August 4, 2021

INSIDER SERIES: RIDING THE COLTS WITH ZAK KEEFER

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written the day before it was announced on Aug. 2 that Carson Wentz was undergoing surgery on his foot, and that the recovery period was 5-12 weeks. Well, three weeks later he’s back at practice and if all goes well, the early reports are that he could start Week 1. So this article is being posted with some updates, and special thanks to buen amigo Zak Keefer of The Athletic for sitting for the interview.

The similarities are pretty incredible. Andrew Luck stood 6-4, 240 lbs. during his playing career for the Colts. Carson Wentz stands 6-5, 237 lbs., and is the incumbent QB for the Colts after an offseason deal with the Eagles landed the North Dakota State product on Indianapolis’ doorstep. 

Carson Wentz had his tenure with Philadelphia cut short after being sacked 50 times in 2020 and having his performance erode to a shell of the MVP contender he was in 2017. Still 29, with a stellar O-line (when healthy), great running game and very good receivers, Wentz could be a great bounceback candidate for super flex and streaming weeks. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Both have displayed a daring, swashbuckling style of football filled with rollouts and rifle throws from a variety of setups. When they ran, it would be with a surprising athleticism for someone so large. Luck was the #1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, with Wentz being the #2 pick four years later.

Luck played at an MVP level in 2014 and 2018, the latter being his final season in the NFL before he surprisingly retired during training camp the following year, just weeks before his 30th birthday. The Colts first did the fire drill of giving the reins to Jacoby Brissett in 2019, before trading for Philip Rivers in his swan song season of 2020. The Colts have been looking to hand over the starting gig to the offense to someone, so they went with a familiar face to HC Frank Reich: Carson Wentz. 

In trading for Wentz, the Colts received a player who appeared to be the lock to win the 2017 MVP before tearing his ACL scoring a TD in Week 14 against the Rams. Since that time, Philly fans and fantasy managers have been waiting for the return of the MVP, but have only received glimpses. In 2020, that Wentz had become such a faded memory as he seemed to be under an onslaught of pass rushers and his receivers left something to be desired. That led to his worst season ever, finishing with 2,620 passing yards, 16 TDs, 5 INTs and a whopping 50 sacks. Wentz getting benched after 12 games was almost an act of mercy, and he finished as the QB22 in fantasy scoring.

WE CAN REBUILD HIM

OK, that was just a quick reference to the Six Million Dollar Man from the 1970s. The Colts traded for Wentz, with the idea that in his greatest season his OC was Reich. Can they get him back to the 2017 level. In my recent interview for our Insider Series with Zak Keefer of The Athletic, I posed the question of the expectation for Wentz – 29 in December – to return to his glory days.

“The key that everyone’s overlooking is he doesn’t need to be an MVP quarterback,” Keefer said. “Now if they get him, that’d be great. Who’s going to turn that down? He’s got the physical skills… This is different than what we had last year with Philip Rivers. This is going to be a different skill set for this team with a quarterback far more athletic and moves in the pocket and can avoid sacks. Now Rivers made up for that with some elite accuracy. But (Wentz is) going to open up the playbook in ways we haven’t seen since late in the 2018 season, when Andrew Luck was taking shots down the field. That’s what this offense is going to look like if Carson Wentz plays well.”

Keefer added that Wentz should not be chased all over the field, as he’ll be protected by an offensive line ranked #2 by PFF. Eric Fisher is the new LT, and he’s coming back from a torn Achilles that may keep him sidelined at the start of the season. All-Pro G Quenton Nelson had almost the same surgery the day after Wentz, and 

What was evident in the first days of training camp and up to his injury is that Wentz is using the upgraded talent around him. He was throwing to different receivers and taking deep shots. Keefer noted that Wentz, “looked every bit like the quarterback who could push this offense to another level.” So what are we looking at? I have Wentz at QB18, just behind Kirk Cousins. His recovery from the foot injury is key. It could hinder his running this season – he did rush for 276 yards and 5 TDs last year. The more balanced offensive attack and the above-average defense should keep Wentz from having to throw so much. His highest passing yardage was in 2019, 4,039 yards. With the extra game and his health over the entire season, he’ll hover around 4,200 yards passing, with 25 TDs. If he continues to run the ball to the tune of about 250 yards, he’ll be serviceable as the 2nd QB in Superflex leagues. Hard to see him getting close to QB1 status an attack that still emphasizes the run.

That balanced attack starts with RB Jonathan Taylor, who will be the lead caballo in this RB group. The sophomore finished as the RB6 in PPR scoring with 1,169 yards on 232 carries, and caught 36 of 40 targets for 299 yards and 12 total TDs. His finish was spectacular, with 97 carries for 651 yards in the final five games of the season. Averaged over 17 games, that’s 329 carries and 2,213 yards. That’s enough to get fantasy managers excited. Hold on, Keefer has seen the way this offense works, so he said to temper expectations.

