Every season, I like to name a couple of teams who have caught my eye in the off-season. I’ve been looking at rosters this past month, and despite the uncertainty of whether or not we will have a legit NFL season this Fall, because of the pandemic, I have come up with a short list of teams that have made personnel moves that make me believe they should be able to make a solid run at the Playoffs this season. And they may also be fun to watch in the process. Last year, one of my 3 teams was the 49’ers, and though I thought they still might be a year away from big success, in the end they went to the Super Bowl. My other two watches were the Bucs and Browns. Can’t win them all.
This year, my 3 watches are the COLTS, BUCCANEERS & STEELERS.
The COLTS are my most interesting projection because perhaps the biggest question mark centers around their new QB; PHILIP RIVERS (38-years old). Even though RIVERS had a disappointing campaign in 2019, low-lighted by the 23/20, TD/INT ratio, he did complete 66% of his throws. Head Coach FRANK REICH and RIVERS worked together for 3 years with the Chargers, and REICH is currently regarded as one of the most stable team leaders in the NFL. Helping RIVERS will be a much more solid OL unit than he had with the Chargers, anchored by the return of underrated LT ANTHONY CASTONZO, and All-World OG QUENTON NELSON.
Some pressure will be taken off of RIVERS with a strong running attack. MARLON MACK rushed for 1,091 yards at 4.4 ypc. And when the Badgers JONATHAN TAYLOR amazingly fell to the COLTS in Round 2, GM CHRIS BALLARD selected him at Pick 41. TAYLOR had over 2,000-yards rushing (again) for the Badgers last season. Last season, RB JORDAN WILKINS was the second leading rusher on the team behind MACK with 307 yards. Am I being too bold in expecting TAYLOR to bury that number this season? I think not. Beyond their top receiver, T.Y. HILTON, who caught only 45 balls while missing 6 games last season, the Offense looked crippled without him on the field. Their top addition to the receiving corps in 2019 was PARRIS CAMPBELL of Ohio State, who played in only 7 games due to injuries. They have added two “big” receivers in MICHAEL PITTMAN and DEZMON PATMON, both 6’4, thru the Draft. REICH had a man crush on PITTMAN heading into the Draft and BALLARD accommodated him with selecting PITTMAN, whose dad by the same name played RB in the League. PITTMAN led Southern Cal with 101 catches last season, including 11 TD’s.
RIVERS is the big question mark heading into the season. I agree with some expert NFL watchers that his biggest challenge at his age is adapting his game to accept throwing the ball away when needed, instead of forcing it to his receivers. His body is just not able to complete those forced throws at his current age and arm strength.
The COLTS Defense is loaded with speedy young players led by LB DARIUS LEONARD, who recorded 121 tackles last season. But that didn’t even lead the team. 25-year old LB ANTHONY WALKER had 124 tackles. The team sacrificed their 1st Round Pick to acquire DeFOREST BUCKNER from the 49’ers. The 6’7″ BUCKNER is only 26, and after 7.5 sacks last season in Frisco, is expected to be the leader of a good COLTS DL. They added Rookie DB JULIAN BLACKMON, ex-Brown T.J. CARRIE, and NB ISAIAH RODGERS (R) to their secondary. However, the biggest key in the mix is former Viking XAVIER RHODES, who looked tired and slow last season for the Vikings. Is he done at age 30? They hope not.
Another big question will be their Kicking game, minus ADAM VINATIERI, who looked like his leg was worn out last season after over 2 decades in the League. CHASE McLAUGHLIN, a young journeyman pro, is the favorite to replace ADAM, but bespectacled Rookie FA RODRIGO BLANKENSHIP will be in Camp to battle for the job.
I would also note that an awful lot of folks think that HC FRANK REICH is of the ideal mold for a present day leader in the NFL. While watching NFL 2020 Draft coverage, my ears perked up when I saw a snippet of Commissioner GOODELL talking with Huskies QB JACOB EASON after he was selected by the Colts in Round 4. GOODELL matter of factly told EASON that he couldn’t think of a better Coach for EASON to play for, and develop under, than REICH in Indy.
This team should be a fun watch if we have a season in 2020!