Franchise Development 14 of 32: The Indianapolis Colts

No team nose-dived as badly as the Colts did in 2011. Why? Simple. No future Hall of Fame QB under center. He was injured the entire season.

I had always said the Colts were a 4-12 team without Peyton Manning. Clearly, I was wrong.

They were a 2-14 team.

With the NFL’s biggest offseason housecleaning in mind, here’s their 2012 draft:

Sep 17, 2011; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers tight end Dwayne Allen (83) is brought down by Auburn Tigers defensive back Erigue Florence (14) during the second quarter at Memorial Stadium. Clemson won 38-24. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-US PRESSWIRE

1 1 Andrew Luck QB Stanford
2 34 Coby Fleener TE Stanford
3 64 Dwayne Allen TE Clemson
3 92 T.Y. Hilton WR Florida International
5 136 Josh Chapman DT Alabama
5 170 Vick Ballard RB Mississippi State
6 206 LaVon Brazill WR Ohio U.
7 208 Justin Anderson G Georgia
7 214 Tim Fugger LB Vanderbilt
7 253 Chandler Harnish QB Northern Illinois

In perhaps the most glaring case of “reloading” in NFL history, the Indianapolis Colts selected Stanford Cardinal QB Andrew Luck after cutting Peyton Manning along with his massive contract. It’s probably just as easy if not easier to name who is remaining than whom they lost from last season.

Luck is one of the most anticipated QBs to come out of college since…well, since Peyton Manning himself. Even Cam Newton was considered a “raw” QB before resetting the rookie QB performance bar so high that it will indeed take a special young man to even approach his numbers last season. Luck’s accolades have been sung for two years now so I won’t dwell on him here. Suffice it to say Colts coaches are astounded by his ability to retain information. Like it’s a surprise? The kid went to Stanford, hello…McFLY…ANYBODY HOME!??

Andrew Luck is one of the few that could do it, but the massive changes on the team are going to make cohesion an issue early on. Veteran WR Reggie Wayne is now the biggest name – aside from Luck – on the offense. He’ll probably be the one that Luck finds the most helpful in his development as far as skill position players go because he’s about the only one remaining from last year! WR Austin Collie returns as a slot receiver but has a history of concussions.

The Colts drafted two WRs, T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill, so Luck doesn’t lack for targets – most of them just happen to also be fellow rookies.

Lost were TEs Dallas Clark (Tampa Bay) and Jacob Tamme (Tamme followed Peyton to Denver), RB Joseph Addai (New England – now cut there), center Jeff Saturday (Green Bay), WRs Pierre Garcon (Washington) and Blair White (waived), and QB Curtis Painter (Baltimore). The only free agent signings they did during the off-season of any consequence to the offensive side are WR Donnie Avery, center Samson Satele, RB Mewelde Moore, and tackle Winston Justice. Ben Ijalana was kicked inside to guard, his more “natural” position, where he’s already landed on IR for 2012 and been released. LT Anthony Castanzo, and RG Mike McGlynn (another converted tackle) round out 4 of the apparent starters on a pedestrian offensive line. Jeffrey Linkenbach, another converted tackle, or Joe Reitz should start at the guard spot that Ijalana vacated.

The other signees are backups and special teams players for most squads, but don’t be surprised to see one or more making significant contributions simply because the team is at time-zero in their 3-yr rebuilding plan.

The good news is they obviously drafted with a purpose. Their “luck,” so to speak, didn’t run out when their second-round pick came up. They took Luck’s favorite college target in Coby Fleener who also was the highest-rated TE of the entire draft. While Fleener has to learn the offense just like all rookies every year do, at least Luck knows how he thinks and can go in and be able to anticipate his moves even better than some established pros can because of their history.

Their third round pick, Clemson TE Dwayne Allen, clearly demonstrates the offensive model the organization wants to follow: that of the New England Patriots. Neither Fleener nor Allen come with a very good blocking reputation but that’s not why they were drafted. Oddly enough, I’ve not seen much by way of comparisons between those two and the Gronkowski/Hernandez duo in Foxboro but that does seem to be what the Colts wish to emulate, and with good reason.

