The Indianapolis Colts have endured quite the eventful — and often turbulent — offseason in 2012.
The firings of Vice Chairman Bill Polian, GM Chris Polian and coach Jim Caldwell. The hires of GM Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano.
The release of quarterback Peyton Manning, the greatest and most iconic Indianapolis Colt of all time, and the subsequent cuts of long-time fan favorites Joseph Addai, Gary Brackett, Melvin Bullitt and Dallas Clark.
The selection of Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck — the franchise’s cornerstone for the future — with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
And on the not-so-bright side, the fan backlash at owner Jim Irsay and the club, particularly for parting with Manning and for announcing just weeks ago the Colts would black out home games that weren’t 100-percent sold out despite a new league rule that allows a minimum 85-percent attendance to air games.
After all this uber-whirlwind of change and drama surrounding the Colts, it’s finally, thankfully, time to play some football.
The Colts report to training camp Saturday at Anderson University in Anderson, Ind. The first full-team practice is Sunday. However, Colts rookies reported Wednesday to the team’s headquarters for a pre-camp before joining the rest of their teammates. All of Indy’s draft picks and undrafted rookies are signed and ready to go as second- and third-round picks, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, both signed their contracts late Wednesday after missing the first day of workouts. It’s unclear why Fleener and Allen took so long to get deals in place — Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star suggests guaranteed money, and perhaps Grigson is still figuring out the financial side of his job — but big picture, one missed day of rookie pre-camp shouldn’t be too big a deal.
With that, here are some key things to watch as the Colts enter the Great Unknown in this, their first season without Manning or Bill Polian since 1997.
1. How quickly will Andrew Luck seize command of the offense?
Luck is widely considered the most NFL-ready quarterback prospect since, ironically, his predecessor, Peyton Manning. There’s plenty of reason to believe that. Luck ran a straight-up pro-style offense at Stanford, initially under the tutelage of current San Francisco 49ers coach (and former Colts quarterback) Jim Harbaugh. He went 31-7 in his three years as the Cardinal’s starting quarterback, finishing as the school’s most accurate passer (68.7-percent completion) and all-time leader in touchdown passes (82). He amassed 9,430 passing yards in an offense that featured a more balanced attack between passing and running than the one he’ll have to conduct in the NFL. During his redshirt junior season in 2011, Luck completed 71.3 percent of his passes for 3,517 yards and threw 37 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions (stats from Stanford’s athletic website). He produced at this level without a true deep threat at receiver all season.
It might sound crazy, but from what can be gathered from the Colts’ acquisitions via free agency and the draft, Luck could be set up even more nicely for early effectiveness as a pro than he was during his final season at Stanford. He’ll have veteran presences at wideout in Reggie Wayne, who pleasantly surprised the Colts and their fans with his decision to re-sign with the club for three years, and Austin Collie. He’ll also have more speed at receiver than he ever had in college; Indy signed speedster Donnie Avery and drafted the dynamic T.Y. Hilton out of Florida International University and Ohio University’s LaVon Brazill — both short but fast players with burner potential. What’s more is that Luck will be able to lean on the top two tight ends from the 2012 draft, one of them his former college teammate. Fleener was Luck’s favorite target at Stanford in 2011; the tight end led the Cardinal with 10 touchdown receptions. Allen, the recipient of the 2011 John Mackey Award, could rival Fleener’s prowess as a pass-catcher and also could serve as the extra blocking presence his counterpart might not provide.
The only real question mark regarding Luck’s supporting cast on offense is the offensive line. Second-year man Anthony Castonzo, the Colts’ 2011 first-round pick, is firmly entrenched at left tackle, Joe Reitz figures to return at left guard, and newly signed Samson Satele probably will take over at center for the departed long-time line anchor Jeff Saturday. From there, the right side remains up for grabs. The Colts brought in former Eagles tackle Winston Justice and former Bengals interior lineman Mike McGlynn, but it’s unclear whether either is a better option than returnees Jeff Linkenbach and Ben Ijalana. The Colts definitely are beefier on the offensive line this season, but how much better they’ll be remains to be seen.
