As the Oakland Raiders look to building their 2019 roster, they should look to the 2018 Indianapolis Colts as a potential model. No one expected the Colts to compete this season, yet they went 10-6 and marched their way into the playoffs. Now they’ll have an opportunity to face the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round.
The Colts turnaround came as such as shock mainly due to what seemed like a bungled head coaching search. After reportedly signing Josh McDaniels to a deal, the Patriots’ Offensive Coordinator decided to back out. Indianapolis was then “forced” into hiring Frank Reich. That hire ended up being a home run as the former Philadelphia Eagles OC led the Colts to the seventh best total offense in the NFL.
Outside of just Reich’s tutelage, new General Manager Chris Ballard did an excellent job in both free agency and the draft. Despite having numerous rookie starts and overall different faces on both sides of the field, the Colts were able to adapt and succeed. Ballard is likely on his way to Executive of the Year for his work.
It’s unreasonable to expect the Raiders to make the postseason in 2019. The Colts’ success could be viewed as an anomaly. That being said, with three first round draft picks and $75 million to spend, Oakland has a lot of important decisions to make.
When making those decisions, they should look to exactly how Ballard, Reich and the 2018 Colts handled it.
Looking at the current Indianapolis Colts, it isn’t hard to see how important a role their rookies have played. According to NFL Next Gen stats, Colts’ rookies accounted for a league leading 22% of team offensive and defensive stats. Ballard was able to get value out of almost every single pick in their draft class.
First rounder Quenton Nelson was voted to the Pro Bowl and named an All-Pro following his rookie season. He allowed just 23 pressures on 730 pass-blocking attempts according to Pro Football Focus. Nelson was a forced on a revamped offensive line that went from allowing 56 sacks (league high) in 2017, to just 18 (league low) in 2018.
The second round saw the Colts land both Darius Leonard and Braden Smith. Leonard had an outstanding rookie season, being voted to the Pro Bowl and earning an All-Pro nomination. He led the league with 163 tackles and is likely on his way to winning Defensive Rookie of the Year. Snagging a player of Leonard’s talent in the second round is a credit and success to Ballard and the Colts’ scouting department.
While he didn’t receive as many accolades, Smith wasn’t a slouch either. He started 13 games on the Colts’ offensive line and received an above average 72 grade from PFF, being named to the site’s All-Rookie team.
Elsewhere throughout the draft the Colts landed defenders Kemoko Turray and Tyquan Lewis as well as running backs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. Neither Turray or Lewis had seasons on par with Leonard, but both appeared in at least eight games and combined for six sacks. Wilkins carved our a role earlier in the season prior to Marlon Mack earning the lead job. Still he was able to put together a solid rookie season, appearing in all 16 games and rushing at what would be a league-leading 5.6 yards per carry clip. Hines had arguably the biggest role out of this group of four as he finished third on the team in receptions (63) and fourth in receiving yards (425). He looks to be the lightning to Mack’s thunder in the Colts’ backfield.
Overall, Ballard and the Colts were able to land two All-Pros and six overall players who made at least one start. They nailed the first two rounds and were able to find some gems later on in the draft.
The Raiders have six of the first 100 picks in the 2019 NFL Draft. They need to be able to land a stud like Nelson at number four and then find at least one, if not two other major contributors like Leonard in their fifth other picks.
Indianapolis proved that you can completely rebuild a team in one season with a strong draft. The Raiders have some of the highest draft capital of any team in the NFL. They need to be able to nail their picks and find players who can contribute and succeed immediately their rookie seasons.
Fantastic Free Agency
While the Colts’ rebuild was more focused on their draft, they were still able to suplement their rookies with a strong free agent cop. Recently, Spotrac awarded the Colts with the most valuable free agent class, writing:
By far one of the most successful free agent classes in the league, the Colts took a few low-risk moves on bringing in Ebron & Grant to add weapons for luck, and both have been effective. Denico Autry has been one of the more productive edge defenders in the game, and Matt Slauson has been another positive piece to a finally improved offensive line.
Of the five notable FAs they signed, most were considered massive values and played a strong role in the team’s 2018 success.
Eric Ebron had a career resurgence in his first year with the Colts. The former Lion caught 66 passes for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns on the way to his first Pro Bowl nomination. Ebron proved to be a red zone threat and one of Andrew Luck’s favorite targets. Ryan Grant dealt with a few injuries but still caught 35 passes for 334 yards and a score. He’ll likely function as the team’s slot option going forward.
