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2017 NFL preview: Can the Colts help get Frank Gore a ring?

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We’re previewing the NFL heading into training camp, mixing and matching 49ers opponents and other teams. Today, we look at the Indianapolis Colts.

NFL training camp gets going in three weeks, and that means the NFL regular season is only two months away. I imagine most of us will be focusing on our San Francisco 49ers during training camp, but it will help to know a little bit about the rest of the league. SB Nation’s 32 NFL sites are putting together basic rundowns of what their team has been up to this offseason.

Each explainer includes free agent additions and departures, trades, draft picks expected to contribute as rookies, biggest offseason addition, biggest storyline, underrated storyline, and notable injuries. The idea is to give you a quick but thorough background on each team. We’ll use these to look at 49ers opponents, but if we have time, I want to try and use all 32 to give us a nice look around the league.

Today, we move on to the Indianapolis Colts, courtesy of our friends at Stampede Blue. The 49ers travel to Indianapolis in Week 5.

The Colts are coming off a second straight 8-8 season that resulted in the firing of GM Ryan Grigson, while head coach Chuck Pagano somehow managed to save his job. The Colts made three straight playoff appearances in Pagano’s first three seasons thanks to Andrew Luck and the offense. However, back-to-back 8-8 seasons would seemingly have Pagano firmly on the hot seat.

The big storyline for 49ers fans is getting a chance to face off against old friend Frank Gore. The 49ers all-time leading rusher signed with the Colts following the 2014 season. He rushed for 967 yards in 2015, and then 1,025 in 2016. He has a chance to further cement his Hall of Fame case in what will be his 13th NFL season.

The Colts made some serious investments on the defensive side of the ball. They brought in big Johnathan Hankins in free agency to anchor their defensive line. They then spent their first three draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, adding safety Malik Hooker, cornerback Quincy Wilson, and defensive end Tarell Bashem.

If the defense can take a big step forward, and Andrew Luck can stay healthy, the Colts should be contenders in the AFC South. However, they will still face an uphill climb against teams like the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Oakland Raiders. Indianapolis could have a puncher’s chance, but it won’t be easy, even if everything comes together for them on both sides of the ball.

Notable Free Agent Additions: DT Johnathan Hankins, WR Kamar Aiken, OLB Jabaal Sheard, OLB John Simon, ILB Jon Bostic, ILB Sean Spence, C/G Brian Schwenke, DT Al Woods, DE Margus Hunt, OLB Barkevious Mingo, P Jeff Locke

Notable Free Agent Departures: P Pat McAfee (RETIRED), S Mike Adams, OLB Robert Mathis (RETIRED), DT Zach Kerr, CB Patrick Robinson

Trades: TE Dwayne Allen

Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies:

Malik Hooker, S, Round 1: With the departure of veteran Mike Adams and the need to add speed, athletic ability, and youth to the back-end of the Colts defense, Hooker will be relied upon heavily. Health-permitting, Hooker should take nearly every defensive snap in the coming season and his progress to the NFL game will have a major impact on Ballard’s new focus on improving the defense’s opportunism.

Quincy Wilson, CB, Round 2: The Colts have been trying to find an outside corner to compliment Vontae Davis for some time. Patrick Robinson did not blow anyone away, even when he was healthy. Greg Toler was not as bad as some want to make him out to be but he was not the strong compliment that Colts would like to have to have the strong physical cover-corners they need to play the type of aggressive defensive style that they’ve hoped to model after the Baltimore Ravens defenses. The hope is that Quincy Wilson brings the physical presence and press cover skillset that will develop quickly throughout the season and finally fill that spot.

Tarell Basham, OLB, Round 3: The Colts were one of the worst teams in the NFL at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and it didn’t just start last year. Former GM Ryan Grigons relied upon the aging Robert Mathis who struggled to stay completely healthy in his last few years along with another aging veteran in Trent Cole as primary contributors to the pass rush. The results were not inspiring and new GM Chris Ballard has replaced those departing players with Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, and third round rookie Tarell Baham. The team will need Basham to make an impact as a rookie to continue the effort to fix the pass rush a success – he doesn’t need to lead the team but you still need a meaningful impact.

Marlon Mack, RB, Round 4: It is difficult to say just how many carries will be handed to Marlon Mack as a rookie but what is clear is that the Colts have been looking for a player with his talents. Last year they brought in undrafted rookie Josh Ferguson and they didn’t rest with just Mack this season either – adding undrafted rookie Dalton Crossan. Like Mack, Crossan is considered a potential X-fact due to his ability to line up at running back and wide receiver, they both have good hands, and they will likely be able to fulfill a role that short-yardage specialist Robert Turbin and primary back Frank Gore cannot. Expect Mack to get meaningful carries each game, particularly if the Colts are able to take advantage of their “weak schedule” and work with some leads.

Biggest offseason addition: Johnathan Hankins, DT.

When Head Coach Chuck Pagano and General Manager Ryan Grigson arrived in 2012, the Colts moved on from their long-standing reliance on the base 4-3 Tampa 2 defense that was in place during Peyton Manning’s career in Indianapolis. With Pagano came the team motto to “build the monster,” which focused primarily on a defensive revival that would hopefully develop into a Baltimore Ravens aggressive defensive style.

Frankly, that hasn’t happened. The move to a 3-4 defense occurred immediately but it has taken years to put together pieces that properly fit the vision of the new Colts coaching staff. Truth be told, the defense still isn’t there but one of the primary pieces that makes a 3-4 defense work is a stout defensive line -- and particularly a dominant nose tackle. Johnathan Hankins is the best promise under the new regime to fit that bill and if he performs as Giants fans seem to think he can at nose, he will have a big impact on the improvement of the Colts defense.

Biggest storyline heading into training camp:

While opinions vary as to how serious Andrew Luck’s shoulder injury is as he continues to recover from off-season surgery, there can be no more important single impact on the outlook of the Colts season than a fully healthy quarterback. If Luck is completely healthy throughout the entire season, and if the offensive line helps him stay that way, it will go a long way in helping the Colts regain their spot at the top of the AFC South and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. If he is not fully recovered, all bets are off.

Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp:

While Colts fans may already know, the competition for the third wide receiver position might include a name that many outside the team won’t recognize. Second-year receiver Chester Rogers, who was an undrafted free agent last season out of Grambling State, could very well shock much of NFL nation and leap over former first round pick Phillip Dorsett and free agent acquisition Kamar Aiken as the third most utilized wide receiver in Indianapolis.

Rogers contributed to the Colts in the return game a season ago and even made key contributions on offense when the team’s second receiver, Donte Moncrief, missed time due to injury. While he was not as explosive during the regular season as he was in preseason competition, it became clear late in the season that he was establishing a rapport with Luck and had started to gain his trust.

Reports out of summer camp and OTAs suggest that Rogers has picked up where he left off and has been getting positive attention from his coaches. This is a story worth monitoring.

Notable injuries heading into training camp:

Andrew Luck (shoulder), Clayton Geathers (neck), Kendall Langford (knee), Malik Hooker (hip/groin), Hassan Ridgeway (shoulder)