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Colts are doing their best to forget the Ryan Grigson era

A strong 2017 offseason could spark Indianapolis’ rebound.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis Colts have a franchise cornerstone at quarterback and a league-leading wide receiver to guide them on their quest back to the top of the AFC South. After that, things get a bit murky.

This year, Indianapolis is hoping a change in management can put the team back on the upward trajectory that defined Andrew Luck’s first three seasons in the league. The Colts were on a Super Bowl path from 2012 to 2014, advancing one round further in the playoffs each season before short-sighted free agent signings and a lack of draft prowess crumbled away the team’s championship foundation.

That fall cost former general manager Ryan Grigson his job. Now, Chris Ballard is tasked with rebuilding one of the 2000s’ top teams.

Grigson’s tenure destroyed the goodwill that kicked off Andrew Luck’s career

Having Luck is certainly an advantage, but Indianapolis has several holes that need to be plugged before it can boast a postseason level of structural integrity. Grigson’s tenure left a laundry list of free agent signings that failed to pan out, along with some regrettable departures from homegrown players. Between 2012-16, he handed out big contracts to players whose name recognition exceeded their ability to contribute on the field.

In that span, he signed Tom Zbikowski, Samson Satele, LaRon Landry, Gosder Cherilus, Ricky Jean Francois, Donald Thomas, Arthur Jones, Andre Johnson, Kendall Langford, Trent Cole, and Patrick Robinson to deals worth a combined $207 million. Of that group, only Cole, Langford, and Robinson completed or had the chance to complete the full length of their Grigson-approved contracts. None have been selected to the Pro Bowl as a Colt.

Here’s a deeper look at the team’s particularly disastrous 2013 free agent class.

These mistakes were compounded by ineffective drafting. The team’s 2013 first-round selection was Bjoern Werner, a raw pass rusher who was out of the league by 2016. The following year’s top pick was traded for Trent Richardson, who averaged 3.1 yards per carry for the Colts in parts of two awful seasons. One year later, Phillip Dorsett went to Indianapolis with the 29th overall pick; he’s averaged fewer than 26 receptions per season in his budding career.

At the same time, reliable pieces left Indiana. Receiver Pierre Garcon would have been the perfect complement to T.Y Hilton; instead, he departed in 2012. Safety Antoine Bethea returned to form after leaving Indianapolis. The Colts even lost their Pro Bowl punter. Pat McAfee retired at age 29 in order to pursue writing and pro wrestling careers.

Those losses ended Grigson’s tenure; another bad season could spell the end of head coach Chuck Pagano’s. Pagano was a celebrated figure when he overcame leukemia to lead the Colts to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons despite the departure of future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. However, two lackluster seasons has burned off that goodwill and put him on the hot seat. Another playoff-less year would likely be Pagano’s last in Indianapolis.

2017’s rebuild depends heavily on offseason moves

Ballard has the opportunity to hit the reset button on that. The Colts aren’t stacked with All-Pro potential, but the presence of Luck shrinks their turnaround timeframe. The Pro Bowl quarterback’s first three seasons in the league immediately validated the hype that made him the top pick in the 2012 draft.

Luck led the Colts to three straight 11-5 seasons to kick off his foray into the NFL, advancing as far as the AFC Championship in the process. His completion rate rose from 54.1 to 61.7 percent in that span. He threw a league-leading 40 touchdowns in 2014 while tossing only 16 interceptions.

These were the numbers of a man who would sign the richest contract in NFL history.

However, for a player whose health is paramount to Indianapolis’ success, the franchise hasn’t made protecting him its main priority.

Luck was sacked on more than seven percent of his dropbacks last season, a mark that ranked just 27th in the league. That’s bad news for a player who missed nine games in 2015 with shoulder and kidney issues, then needed offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum this spring. Instead of investing in veteran blockers, Indianapolis instead chose to focus elsewhere.

While 2017 was no banner year for offensive linemen in the NFL Draft, the Colts selected only one blocker, fourth-round pick Zach Banner. They invested in just one lineman in free agency, luring interior lineman Brian Schwenke away from a Tennesse Titans team he started only three games for in 2016. That’s two depth acquisitions for a line that has allowed Luck to be sacked 56 times in his last 22 games.

Ballard has faith in the young linemen tasked with protecting the league’s most expensive asset. Only one of the team’s starters last fall had more than two years of NFL experience: 2011 first-round pick Anthony Castonzo. The Colts front office is hoping another year of experience and growth will be enough to produce significant upgrades this year.

“The O-line is very young, but I think it has a chance to really grow,” Ballard said in March. “It’s been fun to watch that group work together.”