If the improvement is there, look for the team’s running game to follow suit. Donald Brown averaged a respectable 4.8 yards per carry as Indy’s primary back in 2011. New coach Chuck Pagano described Brown as an every-down back, so he’s looking for big things from the former first-round pick in this, his fourth pro season. Beyond Brown, Delone Carter showed flashes of toughness as a runner in his rookie campaign, but he also displayed a knack for fumbling, losing three before being benched for most of the season. The team added veterans Deji Karim and Mewelde Moore and drafted Vick Ballard out of Mississippi State. Ballard averaged a whopping 6.2 yards per carry with the Bulldogs last year, amassing 1,189 yards for 10 rushing scores. Ballard is going to be a player to watch, especially if Brown and Carter noticeably struggle early in the season.
In the end, though, the success of the offense boils down to Luck, which probably is a big reason Pagano hired Bruce Arians as offensive coordinator. Arians has a tremendous track record grooming young quarterbacks; he was here in Indy as Manning’s first quarterback coach and later thrived as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator, helping the Steelers’ offense evolve from a ground-and-pound attack to an aerial assault led by signal-caller Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben hadn’t thrown more than 18 touchdown passes in his first three seasons, but he tossed 32 scores in his fourth campaign in 2007, Arians’ first year in Pittsburgh. Arians loves utilizing two-tight end formations and speedy burner receivers, and thanks to the Colts’ draft, he’ll have those exact weapons for Luck immediately. Arians also will soon find that Luck resembles not only Manning with his mental grasp of the quarterback position but also Roethlisberger in terms of his ability to extend plays with his legs. Colts fans surely will welcome such a sight during games.
A lot of analysts suggest the Colts need more pieces around Luck. Honestly, I don’t think those analysts looked closely enough at the work the front office did on the offensive side of the ball. It would not surprise me to see Luck — and this offense — produce at a much quicker rate than universally expected.
2. Will the defensive switch work, particularly for Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis?
Other than Luck, the biggest story line heading into Colts training camp is the new defensive scheme Pagano is bringing with him from Baltimore. The Colts long have deployed a Cover 2 4-3 defense, implemented by former coach Tony Dungy, that favored speed to size. The idea was to rush the passer with four linemen so linebackers and defensive backs could remain in coverage, thus limiting big plays by opposing offenses. However, the drawbacks to the “Tampa 2” in Indy included run defense — the Colts were routinely (and, in 2006, historically) bad against the run in the Cover 2 — and the scheme itself becoming outdated as NFL rules changed and quarterback play improved throughout the league. Many elite signal-callers have little trouble finding open receivers against zone coverage nowadays.
Enter Pagano’s — and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky’s — new hybrid defense.
The plan is to eventually play from a 3-4 base like Pagano oversaw with the Ravens. It’s only natural, then, that he’s bringing along some of his former players from Baltimore. Cory Redding, a nine-year defensive lineman, is an ideal fit at the new five-technique defensive end position at 6-4 and 295 pounds. Similarly, Brandon McKinney, another former Raven, gives Indy another option at the ever-valuable nose tackle spot in a 3-4 along with Antonio Johnson. The Colts spent a fifth-round pick on Alabama nose tackle Josh Chapman and likely sees him as a long-term solution there, but Chapman still is recovering from reconstruction of a torn ACL on which he played throughout the Crimson Tide’s national-championship season. Therefore Johnson or McKinney, who was a backup in Baltimore, figure to vie for the nose job (pun intended).
The most intriguing question about the switch is how long-time defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will transition to the 3-4’s signature rush linebacker position. Mathis has been vocal about wanting to play the position and figures to make a smoother transition than Freeney, who always has wreaked havoc from the three-foot stance, beating offensive linemen at the snap with his patented spin move. Pagano has said the Colts still will deploy 4-3 formations in an overall “hybrid” defensive scheme for 2012, so Freeney will get plenty of chances to rush from the edge. What further limits the risk with Freeney is that 2012 essentially is a one-year trial of him at outside linebacker. He is in the final year of his contract and will count for roughly $19 million against the cap. It’s doubtful the Colts will give Freeney a third contract; he’ll be 33 in February, and he’s coming off a relatively quiet 2011 season in which he managed only 19 combined tackles despite getting 8 1/2 sacks. It also is not out of the realm of possibility that Freeney could be traded before or during the season; the club was actively shopping him at the beginning of free agency this year. Whether he stays through 2012, Freeney likely will be a Colts outside linebacker a maximum of one season.
