2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Indianapolis Colts
June 11, 2015 | Chet
For the third consecutive season, the Indianapolis Colts won 11 games in the regular season on their way to their first Conference Championship appearance since their 2009 Super Bowl run. Over the course of Andrew Luck’s first three seasons they’ve made it a step further each season and have provided us with ample fantasy fruit along the way.
2015 Colts Schedule
As you know, proceed with caution when weighing in schedule analysis, but it’s hard to feel threatened by the Indianapolis schedule on paper. After the first two weeks, things are fairly soft throughout with the possibility of running into two defenses that have the potential to make the jump into being tough opponents in Houston and Miami for the back end of the fantasy playoffs. You’re not going to run away from this offense by any means, though. The Colts are one the supreme offensive units to latch onto for fantasy because they stack a lot of yards and a lot of points. Here’s where they ranked in the top offensive categories during the 2014 campaign.
The Buck Stops with Luck
Andrew Luck was the best fantasy quarterback to own in 2014 despite his week 16 let down that may nor may not have cost owners a shot at their title. Even though Aaron Rodgers was the MVP of the league and had his second best season in terms of efficiency, Luck was the better fantasy option week to week because of his massive volume and his own improvement. Here’s how the two stacked up against each weeks 1-16.
Luck improved for the third consecutive season for fantasy, becoming just the fourth quarterback ever to throw 40 touchdowns within the first three seasons of his career. Through three seasons of play, he now ranks first in completions (1,062), attempts (1,813), passing yards (12,957) and second in touchdown passes (86). Colossal volume has always been in Luck’s back pocket since entering the league, but in 2014, it was improved efficiency that vaulted him onto the pantheon of fantasy options in just year three.
There seems to also be a running theme that Luck is elevated strictly based on the division he plays in, but that’s not entirely the story. Luck has remained opponent agnostic so far in his career, not just getting fat off of the ineptitude of the AFC South. Using the Game Splits App available at RotoViz, here are his numbers in and out of the division.
Factoring in that he already bested Rodgers in one of his best seasons ever, the softer landscape of his schedule and him having the best overall surrounding offensive talent he’s had to date, Luck is my top option at the position for 2015. Sprinkle in the addition that he’s added over 45 rushing points per season and his ascension still may not yet be capped. It’s hard not to be hypnotized into discarding early round quarterback law, but you must fight that feeling as obtaining Luck could very well cost you a top 20 pick. That is just far too rich when weighing in the opportunity cost of bypassing needed weaponry at the running back or receiver skill spots. And that still doesn’t account for being able to siphon a reasonable portion of Luck’s weekly viability later on in selections like Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan for those that still want to shop for the position even five to six rounds later if they want to avoid the later round options. The earliest I would consider selecting Luck is in round five under the scenario I’ve already gone 2×2 at RB/WR, but he’s never going to make it to that juncture. I’m all in on Luck being the top quarterback for fantasy and I plan on using him often in DFS, but his required draft capital will be something another owner spends for in league play.
One of the best parts of not investing that high end capital in Luck is that all of the other components to the Indy offense are likely going to remain cheaper than he is. There’s potential for some weekly ambiguity here with all of the weapons, so just investing in Luck and washing your hands with how the pie is sliced would be a better track to take if Luck wasn’t so expensive. The one guy who will be close in required draft capital is T.Y. Hilton, who like Luck, has improved steadily along the way over his first three seasons and made a jump in efficiency year three.
Hilton now has 16 games with 100-yards or more receiving since entering the league, tied with A.J. Green for the third most in the league behind only Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas at 23 games. He also has the third most receptions of 40 or more yards over that span with 17, behind only Green (19) and DeSean Jackson (23).
As improved as Hilton was, he needed that efficiency boost as his targets per game remained neutral and his overall target share actually dropped. He also lost volume as the season went on, losing over two targets per game over the back half of the season (9.8 to 7.5) and being held under 75 receiving yards in four of his final six games excluding week 17 in which he rested for the majority of the game.
