Fantasy Football: There Is a Lot of Uncertainty With the Indianapolis Colts' Offense

With Andrew Luck's early-season availability uncertain and Ryan Kelly's year already cut in half, the usually high-octane Colts are in a tough spot.

If you’ve played games a fair amount, you’ll know that any fun or interesting game gives you resources to manage. Monopoly gives you money and property to deal with, Settlers of Catan asks you to manage products, Risk presents you with armies to direct, and so on.

Resource management can be a very fun, strategic part of the gaming experience, but it can also lead to some of the worst feelings in gaming. Watching your resources dwindle as your opponents close in is never a good time, and this often forces you to make compromising moves to just ensure you stay in the game.

Sometimes games are about playing, other times they’re about just trying to survive.

That’s the spot the Indianapolis Colts appear to be in at this stage of the 2017 offseason. With quarterback Andrew Luck (shoulder) looking like he may miss Week 1 and center Ryan Kelly (foot) gone for at least half of the year, it feels like Indy's resources are running out, and the game hasn’t even started.

Despite these bad beats, can the Colts’ offense stay productive enough to keep their fantasy football value alive?

Ready Player One

Let’s start with the big one: Luck, the former first overall pick for the Colts, is the engine that makes this offense go. The Colts have been fortunate to have gotten 70 out of a possible 80 games from their franchise passer since selecting him in 2012, but the difference in how the offense looks with and without Luck is shocking.

The table below compares the Colts’ passing success in Luck’s 70 games played from 2012 to 2016 to the 10 games where he was on the shelf (per Pro Football Reference).

Andrew Luck Point Diff/G Comp% Yd/Att Pass TD Rate Int Rate Sack Rate
With Luck +1.71 59.41% 6.80 4.89% 2.57% 5.85%
Without Luck -3.10 58.76% 6.11 3.67% 2.26% 6.78%

The difference of just 4.81 points per game in point differential seems minor, but consider how much that adds up over the course of a season (about 77 points) and it makes a huge fantasy difference for the Indianapolis skill position players. A significant portion of offense gets lost when Luck goes out. In these games, the Colts’ offense generates 47.96 fewer passing yards and 0.60 fewer touchdowns on 3.46 fewer attempts.

Aside from the obvious downgrade in quality from Luck to his understudies, defenses also know that they can cheat up and take away more from the Colts without a significant arm talent like Luck to challenge them. The Colts have lost 27.26 rushing yards and 0.31 touchdowns on just 1.0 fewer carry per game with Luck out (both likely as a result of defensive play calling and fewer positive game scripts).

Relying on Matt Hasselbeck (or, this year, Scott Tolzien) to carry your fantasy pass-catchers or take pressure off your fantasy running backs is not a recipe for success.

In Another Castle

Complicating this is the loss of 2016 first-round center Ryan Kelly, who completely remade the Colts’ line when he came in and joined the team.

The table below shows the production of the Colts’ running backs with Kelly in 2016 compared to the year prior.

Year Attempts Yards Per Attempt TD Rate
2015 Pre-Kelly 330 3.54 1.82%
2016 With Kelly 334 3.80 3.29%

We do have to note that Luck was injured for a significant portion of 2015, as well, so it’s not clear from these numbers whether the improved success was a result of Kelly anchoring the line at the pivot or Luck stretching the defense.

What does help us isolate Kelly's impact is Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards (ALY), which assign a percentage of responsibility for rushing plays and pass blocking to the line. In 2015, the Colts were sixth-worst by run blocking, with 3.47 ALY per carry, but in 2016 they were the second-best with 4.69. In fact, Kelly’s contribution is confirmed by the greatest increase in ALY being the interior run. Runs up the middle increased by 1.73 ALY per carry, and they went from the sixth-worst interior run blocking unit in the league in 2015 to the best in 2016.

The injuries to Luck and Kelly sting, and they create a vast amount of uncertainty for both phases of the Indianapolis offense.

The Cake Is a Lie

So, what’s a fantasy owner to do in a situation like this?

Luck is still working his way back from the shoulder surgery he underwent in the offseason, and the Colts’ front office and coaching staff have been cagey about revealing any updates on his status all year. It’s a safe expectation that – since he’s resumed throwing just a month ago – Luck will miss Week 1, giving way to Tolzien in that contest. The operation on his throwing shoulder from January should have yielded full results in just six months, but we’re now eight months in – a troublesome development.

Here’s the rub: Luck has been on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list this offseason, and we don’t know if he’ll remain so into the year. If he does, he’ll miss the first six games of 2017. Remember, the passing offense without Luck offers 10 percent fewer attempts, nearly 20 percent fewer yards, and almost one-third fewer touchdowns. The running game has contributed one-quarter fewer yards and half the touchdowns without a competent passer, and it does not appear that Tolzien is a competent signal caller based off his career to this point.

Even if Luck is not on PUP, the uncertainty will surround the offense every week until we see him play and play well. With the cost needed to acquire some of the Colts' skill-position guys in your fantasy draft, it might be better to avoid the risk and instead look away from them.

The table below shows the main fantasy assets for Indianapolis, their standard fantasy points per-game with and without Luck (per Rotoviz's Game Splits App), and their current Average Draft Position (ADP) at their position in single-season leagues (per FF Calculator).

Player With Luck Without Luck Difference ADP
Frank Gore 11.28 9.56 -15.25% RB33
T.Y. Hilton 10.24 7.50 -26.76% WR10
Donte Moncrief 6.60 5.47 -17.12% WR38
Jack Doyle 3.74 0.80 -78.61% TE13

Our season-long projections assume that Luck will start 16 games, but at this point, you have to build more uncertainty into the cost. If we adjust numberFire’s projections for six games -- maybe a worst-case scenario -- of subpar quarterback play at these rates, T.Y. Hilton drops to WR11, Donte Moncrief to WR49, and Jack Doyle to TE25.

Frank Gore's projection becomes RB26 by this simple math, but that’s without factoring in the loss of Kelly, too, which could account for another steep drop in value (the Colts’ ground game was 20 percent better with Kelly). The floor for Gore therefore drops to a mid-range RB4 fantasy running back. ADP seems about right on Hilton and Gore, therefore, but Moncrief and Doyle could be busts waiting to happen at their current price tags.

Of course, this is the worst-case scenario that may not even pan out. If Luck misses one game and comes back healthy, all this worrying will be for naught. As a smart fantasy player, though, you need contingency plans for situations like this if you’re going to stay in the game. The Luck situation will be one to monitor closely the rest of the offseason for those interested in drafting Luck or any of his top weapons.