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2020 NFL Preview: If Colts are right about Philip Rivers, they could win big in post-Andrew Luck world

Frank Schwab
·10-min read

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on August 5.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

Imagine if you’d heard on the afternoon of last Aug. 24 that Philip Rivers would be the Indianapolis Colts’ starting quarterback in 2020.

On that August night, the Colts got one of the biggest gut punches in NFL history. News of Andrew Luck’s retirement broke, shocking the NFL world. Luck had every right to leave the game after injuries took a toll. It still was a devastating blow to the Colts.

Given that their star quarterback retired just a couple weeks before the season, going 7-9 wasn’t too bad. It also spoke to the Colts’ potential had Luck played.

It’s not like the NFL world was going to stop for the Colts this offseason. They had to come up with a Plan B, and then Philip Rivers became available.

Rivers didn’t have a great 2019 season and the Los Angeles Chargers cut ties with their longtime quarterback, an indication they believe he is near the end. Head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard are betting on the 38-year-old having at least one more quality season left. Reich’s familiarity with Rivers, having spent three seasons on the Chargers’ staff, helped.

"Obviously, when it came out that Philip was going to be available, it was an easy discussion to see that it was a fit with us," Reich said, according to the Colts’ site. "Does he still have it all left in the tank at 38? What does he have left in the tank at 38? Just having been there on the inside for the three years I was and knowing the quarterback position like I do, I was so confident that physically he was the right player and that he had not lost anything. All of the throws I saw on film and as I go back and studied him compared to previous throws, I really didn't notice any physical gifts diminishing at all. I really didn't."

The Colts are a shrewd team. They have made many smart moves to build a quality roster. Maybe Rivers is their latest win. It would be a big one.

The Colts have a great offensive line and a quality group of running backs, including rookie Jonathan Taylor. Receiver T.Y. Hilton is fantastic when healthy, and rookie receiver Michael Pittman Jr. is intriguing. The defense wasn’t great in 2019, but the addition of DeForest Buckner in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers will help. Buckner is one of the best defensive linemen in football.

When we last saw Luck, the Colts had just won 10 of 12 games. They fell to the Kansas City Chiefs in an ugly divisional round playoff loss on the road, but the future was bright. Great drafts built a strong roster foundation. A surprisingly patient 2019 offseason, without much spending despite the most salary-cap room in the NFL, indicated that the Colts thought they had a long window to win a title. Then Luck retired and everything changed.

If the Colts are right on Rivers, they could revive that championship window. They seem convinced he’s the right answer.

Quarterback Philip Rivers joined his second NFL team when he signed with the Colts. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Quarterback Philip Rivers joined his second NFL team when he signed with the Colts. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Philip Rivers’ one-year, $25 million deal could go either way. He has been a very good quarterback for years, but didn’t look great last season. At his age, it’s fair to wonder if he bounces back. Trading a first-round pick for DeForest Buckner and giving him a four-year, $84 million deal isn’t without risk, but Buckner is a tremendous player. Indianapolis swapped cornerbacks, cutting Pierre Desir and signing former Minnesota Vikings first-round pick Xavier Rhodes. The Colts drafted a pair of exciting skill-position rookies in running back Jonathan Taylor and receiver Michael Pittman Jr. The Colts are a sharp team and deserve the benefit of the doubt, but a lot of the success of this offseason is tied to Rivers.

GRADE: B

Philip Rivers has heard all the naysayers.

“At times, I think what may have aggravated me a little bit last year was [the thought] that I just couldn’t play anymore,” Rivers said. “When you heard that, it bothered me, because I wanted to go, ‘Shoot, let’s turn on the tape and watch all the good things.’”

When a quarterbacks’ passer rating drops from 105.5 to 88.5 during a season in which he turned 38, the questions will come. It was Rivers’ second-lowest passer rating since 2007. The Colts are confident, as is Rivers. He said he had “some throws last year that were probably as good as I’ve had in my whole career.” Maybe playing behind a top offensive line, with what should be a strong running game, will help. It also shouldn’t be a surprise if the decline continues.

Linebacker Darius Leonard had a remarkable 2018 rookie season, making first-team All-Pro. His second year was very good too, but a concussion had Leonard worried about his career. He missed three games when symptoms persisted. It was his second documented concussion; he had one in college, too. The best inside linebacker in the NFL the past decade is arguably Luke Kuechly, and concussions forced him into an early retirement. Leonard is one of the best linebackers in football already, an impact player in all areas. For many reasons, the Colts will hope that Leonard’s concussion issues are behind him.

