The NFL offseason is always filled with thousands of questions. Where will the top free agents sign? Who will be the first overall pick? Who’s franchise will take a turn for the better, and who will regress? Every team has its own specific questions to respond to as well. Is the defensive line deep enough? Do the skill positions need upgrading? Is there enough talent on each side of the ball to win football games? Throughout the course of the offseason, these questions are answered through the draft, free agency, and trades. When OTAs roll around, teams begin to ask more questions of themselves. The Indianapolis Colts are no exception to this. With many players returning from injury, new faces in key spots, and players lost along the way, here are my five biggest questions for the Colts ahead of the 2021 season.
1. Can Parris Campbell finally shine with the injury bug behind him?
Colts WR Parris Campbell has had quite the turbulent start to his NFL career. The former second-round pick from Ohio State appeared in just seven games during his rookie season (with three starts), seeing just 24 targets and racking up 18 receptions for 127 yards and one touchdown. During that year, Campbell suffered an abdominal injury that sidelined him for the next three weeks. He also missed four more games following surgery to repair a fractured hand. However, in his time on the field, the 59th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft showed tremendous potential and upside. It was clear his 4.31 40 speed gave some defenses some issues, especially with the ball in his hands. Campbell entered his second year fully healthy and ready to make a difference for Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni’s offense. He showed flashes of his ability yet again in Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, leading the team in receiving with six catches for 71 yards. Then, early in Week 2 at home against the Minnesota Vikings, Campbell took a hit from Harrison Smith to his knee. This resulted in a torn MCL, torn PCL, and a broken kneecap, and sidelined Campbell for the remainder of the 2020 season.
Campbell looks ready for a fresh start in 2021. He has changed his jersey number from 21 to 1 (now allowed with the new jersey number rules introduced during this past offseason) and is fully healthy ahead of training camp at the end of this summer. He also has the faith of Colts GM Chris Ballard. “I still believe in Parris Campbell,” Ballard said to the media during a press conference. “He’s driven. He’s still young. He’s still talented. We think Parris is going to be a valuable member of this team moving forward.”
Year three will be make or break for Parris Campbell. Stay on the field, and he has a real chance to break out and be the Colts’ leading receiver in 2021. But another injury may mean the team cuts ties with the former Ohio State wideout. Only time will tell if Campbell can become a key piece to the new look Indy offense.
2. Can Frank Reich return Carson Wentz to his MVP caliber form?
Ever since Colts head coach Frank Reich left the Philadelphia Eagles following their Super Bowl ring in 2018, Carson Wentz hasn’t exactly been the same quarterback. The Colts traded Philadelphia their 2021 third-round pick and a conditional 2022 second-round pick (likely to become a first-round selection) with one thing in mind: reunite the former second overall pick with the mastermind behind his excellent 2018 campaign. in 2018 with Reich as his offensive coordinator, Wentz threw for 3,074 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, good enough for a career-high 102.2 passer rating. Wentz was well on his way to leading the Eagles on a championship run and be in the conversation for MVP before disaster struck in Week 14 against the LA Rams. Wentz suffered a torn ACL, bringing his sensational season to a screeching halt. Philadelphia still went on to win the Super Bowl with backup QB Nick Foles leading the way. But it was at this point where things would begin to decline for Wentz in Philadelphia.
After some decent campaigns in 2018 and 2019, Wentz would see his relationship with the organization deteriorate in 2020. In Week 13, Wentz was benched in favor of rookie QB Jalen Hurts in the third quarter after the Eagles fell behind 20-3 against the Green Bay Packers. Wentz would not see the field for the rest of the year. After trade negotiations, Philadelphia and Indianapolis agreed to a trade reuniting Wentz with his former offensive coordinator. Since arriving in Indianapolis, things have completely switched for Wentz. He seems much happier and more comfortable, and most importantly, has the faith of his head coach. “I’m willing to put [my neck] on the line for players I believe in. I believe in this team. I believe in Carson,” Reich said when speaking to reporters.
Whether the Wentz-Reich duo can be as dangerous as they were in 2017 remains to be seen. But with Wentz being much happier in his new environment with an upgraded offensive line, new receivers, a dominant running game and an intelligent coaching staff, things are looking good for the former second overall pick to return to wrecking havoc. But, as with every question ahead of this coming season, the answer will be unknown until the conclusion of the campaign, whether that be in December or under a monsoon of confetti in February.
3. How big of a loss in Anthony Walker for Matt Eberflus’ defense?
Anthony Walker was originally selected in the sixth round of the 2017 NFL Draft and grew into his role as the starting MIKE linebacker for the Indy defense. Not only did he become a starter, but Walker became one of the leaders of the locker room for the Colts. While the stats will show you 343 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 3.5 sacks, and 2 fumble recoveries in 57 career games, the Colts are losing more than just their starting middle linebacker. They’re losing a true leader, a core locker room guy. “(Walker) was that veteran, that veteran that everybody looked up to,” said Colts star linebacker Darius Leonard. “I’m Darius, but Anthony Walker was that guy that everybody leaned on.” With Walker now gone, the Indianapolis defense will look to Leonard, DT Deforest Buckner, and CB Kenny Moore II for leadership on the defensive side of the ball.
