent Cole doesn't do sexy. This is a guy who's simply gone about his business as a pass rusher and made plays his entire career. Cole's never earned first-team All-Pro honors and has never really been considered a premier player by the masses, but his services were dearly needed in Indianapolis.

A consummate pro, Cole has averaged 8.5 sacks per season over a decade in the NFL. Indy's top pass rusher in 2014? Jonathan Newsome, who logged 6.5 sacks. Cole provides a substantial boost for defensive coordinator Greg Manusky's pass rush-by-committee.

A disagreeable draft?

Acquiring Cole was smart, but many draftniks think the Colts outsmarted themselves in the college marketplace.

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Most GMs and analysts will tell you that taking the best player available is both the safe and correct route, yet there are circumstances in which that axiom can -- and perhaps should -- be ignored. The Colts were already so strong at the wide receiver position -- with Johnson, T.Y. Hilton and the up-and-coming Donte Moncrief -- that they did not need Phillip Dorsett in Round 1.

How about spending that high-value pick on a high-value defender? What Indianapolis is missing most is top-tier talent to stop the run. With the addition of Cole and the return of veteran Robert Mathis from a season-ending Achilles injury, the pass rush will at least be in experienced hands. To me, the 29th overall pick should have been dedicated to a defensive tackle or inside linebacker. Indy finished 23rd in yards-per-carry allowed in 2014. DTs Malcom Brown and Eddie Goldman were still on the board. And Indy had its pick of the ILB litter. Instead, the Colts took a wideout. And they didn't take anyone who could help against the run until the back portion of the third round, selecting defensive end Henry Anderson 93rd overall.

I've worked with former scout @BuckyBrooks for years, and I greatly respect his opinion on incoming prospects. He gave the Colts' draft class a "C," the lowest mark in the AFC South. Here's a snippet of his report card: "Cornerback D'Joun Smith, defensive end Henry Anderson and safety Clayton Geathers are expected to step into the rotation as young players. Although each is viewed as a developmental prospect, the Colts need their young players to make an impact right away." Not quite a ringing endorsement.

In fairness, we might not know what to make of Indy's draft haul for two or three years. What I do know right now is that the Colts have played the Patriots four times in the Pagano-Luck era, and they've lost all four of those games -- by an average margin of 29 points. Over those four contest, New England has rushed for 772 yards and 15 touchdowns. That's deflating.

The other newbies

So why didn't the Colts grab a top-tier run-stuffer in the draft? Well, presumably they feel good about how they addressed that area in free agency, acquiring DE Kendall Langford and ILB Nate Irving. The Langford signing, in particular, could pay real dividends to Indy -- this guy was a viable run-stopper for the Rams over the last few seasons. Irving was decent in Denver last year, but he only played in eight games, landing on injured reserve in November with a knee injury. If healthy -- and available full time -- the 26-year-old could help an aging linebacker corps.

Another veteran addition who should provide immediate help on the offensive side of the ball: Todd Herremans, who had some solid days in Philadelphia. Like Gore and Johnson, Herremans is north of 30, but offensive guards have shown the ability to play effectively for more than 10 years (this will be Herremans' 11th season in the NFL). And despite this influx of veterans, Indy still has a young roster overall. But like Irving, Herremans missed half of last season (and half of 2012, too). Better health will be key.

Re-signings of note

» Matt Hasselbeck, quarterback: Smart backup who (thankfully) hasn't been used. Hasselbeck has enjoyed an outstanding career, but he would only be on the field if Luck went down -- certainly not something Colts fans want to see.

» Darius Butler, cornerback: Although Butler was better in 2013 than last year, it was important to get the reliable slot corner back under contract.

» Mike Adams, strong safety: Guessing you've seen his name in the news lately. Footballs aside, Adams recorded 87 tackles, five interceptions and two forced fumbles last year.

And then there's one notable re-signing that hasn't taken place -- that of former first-round pick Anthony Castonzo. I'm surprised the Colts haven't extended the big left tackle, considering he is playing out his fifth-year option and the team didn't draft a tackle until Round 7 (Denzelle Good, who might be a guard in the NFL). Maybe this move will be made in the coming months. We'll see.

Did the Colts make the right calls?

This is the seventh team we've examined in the "Make the Right Call" series, and it's the team I'm most on the fence about. You can make the case that Grigson fortified a solid team, but you can also make the case that the GM failed to rejuvenate it. That said, the good that came out of free agency could transcend the questions that came out of the draft. As with any business, you simply have to acquire valuable assets -- Gore, Johnson and Cole seem to qualify. But with all three over 30, they could also offer diminishing returns.

The majority of this team's primary offseason capital went toward a strength: the offense. Sure, five of eight draft picks were spent on defensive players, but the most valuable selection -- the Coltsonly selection in the first two rounds -- was used on Dorsett. It would have been wiser to spend that first-round choice on the highest-rated defensive player on the Colts' board. Indy, after all, gave up the most points of any AFC playoff team.

Maybe Dorsett will end up being a fine investment for years to come, but if the goal is to win now, the Colts have to stop the run -- now. We'll see if they can do it with the current personnel.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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