I was wrong on fading Hilton making a steady jump last season, but I’m not willing to pay the cost that he’s jumped to entering 2015 as the WR11 overall and an early third round draft choice. Even with his overall strong numbers in 2014, he still was only a top-12 weekly scorer four times. I believe with the pieces the Colts added, his target share will slightly decrease again this season and he still lacks high end touchdown potential, even attached to Luck. Through three years, Hilton has converted just six of 36 (16.7 percent) targets in the red zone for scores. I see Hilton taking a small step backwards this season as a WR2 this season, but his required investment will make him the number one option on some teams.
One of the weapons the Colts added was 34-year old Andre Johnson. Johnson is coming off a season in which he was pushed out the door by the play of DeAndre Hopkins despite seeing a whopping 146 targets. Only Demaryius Thomas had a larger target share than Johnson’s 30.1% last season and with all those targets, Johnson finished 129th in yards per target (6.4 yards) and 131st in PPR points per target (1.31). Ironically, both of those were below the totals posted by Reggie Wayne in 2014.
Johnson could see an efficiency return despite a decreasing yards per target mark for three years running, but you can’t blame his output strictly on the Houston quarterback situation since Hopkins was so effective. Johnson is also in store for a massive volume drop, perhaps the lowest of his career. He’s never had a season in which he’s had less than 26 percent of his team’s target share while Luck has dished out 25 percent or more of his throws to one receiver just once, to Wayne in 2012. Wayne still had 116 targets last season which are available, which were good for 17.5 percent on the team, so it’s not like Johnson is just going to instantly evaporate with the move, either. There’s a non zero chance that Johnson just pushes out Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett‘s involvement entirely and is a target glutton again, but I really believe the Colts are going to run a plethora of personnel packages in the passing game and will keep Johnson running with a full tank all season.
Johnson has consistently underwhelmed in the scoring touchdown department, never posting a double digit season. Over the past three seasons with Luck, the Colts have averaged 87.7 pass plays in the red zone, which are over 20 more than the Texans (66.7) have averaged. That doesn’t necessarily mean a major spike for Johnson, but the opportunity to score more still exists if he can garner the looks near the paint. That will be name of the game there as Luck hasn’t had the receiver boosting powers in the touchdown department like when we looked at Rodgers in the Packers Outlook. Over the past three years, Luck’s receivers average more points than the rest of the league average, but the distribution of those points is fairly lateral across the board.
That’s because the Colts have two good tight ends in Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener who have accounted for a lot of that red zone production. Despite the tight ends being highly more effective per target, the Colts have still given their receivers ample opportunities in the red zone. Here’s the red zone distribution for Indianapolis over the past three seasons.
I do wish there was more of a bottom floor priced into Johnson’s sticker price, but C.D. Carter shows that Johnson still has a reasonable median floor to justify his current cost. We’ve had 47 top-24 PPR seasons from receivers 34 or older over the past 45 years (two were last year in Anquan Boldin and Steve Smith) and Wayne did the same in his first year with Luck.
The Colts also selected Phillip Dorsett at pick 29, who I profiled here pre-draft. Adding Dorsett to the fold may be Hilton insurance as his impending free agency is approaching, but for at minimum 2015, the Colts will be able to use both speedsters together in certain situations. Dorsett will likely be a package player in his rookie season, similar to how Hilton began, but he still is a play away from having a larger role in attachment to one of the best fantasy quarterbacks on a high scoring offense, so in the event Hilton does miss time, Dorsett would be the next domino to fall.
The additions of Johnson and Dorsett may place the hopeful breakout for Donte Moncrief on pause, at least for one season. Moncrief had five or more targets in just three games as a rookie, but seen significant snaps down the stretch, playing 59.5 percent of the Colts plays over the final six weeks of the regular season and 60 percent in the postseason. There’s a shot that Moncrief can take over as the main red zone option since it was occupied by Hakeem Nicks a season ago, but the overall target volume won’t be there to make him a week to week fantasy commodity without an injury.
The last two pieces of this passing game of fantasy relevance are the aforementioned tight ends. Fleener finished the season as TE7 overall and ninth in points per game (11.0), while Allen was TE19 despite missing three games, but was still 17th in points per game (8.9). Fleener bounced back strong after a disastrous 2013 season and had three weeks as the highest scoring tight end over the entire season, most of any tight end. Unfortunately, all of those games when Allen was injured. Before Allen’s ankle injury in week 11, Fleener was averaging just 5.0 targets per game with just two top 12 scoring weeks all season. Afterwards he jumped to 6.7 targets per contest to go with 68.4 receiving yards. Even with that late season boost, he still ended up similar target share numbers (13.9 percent) as the ones he had in 2013 with Allen out for the season (14.9 percent).
