Colts pre-draft depth chart: 2024 roster looks like 2023 version; will running it back work?


The dust has settled on the first waves of free agency, and the Indianapolis Colts roster looks a lot like it did last season. General manager Chris Ballard played it fairly conservatively, retaining most of the Colts’ in-house free agents while not bringing in any headlining outsiders.

The NFL Draft is now only three weeks away, and Week 1 is five months away, so there’s still plenty of time between now and then to add a few more pieces to a team that finished 9-8 in 2023. But for now, let’s look at the Colts’ roster and the strengths and weaknesses within it.

Quarterback

Starter: Anthony Richardson

Key depth: Joe Flacco, Sam Ehlinger

This time last year, I was knee-deep in college QB film and hardly had time to analyze any other positions of need. The Colts were poised to finally draft a signal caller in the first round, and they pulled the trigger on Richardson with the No. 4 pick. His rookie season was limited to just four games due to a concussion and season-ending AC joint sprain, but with seven total TDs and numerous big plays, the flashes of his potential were undeniable. As long as Richardson can stay healthy, Ballard and Colts coach Shane Steichen believe he will embrace his role as the face of the franchise while also trying to end the team’s three-year playoff drought.

Flacco replaces Gardner Minshew, who is now with the Raiders, as Richardson’s backup, with Ehlinger slotting in as QB3. Obviously, if Flacco has to play an extended period, that means Richardson got hurt again and questions about his durability will become a lot louder than last year. However, if Richardson misses a game or two, Flacco can still push the ball downfield, which is what hamstrung the offense last year when Minshew was under center.

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Running back

Starter: Jonathan Taylor

Key depth: Trey Sermon, Evan Hull, Tyler Goodson

The look on Ballard’s face validated the words coming out of his mouth at the NFL owners’ meetings last month: “I expect Jonathan to have a big year.” Last offseason, Taylor was injured and in the middle of a contract dispute. It took him time to get his groove back when he returned to action, but in the season finale, it felt like Taylor sent a message with 30 carries for 188 yards, highlighted by a signature 49-yard TD run. Taylor has missed 13 games over the past two years due to injury, but if the 25-year-old can remain healthy and get back to the All-Pro level he played at in 2021, Indianapolis will have arguably the most dynamic QB-RB tandem in the NFL.

Zack Moss, who is now with the Bengals, was a big loss as Taylor’s backup. If the Colts stand pat, Sermon will likely take over as RB2. The former Ohio State star had his moments last year, including a 17-carry, 88-yard performance in a win over the Steelers when Taylor was sidelined. The jury is still out on Hull, who appeared in just one game during his rookie year before sustaining a season-ending knee injury. However, the second-year pro should add a bit of diversity to the backfield as a pass catcher, with Goodson offering a similar skill set.

Wide receiver

Starters: Michael Pittman Jr., Josh Downs, Alec Pierce

Key depth: Ashton Dulin, D.J. Montgomery

Pittman is coming off a career year with 109 catches for 1,152 yards and nine TDs, and Downs had one of the most prolific rookie seasons in franchise history with 68 receptions for 771 yards and two TDs. Pierce took a step back last year, especially once Richardson went down and the Colts couldn’t consistently throw the ball down the field. He should become more productive in Richardson’s return, but the Colts will likely still consider drafting another wide receiver to elevate this group. In my opinion, it would actually be surprising if they didn’t select a wideout on Day 1 or 2. This unit needs another explosive playmaker, and while it may reduce Pierce to being a WR4, perhaps that role would help him flourish.

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Tight end

Starter: Mo Alie-Cox

Key depth: Jelani Woods, Kylen Granson, Will Mallory, Drew Ogletree (commissioner’s exempt list)

Steichen and Ballard praised this group for what they accomplished collectively in 2023, but the Colts still lack a true No. 1 option. Alie-Cox is Indianapolis’ best blocking tight end, while Granson and Mallory are better pass catchers. Ogletree offers a bit of both, though his future with the team is unclear as he remains on the commissioner’s exempt list due to the domestic violence charges filed against him that were ultimately dismissed. The wildcard of this group is Woods, who missed the 2023 season due to hamstring injuries. In theory, Woods has all the traits the Colts need in a No. 1 tight end, and if he can stay healthy, it’s hard to picture a player as athletically gifted as him failing in Steichen’s offense. Of course, Georgia’s Brock Bowers is an enticing player if he’s still available when the Colts pick 15th, but it seems more realistic (albeit risky) for Indianapolis to bet on Woods as the answer at tight end.

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Offensive line

Starters (from left to right): LT Bernhard Raimann, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Will Fries, RT Braden Smith

Key depth: T Blake Freeland, C Wesley French, C/G Danny Pinter

This group stepped up tremendously in 2023, bouncing back from an abysmal 2022. The only issue the Colts’ offensive line faced last year was health, with Kelly and Smith in and out of the lineup with various injuries. Kelly sustained two concussions and missed three games, which is concerning, but he dismissed any notion that he’s considering retirement. Smith underwent knee surgery after the season, according to Ballard, and is expected to be fully healthy for the 2024 campaign. This remains one of the Colts’ strongest units, with Raimann making significant strides and French holding his own in 2023. As always, however, it would behoove the Colts to add more depth because there’s no such thing as too many good offensive linemen. Pinter, who broke his ankle during the preseason and missed the entire 2023 campaign, should be fully healthy for the 2024 season and will offer some insurance up front.

