On August 24, 2019, in the middle of the Indianapolis Colts’ 3rd Preseason game, Adam Schefter first reported the shocking news that Andrew Luck was retiring from the NFL. The news crushed what had been an optimistic outlook after finishing 10-6 the previous season under first-year Head Coach Frank Reich. Jacoby Brissett would be the de facto signal-caller for the franchise, which began the 2019 season with a 1-5 record. While the team would go on to win 8 of their next 10 games, it was simply not enough: the team would miss the post-season and end their 2nd season with Frank Reich with disappointment.
After the season, the Colts signed 38-year old father of 9 Philip Rivers to a 1-year, 25 million dollar contract–temporarily suspending speculation about the future face of the franchise. The team went on to trade their 2020 first-round pick for standout Defensive Tackle DeForest Buckner. The Colts went on select Michael Pittman Jr, WR out of USC, with the 34th overall pick–and their first pick of the draft–followed up by trading up to select Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor with the 41st overall pick. These three major moves signal that the Colts are ready to bounce back in 2020.
This goal of this article is predict the fantasy outlook for the Indianapolis Colts through examining the historical data behind Frank Reich and Philip Rivers.
In Frank Reich’s last six seasons as either coordinator or head coach, his offenses have averaged 66 plays per game (per teamrankings.com). Four of his previous six offenses have ranked top-five in plays per game, with the only exceptions being the 2014 Chargers and 2019 Colts. Considering the offseason moves and draft selections, the team has made the Colts seem likely to remain one of the higher-paced teams in 2020. Reich’s offenses have ebbed and flowed in terms of passing play percentage. With rates as high as 64.3% with the 2015 Chargers, and as low as 52.6% with the 2019 Colts per teamrankings.com. With Rivers being 38, I’m going to guess that the team will prefer to preserve his arm strength for late in the regular season. The Colts have a top-10 offensive line and a talented RB stable in Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack, I’m going to put the Colts’ passing rate on the lower end of the spectrum at 55%. If we project these numbers out per game, that will leave roughly 36 pass attempts per game and 30 rushing attempts per game.
Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric–or DVOA–measures a Quarterback’s value per play over an average quarterback in the same game situations. In 2019, Jacoby Brissett’s DVOA was 2.6%, ranking 16th in 2019. Which is… fine. Basically, this means that Brissett didn’t suck when compared to the average quarterback in similar situations. Rivers was slightly better with a DVOA of 6.6%, which was 15th in 2019.
Rivers is an upgrade over Brissett in other ways, too. Here are some advanced passing stats for 2019, courtesy of pro-football-reference:
|Average Depth of Target||7.9 yards||8.5 yards|
|Air Yards Per Completion||5.3 yards||6.2 yards|
|Bad Throw %||18.4%||15.4%|
|On Target %||74.5%||77.6%|
On paper, it makes sense to view Rivers as an upgrade over Brissett. From a film watcher’s standpoint, while Rivers may not be as mobile as Brissett, he offers more decisiveness and confidence than his predecessor. In addition, Rivers comes to a Colts offensive line that has ranked top-10 in pass protection in each of the last two years, while the Chargers have ranked 13th in those same years. Finally, Reich was the Chargers coordinator in 2014 and 2015, so there will already be a rapport between the head coach and signal-caller. All things considered, it isn’t a stretch to see Rivers as a more efficient and productive fantasy play than Brissett. Based on these numbers, I expect Rivers to finish the season in the QB13-QB18 range, with some weeks being a low-end QB1.
Who wouldn’t want a guy like this on their team? Look, the man is likely to be dirt cheap, and barring health issues will be likely to finish as a high-end QB2 option. If you are like me and tend to avoid buying QB, he’s the perfect short-term answer.