Bettors like the Colts. They are the favorite to win the AFC South at +130 and the odds on over 8.5 wins at BetMGM have been bet up to -176 (bet $176 to win $100). I feel good about the Colts this season but unfortunately, a lot of the value has been extracted if you’re optimistic on them.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Mixed feelings on T.Y. Hilton this draft season. I’m a major believer in Frank Reich, and I like how Reich has managed to get Hilton involved with some shorter touchdowns in recent seasons. Prior to that, Hilton needed to score from distance, or he didn’t score at all.

“But Hilton is coming off the worst yards-per-target year of his career, and while Philip Rivers is theoretically an upgrade over Jacoby Brissett, Rivers is also heading into his age-39 season and is just ordinary now. Rivers worked with a talented Chargers offense last year and merely had an adjusted QB rating of 96; 100 is league average. Quietly, it was his worst year.

“And in the end, gravity always wins. Hilton’s tank shouldn’t be empty entering his age-31 season, but I’ve stopped drafting him proactively. And with one of the deepest WR classes for fantasy this year, you should love all of your early-round receiver picks.”

[Create or join a 2020 Yahoo Fantasy Football League for free today]

Here are Jonathan Taylor’s year-by-year rushing yards at Wisconsin: 1,977, 2,194 and 2,003. Donnel Pumphrey is recognized as the NCAA all-time leading rusher with 6,405 yards (the NCAA started counting bowl games in 2002), and Taylor almost beat that record in three seasons. The Colts already had Marlon Mack to run the ball and Nyheim Hines as a receiving back, but traded up to take Taylor in the second round of this year’s draft. That says a lot about what the Colts think of Taylor’s talent. Running behind an offensive line that Pro Football Focus ranks as the best in the NFL, Taylor and Mack could both end up having productive seasons.

Is it possible that Quenton Nelson could become the best player in the NFL?

Nelson came into the NFL with a lot of hype, and he has lived up to it. Pro Football Focus ranked Nelson fourth among all NFL players in its top 50 rankings, and wondered if Nelson could be the best player in the entire league if he takes the normal third-year leap for an offensive lineman. He hasn’t allowed a sack in 30 games according to PFF, the longest current streak for a guard, and is even better as a run blocker. The highlights of Nelson mauling defenders are a staple on Twitter. When ESPN polled NFL team executives, Nelson was voted the top interior lineman in the league. Nelson will never be the Most Valuable Player in the NFL because of his position. Everyone knows that. But could he become the best player regardless of position? It’s not crazy. He’s almost there already.

In 2018, Philip Rivers had one of his best seasons. That wasn’t long ago. What if the Colts are right, and Rivers’ 2019 wasn’t as bad as it looked? Everything else is in place to win big. If Rivers plays at a Pro Bowl level — he made it in 2016, 2017 and 2018 — it’s easy to love the Colts this season. DeForest Buckner could be a huge defensive addition. This is a team that looked on the verge of championship contention before Andrew Luck’s retirement, and if Rivers can be a good short-term option then the Colts have enough pieces to again be an intriguing Super Bowl pick.

At the end of the 2018 season, the Colts were set up really well. They had a franchise quarterback, some impact veterans and many fantastic young players, thanks to sharp drafting. It would feel very empty if their window came and went already. If Philip Rivers repeats his 2019, the Colts likely aren’t a Super Bowl team. It’s hard to see the defense being good enough to carry an average offense. And if Rivers takes another step back, the Colts are going to have to figure out another plan for 2021. A lot is riding on a quarterback who turns 39 this December.

The Colts could be the type of team that successfully turns Philip Rivers into an over-qualified (and overpaid) game manager. Given the offensive line and talent at running back, the Colts could ride the run game and ask Rivers to make only a few plays a game. Maybe that’s perfect for him at this age. I like the Colts’ coaching staff and front office, and they went 7-9 (with six losses by 7 points or less) despite having their franchise quarterback retire right before last season. They’ll rebound and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they win the AFC South.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31.
Washington Football Team
30.
Cincinnati Bengals
29.
Carolina Panthers
28.
New York Giants
27.
Detroit Lions
26.
New York Jets
25.
Atlanta Falcons
24.
Miami Dolphins
23.
Las Vegas Raiders
22.
Los Angeles Chargers
21.
Houston Texans
20.
Arizona Cardinals
19.
Minnesota Vikings
18.
Chicago Bears
17.
Los Angeles Rams
16.
Cleveland Browns
15.
Pittsburgh Steelers
14.
Denver Broncos
13.
Indianapolis Colts
12.
Philadelphia Eagles
11.
Seattle Seahawks
10.
Green Bay Packers
9.
New England Patriots
8.
Tennessee Titans
7.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6.
Dallas Cowboys
5.
Buffalo Bills
4.
San Francisco 49ers
3.
New Orleans Saints
2.
Kansas City Chiefs
1.
Baltimore Ravens