That means something else for another of the team’s pass-rushers: 2012 is a make-or-break season for Jerry Hughes, Indy’s first-round pick in 2010 who has been a bust to this point in his career. Through his first two pro seasons, Hughes has produced a putrid 21 combined tackles and ONE sack. That simply is unacceptable for a first-round pass-rusher. There’s an argument out there that Hughes has struggled because in the Colts’ 4-3 defense he had to put his hand on the ground; he had projected more as a 3-4 rush linebacker and thus was a poor fit in the Tampa 2. Granted, Hughes stood up a lot as a college player at Texas Christian University and was quite effective in doing so. Nevertheless, I personally detest that argument; Hughes is comparable to Mathis in size and skill set and shouldn’t have had a problem playing as an edge rusher if he were putting in the work. Having said that, the Colts’ new scheme eliminates that excuse for Hughes altogether, so he absolutely has to deliver now. With rookie rusher Tim Fugger, who could’ve pushed Hughes for his job, opening camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list, Hughes figures to have some time to prove himself. He’ll have to do it quickly, though, because he nearly was cut during last year’s training camp by the executive who drafted him. Grigson, on the other hand, has no ties to Hughes to begin with.
The pass-rusher transition might be the most intriguing question mark on defense, but the biggest question mark? The secondary. The Colts appear quite thin and unproven at several spots in the defensive backfield, including at two starting positions beyond top cornerback Jerraud Powers and free safety Antoine Bethea. Indy unsuccessfully attempted to trade for Cowboys corner Mike Jenkins earlier in the offseason and resorted to deals for players of lesser pedigree, including Cassius Vaughn and D.J. Johnson, to compete with youngsters Kevin Thomas and Chris Rucker for the second starting corner spot. Thomas, a third-round pick from 2010, was up-and-down in his first playing season with the Colts in 2011 (he missed all of 2010 with a torn ACL). Rucker showed flashes down the stretch, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him win the job. Still, though, No. 2 corner figures to be a weak spot for the Colts with the absence of proven talent and could be filled by committee as it was last season. The strong safety spot might appear slightly less shaky, but that’s mostly because Baltimore transplant Tom Zbikowski has a solid inside track there. Zbikowski plays extremely hard, but observers still question whether he has enough talent to hold down a starting spot. David Caldwell and Joe Lefeged, who will compete with Zbikowski, had their moments starting there in 2011 in relief of the injured Melvin Bullitt, but neither would be a likely starter on a championship-caliber defense. Given the concerns at these two spots, the Colts will need Powers and Bethea to bring it every week.
A far more minor question surrounds the inside linebackers, who both return from last year’s squad. Pat Angerer stepped in brilliantly for Gary Brackett after the latter was lost for the season early on, finished fourth in the league in combined tackles with 148. The question, however, is how he and fellow starter Kavell Conner can hold up physically in interior positions. Both are quick, slightly undersized players ideally suited for a Cover 2 outside linebacker position. That said, I don’t see these two spots being a major weakness as both guys are solid tacklers.
All in all, the new-look defense is a work in progress, and it will be interesting to see what the first year holds. Typically one expects a struggle in year one of a schematic transition on defense, but several teams have pulled off an instantly successful switch recently. The right pieces have to be in place, though. The Colts look like they’ve helped themselves a lot along the defensive line, but it remains to be seen whether the pass-rushers can adjust to their new positions and maintain their productivity and also whether the secondary can hold up with so much unproven personnel. And given the quarterbacks the defense will have to face this season — Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, and Matt Schaub twice — there could be some rough patches ahead for this unit.
3. Can special teams finally show signs of improvement?
Under Polian the Colts were a top-heavy team in terms of salary and cap-space allotment — much of the club’s salary cap was tied up in contracts for Manning, Freeney and a few other individuals, a few of them overpaid — and the biggest on-field casualties of that approach were the special teams. The Colts often were unable to use high-profile players or add necessary talent for its return and coverage units because of their financial constraints, and it proved detrimental in the later years of the Manning era. Indy was a regular in the cellar of the NFL for total special teams, even through multiple changes at the special teams coordinator job. Fans want to blame the coaches, but special teams aren’t about Xs and Os; they’re about Jimmys and Joes.
Improvement for the special teams will depend largely on what Grigson does financially during his tenure. If he manages the cap and drafts to a point where enough talent remains to place on special teams, improvement is a certainty. From a personnel standpoint, he already has added intriguing potential return men. Hilton was electrifying in that capacity at FIU, and Zbikowski returned while in Baltimore. The biggest question mark is whether there are enough guys to block for the returner. It can’t hurt that many new faces on the roster are bigger bodies than what Colts fans are used to seeing on the field.
The 2012 Indianapolis Colts couldn’t be described any better than the Great Unknown. We all enter it next week.
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