Along the line, the Colts added Matt Slauson to very little fanfare. However, prior to a season ending back injury, he was ranked as a top-six pass blocking guard by PFF. He was another great addition to the Colts revamped line.
On the defense side, Denico Autry proved to be one of the most underrated offseason additions. Autry was able to rack up 37 total tackles with two forced fumbles and nine sacks over 12 games and 11 starts. He finished tied for 24th in the league with his nine sacks while receiving an above average 71.5 grade from PFF. The Colts were able to land a talented edge defender who can rush the quarterback on a contract for three years that never exceeds $6 million.
The Colts were also able to land corner Pierre Desir, who was considered an afterthought heading into the offseason. Desir appeared in all 16 games for the first time in his career, starting 12 and mustering 79 overall tackles with one interception, two forced fumbles and eight passes defended. He earned a PFF grade of 77.5, the 18th highest among all cornerbacks. Indianapolis got a talented starting cornerback for less than two million dollars.
Overall, the Colts didn’t make any splashy signings, but they were able to find gems that other teams passed on. With their $75 million in cap, the Raiders will likely want to make a splash or two. But it’s important they also look for the unheralded players.
The Colts proved that those value players, coupled with an impressive draft can make all the difference on a team’s roster.
While the Raiders can’t have the same coaching staff as the Colts, it is important to note some changes the team made following their prolific offseason.
One of the biggest changes came from quarterback Andrew Luck. The former number one overall pick is a leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year after he completed 67.3% of his passes for 4,593 yards and a 39/15 TD/INT ratio. His completion percentage ranked 11th best in the league while his yards ranked fifth and his touchdowns ranked second.
Luck saw this increase mainly due to the change in offensive philosophy around passing. In 2017, the Colts finished 30th in the NFL in pass attempts with 487. In 2018, the team shoots all the way up to second with 644. Indianapolis was also sixth in the NFL with 279 yards per game despite averaging just 7.1 yards per throw.
The Colts cast of receivers weren’t necessarily the scariest in the NFL heading into the season. Everyone knew T.Y. Hilton would shine but no one expected great seasons out of players such as Chester Rogers, Dontrelle Inman and Ebron. Reich’s offense was pass-heavy, but it was efficient. He allowed his quarterback Luck to shine and clearly Luck was up to the task.
Oakland can do the same with Carr. If the team can get him a WR1 again and supplement the offense with other capable receivers, the Raiders could imitate the Colts’ passing game. The Raiders actually had the 18th highest yards per attempt in the NFL. If they continue to allow Carr to run the offense with better weapons while supplementing the run, they could have a high powered pass game, much like that of the Colts.
The Indianapolis Colts completely changed how rebuilds should occur in the NFL. They were able to go from a top 10 draft pick to the second round of the playoffs in one year. Through the draft and free agency, they were able to build a contender. Which is what the Raiders should strive for.
In the draft, they should be looking to obtain as much immediate starting potential they can. With six picks in the top 35, it is imperative to have most of them ready to play by Week One of the regular season. At the fourth pick they need to land an immediate, All-Pro level player while their later first round picks should be used on high upside players who can make a difference.
The Raiders moved two franchise cornerstones in Kahlil Mack and Amari Cooper for two extra first round picks. They need to make sure that they get out the most of those picks and are able to land Day One contributors, much like the Colts were.
In free agency, it’s likely that Gruden and Mayock try to make a splash with the high amount of cap space they have. But it’s important for the team to try and find lesser known players who can make a difference as well. The Colts offense isn’t as good without Ebron and their defense isn’t as good without Autry.
It’s important for the Raiders to go and try and land guys like Le’Veon Bell. But they should also try to find other low-risk, high-reward type free agents who can help supplement what should be a crucial draft class.
Finally, the Raiders coaching staff needs to improve their passing game by relying in Derek Carr more. Like the Colts and Andrew Luck, the team should be willing to let their QB take the reigns of the offense and make all the necessary throws. By giving Carr solid weapons and building the passing game around him, the offense should open up more and overall the Raiders should be a much more powerful passing team.
No one expected the Indianapolis Colts to make the jump in 2018. And no one expects the Oakland Raiders to make that same jump in 2019. But as the team begins their rebuild, they must remember this Colts team as they have set the blueprint on how to rebuild in today’s NFL.