INDIANAPOLIS -- After the additions of DeForest Buckner, Philip Rivers and some promising skill-position players on offense in the draft, Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard arguably has his best team on paper since taking over in the winter of 2017.
But as teams such as the 2015 Colts, 2018 Jaguars and 2019 Browns came to realize, there's no prize for being considered the offseason roster champs.
The coronavirus pandemic put a damper on offseason work, especially for Rivers. That leaves the question for Ballard and coach Frank Reich: How well do they really know their team heading into what will be a season like no other in the NFL?
“A lot of it is still to be learned,” Reich said. “Do we have as good of a handle on it as we would if we had the offseason with them in person? Of course not. You know I like to be optimistic, but that would be unrealistic to say that. ... I feel like we have a pretty good idea of what they can do. Is it perfect? No, but I feel real confident comparatively speaking we’re in good shape.”
Ballard, who is in his fourth season as general manager, has patiently put together the type of team he envisioned with young core players through the draft. He realized last season even though he says it’s not about one player -- like the quarterback -- you do need consistent play at the position in order to have a chance at success.
That’s why Jacoby Brissett lasted only one season as the starter at quarterback, and why the Colts signed Rivers to a one-year, $25 million deal back in March.
Rivers, albeit not the same player he once was, is a 38-year-old veteran who is headed into his 17th season in the NFL. The problem Rivers and other free agents who signed with new teams faced was the lack of an on-field offseason program to adapt to his new team. The same can’t be said about teams such as Kansas City and Baltimore because they return their key players, which means they already have familiarity.
It’s not ideal, but the Colts and Rivers are optimistic they can be successful because the starting quarterback and Reich have history together. Reich spent three seasons coaching Rivers, and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni was also on the staff, with the Chargers. Not much has changed in Reich’s offense, which Rivers has run since 2013, outside of a few tweaks and terminology.
“The reps are going to be huge,” Sirianni said. “There’s not much that Philip hasn’t seen. He’s seen that route concept happen against every look a defense can give him. He really has. That’s why he keeps getting better. He’s had so many reps built up. That’s a great thing. But he has to learn his guys. We’re in a unique situation, as we well know. That’s what this month plus is for, to get those reps and go from there.”
The roster changes were more than at quarterback for Indianapolis. It really started when Ballard, who has made a draft-pick trade every year, gave up the No. 13 pick in this year’s draft to acquire Buckner from the San Francisco 49ers. The 26-old Buckner, who has 19.5 sacks in the past two seasons, fits the mold as another young defensive player to go with core players such as Darius Leonard, Bobby Okereke, Rock Ya-Sin and Khari Willis.
The draft, for most part, was about giving Rivers more options while he takes snaps behind one of the best offensive lines in the league.
Five of their nine draft picks, including their first two -- receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and running back Jonathan Taylor -- were used on offensive players. Pittman and Taylor likely will be in the mix for early playing time.
“Here’s what is to our advantage, though: Every team has new pieces,” Reich said. “But when I look at least to start on offense, who are the new pieces? Who are some of the new pieces we have? Well, the quarterback -- we all know that story. I know the quarterback. He knows the offense. He knows our coordinator. So, I feel good about that. ... Then all of a sudden you get Pittman Jr., Jonathan Taylor. Those are rookies, but they would be the same anyway. We’ve spent so much time studying them.”
Acquiring pieces they believe fit is just one piece of the puzzle for the Colts. Other pieces include seeing what role they will be able to carve out on the roster.
The Colts didn’t have the luxury of starting the process during offseason workouts and now they’re about to try to cram conditioning, classroom sessions and practice time into six weeks ahead of their Week 1 game at Jacksonville on Sept. 13.
And they’ll be doing it without any preseason games or scrimmages against other teams.
“I like to use the term healthy tension a lot,” Reich said. “A lot of time we look at tension as a bad word, but I think that healthy tension can be a good thing. In one regard, have the mindset of we’re pushing forward. We have a schedule. The schedule already has a built-in -- there is a ramp-up built in the schedule. My mindset is when we are in a period, when we are in a phase, you’re taking the reins off and you’re going hard.
“Everything in the schedule is built to protect them from overdoing it. I feel confident about that. So, our job will be to push, understanding the schedule is built the way it is and then we will adapt as needed as we go.”
The road to the Super Bowl goes through defending champion Kansas City. And then there’s also Baltimore, which is led by reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, to go with Tennessee, which reached the AFC title game last season, and Houston, which has won the division the last two seasons.
It’s way too early to utter anything close to the Colts being in the same category as the Chiefs and Ravens, but wining the AFC South and getting back to the playoffs is a realistic goal.