This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman with contributions from Ian Hartitz and Joe Holka. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
Andrew Luck has started at least 15 games in four of his five seasons, but 2016 marked the first time the Colts failed to make the playoffs with at least half a season from their franchise signal caller. He was far from the problem, as the league’s 11th-worst scoring defense and fifth-worst offensive line in adjusted sack rate were too much for Luck and a career-year from T.Y. Hilton to overcome. With new general manager Chris Ballard comes a new-look and younger defense, but the organization’s perspective is the same: With a little bit of “Luck,” they might make it to a Super Bowl.
After jumping around different college secondaries for over 15 years, head coach Chuck Pagano worked with the Browns and Raiders before landing as the Ravens defensive coordinator in 2011, leading the third-best scoring defense in the league. That season he was a 32-yard Billy Cundiff field goal away from forcing overtime against the Patriots in the AFC Championship.
This success landed Pagano the Colts head coaching job in 2012 and with it the team’s shiny new No. 1 pick, which was used to select Stanford’s Luck. In his first year Pagano coached just four games before taking a leave of absence to deal with a bout of cancer. In his stead, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians went 9-3 the rest of the way, leading the team to the playoffs and winning Head Coach of the Year. Pagano rallied to lead the Colts to back-to-back playoff runs in the following two seasons, but now he enters his sixth year on the hot seat.
Back-to-back 8-8 seasons have been blamed on Luck’s injuries as well as the overall incompetence of former-GM Ryan Grigson, who once traded a first-round pick for Trent Richardson. In 2017, though, the Colts’ success, or lack thereof, will be firmly placed on Pagano’s shoulders as long as Luck is able to play 13-plus games.
Pagano probably deserves to be on this hot seat. To date, the success of the team has been fueled by the offense, which has been directed by Arians as well as noted OCs Pep Hamilton and now Rob Chudzinski. Aside from Luck’s injury-riddled 2015 season, the Colts have posted a top-10 offense in yards per drive in every season since 2012. The team scaled back Luck’s workload in his second year after he had the sixth-most pass attempts as a rookie, but in 2014 he led the league in pass attempts. With almost the entire offense returning, 2017 will probably look a lot like 2016, when the Colts ranked 13th in pass attempts in an effort to bring some semblance of balance to the offense.
This offensive approach is in line with what Chudzinski has done for most of his coaching career. Although Chud’s last three offenses (Browns, 2013; Colts, 2015-16) have on average been 7.7 of 32 teams in total pass attempts, he’s historically been balanced whenever he’s had a competent quarterback. In 2007 with the Browns and 2011-12 with the Panthers, career-year Derek Anderson and early-career Cam Newton led offenses that were top-10 in rushing yards. With peak Anderson, Newton, and a healthy Luck, Chud has always coordinated an offense in the top 12 in total yards. Also, the last four offenses he’s been connected with (Browns, 2013; Colts 2014-16) have collectively posted an average pace rank of 9.75/32.
In 2017, as long as Luck is healthy, the Colts are likely to run an offense that plays at a top-12 pace and slants toward the pass but doesn’t abandon the run. Of course, if Luck misses significant playing time the style of the offense could substantially change.
The Colts largely return the same offensive personnel from last season:
- QB: Andrew Luck
- RB: Frank Gore/Robert Turbin/Josh Ferguson –> Gore/Turbin/Marlon Mack
- WR: T.Y. Hilton
- WR: Donte Moncrief
- WR: Phillip Dorsett/Chester Rogers –> Rogers/Dorsett/Kamar Aiken
- TE: Jack Doyle/Dwayne Allen –> Doyle/Erik Swoope
- LT: Anthony Castonzo
- LG: Jack Mewhort/Jonotthan Harrison –> Mewhort
- C: Ryan Kelly
- RG: Denzelle Good/Joe Reitz –> Joe Haeg/Good
- RT: Joe Haeg/Le’Raven Clark –> Clark/Good
Allen was traded to the Patriots for a fourth-round pick that eventually became Mack. The Colts signed Doyle to a three-year contract and elevated the former Miami Hurricanes basketball player Swoope. Aiken brings competition to what has been an underwhelming No. 3 wide receiver position. After the rookie Hilton posted a 50-861-7 line in 15 games as the third wideout, Phillip Dorsett, Andre Johnson, Hakeem Nicks, and Darrius Heyward-Bey have posted an average season-long 35.3-436.3-2.8 line.
