As Texans load up around C.J. Stroud, Colts are betting on Anthony Richardson to keep pace

Stefon Diggs is a two-time All-Pro, a four-time Pro Bowler and, now, a Houston Texan.

Wednesday’s trade for the star wide receiver was the latest bold move in a busy offseason for the Texans, whose confidence has clearly swelled since beating the Indianapolis Colts in Week 18 to win the AFC South title before walloping the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card round.

The Texans have spent the offseason pushing their chips to the center of the table, placing a big bet that their young superstar quarterback C.J. Stroud can lead them back to the playoffs and beyond. Houston already was favored to repeat as the AFC South champ, and giving Stroud another premier target like Diggs may have made its stronghold on the division unbreakable.

If the Colts plan to spoil the party, it’s become clear the bulk of that burden will fall on second-year QB Anthony Richardson, with no high-profile offseason acquisitions to help him share the load.

After Houston held on for a 23-19 victory over Indianapolis in their de facto playoff game, the gap between the Colts’ early offseason and the Texans’ postseason berth, between Indianapolis’ three-year playoff drought and Houston’s seventh AFC South title, never seemed smaller. All the Colts needed was 1 yard to keep their season alive, and instead, it died on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium following a failed fourth-down attempt.

“We’ll learn, we’ll grow and we’ll come back stronger,” Colts coach Shane Steichen said to conclude a somber postgame speech.

That message was as much about the team as it was about Richardson, who stood closest to Steichen in the middle of the locker room — in the middle of the pain. Richardson hadn’t played since Week 5 due to a season-ending AC joint sprain, but no one could tell judging by the heartbreak on his face. He shouldered that loss despite his own shoulder not even working properly at the time, convinced that if he were out there, Houston would’ve been on the receiving end of that narrow loss.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 21: Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills reacts during the AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Highmark Stadium on January 21, 2024 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

But of course, that was before the Texans acquired the 30-year-old Diggs in a pendulum-swinging trade with the Buffalo Bills that’s further reshaped the power dynamics of the AFC. Diggs will join a wide receiver room that features budding star Nico Collins, who’s coming off a career year, and Tank Dell, who was having a stellar rookie season before breaking his leg in Week 13. Diggs also joins star edge rusher Danielle Hunter — whom the Colts heavily pursued — Joe Mixon and Denico Autry as key additions brought in to make Stroud’s life easier as Houston tries to manufacture a Super Bowl run while Stroud is still on his rookie QB contract.

Colts general manager Chris Ballard, for better or worse, has not done the same for Richardson.

Ballard, instead, has stayed true to his conservative approach. The Colts haven’t made any headlining moves in free agency, and, at this point, no one should expect them to. Ballard has prioritized retaining his team’s in-house stars and free agents. Linebacker Zaire Franklin and wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. were rewarded with three-year contract extensions. The same goes for slot cornerback Kenny Moore II and defensive tackle Grover Stewart.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Anthony Richardson (5) celebrates with his teammates after scoring a touchdown Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023, during a game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston

Indianapolis’ most glaring need at the moment, regardless of Ballard’s praise of Jaylon Jones and Dallis Flowers, is a third cornerback to start alongside proven veteran Moore and 2023 second-round pick JuJu Brents. With the NFL Draft less than three weeks away, we’ll soon find out just how much Ballard believes in Jones, a 2023 seventh-round pick, and Flowers, who went undrafted in 2022 and is recovering from a torn Achilles he sustained in Week 4.

The Colts could draft a cornerback on day 1 or 2, sign one of the remaining veterans in free agency or take an extremely risky gamble on Jones and Flowers.

 

JACKSONVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 15: Indianapolis Colts cornerback JuJu Brents (29) reacts after an interception during the game between the against the Indianapolis Colts and theJacksonville Jaguars on October 15, 2023 at Ever bank Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the clock ticks on the Colts’ cornerback decision, it is also ticking on the rehab of their QB. Richardson should be back on the field when OTAs begin next month. His return to health has essentially been Indianapolis’ biggest offseason addition and will have the most impact on the team’s progression or regression in 2024.

Richardson’s seven touchdowns and several explosive plays through four games last year were enough to convince the Colts that he’s not just their guy but the guy, the kind who, with a full season under his belt, can lift a team into contention the same way Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck once did.

Ballard and Steichen will never explicitly say that, but they’re confident a healthy Richardson can close the gap between his potential and his production because, in large part, he was already much further along than many expected him to be as a rookie.

“You could see even when he played this year early on, he had a really good feel (of) where to go with the football early,” Steichen said at the NFL owners’ meetings last week. “And it might not be his first read, but it would be a guy on a jet motion, and it’s like, ‘I’m going to throw an over — Oh my gosh, no one covered that guy on the jet motion. Ball!’

“He popped one against Tennessee early to (Josh) Downs, and Downs went down the sideline for (15 yards). I was like, ‘Oh, they didn’t cover him.’ He saw it, too, and was like, ‘Here, ball!’ … That’s playing quarterback.”

Ballard has repeatedly stated that it’s important for the Colts not to crown Richardson just yet, and he’s right. The AFC South crown currently belongs to Richardson’s close friend and rival, Stroud, who is primed to keep it in 2024 while aiming for an even bigger one: two-defending Super Bowl champ Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

But for as heavy as the crown can be, how much heavier is the weight of Richardson’s expectations — both those he’s put on himself and those his team has put on him by running it back with a nearly identical roster?

Ballard believes Richardson, amid some inevitable ups and downs, will ultimately blossom and thrive in Year 2. He’s also well aware of how close his team came, in Richardson’s absence, to beating Houston for its first division title during his tenure. To avoid reliving that agony, Indianapolis must evolve, and so far this offseason, the only significant evolution appears to be under center.

It may not be fair to place so much pressure on Richardson’s shoulders, one of which he had surgically repaired, but that’s a reality he’s embraced ever since he was drafted fourth in 2023.

“Just looking at the pieces we have, and then looking at myself, I’m gonna compete every single chance I get,” Richardson said at the end of the season. “We don’t want anything short of the playoffs. We want to exceed the playoffs and go to the Super Bowl.

“That’s the main goal: Get rings, win championships.”

To accomplish that, he’ll have to go through Stroud and the Texans first.

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