Instead, the new GM’s first season at the helm focused on rebuilding an Indianapolis defense that ranked 31st in the NFL when it came to yards allowed per play last season His first three eight-figure contracts went to a run-absorbing tackle (Johnathan Hankins), a situational pass rusher (Jabaal Sheard), and versatile linebacker (John Simon). He turned the 15th and 46th picks of the draft into a pair of top-20 talents, overhauling the Colts’ secondary with Ohio State safety Malik Hooker and Florida cornerback Quincy Wilson.

Hankins is buying in on his new digs. He went public with his belief Indianapolis has the best defense in the AFC. He’s almost certainly incorrect, but these new faces will at least help keep the unit out of the league’s cellar.

They’ll be counted on to bring youth and athleticism to a defense that started five players aged 30 or older last fall. All five of those veterans, including longtime standby Robert Mathis, won’t return in 2017 and will cede their roles to younger players. If Al Woods and Margus Hunt, two more offseason signings, can crack the lineup this fall, Ballard will have replaced the majority of 2016’s defensive starters.

The Colts have a great opportunity thanks to their schedule

Ballard’s approach to adding younger, but lesser-known, class of free agents stands to bring a strong return on the team’s modest investments this offseason. Even if these new players only hit at a 50 percent success rate, Indianapolis will have several opportunities to return to the postseason thanks to its place in the AFC’s weakest division.

To wit: In 2016, with Luck playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder and one of the league’s worst defenses, the Colts still managed an 8-8 season and finished only a game (and tiebreakers) behind the Houston Texans and Titans atop the AFC South. Houston won the division last season despite a -49 scoring differential; no other playoff team was worse than -17.

Indianapolis’ rivals all worked to improve in 2017, but the division still projects to be far less competitive than its peers. The Texans gave up a second-round pick just to jettison their starting quarterback. They’ll rely on either rookie Deshaun Watson or backup Tom Savage in their quest to defend the South title, though they still have one of the best defenses in the league (sorry, Hankins). The Jacksonville Jaguars played better than their 3-13 record last season and will be better with Doug Marrone on the sideline than they were with Gus Bradley, but still have major strides to make before the playoffs are a reasonable option.

The Titans surged to their first winning record since 2008 thanks to Marcus Mariota’s ability to avoid a sophomore slump. The young quarterback’s breakout season featured a 26-touchdown, nine-interception performance before a broken leg ended his season in Week 16. If he can return to form, he’ll have a handful of new receiving threats after Tennessee invested in playmakers like Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, and Jonnu Smith in the draft and signed New York Jets refugee Eric Decker as a free agent.

Just like last year, the Texans and Titans are the biggest threats to the Colts’ quest to earn their 10th South title in the past 15 years. The rest of their schedule features games against the Browns, Rams, 49ers, Bengals, and Bills. In all, only two of Indianapolis’ 16 games will come against teams that won 10 games or more in 2016.

Of course, all bets are off if the unstoppable force known as the Houston defense crashes through the Colts’ offensive line and sends Luck to IR in Week 9.

Ballard’s 2018 will likely focus on offensive improvement

Indianapolis made strides to add high-upside defenders through free agency and the draft, but its offense will look largely the same as the unit that ranked 13th in the league in yards per play. Luck and Hilton are a dangerous tandem, but the Colts will need supplementary playmakers to help them shine. Frank Gore turned back the hands of time with a 1,000-yard performance last season, but he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry and is 34 years old.

He’s currently joined in the backfield by Robert Turbin (3.5 yards per carry in 2016), fourth-round rookie Marlon Mack, the already-on-IR Christine Michael (who may wind up never playing a down for the team), and Troymaine Pope, who has 12 career carries. They’ll all have their work cut out for them if the club’s blocking doesn’t improve. Indianapolis ranked 23rd in the league in yards per rush in 2016.

Ballard stuck to the familiar “defense wins championships” adage in his first year on the job, leaving a clear blueprint for the future. Should his acquisitions pay off, the Colts can be expected to invest big on their offense next offseason. This makes sense; Andrew Luck is only 27 and under contract for four more seasons after 2017, so playmakers can wait. Meanwhile, the team’s upcoming schedule includes several opponents with lackluster offenses that can be ground down by the team’s latest additions.

That’s bad news for Indianapolis’ skill players, but unlike the end of the Grigson era, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The Colts are in strong position to rebound from the 8-8 purgatory in which they’ve been stuck. 2017 will be a bridge year, but it’s one where Luck and his teammates can still wring a division title out of a weak AFC South.