Training camp definitely had a different fell last year. The Indianapolis Colts were coming off a disastrous 2-14 season, the Polians had just been fired, Peyton Manning was released along with several other high-profile veterans, a majority of the coaching staff was released and Andrew Luck became the new face of the franchise. They were a team with largely unproven, young players who somehow managed to defy the odds makers to win 11 games and make the playoffs. It was a storybook season.
It’s now 2013 and the Colts enter training camp with a host of new faces. The makeover began with a $140 million free agent spending spree, followed by the addition of 7 new players via the April draft.
The Colts learned the hard way what happens when you don’t have a quality backup at the most important position on the rosters. They brought in 14-year veteran Matt Hasselbeck on a 2-year, $8 million contract.
Reggie Wayne managed to haul in 100 catches last season. But the receiving corps is now absent the Colts second-leading receiver, Donnie Avery, who signed with the Chiefs in the off-season as a free agent. Taking his place is former Raiders first-rounder Darrius Heyward-Bey.
The defense, quite simply, lacked the personnel become the physical, 3-4 defense coach Chuck Pagano envisioned, and was neither more effective nor productive than previous years. Dwight Freeney, who did not transition to the outside linebacker spot, departed in free agency. In his place, the Colts signed former Packers linebacker Erik Walden to a four-year, $16 million contract. They also selected Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner, who will also be asked to make the jump to outside linebacker.
The secondary will look a little different as well. Cornerback Jerraud Powers is no longer with the team, having signed with the Cardinals. To replace him they signed the sure-tackling Greg Toler from the Cardinals, a cornerback who many NFL analysts considered to be highly underrated. They also picked up the former Jets safety, LaRon Landry, who is coming off a Pro Bowl year. While Landry has a history of injuries, and can be somewhat of a liability in man coverage, he brings a physical, ‘enforcer’ style of play that was sorely missing with the now departed Tom Zbikowski. Between the up-and-coming cornerback Vontae Davis, Prowl Bowl safety Antoine Bethea and these new additions, the Colts secondary might actually be a force.
Another big change occurred when former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians left for Arizona. He is replaced by Andrew Luck’s former Stanford offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton. While Arians preferred a vertical, down-the-field passing attack, Hamilton will install a West Coast-inspired scheme, with an emphasis on short, efficient passing and a solid run game. Speaking of the new scheme, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said, “You can feel the footprint of Peyton Manning and that offense still in this playbook, stuff that they’ve done. Stuff that was good with Reggie Wayne. Stuff that was just good for the guys here, that’s worked with Clyde Christensen, the quarterbacks coach. Then there is a good element of the stuff that Bruce Arians had success with last year that worked with Andrew (Luck). Then there is the stuff that Pep did at Stanford with Jim Harbaugh and kind of what the 49ers are doing.”
The Offensive line was a huge area of concern and the Colts wasted no time addressing it in the off-season. The added former Patriots guard Donald Thomas, who filled in for Logan Mankins after he suffered leg injuries. Many analysts feel his play was even more consistent than Mankins’. It will be hard to beat him for the left guard position. At the left tackle position is the 3rd year Anthony Castonzo. He will play opposite free agent acquisition Gosder Cherilus. The former Detroit Lions right tackle was signed to a 5-year, $35 million deal in March, and is almost certainly a lock for the right tackle spot. Up for grabs is the right guard spot. The much maligned Mike McGlynn, who started all 16 games last year. He will compete with the Colts’ third round pick, rookie Hugh Thornton.
Position Battles to Watch
The Colts may have found a real gem in their 2012 fifth round draft pick Josh Chapman. He was highly regarded among college scouts, and anchored the top-rated Alabama defense the year they won the national championship, all while playing on a torn ACL. But the Colts knew this and were willing to wait. He is now fully recovered and is poised to put his stamp on the defense. In addition to Chapman free-agent Brandon McKinney, who also missed the season with a torn ACL. The Colts also picked up the 11-year, free-agent veteran Aubrayo Franklin from the San Diego Chargers. And let’s not forget 3rd year pro Martin Tevaseu. Between the 4 of them, this is shaping up to be one of the deeper positions on the team, and should yield some intense competition.
While receiver T.Y. Hilton had a breakout season last year, having hauled in 50 passes for a total of 861 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns. But the Colts weren’t content to just hand him the number-2 receiver spot. Instead, he will compete with Raiders former number-1 pick, Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has thus far worked as the number-2 guy in training camp. Combine this with the fact that Pep Hamilton’s “no coast” scheme will likely feature more 2 tight end formation, and Hilton will have to show a lot if he is to make it as the number-2 guy.
The Colts signed former Giants running back, Ahmad Bradshaw, to a 1-year, $1.1 million deal, despite the fact that he recently had a second, even larger screw inserted into his right foot in January. When healthy, Bradshaw is a force out of the backfield, having played a key role in the Giants’ 2 Super Bowl victories. He will compete with the former 2012 fifth-round pick, Vick Ballard, who proved last year that he is a capable runner, totaling 819 rushing yards. That leaves former first-round pick Donald Brown, who began 2012 as the starter but was hampered all season by injuries. Brown is also in the last year of his contract, so should have ample motivation to prove he is worth a long-term deal.
Players to Watch
Cornerback Greg Toler is an interesting player. He received a 3-year, $15 million contract in March, and apparently has a lot of upside. The Colts are hoping he will improve a pass defense that was ranked 21st in the league overall in 2012. He was taken by Cardinals in 2009 in the fourth-round. After a very impressive 2010 season in which he recorded 90 tackles, 1 sack, 2 interceptions and 9 passes defensed he missed the 2011 season with a torn ACL. When healthy, he is a good tackler and knows how to play the ball. When GM Ryan Grigson signed him, it was with the expectation that he would be a clear upgrade over Cassius Vaughn and Jerraud Powers.
Darrius Heyward-Bey is another player worth watching. The word out of Oakland is that he had problems catching passes. He was taken the seventh overall pick in the 2009 Draft, probably because owner/general manager Al Davis was enamored by his impressive 40-yard dash time. But his time in Oakland was mostly forgettable, and defined mostly by injuries and dropped passes. Hopefully, the change in scenery will do some good. Oh, and he now has Andrew Luck throwing passes to him. The interesting thing about Heyward-Bey is that he replaces Donny Avery, who was also a speedster known for dropping passes.