ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Not that they were ever a real threat to make the playoffs, but Sunday’s loss to Buffalo ended any slight -- really, really slight -- glimmer of hope that the Indianapolis Colts had.
Now the focus, one that will play a factor in the future of the franchise, needs to be solely on evaluating the roster. Winning games should no longer sit at the top of the list. The reality is every win now hurts Indianapolis in the race for one of the top picks in next spring’s draft. The Colts would have the No. 3 pick if the draft were held today.
The Colts have three games remaining, starting with Thursday’s contest against the Denver Broncos, to cement who they believe fits into next season’s plans because the struggles will continue -- Andrew Luck or not -- until general manager Chris Ballard improves the roster.
You’d like to think this would be one final chance for players such as receivers Donte Moncrief and Kamar Aiken, who will be free agents at the end of the season, to show their value, but neither player has taken advantage of their opportunities throughout the season. The same can be said about offensive lineman Le'Raven Clark, the team’s third-round pick in 2016.
The transition has already started at cornerback, as rookies Quincy Wilson, Nate Hairston and Kenny Moore II are the top three players at the position. Wilson's and Moore’s play down the stretch should weigh heavily because Rashaan Melvin and Pierre Desir, the two starters who both are out due to injuries, will be free agents during the offseason.
A couple of names on defense that are starting to pop up are lineman Grover Stewart and linebacker Tarell Basham. Stewart is an intriguing player who has caught the eye of the coaching staff after limited playing time earlier in the season. The fourth-round pick out of Albany State had four tackles while playing fewer than 15 snaps against the Bills on Sunday. The Colts desperately need Basham, who has two sacks this season, to become a consistent pass-rusher.
“The last [three] weeks are going to be critical for both,” Colts defensive coordinator Ted Monachino said. “The good news is, as we’ve ramped their reps up, both of them have the talent to make some of those plays. They have the talent to finish some of those plays. Looking forward to seeing them continuing to grow. I know they’re not satisfied with where they are. ... They’ve still got a long ways to go. I think that as we get them into more and more opportunities to do things that they do well, I think that you’ll see them be more and more productive.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if fellow rookie Marlon Mack sees an increase in his playing time, especially with the short turnaround between games this week and 34-year-old veteran running back Frank Gore coming off a game in which he had a career-high 36 carries for 130 yards.
Mack had only seven carries in a game in which the Colts ran the ball 43 times. The fourth-round pick out of the University of South Florida has had double-digit carries just once this season.
The Colts have routinely said players need to earn their playing time. These final three games are a time when it's OK to go against that philosophy and force-feed snaps to younger players.