Running back is perhaps the scariest position to look at under Frank Reich. Reich has had just 1 RB rush in the six-year sample for over 1000 yards (Marlon Mack in 2019) (It’s worth noting that Mack had 908 rushing yards in 2018 after missing the first four games to injury). It is also worth noting that in the 6-year sample, Reich has never deployed a “bell cow” back: his leading rusher has never been the most targeted RB. After consecutive 50+ target seasons of Nyheim Hines, it’s worth wondering how involved rookie Jonathan Taylor will be in the passing game, given his average-at-best (and worrisome-at-worst) receiving ability. Also, despite the Colts’ decision to spend the 41st overall pick on Jonathan Taylor, Marlon Mack has consistently been spoken of highly from the Colts coaching staff. I anticipate a disappointing (but maybe not super ugly?) running-back-by-committee in Indianapolis that looks similar to this:
- Jonathan Taylor: 250 carries for 1,125 Rushing Yards and 12 TDs; 25 targets for 18 receptions and 100 Receiving Yards (212.5 PPR points, RB19 in 2019).
- Marlon Mack: 150 carries for 675 Rushing Yards and 4 TDs, 20 targets for 15 receptions and 75 receiving yards (RB31 in 2019)
- Nyheim Hines: 60 carries for 225 rushing yards; 60 targets for 45 receptions and 300 receiving yards (desperation play with upside if a starting receiver goes down)
I know, I know. I’m a huge JT fan myself. It causes me physical pain to write these words. However, unless Reich dramatically changes his offensive philosophy (good luck on that), Jonathan Taylor is unlikely ever to be a 300-touch player. Will he be a solid RB2? I believe he will be. However, his perceived value still seems higher than what I project his fantasy output to be. If you can get a solid return on investment for Taylor–and by that, I mean sell him for more than you paid for him–I’d explore those options. If not, just hold tight.
Hines’ value isn’t necessarily reliant on JT or Mack going down: if a key receiver goes down in the season, Reich has shown a willingness to deploy a running back as a receiver–as seen with Danny Woodhead in 2015 after Keenan Allen was lost midway through the season. In PPR formats, Hines is a solid hold as a handcuff of sorts.
I went back and looked at the last six years of offenses under Frank Reich. To be specific, this sample includes the Chargers (2014-2015), the Eagles (2016-2017), and the Colts (2018-2019). Below is the breakdown of the per-game averages for targets through those six seasons:
- WR1: 8.5 targets per game
- WR2: 5.4 targets per game
- WR3: 4.6 targets per game
- TE1: 6.8 targets per game
- TE2: 3.8 targets per game
- RB1: 4.7 targets per game
- RB2: 2.3 targets per game
Overall, Reich’s WR1 is a good bet to hit 115-120 targets if he plays all 16 games. However, in the last six years, no WR in any of Reich’s offenses has ever had more than 121 targets–Reich’s offenses simply do not force feed volume. While this might be smart in real-life football, it caps the wide receivers’ ceilings: if we use 2019 as a baseline, this means that even if the WR1 on the Colts finishes with 120 targets, he is unlikely to be a top-12 WR.
A natural question arises when considering this: who is the WR1 on the Colts? My bet for the WR1 in this offense is Parris Campbell: not only has Rivers demonstrated a preference for targeting his slot receiver, but Reich has as well. The exception being Alshon Jeffery in 2017 and Zach Pascal in 2019. There is a non-zero chance that T.Y. Hilton winds up as the most-targeted WR on the team. Still, given the historical tendencies of Reich and Rivers and Hilton’s age, I’m projecting Parris Campbell to finish the season with 115 targets, 86 receptions, 650 receiving yards, and 5 T.D.s–resulting in 180.4 points (low-end WR3 in 2019).
The WR2 is a difficult position to project–simply put, when Reich has had a deeper WR corps, the WR2 has fared better (but never had more than 100 targets). I believe that Hilton, Campbell, and Pittman are better than any three receivers Reich has had in the last six years, and–for this year at least–I expect Hilton to be the 2nd-most targeted WR of the group. However, I can see it changing if Pittman hits the ground running in practice and training camp. WR2 2020 projections: 90 targets, 53 receptions, 900 receiving yards, 5 TDs (173 PPR points–Flex Play in 2019).
