By Ryan Downes
This article is part of our 2013 Fantasy Team Preview series in which we are profiling every NFL team leading up to the season, click here for the complete list of published previews. Also, check out our staff rankings for see how we value each player.
The Indianapolis Colts are back and they’ll be ready to play! And, with any luck, the Colts will once again be a force in the AFC South. Last year they made it to the Wild Card round of the Playoffs where they lost a tough one (24-9), against the eventual Super Bowl Champ Ravens. It was a tough loss, but games like that build character, while providing invaluable playoff experience.
This year, they’ll bring back the bulk of that team, along with some very key additions. With those pieces, added to the development of starting QB Andrew Luck, they’ll look to knock off the Houston Texans in the battle for AFC South supremacy. They do have one very major change, which is a change of the team’s offensive coordinator, which, we will explore below in Burning Question #2.
With the young core they’ve put together, it certainly looks like they’ll be a force in the AFC South for years to come, but can they beat out the Texans for top spot this year? Luckily for us (I know, I’m on a roll), we can get a glimpse into the answer to that question by assessing the fantasy value of several of the team’s key members!
Added: RB Ahmad Bradshaw, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, QB Matt Hasselbeck, C Rick Schmeig,
DL Ricky Jean Francois, OL Gosder Cherilus, OL Donald Thomas, CB Greg Toler, LB Erik Walden, FB Stanley Havili
Drafted: OLB Bjoern Werner, OL Hugh Thornton, OL Khaled Holmes, DT Montori Hughes,
S John Boyett, RB Kerwynn Williams, TE Justice Cunningham
Lost: DE Dwight Freeney, S Tom Zbikowski, LB Jake Killeen, DE Clifton Geathers
One Up: Dwayne Allen, TE – Last year started out with Luck’s college TE in Coby Fleener getting the majority of the looks at the TE position. However, he wasn’t overly effective and as the season wore on, Allen began to be the TE targeted more often, finishing with 66 targets to Fleener’s 48. While his statline doesn’t jump off the page (45 receptions, 521 yards, 3 TDs), Allen will start the year as #1 on the depth chart. Keep in mind that Fleener missed all of November with an injury, but Allen was the more explosive player and earned Luck’s trust. This was clearly evident as Luck only targeted Fleener 12 times in 5 games after he returned from injury. The change of offensive coordinator should also help him, as Pep Hamilton has typically been more of a short-game OC than his predecessor Bruce Arians. This change in philosophy could mean more short passes going towards the way of Allen. That situation, added to the fact that he’ll be “the guy” for the entire year could equal fantasy stardom for Dwayne. He’s certainly a TE to target as a sleeper and could end up being a revelation if he can further separate himself from Fleener..
One Down: Vick Ballard, RB – Ballard was the primary back for the Colts last year. He had a pretty decent season while rushing for 814 yards and 3 TDs while catching 17 passes for another TD. Although the offensive line didn’t help him, averaging 3.9 yards per carry and scoring only once in 211 carries isn’t going to cut in as a starting NFL RB. As a result, the Colts brought on veteran Ahmad Bradshaw (see Burning Question #3 below), and now, his role will be minimized. Vic Ballard just turned 23 years old, so he’ll still have plenty of time to make his mark in the NFL, but he may have to wait significant time to do so. Ballard will have a chance to sit behind Bradshaw and learn from him which will further his career. If Bradshaw gets hurt, Ballard will step back into the top RB role. Until that time though, he’s little more than a fantasy afterthought as a starter. Bradshaw isn’t the healthiest cat in the league, so as a handcuff Ballard can have plenty of upside, but we’ll explore that later on.
1) Turning 35 in November, will this be the year Reggie Wayne starts to decline?
This will be an interesting year for Wayne. As pointed out above, a switch to a West Coast offense under Pep Hamilton might limit the long bombs thrown by Luck. While Reggie can’t separate like he did in his prime, his route running is impeccable and Luck targeted him early and often, leading to a career high (and 2nd in the NFL last season) 194 targets. As a result, he was able to rack up 1,355 yards which offset his lack of TDs, and finish as the 15th best fantasy WR. Once again, he’ll be the #1 WR on the team’s depth chart, but as opposed to last training camp where he was clearly the guy, he’ll have some significant competition on the roster this year.
In 2012, rookie WR T.Y Hilton had a nice year himself with 861 yards (on 17.2 yards per reception) with 7 TDs. Hilton served as the deep threat (4.34 40 yard dash at his pro day at Florida International) but he was so much more than that. He totaled 388 yards after the catch on his 50 receptions, (7.76 YAC per reception, second among WRs to only Percy Harvin). You likely would be surprised to know that Hilton actually finished with 506 yards and 5 TDs in the second half of the season, and was a more valuable WR over that stretch in fantasy than Wayne (520 yards and 2 TDs). While Wayne commanded double-teams and the opposing defense’s attention, Hilton was stretching the defense and piling on the fantasy points. As a result, it has been speculated that the more explosive Hilton will overtake Wayne as soon as this year.
However, a big concern for Hilton is newly acquired fellow speedster, Darrius Heyward-Bey, former #7 overall selection by the Raiders who is actually even faster than Hilton (4,25 40 yard dash). Heyward-Bey has largely been a disappointment in his career aside from a 975 yard, 4 TD performance in 2011. However, he has been the epitome of inconsistency in his career. Interestingly, Heyward-Bey has been running ahead of Hilton in training camp and looks like the likely #2 WR across from Wayne. Even though he has never achieved a 1,000+ yard season, he has the ability to be a dynamic playmaker.