Good, who split time at right guard and tackle the last two seasons, is expected to take the place of now-retired Joe Reitz, who served as an all-purpose backup guard/tackle. While some modest improvement from a group that returns four starters can be expected, the Colts will likely once again have porous pass blocking and above-average run blocking. The Colts ranked third in adjusted line yards last season, but it’s a miracle Luck is still alive after what they’ve put him through. The Colts ranked 28th in adjusted sack rate and earned PlayerProfiler’s second-worst pass-blocking grade last season. They might be better this year due to continuity, but it’s unlikely they’ll be significantly better as a unit.
Defensive coordinator Ted Monachino’s unit is younger but not necessarily better in 2017:
- DE: Arthur Jones/Zach Kerr –> Margus Hunt/Glover Stewart
- NT: David Parry –> Johnathan Hankins/Parry
- DE: Kendall Langford/Henry Anderson/Hassan Ridgeway –> Anderson/Ridgeway
- OLB: Robert Mathis/Trent Cole –> John Simon/Tarell Basham
- MLB: Edwin Jackson/Antonio Morrison/Josh McNary –> Morrison/Anthony Walker/Jackson
- MLB: D’Qwell Jackson/Sio Moore –> Sean Spence/Jon Bostic
- OLB: Erik Walden –> Jabaal Sheard/Deiontrez Mount
- CB: Rashaan Melvin/Patrick Robinson/Antonio Cromartie –> Quincy Wilson/Melvin
- CB: Vontae Davis
- SCB: Darius Butler –> Butler/Nate Hairston
- SS: Mike Adams –> Geathers/Andrew Williamson
- FS: Clayton Geathers/T.J. Green –> Malik Hooker
A lowly 28th in yards allowed over the last two seasons, the Colts have almost an entirely new starting lineup on defense. While that much turnover is usually bad, it could be good in this case. Hankins is an upgrade over Parry, and the elderly Walden and Mathis have been replaced by four outside linebackers no older than 28. Either Spence or Bostic will replace the aging D’Qwell Jackson. Still, Pro Football Focus ranks the Colts front seven as the second-worst unit in the league.
In the secondary, the second-round rookie Wilson is expected to stabilize what was a volatile left cornerback position last season. The first-round pick Hooker has received Ed Reed comparisons from Reed’s former college DC Greg Schiano. Davis, still just 29 years old, has played in at least 14 games for four consecutive seasons, although he’s coming off of a season in which he was graded as PFF’s ninth-worst cornerback. The Colts secondary is PFF’s 29th-ranked unit.
In the long term, it’s good for the Colts to rebuild their defense and add youth to the team. In the short term, their unproven players will likely make them vulnerable. As was the case last year, the Colts defense could be a regular target with offensive skill players in the daily fantasy format. Monachino’s second year as DC might not be much better than the first.
The Colts offense should more or less look the same in 2017, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fantasize over what the team’s unproven backup running backs could do with Gore’s workload.
Andrew Luck, QB
Aside from taking home a Lombardi Trophy, Luck has met expectations as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft. Through five seasons he trails only Peyton Manning and Dan Marino with his 132 passing touchdowns and 19,078 passing yards. Luck’s breakout season (so far) came in 2014, when he threw for 4,761 yards and 40 touchdowns with a 7.9 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A). In 2015 Luck dealt with a shoulder injury that required surgery this past offseason, a lacerated kidney, and injuries to his rib cartilage. The result was a career-low seven starts and 5.6 AY/A. Last year Luck proved he wasn’t a one-year wonder, rebounding to post a 7.8 AY/A and a career-best 71.2 QBR.
By all accounts, Luck is on the Mount Rushmore of current NFL quarterbacks — when healthy. He takes unnecessary big hits and sometimes misses games because of his style of play. Still, his style has led to some big fantasy performances. Only Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, and Alex Smith have rushed for more yards since 2015, and Luck was one of just seven quarterbacks with 70 pass attempts of 20-plus yards last season. Last year he had a 9.0-yard average depth of target (aDOT).
An offense so reliant on its quarterback’s playmaking and deep-ball ability can look great one second and horrendous the next. No one took more dropbacks under pressure than Luck last season. Only Tyrod Taylor took more sacks. Luck posted an 11/9 touchdown/interception ratio under pressure and his 72.0 quarterback rating ranked only 15th among all passers. He posted the league’s fifth-best rating with a 20/4 touchdown/interception ratio when not under pressure. For better and worse, Luck is an uber-talented quarterback whose never-say-quit mentality and underwhelming offensive line have held him back — and without Luck in the lineup the Colts have been bad, failing to hit even 20 points in six of the nine games he’s missed. Every relevant position player has averaged more DraftKings points per game (PPG) with Luck than without him.
