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Roster Roundouts: An Indianapolis Colts Preseason Report

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flickr.com/bradjward

flickr.com/bradjward

I guess most of my thoughts on the 2009 Indianapolis Colts can be summed up with this prediction: they will post top ten defensive statistics in 2009.  Not offensive.  Defensive.

The implication that statement makes is that I believe the offense will remain the “Colts offense”, and despite some OL issues, bygones will be bygones–*Peyton Manning wins another MVP award*–etc., etc.  That’s the most likely scenario.  But I have enough concern about this offensive group that I’m not even willing to make the same prediction about the offense that I made about the defense.  And the difference might separate a 9-7 team that misses the playoffs from an 11-5 super bowl contender.

The offense is obviously weak in two minor spots that a good team should be able to plug, but the offense is potentially leaky in a few other spots.  In a perfect storm, the floodgates may open and keep the Colts out of the postseason.  First, the focal points of the Colts this offseason have centered around the LT position, where just three days ago, Charlie Johnson unseated Tony Ugoh in a surprise move.  It’s a questionable move, easily second guessable.  Ugoh is a pretty good tackle prospect heading into the middle of his career, but apparently the Colts were unhappy with his development, enough so that they’ll start this season with the imminently replaceable Charlie Johnson.  Prediction: 5 games into the season, Ugoh will be back.

The other shoes the team has to fill are it’s biggest in history (non-hightops version), those of WR Marvin Harrison.  There’s no doubt that the Harrison of 2007 and 2008 was just a shell of his former self, but it’s a little bit different when someone else is actually lining up where Peyton Manning expects to see Harrison.  That man will likely be second year guy Pierre Garcon.  Garcon has been impressive in camp, but, well…I guess the point of this paragraph is that he’s probably not a good Marvin Harrison replacement.

flickr.com/hyku

flickr.com/hyku

Luckily, the Colts as they often do, planned for this transition in advance when they drafted Anthony Gonzalez out of Ohio State in 2007.  Gonzalez is good.  Very good.  He’ll settle in nicely as the number two receiver next to Reggie Wayne, who is as good as anyone in the conference.  It follows in the logical pattern that TE Dallas Clark will see a bigger role, but I’m not sure he will.  Clark has never been the first option in the offense and he never enjoyed a more significant role in the offense than last year.  Clark is now 30, and probably not capable of increasing his role to career high levels.  The only players at the position who were are more integral part of their offenses last year were: Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, and Chris Cooley.

So what else ailes the Colts?  Well, the team decided at the conclusion of last season that they couldn’t get further than the first round of the playoffs as unbalanced as they were offensively.  As the offensive line has declined, Joseph Addai as trekked steadily backwards in production from a 4.8 YPC average to 4.1 and last year a 3.5.  They drafted Donald Brown out of Connecticut because they realized that as the offensive line evolves, it may not suit Addai’s running style.  Bill Polian is a thinker who is generally aware of his team’s issues, and it’s just incredibly rare for a team as strong through the air as the Colts to have as much of a problem pounding the rock as they did last year.  I mean, it’s one thing for yard per game average to be low for teams who like to put it in the air, but when you force the opponent to put 5 and 6 guys into coverage on every play, running should be simple.  Only the Cardinals struggled as much as the Colts did last year of teams who had successful passing games.

The running game should be better this year, but history has been kind of a mixed bag on those teams with such pronounced splits between the success of the running game and the passing game.  The 06 Ravens, 06 Steelers, and 07 Seahawks all had disproportionately bad running games compared to their strong passing games, and none of them improved on offense or in the running game the following year.  However, the 2007 Texans, 2007 Saints, and 2007 all saw rebounds in the running game in the following season.  It should be reported for full disclosure that only the 2007 Texans changed their feature back.

The Steelers are a particularly interesting case.  They were virtually the same offensive team in 2007 as they were in 2006, despite changing their coordinator (Ken Whisenhunt –> Bruce Arians) and head coach.  Then, in 2008 (with the same coaches, quarterback, running back as in 2007), the split corrected itself (though the overall strength declined).  What does this mean?  Probably nothing, but it’s an interesting trend none-the-less.

Passing game strength tends to be one of the most consistent year to year stats: it takes a long time to build a great passing unit, but once you have it, it’s likely to stay for a long time.  The top five passing offenses in 2008 by DVOA were: San Diego, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Atlanta, and the Giants.  Atlanta is a bit of a surprise in the top ten, but the Giants have been building their passing game since 2004, which makes it hardly a shock that they eventually got there.  Not so coincidentally, the bottom five passing offenses were Cincinnati, Detroit, Oakland, Cleveland, and St. Louis.  With the exception of the steady declining/injury-riddled Bengals, no one there is a shocker.

