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Colts arrive at QB crossroads with no Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck on horizon

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Has Hendon Hooker played his way into the first round of the draft? (1:04)

Mel Kiper Jr. details the 2023 NFL draft projection he sees for Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker. (1:04)

INDIANAPOLIS -- One of the most forgettable games of the 2011 NFL season played out on Jan. 1, 2012, between two teams going nowhere.

As the Colts and Jaguars squared off in Week 17, the rest of the NFL focused on the upcoming playoffs. But for Indianapolis, the day brought yet another loss in a season defined by losing.

Here’s the thing: The result also brought with it a very important victory, with Indianapolis clinching the top pick in the 2012 NFL draft. The prize: Much-acclaimed Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who had long been viewed as one of the most NFL-ready passers in years.

Two months later, the Colts would make the historic decision to release iconic -- but injured -- quarterback Peyton Manning, paving the way for the selection of Luck.

As bleak as that 2011 season felt in the moment, the reaction to it was somewhat optimistic. Receiver Reggie Wayne, now the team’s receivers coach, articulated it well that day in the losing locker room.

“This should be a fun time for the city of Indianapolis during the offseason,” he said. “Despite the year we had, there are things to look forward to. It should be exciting.”

Fast forward to 2022, and the Colts (4-7-1) are in the midst of another underwhelming season. Indianapolis ranks last in the NFL in offensive expected points added, 30th in scoring and 26th in yards per game. Like 2011, the need to address the quarterback position is clear. The difference? The path to resolving the situation is much less clear.

For just the fourth time since 1990, the Colts are projected to make a deliberate effort to address their quarterback position early in the draft. The Colts have had such incredible fortune at quarterback that they’ve made just five quarterback selections in the first three rounds during their entire Indianapolis era (beginning in 1984). This time, however, they likely won’t have the top overall pick and their route to finding their quarterback is likely to be more treacherous.

Can a team that fell into Hall-of-Famer Manning and four-time Pro Bowler Luck the last two times it had a dire need at quarterback find another solution at the game’s most difficult position to fill?

How’d they get here?

Before moving on, it’s important to address how the Colts got here.

Their current quarterback situation -- 37-year-old Matt Ryan is showing his age and 2021 sixth-round pick Sam Ehlinger hasn’t proven he’s ready -- can be traced directly to Luck’s stunning retirement in August 2019.

The Colts had built a team to accentuate their prodigious young quarterback, focusing on their offensive line and defense. It seemed to be working. The Colts went 10-6 and won a divisional playoff game in 2018, Luck’s first season following a multi-year battle with right shoulder injuries that robbed him of the 2017 season.

But it was all short-lived. Luck retired on Aug. 24, 2019, after encountering a stubborn calf injury, leaving the Colts in a lurch. It marked the first time since Manning’s arrival in 1998 that the Colts faced long-term uncertainty at quarterback.

But there’s a key calculation the Colts made following Luck’s departure that has, arguably, brought them to their current position more than three years later: The Colts proceeded with the idea that they were a quarterback away from taking the next step in their progression. And yet, each season since Luck’s retirement has produced fewer tangible results despite moves to stabilize the quarterback position.

In 2020, the Colts added veteran Philip Rivers and went 11-5, but they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. In 2021, the much-debated trade for former Eagles star Carson Wentz led to a 9-8 finish with two consecutive season-ending losses that eliminated the Colts from the postseason. This season, with mostly Ryan under center, the Colts have never looked like a threat to get to the playoffs. Coach Frank Reich was fired last month and the team feels as far away from contention as it’s been in years.

The Colts have continually talked themselves into these moves. In August, owner Jim Irsay described the team as “set up for excellence,” adding that Ryan came to Indianapolis “to get his Lombardi. This is the time.”

But the Colts’ reality begs a question: Were the Colts ever really just a quarterback away (especially if the quarterbacks weren’t as talented as Luck)? After acquiring veteran quarterbacks in each of the past three seasons but getting worse outcomes, it’s a difficult argument to make.

