During the Peyton Manning era and the first couple years of Andrew Luck’s tenure, double-digit wins were a given in Indianapolis. But the last two seasons, a subpar defense, the inability to protect Andrew Luck and some questionable draft decisions have knocked the Colts down a peg.

The 2016 season resulted in a second consecutive 8-8 mark and another year of watching the postseason from home.

But the Colts have a new GM who focused on filling defensive holes during the draft. Will it be enough to get Indy back in contention for a playoff run? Andrew Aziz, an analyst with Stampede Blue, shares his insight.

Zoneblitz: – After having double-digit wins in 12 of 13 seasons, the Colts have had consecutive 8-8 years. How would you assess 2016?

Aziz: 2016 was a very odd year for the Colts. They lost a lot of very close games, which reflects poorly on the head coach. At the same time, they had very little talent outside of Andrew Luck, which reflects poorly on the general manager. I still don’t understand how the Colts lost to the Texans in overtime. Had they won that game, they would have been in the playoffs, and we would be talking differently about that 2016 team. They also lost close games to the Lions, the Jaguars and the Texans twice. One could argue that the Colts were one stop away from being an 11- or 12-win team. On the other-hand, with close wins against the Bears, Chargers, Jaguars (second game), and Packers, you could argue that the Colts were one series away from being a 4- or 5-win team.

Zoneblitz: Do you agree with the decision to fire GM Ryan Grigson but keep coach Chuck Pagano? How hot is Pagano’s seat in 2017 and what is your assessment of new GM Chris Ballard so far?

Aziz: I totally agree with the decision to fire Ryan Grigson and even wrote an article about it last year. Keeping Pagano was surprising, but I get it. I obviously can’t speak for Ballard, but I believe that he wants to see if Pagano’s (and defensive coordinator Ted Monachino’s) defensive system can be effective if they have the right personnel.

Would I have fired Pagano? I probably would’ve pulled the trigger and aggressively gone after coaches like Dave Toub, Kyle Shanahan or even Rex Ryan. The market wasn’t great for coaching candidates, so I understand Ballard’s decision to keep Pagano, as he may not have been “in love” with any of the candidates. Pagano’s seat is excruciatingly hot and I believe anything short of a playoff appearance and a playoff win will lead to his firing. A bad start to the season will most likely lead to his firing.

It’s still too early to tell how I feel about Chris Ballard, but based on the draft and his free agent signings, he’s off to a good start. Only time will tell how good his signings and draft picks will be. It’s a better question to ask after his first year.

Zoneblitz: In some ways Andrew Luck has been great, but he’s also had injury issues and he throws a lot of interceptions. How would you assess his development?

Aziz: Stats only paint a partial picture. Luck threw 13 interceptions in 2016 and had the best completion percentage of his career. Luck’s mechanics have improved over the past few seasons. He’s throwing much better on the run, and I believe that’s due to his hips being more open and aimed towards to his target better as well as keeping his feet within his body frame when rolling. Those are two things he didn’t do consistently well early in his career.

Luck’s decision making has improved over the past few seasons, but it’s not at an elite level… yet. He still makes way too many bad decisions and the majority of his interceptions in 2016 were his fault. He still forces throws and makes a lot of dumb plays for a fifth-year quarterback in the NFL. A good example was seen in the Jaguars game in London, when on fourth down, instead of running the ball for a first down, he decided to try and squeeze a three-yard pass to a running back with hands of stone. He’ll get better, but he needs to cut down on those mistakes.

Zoneblitz: Has the team done enough to support Luck with an offensive line that can keep him healthy?

Aziz: The left side of the offensive line (including the center) seems quite solid. Jack Mewhort and Ryan Kelly are very good inside and Anthony Castonzo is good enough as a left tackle. Joe Haeg had a good rookie season and should prove to be a good right guard for the Colts. The real question is at right tackle. If it’s Denzelle Good, Luck better start praying. If it’s LaRaven Clark, then he might survive. Clark was a huge project last season, but took some positive strides in the latter portion of the season. If he improved this offseason, then he might be a legitimate right tackle. I also liked the signing of Brian Schwenke, a versatile interior offensive lineman, who should serve as a good backup throughout the season.

Zoneblitz: Frank Gore has seemed ageless at times, but what’s your sense for the workload breakdown between him, Robert Turbin and Marlon Mack heading into 2017?

Aziz: Ideally, you want Frank Gore on early downs, Robert Turbin in short yardage situations or as a fullback, and Marlon Mack as the receiving threat. Realistically, Frank Gore’s probably going to have 250 carries and have to carry the load again this season. Marlon Mack has potential, but doesn’t appear ready to be a three-down back as a rookie. Turbin isn’t a three-down back either, so expect Gore to be in the game a lot again this season.

