2021 NFL Preview: If Frank Reich can fix Carson Wentz, the Colts are going to be very good

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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 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich didn't like hearing a question about Carson Wentz that suggested his new quarterback was "broken." 

"I just cringe when I hear stuff like that, not that a player shouldn't be accountable for poor play on the field," Reich said. "Carson has to answer to that, and he has answered to it. And until you get out there and prove otherwise, that's what you live with. But I just know that playing the position of quarterback, there are so many factors that go into it. We talked about why the poor play last year. I'm just very confident that he has a team around him. It's just I think the culture fit." 

That might be the most measured take you'll find regarding Wentz. It shines a light on why Reich is the perfect coach to fix Wentz. And why the Colts made a shrewd move to grab Wentz on a discount after a bad season. 

Wentz was awful in 2020. Every single way a quarterback can be bad, Wentz checked the box. He threw ridiculous interceptions, fumbled too much, took too many sacks, he didn't make many big plays, his leadership was questioned and a story that he would change plays at the line for "apparently no other reason than his personal distaste" toward former coach Doug Pederson painted him in the worst light. Nobody can argue that Wentz was anything but terrible in 2020. 

But context matters. The Eagles became a mess after winning a Super Bowl. Pederson was a bad coach after that, and if you want to blame a dysfunctional organization for that, it's OK, but it doesn't change that he couldn't get much out of Wentz. Wentz seemed to be affected by the team drafting Jalen Hurts in the second round last season, something we've seen with other quarterbacks. The team around Wentz fell apart. Injuries played a factor, as did some bad draft picks. That's why Wentz was often running for his life, sometimes with Greg Ward Jr. as his top receiver. It would be hard for any quarterback to thrive with the 2018-20 Eagles. 

Too often we give too much blame or credit to a quarterback without considering the infrastructure around him. There are a handful of quarterbacks who are able to succeed despite bad coaching or a crumbling roster. Wentz, despite the highs he showed in 2017 before a torn ACL, is not one of those players. Philadelphia needed him to be that player the past few years. Indianapolis doesn't. 

Wentz comes to a team that might have won a championship already if Andrew Luck didn't retire. The Colts have a fantastic offensive line and running back Jonathan Taylor proved to be a great fit down the stretch last season when he was a rookie. The defense was a top-10 unit last season. The coaching staff is fantastic and so is the front office. Wentz tried to do it all the past few seasons, because who else on the Eagles was going to help? The Colts just need him to be good enough around a great team. 

Wentz is probably never going to be an MVP candidate again, like he was in 2017. A lot of things came together that season, and he was playing at an unsustainable level. But he might not be as bad as 2020 would indicate either. In 2018 and 2019, in a bad situation, Wentz had some great moments. Overall, he was about average. He ranked 13th and 14th in Football Outsiders' DVOA and DYAR in 2018, and 20th and 17th in those categories in 2019. He ranked No. 14 among 39 qualified quarterbacks in Pro Football Focus' grades in 2018 and had the same ranking in 2019. He wasn't great. The Colts don't need him to be great. 

Reich will help. There's a respect between the two that — right or wrong — Wentz didn't have with Pederson by the end. Reich was Wentz's offensive coordinator during that great 2017 season. They have a connection. There won't be any more changed plays at the line out of spite. 

"We’ve said this a lot of times, there is a personal aspect to coaching a player, it’s not just in a vacuum," Reich said, via 107.5 The Fan. "There is a personal element to it. Anytime there is a personal connection with a player and there is a familiarity with the offense and the terminology and what you are trying to accomplish and the vision for what you’re trying to do, it can help accelerate it." 

Maybe Wentz is broken (sorry, Frank). Bad habits develop playing in horrible situations and they can be become permanent. The stories of Wentz changing plays and being a less-than-ideal teammate could be red flags that Indianapolis is ignoring in the chase of an elusive answer at quarterback. It's also true that if Wentz can't turn things around to be at least average in Indianapolis, it won't happen anywhere else. 

If Wentz, in his best situation since 2017, can return to even average or slightly above average levels, the Colts can be one of the AFC's best teams. Everything around the quarterback position is in place. The last time that was the case for Wentz, he was the MVP frontrunner. His team ended up winning a Super Bowl. 

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz (2) is looking to rebound from a bad season. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz (2) is looking to rebound from a bad season. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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Trading a 2021 third-round draft pick and conditional 2022 second-round pick to the Eagles for quarterback Carson Wentz was a worthwhile gamble, hoping Wentz responds to a better setting. Wentz has many prime years left if the Colts do turn him around. The one issue the Colts have that might not have been properly addressed is left tackle. Anthony Castonzo retired. The Colts, who don't often overspend even when they have cap space, settled for former Kansas City Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher on a one-year deal. Fisher is coming off a torn Achilles and might not be ready for the start of the season. Defensive lineman Denico Autry moved on to Tennessee, and it was tough to lose him to a division rival. The Colts took some fliers on under-the-radar free agents, and none of them is expected to have a big impact. The draft was not exciting either, with defensive ends Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo as the first- and second-round selections. It's mostly the same roster aside from swapping retired Philip Rivers for Wentz. 