Edge

Starters: Samson Ebukam, Kwity Paye

Key depth: Dayo Odeyingbo, Tyquan Lewis

Ebukam proved to be a good free agency signing last year, totaling a team-high 9.5 sacks. The 28-year-old hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. However, the keys to this group are Paye and Odeyingbo. They’re each entering their fourth season, and while they’ve turned out to be good players, they haven’t become game-changers.

Ballard is convinced they still have some untapped potential, but it’s fair to wonder how realistic that is at this stage of their careers. Indianapolis, which blitzed a league-low 15.7 percent last year, will probably never be a high-blitz defense under coordinator Gus Bradley. So, if the Colts want to generate more pressure, they either need Paye and Odeyingbo to take another leap, or they could take another swing on an edge rusher in the draft. From a depth perspective, the Colts are in good shape. Lewis was a hot commodity at last year’s trade deadline and in free agency, according to a league source, and retaining him shouldn’t be overlooked.

Defensive tackle

Starters: DeForest Buckner, Grover Stewart

Key depth: Raekwon Davis, Taven Bryan, Eric Johnson II, Adetomiwa Adebawore

Stewart and Buckner are still one of the most formidable defensive tackle duos in the NFL. It’s honestly funny watching teams try to run up the middle because it hardly ever works with those two stalwarts acting as club bouncers. Davis, who comes over from Miami, is a giant of a man and should help the run defense remain stout whenever Buckner and Stewart need a breather. Plus, Davis should take some pressure off Bryan, who had his ups and downs in 2023. Adebawore charted as one of the most athletically gifted defensive tackles ever at last year’s combine, despite being undersized. We saw flashes of his disruptiveness in 2023, and perhaps another year in Bradley’s system will unlock him even more.

Linebacker

Starters: Zaire Franklin, E.J. Speed

Key depth: Ronnie Harrison Jr., Segun Olubi

Franklin has set the franchise single-season tackles record in back-to-back years, and he was rewarded with a three-year, $31.3 million contract extension this offseason. Knowing his backstory and journey, Franklin’s payday will only make him hungrier to prove he’s worth it. Speed stepped up admirably at midseason after the Colts waived former star Shaq Leonard, and he’s emerged as Indianapolis’ best cover linebacker. Harrison and Olubi are solid depth pieces, and each seized their opportunities when they were relied upon in short spurts last year. However, it would be surprising if Ballard, who’s become somewhat of a linebacker whisper, didn’t take a flyer on at least one linebacker in the draft.

Cornerback

Starters: Kenny Moore II, JuJu Brents, Jaylon Jones

Key depth: Dallis Flowers

The Colts haven’t made any significant moves to upgrade this unit, and it is concerning. Moore is the only proven cornerback on the depth chart, but he obviously can’t be everywhere at once. Brents, a 2023 second-round pick, showed promise as a rookie, though he was limited to nine games due to various injuries. Moore will start in the slot, and assuming Brents starts on the outside, that leaves another outside spot open. For now, Jones, a 2023 seventh-round pick, is the front-runner for that role with Flowers, who went undrafted in 2022, contending for it as well. Regardless of how much faith Ballard has in those two underdog cornerbacks, it still seems like a huge risk to rely on them without adding a veteran cornerback like Steven Nelson or Stephon Gilmore, who played in Indianapolis in 2022, in free agency. If Ballard rolls the dice and one of these guys hits, we’ll all sing his praises. But if he’s wrong, it could derail the Colts’ season.

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Safety

Starters: Julian Blackmon, Rodney Thomas II

Key depth: Nick Cross, Daniel Scott

Blackmon was the top in-house free agent Indianapolis hadn’t retained — until Tuesday. The 25-year-old is returning on a one-year deal, according to a league source. Ballard said at the NFL owners’ meetings the team re-engaged in talks with Blackmon, and those discussions were clearly fruitful. Blackmon is coming off his best season in which he recorded a career-high four interceptions, eight passes defensed and 88 tackles while embracing a new role as a full-time strong safety. Thomas still projects as the Colts’ starting free safety, though he regressed significantly in 2023. It’s not out of the question to see Cross supplant him this offseason or for the Colts to sign a veteran in free agency like Justin Simmons or Quandre Diggs to strengthen the backend.

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Specialists

Starters: Matt Gay (kicker), Luke Rhodes (long snapper), Rigoberto Sanchez (punter)

Gay was a little shakier than usual last year, converting 80.5 percent of his field goal attempts in 2023, compared to 95.2 percent across his three previous seasons with the Rams. However, Indianapolis specialists are still among the best in the NFL.

Returner

Starter: Dallis Flowers

Key depth: Josh Downs

Flowers was electric as a return man before he tore his Achilles in Week 4. Assuming he makes a full recovery, he should be in line to handle kick return duties, though the Colts may experiment while adjusting to the new kickoff rules. Indianapolis lost receiver and returner Isaiah McKenzie to the Giants in free agency, leaving the door open for Downs to see more action as a punt returner. However, Downs might be too valuable on offense to pull double duty on special teams, so Indianapolis will likely need to either add a returner in free agency or the draft or tack on some new responsibilities to a few players already on the roster.

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(Photo of Anthony Richardson, Ryan Kelly and Quenton Nelson: Jenna Watson / IndyStar / USA Today)





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