State of the Team: Indianapolis Colts
by Andy Benoit
The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that there are 12 defensive starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.
- Jury’s still out
- Just a guy
- Upgrade needed
- No longer on the team
Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.
Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.
Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.
Colts general manager Ryan Grigson had an amazing inaugural draft, concentrated entirely on offense. Not only did he find a long-term superstar quarterback, he also found two multidimensional tight ends in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, a starting three-down running back in Vick Ballard (granted, he’s of "role player" ilk, not "star" ilk, but still...), and two speedy wide receivers in T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill. All were significantly contributing rookies in 2012, and all will assume significant roles under new coordinator Pep Hamilton. The former Stanford coordinator’s system will be a fairly sizeable change, featuring more underneath and intermediate route concepts, as opposed to the vertical designs that Bruce Arians favored.
QB: Andrew Luck, Matt Hasselbeck, Chandler Harnish
RB: Vick Ballard, "Goddammit Donald" Brown, Delone Carter
The hoopla over the young read-option quarterbacks down the stretch last year detracted from an overriding message: Luck is the best first-or second-year quarterback in the NFL. Exciting as Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, and Robert Griffin might be, Luck is the one with the most stable long-term skill set. He’s poised under both physical and situational pressure. He’s accurate. He doesn’t have a gun, but he always finds just enough arm strength to make whatever throw is necessary. He reads defenses shrewdly both before and after the snap, and he’s mobile in and out of the pocket.
Ballard offers good short-area movement for his build, and he’s reliable in all phases of the passing game. However, he’s not dynamic enough to touch the ball 20-to-25 times a week. He needs to be part of a rotation. The Colts would be wise to find his running mate outside the organization; Brown is too slow in his redirection and Carter is too much of a plodder.
WR: Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill, Nathan Palmer; Lost: Donnie Avery
TE: Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Weslye Saunders
Wayne is an ageless wonder who should make the Hall of Fame someday. Hilton has the ability to beat man coverage, but can he flourish as a full-time No. 2? Brazill is a young speedster who’s just starting to get polished. More important than Brazill’s development is Fleener’s. Due in part to injuries, the second-round pick had a quiet rookie season. A rebound opportunity is there, as Fleener is very experienced in Hamilton’s system and will be a focal point in a lot of the base sets. So will Allen, an impressively flexible H-back who gives the offense some unique dimensions. Lastly, keep Saunders in the back of your mind. He’s a more athletic but less skilled version of Allen.
LT: Anthony Castonzo LG: Donald Thomas C: Samson Satele RG: Mike McGlynn RT: Gosder Cherilus
Backups: Jeff Linkenbach, Joe Reitz; Lost: Winston Justice
The Colts addressed their major needs at left guard and right tackle in free agency. Thomas will be better than Reitz would have been at guard, while Cherilus, though mistake prone (and, probably, overpaid) is steadier than Justice or Linkenbach. However, these additions don’t correct the underlying problem from last year: a lack of interior power. The only way to change that is to change the interior players. Because of Luck’s pocket poise and the nature of Hamilton’s system (lots of condensed formations and three-or five-step dropbacks), the weaknesses up front can be masked. Masking is still not ideal.
The Colts are mainly a 3-4 base defense but they’ll play a lot of one gap (i.e. 4-3) concepts out of those looks. Their success in 2012 may have been partly a case of smoke and mirrors, though they were working with less than 50 percent of the personnel that Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky need for their hybrid system. The overhaul process is underway. Improving in 2013 hinges on finding interior defensive linemen, more pass-rushers, and a No. 2 corner.
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DE: Cory Redding, Ricky Jean-Francois, Fili Moala, Ricardo Mathews
DT: Aubrayo Franklin, Brandon McKinney, Josh Chapman, Martin Tevaseu; Lost: Antonio Johnson
Redding is a sound, high-energy veteran who understands the nuances of the four-and five-technique positions. Jean-Francois was solid as a fill-in starter with the Niners. His best chance at success here would probably include splitting time with Moala. Speaking of Moala: he hasn’t capitalized on the potential he showed early on in his career, mainly because he’s not yet consistent at shedding blocks. Mathews must get stronger on a down-by-down basis in a phone booth. Inside, it's a bit of a mystery how much Franklin has left. He was a force for the 49ers a couple years ago, but he only played about one-quarter of defensive snaps the last two seasons, with the Saints in 2011 and the Chargers last year. Injuries were a factor, though his limited playing time was also related to coaching decisions. McKinney and Chapman both flashed some promise early in their careers, but they missed all of last season due to injury.
OLB: Robert Mathis, Jerry Hughes, Justin Hickman, Erik Walden; Lost: Dwight Freeney
ILB: Kavell Conner, Jerrell Freeman, Pat Angerer; Lost: Moise Fokou
The still-fast and always-savvy Mathis has transitioned to the stand-up linebacker position much better than many expected. He still gets overpowered at times as a playside run defender, but overall the Colts can feel good about him on the strong side. The concern is how they can replace Freeney on the weak side. His numbers weren’t great last year, but he was very disruptive most of the time. He’ll be missed. Hughes has shown glimmers of hope, but not enough to get the keys to the car. His starting spot may wind up being stolen by the serviceable-but-uninspiring Walden.
Inside, Conner must continue to hone his awareness. The athleticism is there. Freeman is an intriguing player who started to sow good downhill tempo against the run down late last year. He and the equally intriguing (though somewhat up-and-down) Angerer will likely compete for snaps again. It’s possible both could win starting jobs and relegate Conner to sub-package duties.
CB: Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, Cassius Vaughn, Josh Gordy, Darius Butler; Lost: Jerraud Powers
S: Antoine Bethea, LaRon Landry, Joe Lefeged; Lost: Tom Zbikowski
Davis is on the cusp of being a top-10 cornerback. He operates well in true man coverage, makes plays on the ball, and is a very effective tackler in space near the line of scrimmage. It’s vital that the Colts find someone to play across from him. They think they have that guy in Toler, but overpaying a guy doesn’t make him suddenly good. Toler never could fully keep a starting job in Arizona; why will he keep one here? Then again, it’s not hard to keep a starting job when you’re playing ahead of Vaughn and Gordy. Neither are bad backups, but both have clearly been overmatched as first-stringers. In the middle of this secondary, Landry’s speed and quasi-recklessness will be put to good use. But does he have the coverage awareness to handle the man/zone hybrid concepts that Pagano likes? He’s never been great in this department, though he did show signs of improvement last season. At free safety, Bethea has adequate range in coverage and the wherewithal to make run stops at the back end of the box.
K: Adam Vinatieri P: Pat McAfee
McAfee is inconsistent on punts but booms kickoffs, ranking among the top four kickers in gross kickoff value four straight years.