INDIANAPOLIS -- As next week’s NFL scouting combine approaches and the rumor mill cranks up, look for the Indianapolis Colts to be the subject of numerous conversations.
The Colts need a quarterback solution in the worst way. And given their current position, sitting with the fourth overall pick in the draft, this is the best opportunity the team has had since Andrew Luck’s retirement in 2019 to solve what’s become a recurring problem.
So, short of owner Jim Irsay dropping more hints -- he made a reference to possibly trading up and said “the Alabama guy [Bryce Young] doesn’t look bad, I’ll tell ya” -- we’re left to try and anticipate what the Colts are looking for in their search for quarterback stability.
There’s drafting a quarterback, and there’s drafting the right quarterback. The Colts understand the difference.
“Y'all are going to celebrate it and say 'we have got the savior for the Colts,'” general manager Chris Ballard said. “And then if he doesn't play well, [people will say] ‘Why'd you take that guy?’ You’ve got to be right. We’ve got to be right. We understand the magnitude.”
The Colts face a decision with veteran Matt Ryan, who could be cut for a $17 million savings or be retained as a mentor for a young quarterback. Either way, the Colts do not view him or backup Sam Ehlinger as their long-term franchise quarterback. That prospect is expected to come from this draft.
Now that the Colts have made a coaching hire, there is more to go on. Shane Steichen’s past and offensive principles will provide some clues, as will the Colts’ draft history under Ballard.
Most important here is a point that will help set the tone for all of this: Team sources say the club believes that Steichen’s offensive versatility creates more options at the position. His past success with different styles of quarterback play is compelling evidence he can potentially succeed in Indianapolis with any quarterback the Colts draft.
That, the Colts believe, frees them up to make the best selection regardless of scheme fit.
Where former coach Frank Reich’s scheme was a bit more geared to a pocket passer, Steichen has shown he can coordinate an offense with a more traditional style of quarterback (Justin Herbert) as well as a dynamic dual-threat player (Jalen Hurts). Steichen’s scheme is also a bit more player-friendly in terms of complexity, which could make for an easier transition for a young quarterback.
Getting more specific, Steichen provided a bit of a clue of what he’s looking for during his introductory press conference last week. Asked the most important qualities he seeks, he said, “accuracy, decision making and the ability to create are the three things that I look at in a quarterback. I think those three things are very important. But [also] the above the neck. The players that I’ve been around -- Jalen Hurts, Justin Herbert and Philip Rivers -- they all have one thing in common: They’re obsessed with their craft. And if you can find that in a quarterback, you’re probably going to have some success.”
Taking all of this into account, we’re able to take an early look at how some of the top quarterbacks in this year's draft potentially fit with Indianapolis.
Bryce Young, Alabama
Steichen’s description actually sounds like a pretty accurate breakdown of Young, who is regularly lauded for his accuracy and pocket presence. And when it comes to the “above the neck” attributes Steichen mentioned, Young has impressive poise and makes good decisions under pressure. He’s not what anyone would consider a running quarterback, but Young is plenty elusive and escapes pressure to make off-schedule plays.
As for Ballard, he has famously adhered strictly to measurables with most of his draft picks. It’s one of the reasons some have a difficult time envisioning the Colts selecting Young despite his legitimate size questions. He was listed at 6-feet and 194 pounds at Alabama, far from ideal (official heights and weights will be revealed at the combine).
But Ballard has veered away from measurables in some notable instances. In 2018, for example, the Colts selected linebacker Shaquille Leonard and offensive tackle Braden Smith with consecutive picks. Leonard was considered undersized by most, but went on to become an All-Pro. Similarly, Smith’s short arm length made him a poor candidate to play tackle in many teams’ assessments. But Smith became a fixture at right tackle and earned a $72 million extension in 2021.
C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
Among the quarterbacks Steichen has coached, Stroud probably most resembles Herbert. Both are pocket passers with impressive arm talent who were very productive in college. Still, unlike Rivers, Stroud can scramble, if necessary, allowing him to keep plays alive.
As for the fit with the Colts, Stroud could pair nicely with 2022 second-round pick Alec Pierce. A long receiver who excels in jump-ball situations, Pierce suffered from his quarterbacks’ lack of arm strength last season. To fully utilize his talents, the Colts need an accurate and confident passer willing to put the ball play. With 41 touchdowns and just six interceptions last season, Stroud has proven he can be that.
Additionally, adding a player like Stroud will not require a major shift for the Colts’ offensive line, which is quite used to playing with pocket passers.
Will Levis, Kentucky
Not to be overlooked as a fit is Levis. He can be somewhat polarizing because of his high turnover rate the past two seasons (23 combined interceptions). But Levis is skilled in using play-action passing, and that’s an attribute that could fit well with a team that has a long history of being productive running the ball.
Levis’ accuracy would seem to be a problem given the high interception rate. But his completion percentage last season (65.4) was actually higher than Young’s (64.5). That doesn’t mean his accuracy isn’t subject to scrutiny. But if the Colts can get running back Jonathan Taylor and their offensive line to return to form, bringing back the play-action threat, Levis makes some sense. He completed 68.5% of attempts with 9.7 air yards per attempt in play-action situations last season.
Anthony Richardson, Florida
The range of outcomes with an unseasoned player like Richardson makes it less likely he’ll be drafted as high as fourth overall. The Colts will likely have less risky options available to them, but there are few coaches better equipped than Steichen to tailor an offense around Richardson’s elite running ability.
Steichen’s success with Hurts provides the blueprint, and the Colts actually have the personnel to pull it off. Richardson is not polished but could thrive on a team with a potent rushing attack, using his own rushing threat to set up easy throws.
Richardson needs that because he’s still developing as a passer. His 53.8% completion rate is going to scare some teams away (remember what Steichen said about accuracy). By comparison, Hurts was a very high-percentage passer in college, completing 69.7% of attempts as a senior. But Hurts was also a three-year starter. Richardson started just 13 games.
Finally, Richardson has a few parallels to another quarterback who once caught Ballard’s eye: Justin Fields. The Colts had already traded away their first-round pick when Fields came out of Ohio State in 2021, but team sources have said they were quite intrigued with him and would have considered him if the pick was available. Just a little something to keep in mind.