Drafting QBs is tricky

It’s important to note that the Colts haven’t had many optimal chances to draft a quarterback since Luck’s retirement. But Ballard is also very sensitive to the reality that selecting a quarterback early in the draft raises the stakes for a general manager.

We know this because Ballard told us.

“Go back and look at first-round quarterbacks over the past 10 years,” he said last year. “Everybody thinks you just take one and you’re gonna fix the problem. Look, taking one will get y’all off my a-- for a little bit, but the second that guy doesn’t play well, I’m gonna be the first one run out of the building.”

There is truth in what Ballard says. History is full of team executives who paid a price for missing on quarterback prospects. But it’s also possible Ballard’s aversion to chasing a quarterback has prolonged the Colts’ problem.

Looking back at the Colts’ post-Luck scenarios, there’s room for second-guessing. In 2020, the first offseason following Luck’s retirement, the Colts shipped their first-round pick (13th overall) to the San Francisco 49ers for DeForest Buckner. The defensive tackle has panned out beautifully; he was a first-team All-Pro in 2020 and made the Pro Bowl last season.

Making the Buckner deal fortified the Colts’ talented defense. But that first-round pick, theoretically, could have been used to trade up in a draft where Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert were selected with the fifth and sixth overall picks, respectively.

A year later, in the spring of 2021, the Colts traded for Wentz. That meant they weren’t inclined to make a move for Justin Fields when the Ohio State product began sliding in the draft, ultimately falling to the Chicago Bears at No. 11 overall. Fields was a player Ballard had long been enamored with. The Wentz move was a disaster for Indianapolis, who traded him after one season. Fields, meanwhile, is giving the Bears some hope of solving their decades-long quarterback crisis.

Finally, the Colts’ 2022 first-round pick was sent to Philadelphia to complete the Wentz trade, leaving the Colts without a clear path to selecting a quarterback in the first round. It also was a historically poor draft for quarterbacks, with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Kenny Pickett being the only one chosen in the first round.

Now what?

For long-time Colts fans, this is likely to be a different experience than the acquisitions of Manning and Luck. In those instances, the Colts had total control because they had the first overall draft pick. Their timing in each instance was also impeccable, with a rare talent staring them in the face in 1998 and 2012.

This is something Ballard has indirectly acknowledged in the past when he said of drafting a quarterback, “there’s got to be a little bit of timing and luck come into play.”

In 2023, it’s unclear whether either of those will be working in the Colts’ favor. Right now, it’s a bit of a difficult quarterback class to forecast. Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud are generally considered the top prospects, projected to be the first two selected.

Beyond that, it gets murky. Kentucky’s Will Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson, among others, will be in the conversation for quarterback-needy teams. Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, who recently tore his ACL, will prompt some interesting conversations as well.

If the season ended today, the Colts would have the 14th overall pick. For context, let’s look at a sample from the past 10 drafts. Of the 30 quarterbacks selected in the first round in that span, just nine were picked 14th or later. Nineteen of those 30 players were picked in the top 10.

The Colts’ next steps at quarterback will also require some decisions on Ryan. He’s under contract for next season, and $12 million of his salary is already guaranteed. Releasing him would leave the Colts on the hook for $18 million in dead money on their salary cap plus the $12 million in cash Ryan is owed. The Colts could conceivably keep him and have him mentor a rookie quarterback, meaning he would then make $29 million.

Ryan said this week he hasn’t made any decisions about his future after a rocky season that’s included his temporary benching and Reich’s dismissal.

“Given all of the things that have happened and where we’re at, I’m just taking it day by day,” he told ESPN. “It’s been a lot. We’ll get there when we get there.”

But for everyone involved, consequential quarterback decisions lie ahead and will go a long way toward dictating the direction of the Colts’ franchise. And unlike previous instances in their history, next year’s decisions will be much more complicated.