If I aggregate all this data into a macro-level offensive prediction, I think we can guess that the Colts offense will regress a hair from last year, but that the running game will return to above average levels and the passing game will remain significantly above average, if a little bit closer to the mean.  We’ll see if Polian’s offseason moves can help to keep the Colts’ machine greased and producing at current levels.

But back to the defense: it’s a different system entirely than what the Vikings run, but the combination up front of Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Ed Johnson (who was cut last year after being arrested on marijuana charges, but returns to the team) is as strong a three man group as any DL in the NFL.  They protect MLB Gary Brackett, who has produced at a super star level of play the last two years, with all the notoriety of an undrafted rookie, which coincidentally, he once was.  And the secondary, though currently going through some injury struggles in camp, is the best it’s ever been.  It’s got two superstars: CB Kelvin Hayden and S Bob Sanders, and it’s depth at the safety position could start for a lot of teams.  The weak link is the highest drafted player in it, CB Marlin Jackson, who is most famous for intercepting Tom Brady to close out the 2006 AFC Championship win.  The Colts, historically a very patient defense, are planning on bringing the heat this year, which gives the defense another dimension.  I like the combination of the potentially reliable running game and a pressure defense.  Peyton Manning’s job should be way easier this year.

Which, as concluded above, might need to be the case.  Last year, the Colts had nearly everything go wrong starting with Peyton’s knee on the first day of training camp, offensive line issues throughout the early part of the season (no Saturday), ineffectiveness of the running game and Marvin Harrison, and Manning led them to 3 wins in their first 7 games on one leg and with no help.  The guy may be superman, but it’s worth pointing out that in a year where Tennessee won 13 games and the division, the Colts were a mere two losses away from missing the playoffs entirely, and no team is likely to win a game this year like the one where the Colts trailed 15-0 to the Vikings at the end of the 3rd quarter in Week 2, or the one where they trailed by 3 scores to the Texans in week 5.  By December, the might have been the Colts of old, but they can’t wait that long to get things figured out this year, and if that means relieving Manning of some of his substantial offensive duties, that’s what they have to do.

The Colts are a 10 or 11 win team on paper, and if they live up to expectations and win the AFC South, it will be a record setting 8th consecutive trip to the NFL playoffs, and 10 times in 12 seasons since Manning took over at QB as a rookie in 1998.  But all 2008 demonstrated was that the Colts are still very much protected by Manning’s greatness.  An improvement on defense should improve the team more than an offensive decline will hinder it, but the AFC will be more competitive at the top this year, and the margin between the Colts being the team that represents the conference in the Super Bowl and missing the playoffs could be 2-3 plays.  As of this very moment though, I’m confident that the Colts will be the team that represents the AFC in the super bowl.

Here’s hoping I don’t regret this bold prediction in October.

Colts Camp, Terre Haute, IN

A very minimal amount of decisions are made preseason every year in Indy.  This team usually has a good sense of identity going into camp every year, and lets the early months of the season decide a lot of minor things, since they are usually so good coming out of the gate.

Wide Receiver: Pierre Garcon vs. Austin Collie

Behind these guys, it’s really a wide open race for a roster spot; hard even to identify the contenders from the camp scrubs.  But it’s clear that one of these two will be the third receiver in the Colts starting lineup on opening day.  According to SI.com’s Peter King, Anthony Gonzalez’ positioning in the offense will be decided by this camp battle, so you can imagine that this is very much a long term decision the Colts will be making.  Looks like Pierre Garcon should be a top 25 pick in dynasty leagues if things hold.

Offensive Line: Michael Toudouze vs. Corey Hilliard

Two developmental tackles who provide depth on the current team, you have to wonder if Tony Ugoh’s move to the bench will influence the outcome of the battle to be the ninth offensive lineman on the Colts roster.  It seems that it might, although in whose favor I have no idea.

Defensive End: Kenyuta Dawson vs. Marcus Howard

The Colts love to rotate all of their active lineman into the game, so the winner of this battle could walk into 2 or 3 sacks this year.

Outside Linebacker: Jordan Senn vs. Ramon Huber

This is strictly a one year special teams contract.  The Colts have excellent depth at linebacker already, and actually, both Senn and Huber are likely to get the boot at the expense of a fifth safety such as Jamie Silva, but I thought I’d throw the names out there since preseason injuries are a relevant factor and the Colts bothered to put both these guys on their first depth chart.

Surprise Cuts?

  • QB Jim Sorgi
  • RB Mike Hart
  • TE Jacob Tamme
  • DT Terrence Taylor
  • CB Tim Jennings
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