It’s not every day that a team goes from Super Bowl contender to a rebuilding project in the third game of the preseason, but that’s what happens when your franchise quarterback retires two weeks before the start of the regular season. The Indianapolis Colts have spent the past two seasons finally doing right by Andrew Luck by building a great supporting cast around him, but unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to make up for the physical and emotional damage Luck sustained in his first five seasons under center.
The Colts are now in football purgatory as they head into the 2019 season. The typical mindset for a team without a franchise QB is to tank away a season and earn a top pick in the draft to select young passer the following year, but the Colts still have a talented and well-coached roster that will likely still win a decent amount of games. Indy’s current starter Jacoby Brissett knows this offense well and has already proven himself to be a competent quarterback when he filled in for Luck in the 2017 season, so it’s hard to see the Colts only winning 4-5 games and putting themselves into a good draft spot.
However, Indianapolis is still in pretty good shape after the 2019 season. Over The Cap is currently estimating that the Colts will have a league-leading $85 million in cap space next year, in addition to their eight draft picks. This gives them plenty of resources to acquire a quarterback next season if they don’t feel confident with Brissett long term.
Assuming Indy is picking in the middle of the draft next season, the most ideal option is to create a package of draft picks that they can use to trade up in the draft to select young a QB. While this could potentially be the most expensive option, as they might have to part with a future first-round pick, something GM Chris Ballard wouldn’t be thrilled about, the benefits could outweigh the costs if they select the right player. Similar to how the Texans and Chiefs moved up to draft Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, the Colts could be in a perfect roster construction situation where they have a great quarterback on a cheap deal and a significant amount of cap space to build around him.
Additionally, unlike most situations where a talented young QB gets drafted to a bad team and has to play around a bad offensive line and a subpar receiving corps (see Josh Rosen), the Colts have a fantastic line, several playmakers and one of the best offensive schemes in the league. Whether it’s Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert or someone else, the Colts can instantly launch themselves back into contention if he’s good enough.
If for whatever reason Indianapolis is unable or elects not to move up in the draft, they can turn to free agency or swing a trade to bolster the position. This most likely wouldn’t give them a long-term answer going forward, but it would give them an accomplished signal caller that already has playoff experience. The most logical player would be Bengals QB Andy Dalton, who is likely to be on the move next season if Cincinnati decides to go in a younger direction. Dalton is the dictionary definition of an average quarterback. He can perform well if the team around him is solid, but if he’s asked to do more and potentially carry a team, you’ll start getting inconsistent performances. In other words, the Colts would be the perfect team for him. He’s not the missing piece that turns them into a Super Bowl team, but if he’s finally given good pass protection with good receivers, he’s more than capable of taking Indy to the playoffs and possibly further.
If he’s healthy, another option could be Redskins quarterback Alex Smith, who is going to miss the entire 2019 season after suffering a gruesome leg injury last year. The odds aren’t in his favor, but if Smith can come close to returning to form prior to the injury, the Colts would be adding a Pro Bowl player with a significant amount of postseason experience. Besides the risk that comes with trading for players recovering from injury, the other main drawback with trading for Smith is his contract. While Dalton’s deal ends after the 2020 season, Smith is under contract until 2022 and is owed $21.4 million in 2020. Those numbers might sound scary, but keep in mind that the Colts could cut Smith after 2020 and only have to eat $10.8 million in dead cap, so they wouldn’t be stuck him long-term. Plus, considering that Washington will be fully committed to Dwayne Haskins by next year, Indy likely wouldn’t have to give up anything significant to acquire Smith.
Now, if you’re reading this and thinking that all these options don’t sound appealing or encouraging, that’s because they’re not. Luck was a generational talent who managed to live up to the expectations of being the successor to Peyton Manning. There’s no way to replace what he meant to Indianapolis on the field and in the locker room. But the purpose of this article is to explain that the Colts have all the resources and leadership needed to feel optimistic going forward. Since hiring Ballard as GM in 2017 and Frank Reich as head coach in 2018, Indianapolis has done practically everything right and this will be no different.
Considering that the Colts elected not to spend a lot in free agency and that they hung on to Brissett despite trade interest, it’s possible, if not likely, that they’ve known this was a possibility for a while and have already been preparing a plan for 2020. With the days of Ryan Grigson trading a first-round pick for Trent Richardson behind them, I feel confident saying that Indianapolis will figure this out and return to relevancy. It’s unfortunate that this rebuild will go on longer than we initially thought, but with one of the smartest front offices in the NFL and more resources than just about every team in the league, the Colts have an opportunity come back almost as quickly as they fell down.