Luck currently has an average draft position (ADP) of 68.1 in DRAFT best ball leagues. For a guy who is still recovering from his shoulder surgery and might not be ready to play in Week 1, that’s steep. If you’re looking for an upside quarterback behind a faulty offensive line, consider Matthew Stafford (113.9) or Andy Dalton (122.4). They’ve been healthy all offseason and play in arguably more talented offenses with better schemes.
Luck is currently sixth to record the most passing yards (+1,200), fifth to record the most passing touchdowns (+1,200), and tied for 16th with Stafford, Carson Palmer, and Eli Manning (+5000) among others to win the MVP. Most of the Colts odds have been in flux or inactive in recent weeks. Pagano said on August 8 that there still isn’t a timetable for Luck’s return, and Ballard admitted it’s still to be determined if he’ll be able to suit up in Week 1.
Luck’s MVP odds opened at +2,500, fourth among all quarterbacks. There’s likely value at his current mark of +5,000. Excluding Luck’s 2015 season, his per-game numbers since Chud joined the Colts staff extrapolate to 4,645 passing yards and 36.6 touchdowns over a 16-game season. Despite the uncertainty surrounding Luck, he still has the same implied odds in the yardage and touchdown props: He has potential that few quarterbacks can match — and he has the same odds to win MVP as Adrian Peterson. He’s discounted.
Scott Tolzien, QB
Through 128 career pass attempts, the 30-year-old Tolzien has shown that he shouldn’t attempt NFL passes. He appeared in three games (starting two) as the Packers third-stringer in 2013. While he completed 65.8 percent of his passes in the first two appearances for an average of 309.5 yards, he also had only one touchdown (to five interceptions). He was pulled in the third quarter of the third game. Last year filling in for Luck he got his third NFL start. He completed 61.1 percent of his attempts but again underwhelmed, passing for only 205 yards and a touchdown (with two interceptions). He has a career 5.2 AY/A.
A game manager who handed the ball to John Clay, Montee Ball, and James White at Wisconsin more than he threw it, Tolzien is one of the league’s least inspiring backup quarterbacks. He completed just one of his eight passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield last season and in 2013 his 7.7-yard aDOT was tied for 55th among 62 qualified quarterbacks. The Colts could find themselves in a 2011-esque secnario if Tolzien is forced to command the Colts offense for an extended period of time.
Frank Gore, RB
Here are two players:
- Player A (2015-2016): 507 rush attempts, 1,991 rush yards, 64 receptions, 515 receiving yards, 16 touchdowns
- Player B (2015-2016): 523 rush attempts, 1,992 rush yards, 72 receptions, 544 receiving yards, 15 touchdowns
Player A is 23-year old Todd Gurley. Player B is the 34-year old Gore, who is essentially the Jason Witten of running backs: He’s not what he used to be but is still capable of producing thanks to his workload. Overall, Gore is one of 15 running backs to average at least 18 touches per game over the past two seasons. Among those backs, he’s second to last in both yards per carry and yards per touch. While the Colts were third last year in adjusted line yards they were just 25th in running back yards. The -0.52 yards-per-carry difference between average adjusted line and running back yards was the largest differential in the league.
Gore’s goal on any given run is to hit any sliver of space as quickly as possible. Only Matt Asiata spent less time per run behind the line of scrimmage last season. Gore’s hit-the-hole tendency helped the Colts rank first in fewest rushes stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, but they were also among the bottom-five teams in average yards at the second level and in the open field.
A reliable receiving back with 105 targets and 72 catches over the last two seasons, Gore has been his best with the Colts as an underdog, averaging 14.53 DraftKings PPG with a +4.81 Plus/Minus and 77.8 percent Consistency Rating at a low ownership rate of 2.3 percent in large-field guaranteed prize pools (per our Trends tool). This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across guaranteed prize pools of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. It’s possible that sharp players will take advantage of the ownership discount Gore has offered as a dog. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Colts each week.
While Gore is now one of the least impressive lead backs in the league, he’s likely to outperform his 83.9 DRAFT ADP barring an injury to himself or Luck. His 1,302 scrimmage yards last year are the most in the NFL for a 33-year-old back since the league initiated the 16-game season in 1978.
