It's not just Luck: These Colts could surprise in AFC South

Luck still considered Tier 2 QB (1:13)

Mike Sando explains why NFL insiders have Andrew Luck ranked as a Tier 2 quarterback, despite his not having thrown since he had shoulder surgery. (1:13)


That's what Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard believes his team will have this season. The second-year general manager isn't one to put some kind of bold prediction on a number of victories or say they're guaranteed to accomplish a certain feat.

What Ballad does see is a team that has potential. As the veterans report to training camp on Wednesday, there's a different vibe around the organization than there was when the team reported in 2017.

At this time last year, quarterback Andrew Luck was placed on the physically unable to perform list, and there was no idea when he would be a full participant in practice or play a game. Ballard was still weeding out players who didn't fit what the Colts were trying to accomplish long-term. And oh yeah, it was understood that barring an unlikely postseason run, Chuck Pagano was starting his final year as head coach. The Colts finished with their third straight non-winning and non-playoff season.

How things have changed -- hopefully for the better -- in Indianapolis.

Luck is healthy for the first time in three years and will take starter reps in practice Thursday. That will be the case every time he takes the field. The Colts will closely monitor his workload and give him prearranged days off during training camp. Every move Luck makes in training camp and during preseason games -- how he responds the day after throwing, the amount of zip on his passes, how he reacts in the pocket and when he finally gets hit on his shoulder -- will be scrutinized. That's expected with his having been out since December 2016.

While he was out, a youth movement was underway. The Colts selected 11 players in last spring's draft, and arguably the biggest offseason move outside of Luck's return was the hiring of Frank Reich as coach, part of an almost complete overhaul of personnel.

"There's a way to win every game," Ballard said. "Even if your talent level isn't where you want, there's a way to win every game. Don't turn the ball over. Don't make dumb mistakes. Play to your players' strengths. Don't make dumb penalties. Keep the game close, and give yourselves a chance to win at the end. Our staff and players have to figure out how we're going to win each game each week.

"Are we going to be young? Yes. Are we exactly where I want us to be right now? No, not exactly, but I do think we have good, young talent. It'll be fun to watch these guys grow and come to the forefront."

There are plenty of question marks -- at running back, cornerback, linebacker and the health at safety -- but guess where Ballard believes their strengths are this season?

The offensive and defensive lines.

What? The same offensive line that played a significant factor in Luck's being battered and bruised throughout his career? The unit that gave up an NFL-high 56 sacks last season? The same defensive line that was decent on early downs, only to falter on later downs as part of a unit that finished 26th against the run last season?

For the first time in several years, there is optimism when it comes to the lines. This might be hard to accept for some -- especially considering the history of problems with the offensive line -- but on paper, it appears that Luck could be playing behind the best unit of his seven-year NFL career.

Rookie Quenton Nelson, picked No. 6 overall in April, looked as good as advertised during offseason workouts and will start at left guard alongside veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Ballard brought up the leadership and playing ability of veteran guard Matt Slauson several times in the offseason. Slauson has the inside track to start right guard next to center Ryan Kelly. Denzelle Good and veteran Austin Howard will battle to be the starting right tackle. The Colts also have depth, something they have been missing in recent seasons.

The defensive line lacks star power, but just like on the offensive line, there is depth that they hope will pay off as they attempt to wear down opponents in their new 3-4 scheme. The new additions include linemen Denico Autry, Kemoko Turay, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Tyquan Lewis. They join a front seven that returns Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, Grover Stewart, Al Woods, Tarell Basham, Margus Hunt and Hassan Ridgeway.

Luck's return is still the focal point this season. As owner Jim Irsay pointed out in the spring, Luck has the talent to offset weak areas on the roster, as he did during his first three seasons before injuries started to take a toll. Indianapolis hopes that a return to health for Luck will bring a return to the playoffs for the team.

"No question, when you have [the quarterback] position settled, it makes it easier," Ballard said. "But saying that, you still have to build a team no matter what you have. It doesn't matter. Mike Holmgren didn't have Brett Favre when they first went to Green Bay. They traded for him. Pete Carroll didn't have Russell Wilson [in Seattle]. You build a football team the right way you feel to build it, no matter who is at the position."