» With a young, talented nucleus — and the right general manager and head coach — in place, Irsay believes the Colts are undoubtedly Super Bowl contenders for the foreseeable future: Off the bat, Irsay praised those within his organization, and those around the league, for doing what they had to do to ensure the 2020 season went on as scheduled, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the challenges it presented.
Without the luxury of an on-field offseason workout program, rookie minicamp, veteran minicamp or preseason games, all of which were canceled due to COVID-19, the Colts last year forged on with a new leader at quarterback in future Hall of Famer Philip Rivers, who signed a free agent deal in Indy last March after spending the first 16 seasons of his illustrious career with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers.
Defensively, the Colts made another splash by trading their first-round (13th-overall) selection in the 2020 NFL Draft to the San Francisco 49ers to acquire All-Pro defensive end DeForest Buckner. In the draft, Indy used its first three picks on what they hoped would be immediate difference-makers in wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and running back Jonathan Taylor (in the second round) and safety Julian Blackmon (in the third round).
Those additions, matched with an already-strong foundation consisting of Pro Bowlers like left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, linebacker Darius Leonard and others, gave the Colts plenty of optimism heading into what they knew would be a season unlike any other.
By the end of the season, Rivers proved to be a terrific veteran pickup, throwing for more than 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns and providing his trademark leadership; Buckner continued to establish himself as one of the top interior defenders in the league; Pittman Jr., Taylor and Blackmon were among the top rookie contributors across the league at their respective positions; and Nelson, Kelly and Leonard were all named All-Pro — along with Buckner, safety and special teams ace George Odum and long snapper Luke Rhodes.
With a top-10 offense and defense, as well as one of the top overall special teams units in the league, the Colts finished the season with an 11-5 regular season record and earned the seventh and final playoff seed in a very competitive AFC race. Indy fought to the bitter end of its Wild Card Round matchup on the road against the No. 2-seed Buffalo Bills, but ultimately fell, 27-24.
The start of the offseason has already presented its share of challenges and considerable roster decisions for the Colts — and we’ll discuss those in detail below. But all-in-all, Irsay is extremely satisfied with the way his team competed in 2020, and the general shape it is in heading forward.
“I’d say in talking with Chris, Frank and myself, our beliefs are we are close,” Irsay said. “We have a tremendous nucleus of players that are capable of competing for the Super Bowl very soon.
“We really have some special players,” Irsay added later. “I mean All-Pro, multiple All-Pro special players, type of players that can be wearing yellow jackets some day, and the great news is, they are in their prime. The fact that we’re such a young team really benefits us a lot and gives us a great opportunity to seize upon that.”
» Acquire a veteran? Make a move in the draft? What will the Colts do at quarterback?: Rivers, who signed a one-year deal with the Colts last offseason, announced last week that after 17 NFL seasons, he has decided to retire from the NFL.
So now the Colts find themselves in an interesting position: they certainly have an interest in finding their quarterback of the future — perhaps even a talented youngster in the upcoming NFL Draft — to pair with another talented, young player at the position in 2020 fourth-round pick Jacob Eason.
But the Colts also have a roster that’s ready to win now. Irsay today hinted at the possibility of his team seriously considering acquiring another veteran quarterback that can come in and make an immediate impact.
“Look, the type of team we have, it would really benefit us the most if we could get someone to come in that can play at a high level, that has veteran vision, veteran understandings of picking up things quickly so we can get into 2021 and really have a chance to kind of, if you will, take off where we left off, but just tweaking some things so we are an even better football team,” Irsay said. “I really believe we can do that.”
Just who might the Colts have in mind if they want to make such a move at quarterback? Well, Irsay, of course, can’t comment on players currently under contract with other teams, but one can be sure that the team is considering all available options at that all-important position.
“I don’t know what path is going to be the best path. There are just so many multiple scenarios that you can put together,” Irsay said.
“I see this as opportunity,” he continued. “It can go in a lot of different directions and believe me, we have the best two guys in Chris Ballard and Frank Reich in sorting this thing through. We’ve already met for hours in discussing how we are going about this.”
» Other offseason needs: What else was on Irsay’s mind on Wednesday?
— On where he wants to see improvements/additions outside of quarterback: “I think we need another one or two big playmakers on offense at tight end or wide receiver. I think we have a real interesting mix there. It’s amazing when you see 87 (Travis Kelce) and 10 (Tyreek Hill) in Kansas City, the things they do and that sort of thing. It’s remarkable. I think we’re again, looking offensively for a couple more playmakers. We know with Anthony Castonzo retiring we need to address that and defensively we need to continue to look at corner. You always need corners and you need pass-rushers. There is such a great nucleus to build from and when I said I thought we were the most complete team in the league, I really believed that from the three phases of the game because I thought we did so many things so well. It just didn’t quite gel at the end and that can happen.”
— On what he foresees for wide receiver T.Y. Hilton’s future; Hilton in March is set to become an unrestricted free agent after spending the first nine seasons with the Colts: “We’d love to see T.Y. (Hilton) back, there is no question about it. He is such a great Colt. What a competitor and still has excellent skills and can take over a game. I think that the biggest thing at this point in a career for athletes and you see it all the time is the competitive nature is, look there is a business side to it. You want a guy back but it has to fit into what you view, what the marketplace dictates and what other teams and where someone’s value falls with the price sign. It really comes down to that. The biggest thing that I’ve found is, you want guys that really want to be here so sometimes if they don’t hit their price mark, you don’t want them to be resentful saying, ‘I should have gotten more.’ So, you’re always wanting to make sure – we love T.Y. and we want him back. It’s just a question of trying to find what that means financially. I know Chris (Ballard) and him will talk with his agent. We would love to have T.Y. back. T.Y. is such a major Colt. Really, you think about the great receivers in this franchise’s history and T.Y. has done some of the most remarkable things that all the greats that you guys know about have done. You love to see someone like T.Y. be back because he is such a good man, he’s such an outstanding football player and a selfless player that you are just hoping that it works out that way. But the market usually dictates that. That’s the aspect of free agency. When all is said and done, I’m really hoping that it works out that we can work something out and Chris can work it out with T.Y. and his agent and we find a way there because we are a better football team with T.Y. and we love him as a legacy player and as a present player in how he can help us get to where we want to go. He is a great veteran leader and still has plenty of gas in the tank.”