Robert Turbin, RB
Over the final seven games of the 2016 season Turbin scored six touchdowns within the seven-yard line. In fact, all eight of his touchdowns last year came within the 10, where he had 14 carries and three targets. For a guy who had only 47 attempts and 35 targets last year, those numbers are high. The Colts clearly view Turbin as a red-zone player who can spell Gore in short-yardage situations, and he has the potential to do more. While he’s unlikely ever to be known as “Bell Cow Bob,” Turbin has good size (5’10” and 222 lbs.) and elite athleticism (95th percentile SPARQ-x score, PlayerProfiler). He has minimal wear for a 27-year-old (328 carries) and is a strong receiver out of the backfield (76.0 percent catch rate, 8.3 yards per reception). In his two seasons (2009, 2011) as a workhorse at Utah State, Turbin totaled 3,402 yards and 41 touchdowns on 456 carries, and 47 receptions in 25 games. He has only 3.9 yards per carry for his career and enters his sixth NFL season on his fourth team, but if he gets the opportunity play as a lead back in Gore’s stead he could be a workmanlike producer.
Marlon Mack, RB
The 21-year-old Mack was a sensation at South Florida in the American Athletic Conference, averaging 1,369 scrimmage yards, 21.6 receptions, and 11 touchdowns per season in his three collegiate campaigns, starting right away as a true freshman. Still, his 12 fumbles and between-the-tackles running led NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein to compare Mack to Denard Robinson. While Mack was productive against a lower level of competition, in his six games against Power Five opponents he struggled, averaging just 62.5 yards and 0.2 touchdowns per contest. While Mack is an explosive player — six of his 15 touchdowns as a junior went for 43-plus yards — he seems unlikely to contribute much as a rookie.
Josh Ferguson, RB
In the first five games last year, the undrafted Ferguson turned 25 targets and eight carries into 135 yards, 29 receptions, no touchdowns, and no future. He touched the ball just eight times the rest of the year. Ferguson isn’t a terrible receiver — in his three final seasons at Illinois he had a 137/1,242/8 receiving line and as a rookie he had 1.46 yards per route run (YPRR, PFF) — but he never had even 800 yards rushing in any college season. Ferguson is unlikely ever to be a three-down back.
T.Y. Hilton, WR
Hilton has gained over 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons and has established himself as one of the league’s most dangerous receivers regardless of circumstance. Still, he’s clearly been a lesser version of himself when forced to play without Luck or with Moncrief:
- 2014-16: 15.8 DraftKings PPG
- With Luck: 17.0
- Without Luck: 11.6
- With Moncrief: 14.5
- Without Moncrief: 21.6
Hilton’s efficiency and ceiling will likely drop if Luck is forced to miss time, and a full season with Moncrief won’t help Hilton’s quest finally to score double-digit touchdowns. Still, Hilton is in a cohort with Torry Holt, Calvin Johnson, Chad Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and Frank Sanders as the only receivers to have at least 130 targets in four of their first five seasons since the NFL started keeping track of the metric. That group averaged 149.6 targets in their sixth season.
Fresh off a career- and league-high 1,448 yards, Hilton is in his prime and likely to dominate slot usage again. Last season only Julian Edelman (2.42) and Jarvis Landry (2.33) averaged more than Hilton’s 2.11 YPRR. Prior to Luck’s injury concerns, Hilton had the fourth-highest implied odds to lead the league in receiving at +1,200. If Luck doesn’t miss significant time, Hilton could outperform his 18.3 DRAFT ADP. If you want to construct Luck-Hilton daily fantasy stacks during the season, do it with our Lineup Builder.
Donte Moncrief, WR
Moncrief’s size (6’2″ and 221 lbs.) and touchdown ability within the 10-yard line (75 percent career conversion rate) make him look like a young Dez Bryant, but he’s an inconsistent player yet to offer any yardage upside, gaining 50 receiving yards in just 26.8 percent of his career games. He’s gone over 100 yards in just four of 41 games. Still, Moncrief over the last two years has become Luck’s go-to target near the goal line. Last season he converted all six of his targets inside the 10 into touchdowns as the Colts actively worked to scheme him open and put him against smaller defensive backs in the middle of the field.
Still just 24, Moncrief should be motivated as he returns from collarbone and shoulder injuries that limited him. He might not put up 1,000 yards as he plays for his next contract, but Moncrief has 2016 Davante Adams potential as an elite producer in the red zone.