Zoneblitz: T.Y. Hilton had a great year, but Donte Moncrief spent some time injured, Dewayne Allen is gone and Philip Dorsett has not produced much. Does this team have the skill players it needs to complement Luck?

Aziz: The Colts have done a good job of surrounding Luck with a lot of talent during his tenure with the Colts. This season is no different. I feel the Colts have more than enough talent around him. T.Y. Hilton is a top 10 receiver in the NFL and led the NFL in receiving yards last year. He’s a great number one receiver who can beat you deep or make those tough third down catches underneath. Moncrief has had injury issues, but when healthy, is a dynamic red-zone threat with good route running ability. Dorsett has shown very little and I expect Kamar Aiken to overtake him as the number three receiver. Aiken proved to be a good security blanket for Joe Flacco in Baltimore and I expect him to have a nice role in Indy. Jack Doyle was Andrew Luck’s security blanket last year and I expect him to have a similar role this season. This group has talent and depth, so there are no excuses for Andrew Luck.

Zoneblitz: The Colts’ first three draft picks and six of eight overall were defensive players – what did you think of the draft and does this signal a shift in focus on how the team will be built going forward?

Aziz: It’s necessary! The defense was an absolute mess and there was no way the Colts were winning a Super Bowl or even contending for one with the players they had last season. Drafting defensive backs and improving the back-end is a good start, but they need pass rushers. I’m quite happy with the Colts’ draft, as they got a lot of value in their selections. For example, Malik Hooker was a top 10 talent in the draft and they got him at the 15 spot. Marlon Mack was, to many, a day two selection and he was taken at the end of the fourth round. In terms of value, they did well, but that doesn’t mean anything. We should see a lot of Hooker and Wilson this season, so we’ll be able to see pretty early on whether they are quality NFL players or not.

Zoneblitz: Indianapolis has largely been an offensive team over the years, the last couple of years being no exception. What does the team have to do for this unit to catch up with the offense?

Aziz: Find a pass rush! Every great defense has players who consistently pressure the quarterback. While the Colts have made positive additions on the defensive side of the ball, their ability to get to the pass rusher will still be an issue in 2017. Their run defense should be better thanks to the signings of DT Johnathan Hankins and LB John Simon, but their pass defense may still have issues. They’ve made nice improvements in their secondary, they’ve added a two-gap nose tackle Hankins and have added quality linebackers, but their defense will never be as good as their offense until they find a pass rush.

Zoneblitz: How do you feel about the overall offseason additions and subtractions and what holes does the team still have to fill?

Aziz: I’m not a huge proponent of having a big splash in free agency, as I rather teams save their money, carry over tons of cap space, re-sign key players currently on the roster and draft well. However, the way the Colts spent their money this offseason was justifiable due to the lack of talent on defense and I found they made a lot of quality signings. Their biggest signing was Hankins as every good 3-4 defense has a good nose tackle up the middle eating two gaps. I was also a fan of the Kamar Aiken, John Simon and Jabaal Sheard signings. While those three players aren’t world-beaters, they are good quality players who should at least contribute in complementary roles and in the case of Jabaal Sheard, have a large role in 2017. They still have issues at linebacker and I worry about their depth in the secondary. There are also questions surrounding the running back position and the right side of the offensive line.

Zoneblitz: The Colts are in a division with some young, theoretically up-and-coming teams. How far off is this team from competing and where do they stand compared with Tennessee, Jacksonville and Houston?

Aziz: In today’s NFL, it’s tough to win without a good quarterback. With Blake Bortles at the helm, the Jaguars will always be the worst team in the division. Houston’s defense is scary and they’ll make some noise in the division, but I feel that the Tennessee Titans are the most dangerous rival. Marcus Mariota is slowly establishing himself as a very good quarterback, and they’ve surrounded him with a lot of talent.

Their defense made some minor improvements, and as of right now, they have the look of a nine- or 10- win team. Until Houston breaks in Deshaun Watson, I feel they’re the third best team in the division. Houston’s secondary isn’t as strong and I feel Tom Savage is actually a downgrade from Brock Osweiler (which is saying something), so I expect a slight regression from the Texans this season, unless Watson comes in and lights it up.

Zoneblitz: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Aziz: If you’re a Colts fan, you have a few reasons to be optimistic:

1 – You have Andrew Luck…

2 – They finally have a general manager who seems to understand the problems of the team and is not afraid to address them, no matter how much it costs.

3 – They still play in a relatively weak division, so making the playoffs is not a tough task… yet.

Follow Andrew Aziz on Twitter at: @AndrewAzizSB
Follow Stampede Blue on Twitter at: @StampedeBlue
Follow Zoneblitz on Twitter at: @ZoneblitzCom

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