Grade: C-

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There were times last season that Philip Rivers looked finished. By the end he was a perfectly reasonable, above average quarterback. Having a great offensive line and running game around him helped. Nobody would say Rivers was a top-10 quarterback last season, yet the Colts offense ranked 12th in Football Outsiders' DVOA, the team went 11-5 and almost pulled off a road playoff win against a very good Buffalo Bills team. Then Rivers decided to retire. The Colts are hoping that a 28-year-old Carson Wentz, once thought of as an elite quarterback, can at least play as well as Rivers. That's not unreasonable. 

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I'm well aware I'll be much higher on the Colts than any other power ranking, and I'm fine with that. It should be no surprise that I'll be taking all the positive Colts future bets at BetMGM: Over 9.5 wins, win AFC South (+105), win AFC (+1600), win Super Bowl (+3000). And perhaps my favorite bet among them: Frank Reich to win Coach of the Year at +1800. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "T.Y. Hilton is the name you know in the Colts passing game, but he’s also entering his age-32 season. If you’re going to throw a chip on any receiver here, better to spend it on second-year wideout Michael Pittman Jr.

"Pittman’s rookie year was mostly a bust, with just one touchdown in 13 games. But a calf problem cost him three weeks, and he struggled to pick up the pro game in the first half of the year. He did collect 90 yards in the playoff loss at Buffalo, and he had a snappy 7-101 game earlier against Tennessee.

"The Colts took Pittman with the 34th overall pick in the 2020 Draft, and he has a fine pedigree — he was a star at USC, and is the son of a former NFL running back. The development curve is different for everyone, and perhaps Pittman will be the receiver who clicks quickest with new quarterback Carson Wentz. Pittman is a fine post-hype sleeper to consider."

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Here are the key defensive stats in which the Colts ranked in the top 10 last season: points, yards, first downs, rushing yards, rushing yards per attempt, yards per drive, points per drive. The Colts have two superstars in linebacker Darius Leonard and defensive lineman DeForest Buckner and many good players around them. It's a defense that's well coached by coordinator Matt Eberflus. Defensive performance is often not predictable year to year, but there's no reason to believe the Colts can't again be a top-10 defense. 

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Can Michael Pittman Jr. have a breakout? 

The Colts don't have many flaws, but their receiver group isn't great. T.Y. Hilton is in decline, Parris Campbell can't stay healthy and the tight end duo of Mo Alie-Cox and Jack Doyle is fine but not scaring anyone. The difference could be Pittman. A second-round pick last season, Pittman had some bad injury luck, including calf surgery in September. He ended up playing 13 games with 40 catches for 503 yards, which wasn't too bad given the challenges of his rookie season. Pittman is a big target who was a favorite of many experts heading into the draft, and there were many good receivers to come out of last year's class. Pittman might have had a bigger impact if not for injuries. He could take a big leap in his second season. 

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If we're really dreaming, is it possible that Carson Wentz finds his 2017 form? Wentz has been in a miserable situation since then. It's very unlikely he returns to an MVP form, but there's a non-zero chance that by December we are reminded that Wentz is a really good player with the right supporting cast. It's not like we haven't seen him play at an elite level before. It's very rare for a bad quarterback to play as well as Wentz did in 2017. The whole theme of this preview is that the Colts just need Wentz to be a solid, above-average quarterback. What if he's more than that? The Colts would look like geniuses and be in Super Bowl contention. 

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Maybe the Colts are chasing a 4-year-old ghost that will never return. Nothing in Carson Wentz's resume matches up with what he did in 2017. There are some viable excuses for that, but it doesn't mean Wentz will ever been good or even average again. He was downright horrible in 2020 and if that is his new level, the Colts are in trouble. Even well-built teams can't win much with a quarterback playing like Wentz did in 2020. And we don't know which Wentz will show up. 

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As said before, I'm aware I'll be way ahead of other power rankings on the Colts. But I believe Frank Reich is a great coach, and I think Carson Wentz can at least be what he was in 2018 and 2019, and that wasn't bad. The Colts are going to run the ball well, play good defense and generate some big plays when they need it. They're a more complete team than the Tennessee Titans, and nobody else is a real threat to win the division. Give me the Colts to win the AFC South and be a real threat in the playoffs. The AFC has some great teams and a Super Bowl trip this season might not be in the Colts' future, but I think they'll be one of the NFL's best teams and feel good about their quarterback situation going forward. 

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

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