Bobby Okereke split snaps with Walker in 2020, his second season in the league. Okereke will now be seeing an increased workload with Walker signing with the Cleveland Browns in the offseason. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus will likely be running a lot more nickel packages (meaning a linebacker is taken off the field for a fifth defensive back, hence the term “nickel”) which would leave Leonard and Okereke as the two linebackers on the field for those sets. Veteran linebacker and special teams captain Zaire Franklin has looked to be the third linebacker for Indianapolis so far during OTAs, but I would still expect more nickel packages than three linebacker looks in Eberflus’ 4-3 defense. The loss of Walker will be big, on the field and in the locker room, but Okereke should be able to fill the role just fine. In terms of leadership, it may take time for a guy like Darius Leonard to adjust to being “the veteran” in the linebacker room. “I’m going to have to quit being just a friendly guy, quit being this guy that just smiles all the time and goes by doing it his way. Now it’s, ‘Hey, that’s not the right way. This is how we do it.’ We have to hold people accountable the right way,” Leonard said, acknowledging he will need to make some changes in terms of his personality and leadership. The Maniac will always be heard out on the field, but his voice will need to be used more off the gridiron, in the locker room, and outside the building.
Like everything, we won’t be able to gauge the impact of Anthony Walker’s departure until the Colts take the field. We can always speculate, but the loss will certainly take some adjusting for the Indianapolis defense.
4. How will the snaps be split amongst such a deep running back room?
Heading into the 2020 season, the Colts looked to have a lethal rushing attack after adding rookie Jonathan Taylor to a running back room that already had a 1,000-yard rusher in Marlon Mack and a versatile receiving back in Nyheim Hines. The plan was to start Mack but still have about a 50-50 split between him and Taylor, while Hines would operate as the third-down back. However, plans were changed after Mack went down with a torn Achilles Week 1 in Jacksonville. Jonathan Taylor became the starter, and burst onto the scene, rushing for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns his rookie year. The only other Colts’ rookies to do the same: Edgerrin James and Marshall Faulk. Pretty good company. Hines also emerged as a weapon for Frank Reich’s offense in 2020, achieving career highs in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, while making some highlight-reel plays along the way. Hines undoubtedly earned more reps on the field. Indy’s fourth option, Jordan Wilkins, has also proven to be an excellent change of pace back and has shown an ability to spell the top three guys when needed.
With Marlon Mack having just one year left on his contract, it was looking like the team would move on and go forward with Taylor and Hines as their new duo. But, after Mack received little interest in free agency, GM Chris Ballard re-signed the Florida native to a one year deal worth $2 million. Having not a chance to give Marlon Mack the money he believed he had earned, Ballard gets his former starter back on a team-friendly deal who will only make this offense more unpredictable. But the question remains, how will Frank Reich decide to split up the snaps for the top three guys?
Taylor has earned his spot as the starter without question. That part is easy. Whether Indianapolis wants to go with their original 2020 plan and split his carries with Mack remains to be seen. The other question is whether or not Nyheim Hines has earned the RB2 spot over Mack with his 2020 campaign. Does Indy prefer to use Hines in his usual third down role, or would they rather use Mack’s rushing skill set to beat teams up on the ground? There are many questions we can ask of this talented and deep running back group heading into 2021, but the answers won’t become clear until after the team takes the field this fall.
5. Can Kwity Paye put together a campaign worthy of Defensive Rookie of the Year honors?
The Indianapolis Colts selected Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye with the 21st overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft with the intention of him being their number one edge rusher. After posting 97 career tackles, 23.5 career tackles for loss, and 11.5 career sacks, Paye looks ready to be a productive pass rusher in the pros, but it may take some time. There was somewhat of a consensus heading into the draft that Paye was fairly raw and needed some coaching in order to develop a more serviceable arsenal of pass rush moves. The Colts felt confident that their defensive line coach Brian Baker could coach him up and turn him into a dangerous right end. For my personal assessment of Kwity Paye prior to the draft, click here. Paye was just one of many additions to the edge position Chris Ballard made this offseason, with guys like Isaac Rochell and Dayo Odeyingbo being added to a group consisting of some younger guys with a lot of potential, like Tyquan Lewis and Ben Banogu. Paye will likely be the top guy of the bunch, which puts him in a great position to have a productive rookie year. The question will be can he beat out other talented rookies on the defensive side of the ball for the award? Per Sportsbettingdime.com, Paye is currently tied for the third-best odds for Defensive Rookie of the year with Broncos’ CB Patrick Surtain II at +1000, only behind Dolphins DE Jaelan Phillips (+700) and Cowboys’ LB Micah Parsons (+400). Cardinals’ LB Zaven Collins, Football Team LB Jamin Davis, and Panthers’ CB Jaycee Horn are all not far behind, with +1100, +1200, and +1400 odds respectively.
The Colts have had success with their defensive rookies in recent years. LB Darius Leonard won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2018, and LB Bobby Okereke and S Julian Blackmon have turned into above-average starters for Matt Eberflus’ unit. Whether Paye does or doesn’t join Leonard in winning the award remains to be seen. While getting him to be the defensive rookie of the year shouldn’t be the Colts’ focus for Paye in his first year, it would certainly boost GM Chris Ballard to the top of the list, if not to the top, of the league’s best general manager and create a consensus around the league that the Colts are the best run organization in the NFL.
These are just a few questions surrounding the Indianapolis Colts heading into 2021. More questions include, who will win the kicking battle?, can rookie TE Kylen Granson be the tight end Trey Burton couldn’t be?, and is the secondary deep enough to keep up with talented receiving cores like the Bucs, Titans, and Bills? Like the five we went in-depth on, these questions will only be answered with time. We can always guess, predict, and speculate the answers, but the only people who know the true answers are the Colts’ front office, players, and coaches themselves.