“I’m a little hesitant with any Colts player from a fantasy perspective, and here’s why: They love to share the ball,” Keefer said. “Now that doesn’t mean that Taylor won’t be the workhorse. He’s the featured back. He’s the starter. Marlon Mack will not be the starter. Taylor’s earned that.” Keefer added that Mack – coming off a torn Achilles of his own – will likely continue to get just enough carries to occasionally annoy fantasy managers. Nyheim Hines will be the greatest deterrent to Taylor taking a major step forward, as last year’s RB15 caught 63 of 76 targets (3rd among RBs) for 482 yards and 7 total TDs. That’s going to keep Taylor from seeing much more than 3 targets per game (he averaged 2.7 last year). Still, Taylor should cruise to a Top 10 finish, and I’ve picked him as high as #4 in early drafts. He will push for a 1,400-yard season and 12-15 TDs, very similar to what Nick Chubb will have. With this O-line, he’ll have holes large enough for Formula One cars to run through.

The WR group was one that Keefer liked with one caveat: health. T.Y. Hilton has battled injuries the past couple seasons, and he’s 32 this year. He had a pedestrian 56 catches for 762 yards and 5 TDs. His ADOT of 12.5 was still his best of the past three seasons, and his four-week stretch from Weeks 13-16 saw him catch 20 of 31 targets for 327 yards and 3 TDs. Michael Pittman Jr. was up and down, with 40 catches for 503 yards, but his catching 5 of 10 targets for 90 yards in the playoff game against Buffalo was encouraging for 2021. Parris Campbell had an exciting start to 2021, catching 6 of 9 targets for 71 yards before a season-ending injury the next week. How do the targets stack up among the WRs?
“I would lean toward they’re going to spread the wealth around. It’s just how Frank calls the game,” Keefer said. “He likes to keep the defense off-balance because he doesn’t want them to know where they’re going to go with the football. If this offense is operating at full steam, with all the bodies healthy, they’re going to spread the ball. That means there’s going to be weeks where T.Y. has seven for 110 and a touchdown. And there’s weeks where he has three for 32, and that’s going to be the deal. But as for guys to take the next step, I start with two guys. I start with Michael Pittman Jr., who really started to flash last year. He was a monster in the playoff game  with the Bills. He had this weird leg injury about the middle of the season that slowed him down, but when you get this guy in space, he can move. He’s like Jonathan Taylor out there, he’s big. And he moves really quickly.

“And the other guy’s Campbell. You mentioned it, and we talked a lot this offseason about just how hard the last couple of years have been. But I know for a fact that Frank Reich is all in on Parris Campbell. He loves his skill set. In the first game of the season last year, he was all over the field and then he got hurt in Week 2. So you never saw him again. But his skill set is really, really, really good for this offense. They can move him around. They can get him the ball in space and let them pile up some yards at the hash. I’m going to say it until people start listening, but I think Parris Campbell could have a huge season if he stays healthy.”

I project Pittman leading in targets as he makes the Year 2 leap, pushing over the 100 mark, barely, catching 65 balls for 900 yards and 8 TDs. Hilton will be behind him at 90-100 targets, with a few boom games to push past 900 yards. Campbell staying healthy could have a role similar to his former Ohio State teammate, Curtis Samuel, getting targets and some carries to approach 1,000 total yards. Campbell is a player to target late in drafts, just in case health permits him to fulfill his vast talent.

The TE position is curious. Jack Doyle and Mo-Allie Cox are the incumbents, and both are good blockers to go along with their receiving work. Kylen Granson was drafted out of SMU, where he had a storied career, catching 78 balls for 1,257 yards and 14 TDs combined in his last two seasons. Maybe he’s a threat in the future, as for now the TE targets will be split between Doyle and Cox, the latter of whom has an intriguing size and talent combination.

“This guy catches everything,” Keefer said. “He’s got the biggest hands you’ll ever see. I really think he could be a nine or 10-touchdown guy if you feature him in the red zone, because he’s so hard to move out of position down there. He knows how to block out. He was the VCU leading rebounder when he graduated. And he’s got great hands, but they just keep saying this year after year, ‘We want to get Cox more involved in the offense.’ Well, it’s time to do it. I want to see it this year because you don’t really have that dynamic threat just yet.”

The O-line is ranked #2 by PFF, though there could be some early concerns. Fisher’s return is still cloudy for the start of the season. Nelson is no guarantee to be ready by opening week, though few would doubt if he’ll fight through whatever to be in the lineup. C Ryan Kelly hyperextended his elbow early in training camp and returned to practice on Aug. 24. Keefer noted the schedule gets off to a tough start for the Colts, with the first five opponents all having won 10 or more games last season. With Fisher more than likely still rehabbing, the line could be a work in progress early. Not the best thing when the Colts have a new QB who got sacked so often last year.

“The question is, can they hold up for four or five weeks until Fisher gets back?” Keefer said. “And does Fisher get back to the same level he was at in Kansas City? The Colts believe he will. That’s what the medicals tell them right now, but this is an Achilles and this is serious. A lot of guys haven’t come back to play at the level they used to, but if he comes back and is the two-time Pro Bowler that he was, and this team gets rolling by mid-October, they’re going to be dangerous. And I really think when this team is going to start to hit its stride in November and December. That’s when, usually it’s his quarterback to start playing really well… It’s going to be fascinating, but if I’m making a list of the biggest question marks to start training camp, left tackle the first four weeks. That’s huge. There’s just no other way to look at it.”

BOLD PREDICTION: The Colts will go as Wentz, Taylor and the O-line take them. Having six matchups against the Titans, Jaguars and Texas could make for some big games, and I’m banking that those games are going to push Taylor past 1,600 yards and 12 TDs. He’ll be RB4 in the process. 

SOURCES: PFF / Pro Football Reference / NFL Savant

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