INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts return from their bye week with a 5-5 record, and are lurking in the AFC playoff picture.
By winning two in a row, the Colts have delayed any serious 2024 Mock Draft attention and return from their bye week with a manageable and opportunistic schedule the rest of the way.
Here are 10 things I’ll be watching for as the Colts close out the season:
1. Playoff PushSource:Getty
The Colts return from their bye week as an ‘in the hunt’ team when you flash up a picture of the AFC playoff picture.
With 7 weeks left, the Colts are currently 9th in the AFC, with games left against teams slotted 6th (Texans), 7th (Steelers), 11th (Bengals) and 12th (Raiders).
Credit to the Colts for taking advantage of one of the league’s easiest schedules while also overcoming some key personnel issues offensively to be a 5-5 football team, and in the mix for a potential playoff push.
Given the look of the AFC standings, getting to 10 wins (5-2 finish) should be enough to get into the playoffs. Getting to 9 wins is probably going to need some tiebreaker attention.
The good news is the Colts do have a 4-3 conference record, which is often a key tiebreaker for deciding Wild Card spots.
Here’s the remaining 7 games for the Colts: Buccaneers (4-6), at Titans (3-7), at Bengals (5-5), Steelers (6-4), at Falcons (4-6), Raiders (5-6), Texans (6-4).
The Colts have a chance to create playoff attention filled games in December and January, and that wasn’t necessarily the expectation at the start of the year.
2. JuJu Brents DevelopmentSource:Getty
JuJu Brents Development
Similar to Bernhard Raimann’s growth (or baptism by fire) late last season, you could slot JuJu Brents into that sort of position to close out 2023 season.
Of course, that’s assuming Brents can return from a 3-game quad injury absence, and stay healthy for the final 7 games of the year.
Brents is a high draft pick and plays a premium position.
His growth would be incredibly important to the future at a position where the Colts have little obvious answers moving forward.
No Colts defender has battled more injuries, plus missed more practice time, than Brents this year. A clean bill of health these final 7 weeks would be great for him to show some consistency following the few flashes he had earlier this year.
3. Kwity Paye Playing For More MoneySource:Getty
Kwity Paye Playing For More Money
Remember, this 2023 season is a pseudo contract year for Kwity Paye.
In the spring, the Colts will have to make a decision on Paye’s 5th year team option (for the 2025 season).
Paye had a sack in each of the first three games of the season, and four straight with a quarterback hit.
But he’s been pretty quiet since.
Paye had had 1 sack and 2 quarterback hits in his last 5 games (225 defensive snaps)
As a run defender, Paye is on the stronger side for the defensive ends. But, as a former 1st round pick, he still has not shown the pop you’d like to see as a pass rusher.
Will the Colts pick up Paye’s 5th year option if this recent run of play continues?
4. Grover Stewart ReturnSource:Getty
Grover Stewart Return
The 6-game suspension for Grover Stewart has 2 more games left on it: Buccaneers and at Titans.
Stewart can then return for the final 5 games of the year: at Bengals, Steelers, at Falcons, Raiders and Texans.
The return of Stewart will, obviously, be welcomed, especially after seeing what happened against New England.
I’m curious if the Stewart we see in the final handful of games will have any influence on his pending free agency come the 2024 spring.
Stewart is the only Colts player remaining from the 2017 draft, having already signed one multi-year deal with Chris Ballard (back in the fall of 2020).
Will Stewart’s post-suspension return influence any of the Colts decision-making about his future?
5. Minshew ResurrectionSource:Getty
The numbers are alarming for Gardner Minshew as a starter vs. in relief this season.
In 3 games playing in reserve of Anthony Richardson, Minshew has put up these numbers: 30-of-39 (76.9 percent), 1 TD, 0 INTs, 0 fumbles, 109.6 quarterback rating, 8.4 yards per attempt.
In 6 games starting for Richardson, Minshew has put up these numbers: 84-of-217 (61.3 percent), 7 TDs, 6 INTs, 5 fumbles, 79.2 quarterback rating, 6.4 yards per attempt.
