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Roster Roundouts ’10: An Indianapolis Colts Season Preview

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Indianapolis Colts (projected finish: 12-4)

Team synopsis: Someday, Peyton Manning might not be the most valuable player in professional football.  I’ll believe it when I see it.

Best Players

  • QB Peyton Manning (drafted — Tennessee/1998 1st round pick)
  • RB Joseph Addai (drafted — LSU/2006 1st round pick)
  • WR Reggie Wayne (drafted — Miami/2001 1st round pick)
  • TE Dallas Clark (drafted — Iowa/2003 2nd round pick)
  • C Jeff Saturday (signed — North Carolina/1999 undrafted free agent)
  • DE Dwight Freeney (drafted — Syracuse/2002 1st round pick)
  • DE Robert Mathis (drafted — Alabama A&M/2003 5th round pick)
  • LB Gary Brackett (signed — Rutgers/2003 undrafted free agent)
  • CB Kelvin Hayden (drafted — Illinois/2005 2nd round pick)

Best Prospects

  • RB Donald Brown (drafted — Connecticut/2009 1st round pick)
  • WR Anthony Gonzalez (drafted — Ohio State/2007 1st round pick)
  • WR Austin Collie (drafted — BYU/2009 4th round pick)
  • OG Jacques McClendon (drafted — Tennessee/2010 4th round pick)
  • DE Jerry Hughes (drafted — TCU/2010 1st round pick)
  • DT Fili Moala (drafted — USC/2009 2nd round pick)
  • LB Pat Angerer (drafted — Iowa/2010 2nd round pick)
  • LB Philip Wheeler (drafted — Georgia Tech/2008 3rd round pick)
  • CB Jerraud Powers (signed — Auburn/2009 undrafted free agent)
  • CB Jacob Lacey (signed — Oklahoma State/2009 undrafted free agent)
  • CB Kevin Thomas (drafted — USC/2010 3rd round pick)

This is a pretty important season for the Colts, because even though this team is the same Colts team of the last six or seven years, and this team might be better built to weather losses in free agency when it is inevitably re-established by the new CBA, the Colts of 2012 are going to be a team with very different strengths and weaknesses.  Peyton Manning should still be effective at age 36, but I’m doubtful that Reggie Wayne will still be effective at age 34.  I’m confident that Jeff Saturday will not be an NFL starter at age 37.  Joseph Addai does have an expiring contract at the conclusion of 2010, Anthony Gonzalez’ expires after 2011.  And so much of the Colts’ success last year was built on the backs of Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, who will be 31 and 32 in that 2012 season.

Plus the Colts have given out a share of bad contract extensions on the defensive side.  Bob Sanders, for one.  Kelvin Hayden has now missed a full seasons worth of games in the last two years.  Gary Brackett was given 30 million dollars to stay in Indianapolis through age 34, and that’s just not a very good bet to work out.  Both Hayden and Brackett are worth the money now, but that the think: even if they weren’t on this year’s team, would the Colts not be an 11-14 win team?  The Colts have done just fine choosing who not to keep on their team, and should continue to do so, and they’ve done even better finding undrafted free agents who play at a high level.  But the revenue sharing plan is a big obstacle in the new CBA negotiations, and the Colts can’t count on being able to pay cash over cap to keep all the players they want to.

And, you know, one of those players who is going to get paid — more than anyone else in NFL history — is quarterback Peyton Manning.  Manning is so good, so refined, that as long as he’s throwing the ball well, he will be worth every penny of the richest contract in NFL history.  But, I’m told, that Manning won’t be an elite quarterback forever.  And so there will probably come a day where Peyton Manning is still playing for the Colts, and playing well, but not carrying the Colts as his contract will suggest he needs to.  And that Colts team likely won’t be very good.

But that’s an issue for another day, another team.  The 2010 Colts may struggle to stop the run consistently, but again, with the proficient passing attack they sport, that won’t matter.  The Colts are one of about nine teams that is consistently strong in pass defense, even as personnel changes.  They are better with Bob Sanders in the line-up, but are better than most other teams even without their star safety.  Kelvin Hayden is very good when healthy, but even when he is not, having Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, and rookie Kevin Thomas at the position is a pretty good situation.  And this team can get after the passer, with Freeney, Mathis, and rookie first round pick Jerry Hughes.