Last year, Campbell found himself getting pushed further up boards, resulting in him going in the middle of the first round by draft day. His 2019 season wasn’t all that impressive, and while people haven’t written him off, the forgettable season combined with the Colts drafting Pittman had made Campbell a player that can be overlooked. Reich’s playcalling history has favored the slot receiver, and Campbell profiles to handle the slot in his 2nd year. I don’t think he’ll be a stud, but I have no problem grabbing WR3s for his price tag–especially in leagues larger than 12 teams.
Let’s be honest. It’s not like Pittman is going to come cheap. But if it turns out that he is like many rookie WRs and needs more than a season to develop, his price tag may drop slightly throughout the season. If you own him, don’t panic; if you want him, bet on him being normal and buying him at a slight discount in November.
The tight end almost always has played a role in the Reich offense, with five of the last six years resulting in 89 or more targets to the TE1. Last year, Eric Ebron was on pace to lead the TE group in targets, but only played the first 12 games. With Ebron departing, Jack Doyle figured to see an increase in targets. However, given his role thus far, I would put Jack Doyle on the lower end of the spectrum: 80 targets for 59 receptions, 528 yards, and 4 TDs. In 2019, this would have made him TE13.
TE is notoriously difficult to predict year-over-year, so if you don’t have an answer at TE, Doyle is a cheap flier option. In 2TE and TE Premium, he’s a crazy cheap, low-risk option.
The most significant defensive addition to the Colts this year in DeForest Buckner is one of few proven assets that GM Chris Ballard was willing to pay a premium for–both in the form of a 2020 first-round draft pick, as well as an immediate 4-year contract extension. Buckner is a disruptive presence that will be a strong complement with the Colts’ defensive philosophy on minimizing big plays. While Buckner’s surrounding cast might lead to a downgrade in terms of production, he remains a top-end DT in IDP formats.
Buckner’s presence will undoubtedly provide Defensive Ends Kemoko Turay and Justin Houston with additional opportunities to make plays. 31-year old Houston remains an oft-overlooked bargain bin option–especially in deep IDP formats. This is a make-or-break year for Turay, who has looked good when healthy but has had limited opportunity to long-term impact after missing 12 games in 2019.
The Colts should be expected to bring back the same group as last year with Anthony Walker at MLB and Darius Leonard and Bobby Owerke outside. Leonard and Owerke’s speed are vital components to this bend-don’t-break style of defense. Walker will continue to be overlooked value in IDP formats due to his lack of flash but rock-steady consistency. Darius Leonard would be a top LB option with his volume alone, so his ability to make big plays makes him a near-elite option.
Free-agent acquisitions Xavier Rhodes (Vikings) and T.J. Carrie (Browns) provide a veteran presence at the cornerback position. Both players represent a typical Chris Ballard signing: bargain-bin contracts with high ceilings. With Carrie having historically been a slot corner, it is unclear how the team will elect to use him with Kenny Moore II, fresh off a contract extension in June 2019–at the very least. He provides depth at the position.
While Rhodes has slowed down in recent seasons, the Colts have demonstrated an ability to rekindle production from many veteran players. At Safety, Health has plagued the Colts, who opted to let oft-injured but talented Clayton Geathers walk in Free Agency earlier this year. Malik Hooker is a game-changer on the field but has missed time in each of his three seasons thus far. After solid rookie seasons, 2019 draftees Rock Ya-Sin and Khari Willis continue to develop into strong role players in the secondary. Finally, Julian Blackmon out of Utah will have the opportunity to make an impact–especially if the injury bug gets to Hooker once again.
From a real football standpoint, I’m excited about the Colts in 2020. Rivers isn’t a sexy QB, but he is surrounded by considerable talent on both sides of the ball. Defensively, the team is set up to control the ball efficiently, though their lack of depth could be a cause for concern.
Questions, comments, concerns? Reach out to me on twitter @SuperFlexerFF.
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