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Why the Matt Ryan trade makes the Colts an AFC contender

Don’t sleep on the Colts this season after they acquired Matt Ryan from the Falcons.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

As weird as the 2022 NFL offseason has been, I don’t think anyone saw the Atlanta Falcons trading away Matt Ryan before another quarterback was brought in. It felt like the inevitable conclusion to Atlanta’s ill-advised pursuit of Deshaun Watson, and while that potential deal would have ensured Ryan’s exit, the trade on Monday which sent the winningest quarterback in Falcons’ history to the Colts took everyone by surprise.

We knew the quarterback shuffle in the NFL was going to be jarring, but this one was a heck of a twist — and it might just be enough to push Indianapolis into the AFC’s elite.

Let’s face it, this has been a strange few years for Indy at the quarterback position. The franchise still hasn’t recovered from Andrew Luck’s shock retirement in 2019 and found itself in limbo. The Colts tried to run back to the playoffs with Philip Rivers, and to their credit it worked, but when Rivers retired the team was at a crossroads: Tear everything down and rebuild, or keep trying to find answers?

Why Carson Wentz didn’t work

We now know this latest attempt failed. Carson Wentz was a perfectly serviceable quarterback in 2021, but “serviceable” isn’t going to push a team deep in the playoffs unless they have an astounding defense and other x-factors like the 49ers. Wentz put up solid numbers, but the devil was in the details. He was slightly above-average in his accuracy, didn’t stretch the field, and while he didn’t get intercepted a lot, he made a ton of ill-advised throws that wouldn’t prolong drives the way the team needed to.

Wentz would attempt a “bad pass” on almost 19 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Reference’s advanced passer metrics — and this came despite having an average of 2.5 seconds to throw the ball. By comparison, Joe Burrow only had 10.4 percent of his throws labeled as a “bad pass,” while getting 2.2 seconds of time to throw on average.

That might seem small difference, but it was far more pronounced considering how Indianapolis liked to run its offense. A rarity in the NFL, the Colts are very much a throwback style offense — which sounds cringeworthy considering being “old school” in this sense only dates back 15 years. This is a team that likes to run the ball, throw off play action, and grind down the clock. Over a third of Wentz’s passing yards in 2021 came off play action passes, and this should really be where a QB can eat — especially with a back like Jonathan Taylor to fake the handoff to. Instead, Wentz averaged 8.6 yards-per-attempt on these throws. Not terrible, but not good enough.

The Colts were intimately aware that Wentz wasn’t the guy. At least not the guy who could take them on a deep playoff run. It was a bad deal that took away the Colts’ first round pick this season in an exceptionally deep draft, but at least they got some return, trading him away to the Washington Commanders. For a while it seemed the rebuild would begin now, a slow march into desolation before a new quarterback could be found.

Why Matt Ryan is different

Okay, so nobody is confusing Ryan in 2022 with Russell Wilson when it comes to promise and hype, but he fits so profoundly well into the Colts’ offense that this feels like it was meant to be.

In 2020 with Todd Gurley as his feature back, Ryan averaged 9.8 yards-per-attempt on play action. Obviously Taylor is vastly more intimidating for defenses, so this number should increase with the new QB at the helm. Ryan has also pushed the ball downfield more throughout his career, and is far more careful with the football. Even last season he only attempted a “bad pass” on 14.5 percent of attempts, and this was while he was needing to force throws to try and generate offense.

While Ryan isn’t a cannon-armed quarterback who can take over a game at this point in his career, he’s still better than anyone left on the market. There’s also a fair argument to be made that Ryan is better right now than Rivers was when he joined the Colts in 2020, and that bodes extremely well considering Indianapolis went 11-5 that season and only lost be three points to the Bills in the Wild Card round.

In any event, Ryan is the right QB at the right time, and found himself in the right place. As painful as leaving Atlanta will be, it was the kind and fair thing to put him on a fringe playoff team vs wasting one of his final seasons in the doldrums of the NFC South only to lose to Tom Brady.

Now, Indianapolis has to be viewed as one of the favorites to win its division. Outside of Tennessee, who have been solid but unspectacular with Ryan Tannehill under center, there’s really no challenge in the AFC South. The window is now open.

Ryan is the perfect fit, but things are far from perfect on offense

There’s no identity crisis in Indianapolis, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to neglect the need for another wide receiver. Michael Pittman Jr. is a stud No. 1 who will put up big numbers with Ryan, but more needs to be done.

With $16M in cap space remaining, there’s room for Indy to sign at least one more top-flight receiver. The most obvious answer that just makes too much sense is Julio Jones. Jones is at a point where he will likely sign a “prove it” deal, just to show he can transition into a veteran role. After a disastrous season in Tennessee he’ll be dying to show the NFL he still has talent, and there’s no better way that reuniting him with Ryan.

Outside of Jones, there is some solid talent left on the market. Odell Beckham Jr. is yet to decide his team, and the Rams appear to have moved on by signing Allen Robinson. OBJ could be a really nice fit in Indy. There’s also Jarvis Landry, who is looking to prove himself as well — and to a lesser extent Will Fuller.

Any of these players would pair nicely with Pittman Jr. and vary the attack enough, that with Taylor as the focal point of the offense there could be profound success.

What is the limit for these Colts?

I’m really bullish on this trade. Indianapolis was already a really good team that was slept on too much in 2021 because everyone knew Wentz wasn’t going to carry them far. Now with Ryan at the helm, I think there’s serious potential for Indianapolis to make noise.

Naturally, this is easier said than done. The Bengals took major strides in free agency following their breakout season, the Chargers got markedly better as well, the Chiefs and Bills will remain forces — and the wild card in the AFC is now Denver, who is all-in with Russell Wilson.

Still, I’m having a hard time not seeing the Colts in that company, if the team can get some more weapons. Frank Reich has been a good coach, the team has great chemistry, and I think sleeping on Indy is a big mistake. If the Colts make a major run this year I won’t be surprised, and it’s amazing that one trade can do that.