The Indianapolis Colts (4-2) have their bye week in Week 7, which means unfortunately, there’s no Horseshoe football this Sunday.
However, it does provide some time for other rest, relaxation, and reflection on the team’s standouts so far during the Colts’ 2020 campaign:
From Weeks 1 to 6, new All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner has consistently been the Colts’ best overall player.
He has 28 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 10 QB hits, and 22 total QB pressures during all 6 starts for the Colts defense.
Per Pro Football Focus, he’s their 9th best interior defender with a +83.8 grade overall—including a +89.5 pass rushing grade (4th best at the position).
The 6’7”, 295 pound defensive tackle has been so far as great as advertised for the Colts, as he features a unique combination of size, speed, athleticism, and quickness—with freakishly long arms. He appears to be a natural fit as a 3-technique in their defense, and his much anticipated arrival anchoring the Indy interior defensive line has been one of the keys to the Colts becoming one of the NFL’s top defenses during 2020.
Buckner has provided a much needed inside pass rush, and he’s been a mainstay in opposing backfields and has consistently terrorized quarterbacks—which has made him one of the near mid-season frontrunners for NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2020.
Both starting quarterback Philip Rivers and left tackle Anthony Castonzo were also under strong consideration here. One, because the Colts offense seems to go as the veteran gunslinger goes behind center, and two, the Colts saw firsthand in Week 5 what happens when their stalwart left tackle is out as Browns pass rusher Myles Garrett wreaked havoc on Castonzo’s replacement, Le’Raven Clark—significantly derailing the Colts’ passing game.
Now, this might speak to more how up-and-down the Colts offense has been this season compared to the merit of the actual candidates.
To start the season, one would’ve reasonably expected quarterback Philip Rivers, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, or rookie running back Jonathan Taylor to be the recipient of such an honor—but Rivers has 7 touchdowns to 6 interceptions, Hilton has just 20 receptions for 242 receiving yards and 0 touchdowns—while Taylor is probably the closest challenger but could be in-line for another award regardless—meaning Johnson received the distinction.
Colts All-Pro offensive guard Quenton Nelson also is having a very good, but not necessarily the type of dominant season that would ordinarily catapult him to the top as a surprise candidate—being an offensive guard, which works against him for such an award.
Johnson’s story is impressive.
He was hurt during training camp and never really had the footing to seriously compete for one of the wide receiver spots on the Colts active roster. He was released as part of the team’s final roster cuts in early September before he was re-signed to the Colts practice squad a few weeks later and was promoted to the active roster during Weeks 4-6—as the team had to deal with injuries to both Parris Campbell and rookie wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.
Johnson always seems to make critical catches in big spots for the Colts. He has 9 receptions for 188 receiving yards in 3 games (2 starts) and right now, looks consistently like their best wideout. Perhaps most notably, he’s given Rivers a bonafide deep threat option downfield (with Hilton having an unusually quiet season).
Technically speaking, Xavier Rhodes never left, but the veteran was on the verge of finding himself out of pro football forever if he had another disappointing season—after two consecutive down seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.
The Colts signed the former All-Pro to a 1-year, $3 million ‘prove it’ deal this past offseason, believing that the 30 year old still had some productive football left as a reclamation project—especially with a much needed change of scenery, a scheme shift to more zone coverage, and a reunion with his old defensive backs coaches from Minnesota.
So far, the ‘Rhodes closed’ in Indianapolis.
The veteran cornerback has reclaimed his former shutdown form, holding opposing quarterbacks to just a 41.4% completion rate allowed when targeted in coverage (per PFF)
Rhodes has 12 tackles, 8 passes defensed, 2 interceptions (1 returned for a touchdown) in all 6 starts for the Colts secondary. Per PFF, he’s their 8th best cornerback right now with a +80.7 grade overall—highlighted by a +83.3 coverage grade.
The former 2017 4th round pick of the Colts has been rock solid as a starter for Indy—even last year, but seemingly has taken his game to new heights during the 2020 season.
At 6’4”, 315 pounds, Grover Stewart takes his job anchoring the Colts against the opposing ground game very seriously—and he’s very good at it:
Brian Baker on Grover Stewart: “Grove has really improved his awareness. He’s always played hard … It’s a pride thing with him. The ball isn’t going to be run our defense with him out there. He carries himself that way.”
— Jim Ayello (@jimayello) October 21, 2020
I don’t know how much money Grover Stewart is going to make in free agency next Spring, but it should be a lot. He’s been one of the best shaded noses in the league this season.
I’m going through his game against Cleveland right now and man…he’s an absolute force vs the run.
— Brett Kollmann (@BrettKollmann) October 16, 2020
Stewart is never going to be that sexy or flashy as a nose tackle—especially with Buckner playing next to him (moving like a gazelle), but he eats blocks, clogs space, and finds a way to consistently disrupt the interior—which frees up his teammates such as Buckner and the Colts’ linebackers to better make plays out there.
As a pending 2021 free agent, the Colts should have serious plans to bring the big bodied, 27 year old defensive tackle back on a new multi-year deal. He’s a difference-maker and impact performer along their defensive trenches—especially against the run.
Colts tight end Mo Alie-Cox may have made this award more interesting as he broke out a bit to start the 2020 season but a recent knee injury and limited playing time took him out of consideration.
With wideout Michael Pittman Jr. having been sidelined by a serious calf injury, Taylor has pretty much earned this rookie honor by default.
However, the rookie running back has been very good (although not great) in his own right with 89 carries for 367 rushing yards (4.1 yards per carry average) and 3 rushing touchdowns in all 6 starts. He also has 16 receptions for 162 receiving yards:
Taylor still has some adjustments to make as far as making the right reads and adjusting to the speed and physicality of the NFL level.
However, he’s been good for the Colts so far, especially since he wasn’t exactly expected to solely carry the running back workload from the get-go—with starter Marlon Mack having suffered an unfortunate season-ending Achilles injury in the team’s opener.
Taylor hasn’t been ‘eased in’ as initially intended and has been thrust into the starter’s role—with promising results.
Colts fans haven’t seen Taylor break out and truly dominate yet (partly because the Colts have been routinely playing from behind as of late), but the athletic 5’10”, 226 pound running back with 4.41 speed should have his time come soon—especially if the team’s run blocking continues to improve and come together as a whole.
It hasn’t helped that opposing defenses have loaded the box (8+ defenders) against Taylor 26.97% of the time, which is currently the 5th highest in the NFL—even above Tennessee Titans’ workhorse Derrick Henry (25.2%).
It’s pretty remarkable that the Colts rookie safety suffered a torn ACL last December, largely missed the team’s training camp activities because of his ongoing knee rehabilitation, but still has been flat out balling since his Week 2 debut.
Julian Blackmon has 10 tackles, 6 passes defensed, and 2 interceptions during 5 games (4 starts).
Per PFF, the ballhawking safety is currently their 2nd highest graded rookie defender overall in the entire league—trailing only the #2 pick, defensive end Chase Young:
With starter Malik Hooker lost to a season-ending Achilles injury, Blackmon has assumed the vacant starting safety role on short notice and has simply been a godsend in the back of the Colts secondary.
Having been All-Pac 12 at both cornerback and safety at Utah, he has excellent versatility, range, ball skills, and awareness for the Colts defense—and a knack for finding the football and generating big plays.
He’s the type of dynamic, playmaking young safety that their secondary has simply lacked in recent seasons and has all the makings of a future franchise star at the position.