Allen averaged just 3.9 targets per game when active. It’s clear that as long as Fleener is there, his relevancy in between the twenties will be limited and an addition like Johnson doesn’t help him there, either. Allen still carries high end touchdown potential (12 of his 75 career receptions have been scores) to make up for the lack of overall volume, but doesn’t have an enormously high ceiling as he had just one top-six scoring week all season. If we could combine the Colts tight ends into one Voltron-esque fantasy option or we start playing Team TE as a position, I would love these guys. But as long as they both co-exist, they are each left in the streaming pile of the position for me.
Frank the Tank, or Gore the Bore?
One thing the Colts haven’t done a tremendous job of doing for a team that has had so much positive game flow over the start of Luck’s career is run the football effectively. Over the past three seasons, they’ve been 22nd, 20th and 22nd in total output rushing. Some of that is talent driven by the pieces they’ve had on the offensive line and in the backfield, so this offseason they went out and got a proven veteran producer in 32-year old Frank Gore.
It’s hard to project how Gore’s usage will be overall under Pep Hamilton because the Colts haven’t had a true lead back in either of the past two seasons, using multiple players in specific roles. We do know that the passing game involvement should increase though. Gore averaged 51 receptions per season for five years before Greg Roman came into San Francisco and that number fell to 20.3 catches per year. Indianapolis backs have caught 157 passes over the past two seasons under Hamilton. Gore does have the edge cliff to contend with, so Dan Herron and/or Josh Robinson could be involved in some capacity to lighten the load and keep his tank full all season long, but there’s no one in house as talented as Gore. 250 touches in an elite offense against lesser competition than he faced in the NFC West should be easily obtainable provided he stays healthy.
As an added pro, Mike Clay recently looked at running back effectiveness in terms of yards per carry based on defensive personnel. In that piece, Gore had the 12th best YPC facing base defenses, something San Francisco seen on 77 percent of their run plays, the third highest percentage in the NFL in 2014. With their more open offense, the Colts faced base defenses on 54 percent of their attempts, which was 19th in the league. Gore may be losing some offensive line effectiveness, but he’s trading that for a friendlier rushing environment based on offensive leverage. He’ll need those lighter fronts, because almost all of his agility is sapped at this juncture as he finished sandwiched between Andre Williams and Matt Asiata in terms of forcing the fewest missed tackles per touch last season out of all backs with 200 plus touches.
Last season Gore became the 11th back in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards at both ages 30 and 31. Out of those 10 previous backs, only Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith extended that streak to a third season. For fantasy purposes, he may not even need to get to that yardage total to be a usable player, but there have been only 29 different top-24 fantasy seasons from backs 32 years or older over the past 45 seasons of football. Too tack on to age concerns, he also has the third most touches in the league (1,301) including the postseason since 2011 and has not missed a single game over that run.
Guys like Donald Brown, Ahmad Bradshaw and even Dan Herron have had weekly fantasy viability in this offense, so I’m not going to just immediately fade Gore based on the age cliff alone. Like Johnson, I do wish that there was more of an inevitable floor priced into Gore’s ADP, because it’s is reminiscent of how we felt about Steven Jackson heading to Atlanta two years ago. I do believe Indy is better equipped to not have a collapse like the Falcons had, keeping the upside is there for Gore to be a scoring threat every week. I like Gore a lot more in the fourth round than I do in the third, but I can’t see a scenario in which I’d take an Alfred Morris, Joique Bell, Andre Ellington or even his former teammate Carlos Hyde ahead of him if presented with those options.
I still do anticipate Dan Herron to win the relief role and expect him to catch passes this season. Herron had three top-24 weeks after Ahmad Bradshaw went down last season and is a solid part-time option. I profiled sixth round pick Josh Robinson pre-draft and given his lack of invested draft capital, I’m not so sure as others he has a major role in this offense and will have to compete with Zurlon Tipton, Vick Ballard and Tyler Varga for his spot. If he does win that competition and Gore does miss time, I’d expect a similar split between him and Herron given Robinson’s immediate liability in the passing game.