Teams having a full week to prepare for Minshew have clearly found success in rattling the veteran QB.
Will the bye week do anything for Minshew or Shane Steichen helping to resurrect a passing game?
Minshew has looked extremely panicky in the pocket, almost uneasy at the moment things start to crack around him.
The Colts need Minshew to start playing like what the back of his baseball card says, because right now he’s playing below the career standard of his.
6. MPJ Contract + 2024 Free AgentsSource:Getty
2024 Free Agents
Looking ahead to the spring of 2024, the Colts have ample cap space to work with (projected to be north of $60 million), and a pretty notable group of free agents.
The Colts will have in-house decisions to make on the following pending free agents: WR-Michael Pittman Jr. (26), DT-Grover Stewart (30), CB-Kenny Moore (28), S-Julian Blackmon (25), RB-Zack Moss (25), QB-Gardner Minshew (27), DL-Tyquan Lewis (28), WR-Isaiah McKenzie (28), P-Rigoberto Sanchez (29).
You could make pretty strong cases for the Colts retaining many of those names above. Of course, that means several of those guys could (will?) also garner some strong free agency markets.
Do any of those players play into or out of the Colts current 2024 plans?
Do we see any late-season deals (like Grover Stewart signed in 2020) after the team already extended Jonathan Taylor and Luke Rhodes since training camp ended?
7. Shaq Leonard CloseSource:Getty
Shaq Leonard Close
Earlier this season, Gus Bradley mentioned November as the time to really watch Leonard ramp it up.
Well late November is here.
Clearly, Leonard disagrees with how the Colts are handling his role/playing time.
But there’s plenty of evidence to explain why the Colts have lessened the role for Leonard.
Leonard is under contract through 2026, at an extremely substantial price that doesn’t match the production he’s giving the Colts, or how the team is using him under Gus Bradley. Remember, that deal was signed when Matt Eberflus was the defensive coordinator (and before Leonard had 2 back surgeries in 5 months, and not Bradley running the Indy D.
Given all of this, especially if Chris Ballard is a man of his word on player value in regards to how the Colts view guys, it’s quite possible we are watching the end of Leonard’s time in Indianapolis, at that price tag.
8. Any Pro Bowlers?Source:Getty
Any Pro Bowlers?
I would assume Quenton Nelson will find his name as a Pro Bowler again. And DeForest Buckner has to be a strong candidate, even if the AFC has some nice interior defensive line depth.
After that though, I’m scrambling a bit.
Does Zaire Franklin have the name recognition to garner enough attention (Pro Bowl vote is comprised of one-third player vote, one-third coach vote and one-third fan vote)?
Kenny Moore has had a nice bounce back, but doesn’t have the turnover-type plays which helped him become a Pro Bowler in 2021, outside of the Carolina game.
9. Shane Steichen’s PlateSource:Getty
Shane Steichen’s Plate
Shane Steichen wants it all on his plate.
And for the most part, Steichen has handled the operations of play calling and game management pretty well.
Colts fans should feel encouraged by what Steichen has shown in his first year as head coach.
It’ll be interesting though to see how Steichen’s team responds post bye week, with some hope restored in their season.
Do we see a late-season surge as the Colts have played some very middling football as of late?
10. Jelani Woods Sighting? Nick Cross Sighting?Source:Getty
The Colts had a trio of third-round pick last year.
Bernhard Raimann looks like a definite hit.
But questions arise with Jelani Woods and Nick Cross. Woods (hamstring) has yet to play in 2023, with a lingering hamstring lasting for a handful of moments. And then Shane Steichen updated things on Monday by saying Woods had a “setback” with his “other hamstring.” Whether Woods plays at all in 2023 is not something Steichen had an answer on. This entire season being one Woods has spent on the sideline has been a huge bummer, after he showed some promise late last year.
Cross has played a total of 18 defensive snaps despite being healthy for all 10 games this season.
What the futures hold for Woods and/or Cross are certainly a mystery as they conclude the first half of their rookie contracts.
Do we see anything from either to close out the season?