Perhaps a better question is whether or not they can fix the rushing attack.  I think Peyton Manning has played phenomenally in the absence of a rushing attack, so why bother?  Well, put simply, the rushing attack makes Peyton Manning a better quarterback.  He’s going to wow you no matter what, and certainly, part of his MVP honors the last two seasons have taken into account that the Colts put up big offense while being a terrible rushing team.  But those MVP years have been relatively down years for Manning.  And certainly a big part of the reason is that Mike Hart and Donald Brown combined for more than 100 sub-replacement value carries in 2009.  But certainly, it was due in part to Addai’s performance in 2008 that caused the Colts to draft Brown in the first place.  Of course, Manning keeps finding new ways to re-define career year, so part of me wants to strand him on a desert island in early September and see how many touchdowns he can throw under those conditions.

Donald Brown might still end up being a big time contributor, but I think the Colts took their biggest step towards running respectability when they drafted TE Brody Eldridge in the fifth round out of Oklahoma.  The fullback/tight end hybrid should function like an offensive lineman on the outside, and help Addai and Brown get on the edges where the Colts were downright terrible last year.

Dallas Clark is an able blocker against a safety out of the slot, though when you put a linebacker on him, or bring him in-line, he has a tendency to get overpowered.  Clark, though, is the engine of the Colts offense with Manning as the driver.  He alone gives the singleback offense it’s versatility, as he is equally dangerous in-line, in the slot, and flexed by himself as an isolated receiver.

Reggie Wayne is the Colts’ best non-Manning player.  Wayne runs precise routes, catches the ball with skill paralleled by only the best receivers in history (except, seemingly, in the playoffs).  Wayne, even at 31, can still get beyond the safety level and make a play for Manning.  He’s even more dangerous when Anthony Gonzalez is at his best.  Gonzalez was blocked by Marvin Harrison and Clark as a rookie, but had a breakout season as the Colts no. 2 WR in 2008.  Or so we thought.  Gonzalez injured his knee in the first game of the season last year, and was not targeted.  The Colts didn’t forget about him — they never put him on IR instead lying about the seriousness of the injury, but he never played again that year.  He’s back, and health(ier?)y, but now finds himself in a position battle with another precise route runner who lacks his speed (Austin Collie), and an unrefined burner who doesn’t have great hands (Pierre Garcon).  Gonzalez is still likely the number two receiver, but may not be able to replicate 2008 because of the rapport that Manning has with Collie.  Garcon is likely just a fourth receiver from here, not much different from Devin Aromashadu or Aaron Moorehead.  He might still be good for a deep ball or two a season.

The offensive line is a serious area of concern.  Manning may not allow himself to take sacks, and Jeff Saturday still does a fantastic job sorting protections, probably better than any other center in the league, but the other lineman are guys like Charlie Johnson, Mike Pollak, Kyle DeVan, and Ryan Diem.  Of that group, only Pollak was drafted in the first three rounds of the draft.  Beyond that, Pollak actually lost his job to DeVan last year, so he needs to win the LG spot from Andy Alleman.  Adam Terry comes over from the Ravens to provide depth, and the team still has Tony Ugoh, who hasn’t developed.  4th round rookie Jacques McClendon is also in that mix at LG as the team tries to get bigger.  Jamey Richard, the team’s 7th round pick from 2008, is still with the team, though perhaps not for much longer.  The theme is that the Colts are trying to get bigger and more physical to help the running game, so the McClendons and Alleman’s are in, and the Pollaks and Richards are out.  Clearly, the guards are of bigger concern to the team than the tackles.

Dwight Freeney may have tore an ankle ligament in the AFC Championship and STILL sacked Drew Brees in the super bowl, but that doesn’t really do justice to how good of a player — how complete of a player — Freeney has become.  He’s too quick to run against these days, and he almost never fails to sniff out a screen pass in his direction.  Isn’t Dwight Freeney still the best defensive player in football?  Robert Mathis may think so, and he’s got to be up on that list as well, at least in the top 25.  He’s not quite as complete a player as Freeney, but he’s almost as dangerous a pass rusher, and was long thought to be the better of the two against the run.  Credit Freeney for continuing to work on his weaknesses until he became the most dangerous defensive lineman in the game.

Gary Brackett may be one of the best coverage ‘backers in the league, but Clint Session does seem to be the more dangerous player of the two top Colts LBs, and has the higher upside.  Brackett is a poor-man’s London Fletcher, a guy who always finds a way to be around the ball.  Sessions ends plays earlier.  The third LB, Philip Wheeler, got seven starts last year and really solidified that position in the defense.  The team’s selection of Pat Angerer from Iowa in the second round of this past draft suggests that the team is not planning on sticking with Session past this season.  Angerer will get a shot to compete with Wheeler to start this year.