Phillip Dorsett, WR
Selected in the first round of the 2015 draft, Dorsett has been a boom-or-bust field stretcher for the Colts, gaining over 50 yards in just three of his 26 games and scoring only three touchdowns. Yet to reach 100 targets in his career, Dorsett has failed to develop a consistent role on the team, although he was 21st in the NFL last year with 8.9 yards per target, securing all all six of his catchable deep-ball targets. Still, he’s currently battling Rogers and Aiken for the third receiver spot in an offense that has historically favored tight ends and running backs over secondary receivers.
Chester Rogers, WR
An undrafted free agent out of Grambling State, Rogers last year had a 19/273/0 receiving line on 34 targets. To his credit, Rogers is a versatile player who scored touchdowns as a runner and return man in college. At the same time, he never reached even 800 scrimmage yards or double-digit touchdowns in a season. He has good agility (6.85-second three-cone), but Rogers’ combination of size (5’11” and 185 lbs.) and speed (4.51-second 40) makes him unsuited for anything other than the slot — and that belongs to Hilton. That Rogers is pushing Dorsett for the No. 3 job says more about Dorsett than Rogers.
Kamar Aiken, WR
Signed to a one-year contract in the offseason, Aiken has good size (6’1″ and 213 lbs.) and speed (4.45-second 40) and, though undrafted in 2011, he led the Ravens in 2015 with a 75/944/5 receiving line on 127 targets. Nevertheless, last year he was lucky to get even 50 targets. If he gets 50 targets in 2017, the Colts will be in trouble.
Jack Doyle, TE
Now entering his fifth year, Doyle came out of nowhere last season to put up a 59/584/5 line on 75 targets. Doyle has posted a catch rate of 79.7 percent for his career and is now the undisputed top tight end on the team. Over the last five years, the No. 1 tight end in Indy has turned an average of 80.8 targets into a 52.2/595.6/4.6 receiving line. Although Doyle isn’t the prototypical elite athlete of the new tight end era, he was easily the No. 1 receiver for Western Kentucky as a junior (52/614/0) and senior (53/566/5) and the second-leading red-zone receiver for the Colts last year. At his DRAFT ADP of 111.1, Doyle is one of the best values in the double-digit rounds.
Erik Swoope, TE
A collegiate basketball player at Miami, Swoope went undrafted in 2014 and spent most of the next two years on the Colts practice squad. Elevated to the active roster in 2016, Swoope is now the No. 2 tight end — and Luck likes to use both tight ends, as evidenced by Doyle’s campaign last year and Allen’s 2012-15 seasons. Although he had only 21 targets last year, Swoope played at an efficiently elite level with 3.09 YPRR. With his athleticism, Swoope simply has a ceiling that Doyle doesn’t possess. He’s worth a flyer, especially in dynasty leagues. He’s currently recovering from an arthroscopic knee surgery but is considered week to week.
With the uncertainty surrounding Luck, the Colts have a win total of 8.0 games with an even over and -130 under. They’re also +195 to make the playoffs and -250 not to. Writing for Rotoworld, Warren Sharp gives the Colts the third-easiest 2017 schedule. In July, the Colts had a win total of 9.0 with a -115 over and -115 under. Even if he misses Week 1 (when the Colts could probably get a win against the Rams without their starter), as long as Luck returns early in the season then the people who take the over at the present lines will be investing at a discount. Not once in the Luck era have the Colts failed to reach eight wins in a season.
The Colts are currently +5,000 to win the Super Bowl, +1,800 to win the AFC, and +250 to win the AFC South. For the first time with Luck at quarterback, the Colts are a clear underdog in their division. Luck’s status is uncertain, but if the Colts get a full season from Luck he’ll likely be the superior starting quarterback in 14 of their 16 games — and the last time Luck played 16 games the Colts won back-to-back division titles.
That said, the Colts are 0-5 (including playoffs) in Luck’s five career starts against the Patriots, being outscored by an average of 24.6 PPG. It’s going to take a lot for the Colts to make the Luck-Brady chapter of their rivalry with the Patriots competitive. They might win the division, but to get to the Super Bowl they’ll have to be better than a team they’ve never beaten — a team whose motivation to trounce them would likely be inflated.
Here’s one in-season trend to note: Under Pagano, the Colts are 17-10-1 against the spread during the regular season. In Luck’s partial 2015 campaign, the team still sent 6-2 ATS as a dog. Keep an eye on this trend in 2017.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Colts Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.