As stated in the question, Wayne will be turning 35 this year and entering his 13th season in the NFL. In his previous 12 seasons, the only time he missed even one game was his rookie year back in 2001, when he played in 13. And, he has gone for over 1,000 yards receiving in 8 of his past 9 years. That said, this kind of production cannot continue forever! With the advanced age and the young talent around him, Wayne’s numbers are bound to decline. It’s not to say that he won’t be fantasy relevant, because he will. It’s just that expecting another 1,300+ yard year seems unrealistic. He will not be targeted 194 times again in 2013, and therefore, expect a regression to somewhere in the 1000-1200 yard range. The feeling that he will regress some is evident in our staff rankings as he currently comes in as the 19th ranked WR. Based on his performance in 2012 and the expected #2 job, T.Y. Hilton currently sits at WR30, but expect that to change quickly if DHB continues to start over him opposite Wayne.
2) How much better can Luck get? Will the new offensive scheme affect him?
Last year, Luck finished as the 9th best QB in fantasy in a stellar rookie year. This time around he will be playing with a season’s worth of experience under his belt. He’ll also be playing with an upgraded roster after the Colts acquired Bradshaw and Heyward-Bey. He’s going to have a more potent running game and he’ll be more comfortable with his receiving targets coming into the year. These considerations lead me to believe that he’ll be a more effective passer than he was in his rookie campaign. Just as he did in college after his first season, Luck should be able to cut back his INT total (18) and vastly improve on his CMP% of 54.1 from last year (jumped from 56.3% in freshman year to over 70% in sophomore and junior seasons). Luck is extremely comfortable in Hamilton’s system and after another season in the NFL, expect him to build on his impressive rookie season.
Keep in mind that Andrew Luck is not your average NFL QB. As the #1 pick in the 2012 draft, he was rated as the 2nd best prospect ever by draft analyst Mel Kiper, behind only John Elway. He essentially has no weaknesses as a QB, and should be an elite QB for years to come. But don’t just take it from me, hear it from the draft experts themselves, Mel Kiper and Todd McShay who graded him as exceptional in 7 of 10 categories, and very good in the remaining three: deep accuracy, arm strength and measurables. Many of you may be surprised that Luck, although not known as a mobile QB like fellow draftees Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, graded out with exceptional mobility, similar to Aaron Rodgers in that he can pick up first downs when the play breaks down. He will never look to run like RGIII and some of the other dual threat QBs, but he did rush for 255 yards in his rookie season, a total that further helps him in fantasy.
As I covered in the Highlight Players section above, Pep Hamilton, Luck’s offensive coordinator in college at Stanford as well, is a West Coast guy. He’ll take advantage of Luck’s elite accuracy in the short game to get rid of the ball quickly and take advantage of the Colts speed. In doing so, he’ll also limit the downfield throws that Andrew will be taking. Last year, Luck led the league in attempts that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. This is unlikely to be the case again in 2013-2014. What this means for Luck is that, while he’ll improve overall as a QB, he’ll likely take a slight dip in terms of fantasy totals. I would certainly target him in the top 12-15 at the QB position, but be weary about going too high on him. I’d rather grab a guy like Russell Wilson or Tony Romo currently going later than him in drafts. In our staff rankings, he comes in as the 12th ranked QB.
3. Does Ahmad Bradshaw have too many question marks to warrant a pick in fantasy drafts at his current ADP?
After signing with the Colts in the offseason, Ahmad Bradshaw will immediately take over the starting RB job from Vick Ballard and bring a lot more experience to the position. With the Giants last year, despite missing two games and being limited due to injury in a bunch more, Bradshaw was able to rush for 1,015 yards and 6 TDs. He also added another 245 yards to the air attack. On this Colts team, he’ll be asked to duplicate (or hopefully surpass), this performance. And it’s certainly possible that he could. The issue with Bradshaw has been his health, missing 6 games over the past two years. He has had three surgeries on his right foot, one on his left, and on both ankles to boot. Obviously, foot and ankle injuries are of major concern for a running back, so it may be hard to count on Bradshaw as a fantasy option.
If you are drafting Bradshaw, I would highly recommend targeting Ballard as a priority handcuff. Between the two of them, one is bound to have significant fantasy value. Bradshaw is going as the 27th RB in fantasy drafts, and if healthy Bradshaw is sure to exceed that value. Based on his health, he won’t be an every down player, but he doesn’t need to be to be successful. If I was a betting man (and I am), I’d say Ahmad will miss at least a few games this year, but when healthy will provide RB2 value. Bradshaw and Ballard currently come in at 23rd and 40th at RB in our staff rankings.
With the new faces on the roster, the new OC, added to the development of Luck and other young players, the Colts have a shot to take over the AFC South right now and possibly for the forseeable future. The biggest question mark, (aside from Bradshaw’s feet), might be how the team adjusts to Pep Hamilton’s style of offense. Luck should have no issues with this, as Hamilton was his coordinator at Stanford, but will the other offensive players feel the same? The Colts and Luck surprised a lot of teams last year, and this time that will not be the case. You have to believe that Luck will be better than last year and poised to take this team back to the playoffs. What is not as clear, however, is whether he and other key players can equal or exceed their previous fantasy values.