The safety level is always a concern.  With Sanders in, he and Antoine Bethea are one of the better combinations of safeties in the NFL.  Melvin Bullitt is a more than capable backup for Sanders, but Bullitt and Bethea are a significantly weaker tandem than Bethea and Sanders.  A healthy Sanders helps Bethea with tighter coverage windows.  Jamie Silva will miss the year with a knee injury.  The Colts will stay in character and try to replace him cheaply, possibly with seventh round pick Ray Fisher, primarily a return man, or any number of undrafted converted corners, including but not limited to: Notre Dame’s Ty Lambert, Purdue’s Brandon King, North Carolina’s Jordan Hemby, Buffalo’s Mike Newton, or even a converted WR; Maryland’s Terrell Skinner.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

Backup quarterback is a hot topic in Indy, mostly because 2009 6th rounder Curtis Painter continues to make a mockery of the position.  Tom Brandstater hasn’t been much better (though clearly, he has been better), which opens the door for undrafted Tim Hiller (Western Michigan) to make the team as Peyton Manning’s backup.  He would be the second QB from a state college in Michigan to come from the ranks of the undrafted to win a spot as a backup QB in as many years — the other being New England’s Brian Hoyer (MSU).

Devin Moore and Javarris James are both going to push Mike Hart to be the Colts third running back, though it hardly makes sense for a team that hardly runs the ball to commit to more than three RBs on the roster.  Brody Eldridge can function as a lead blocker in the singleback offense, which frees up the Colts to keep him and three other TEs.  Clark, obviously, but Jacob Tamme has worked his way into the offense as the number two TE.  If the Colts keep another, Gijon Robinson would have the inside track, but he figures to be inactive on most days even if he makes the team.

The Colts only have eight receivers in camp, and can keep up to six.  Blair White, the undrafted rookie from Michigan State, seems like a very good bet to make the roster in this system.  Taj Smith can run, making him a good bet to hold on to his spot on special teams.  Last year the Colts roster Hank Baskett, so guys who can run will be an improvement at the back end of the roster.

I think the Colts are going to keep five guards, with what most of them having the ability to slide over to center in a pinch.  I also don’t think that number includes Charlie Johnson, starting left tackle.  Barring something unforseen, I think Tony Ugoh is going to be retained as the backup left tackle — you’d think that’s something they would have touched in the draft if the Johnson/Ugoh status quo wasn’t acceptable.  I also think the Colts would love to have Ugoh win that job, but think that they believe it’s doubtful that will happen.  Anyway, I have the five guards as: DeVan, Alleman (as starters), McClendon, Terry (as backups), and Pollak, who slides inside to back up Saturday on the second team.

Keyunta Dawson should round out the depth at DE behind Hughes, though he’ll have to beat out Ervin Baldwin to do so.  Fili Moala and Daniel Muir could start at the defensive tackles, with Eric Foster as a backup, and Antonio Johnson battling with Ricardo Matthews and Marlon favorite (both rookies) for the final spot on the defensive line.

The Colts don’t have a lot of linebacker depth.  Angerer is the first guy off the bench.  Cody Glenn is an able special teamer.  Then Kavell Connor has the inside track for the final spot as a seventh round pick of the team out of Clemson.

That’s only 14 defensive front players, and the Colts can keep between 25 and 26 defensive players, which means the team is going to be loaded with defensive backs, mostly of the cheap, undrafted sort.  The way they operate in picking these guys is fascinating.  So many teams struggle in pass defense, and the Colts don’t even attempt to draft the guys that those teams are interested in: they know they can do better at a fraction of the cost.  The Colts are currently rostering 16 active defensive backs.  We’ve identified four corners and three safeties who will make the team above.  Then four other players will be added, but the only two that have NFL experience are Marcus McCauley (on his third team this offseason), and Deshea Townsend.  Townsend likely makes it for his cover skills, but I have a feeling McCauley misses.  Then, just to venture a guess on the final three, I’ll say: Ray Fisher, Brandon King, and Terrell Skinner.  That’s based on, not much, except an irrational love by Polian for Purdue players (King), and Fisher playing college ball at Indiana.

The Colts have Brandon James, a kick returning specialist trying to make the cut, and they badly need the special teams boost.  If that only means holding 11 DBs…well, James was a DB in college, I guess.  The more interesting thing is whether the Colts will extend an olive branch to Garrett Lindholm, the kicker from Tarleton State.  Adam Vinatieri cannot handle kickoff duties anymore, but last year, punter Pat McAfee had the job, and Indy had plus kickoff value as a team.  This likely makes him the kickoff guy again, and Lindholm just another camp leg.

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