32 to 1: Colts on the upswing with better defense and a lot of Luck

Indianapolis is the last franchise to recover from finishing with the NFL’s worst record to ultimately winning a Lombardi Trophy.

Based upon the progress they’ve made the past two years, the Colts could very well be poised to do it again.

Like when Peyton Manning lifted the Colts from the NFL basement following the 1997 season to a Super Bowl crown nine years later, the star quarterback’s successor has spearheaded another major rebuilding project. Andrew Luck has led Indy to the playoffs twice since becoming the No. 1 overall pick in his draft class, as Manning was in 1998.

It took Manning six seasons to reach his first AFC Championship Game. Luck may be able to cut that time in half provided the 2014 Colts improve in the trenches.

The need to upgrade the defensive line was obvious after New England gouged Indianapolis for six rushing touchdowns and 234 yards on the ground in last season’s second-round playoff game. Indianapolis did just that when signing Arthur Jones away from Baltimore in free agency. Jones will play end in the Colts’ 3-4 scheme but also replace promising nose tackle Josh Chapman in passing situations.

Offensively, the Colts are banking on running back Trent Richardson proving he was worth trading their 2014 first-round pick to Cleveland last season. Richardson’s struggle to become comfortable in a new system was glaringly evident after the deal. In his defense, Richardson played behind an interior offensive line that couldn’t open holes in the power running game first-year coordinator Pep Hamilton wanted to deploy.

The Colts will likely field three new starters in that area: 2014 second-round pick Jack Mewhort received first-team snaps at left guard during minicamp; Khaled Holmes, a 2013 fourth-round selection, will replace the released Samson Satele at center; and right guard Donald Thomas is back after missing the final 14 games last season with a torn quadriceps.

An already potent passing offense will receive a boost with the free-agent addition of wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants) and the return of wideout Reggie Wayne and tight end Dwayne Allen from injured reserve. But the pass defense has already suffered an early-season setback as reigning NFL sack leader Robert Mathis is suspended for the first four games after violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

Mathis probably won’t be the only member of the Colts organization watching at least some of the season from a distance. Colts owner Jim Irsay will likely get suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being arrested in March for driving under the influence.

Irsay, though, can at least take solace in knowing his team is on far more solid ground than when it finished 2-14 in 2011.