The tight end is generally the most flexible of the skill positions when it comes to the formations a team can use. In any given 11-man huddle with 2 tight ends, at least one of them can line up at WR, in the slot, as a fullback, as an H-back, or in the traditional tight end alignment. With the pair they picked up, this gives Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians a lot of wiggle room with different formations using the same 11 players, making it hard for an opposing defense to make substitutions…assuming Fleener and Allen are as advertised.

Jan 2, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA; Stanford Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck (12) throws to tight end Coby Fleener (82) during the second half against the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Oklahoma State Cowboys beat the Stanford Cardinal 41-38 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

In one somewhat troubling moment yesterday, Arians was asked about Fleener’s progress. His response? “He’s solid. He’s a really good blocker on the offensive line. We need to get him better as a receiver. But he’s making progress.”

Ouch. That’s exactly the opposite of what they may have thought they were getting – a good receiving TE with average blocking skills. They clearly need both rookies to produce and if Fleener can’t catch up, he may not be much of a factor at least until the second half of the season, if that. Reggie Wayne can’t do it all, so keep an eye on the Colts’ preseason games especially with all the rookie talent to see who stands out from the pack.

Defensively, the team hasn’t lost as much but they’re changing from a 4-3 to a 3-4, so a lot of players are going to be playing new positions. The Texans pulled it off last year, but will the Colts?

For instance, longtime DE pair Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will be OLBs now. It’s too early to tell how that will go, but both are outstanding pass rushers and could still shine in the right scheme. Rising third-year pro Pat Angerer at ILB is an underrated player and a tackling machine last year with 148 total. That number is inflated because of the poor performance of the offense last year, but he seems up to the job.

DE Justin Hickman, a signee from the Canadian Football League, is another player to keep an eye on. He had 13 sacks for the Hamilton Tigercats that should project as yet another OLB for the team. The biggest name I know of that has made the jump is Miami Dolphins OLB Cameron Wake, so there’s a precedent in place.

They really don’t have much returning talent at the NT position. Fifth-round pick Josh Chapman from Alabama played much of 2011 for the Crimson Tide on a torn ACL, so his ability to play through pain isn’t in question. However, he’s beginning the season on the Physically unable to Perform (PuP) list, but he should push for the starting job when he’s healthy again. The Colts’ defense was regularly gashed on the ground for several reasons, but not having a solid player here hurt them. If Chapman isn’t ready, expect Antonio Johnson or ex-Raven Brandon McKinney to start. Kavell Conner looks to have the inside track on the other ILB position beside Angerer.

The biggest issue with the defense last season was a systemic one. With QB Peyton Manning and company lighting up the scoreboard, other teams were forced to the air to try to keep pace and the defense was light and fast – built to defend the pass, not stuff the run. When the offense fell apart without Manning, no more pinball-machine scores for the Colts which meant teams could attack the weakness – their run defense – and nearly all of them did so successfully last season. It was a case of one problem compounding another.

Nov 27, 2011; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) is sacked by Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney (93) at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

Ironically, the Colts don’t have much at corner. The now-defunct regime under Bill Polian could not decide on starters for a while last season and played musical chairs, hoping against hope that someone would rise to the top.

Nobody did.

It says a lot about a defensive backfield when Jerraud Powers is the only corner they have that is a starting-caliber corner. They’ve done everything they can think of to get somebody – ANYBODY – to show something to the coaches there but so far have come up empty. That’s a problem. The bright spot in the secondary is veteran safety Antoine Bethea, a longtime Colt and fan favorite. At strong safety, another ex-Raven, Tim Zibikowski, projects to start.

The transition from their previous 4-3, Tampa-2 style defense to a more unpredictable 3-4 may help mask this issue for a time, but the lack of both talent and depth at corner is the biggest problem this defense faces. Any injuries at all to anyone at corner will further deplete the ranks and probably is going to have to be the top issue they address in the next offseason assuming they don’t work a trade or make further moves sometime this year. The sooner, the better.

So, the Colts have a very nice pair of safeties and that’s a good thing because with their corners, they’re going to need all the safety help they can get. Those guys are going to be busy.

Yeah…this is a long article and not easy to read, but with so many changes and questions still unanswered, I could have brought up two or three times as many battles. Things are still confusing enough in Indy, but at least they got their heir-apparent to Peyton Manning and the cornerstone of their franchise for the next dozen years or so.

With the 2-14 season last year in mind and all the changes, both in personnel and coaching staff, the 2012 iteration of the Colts will surely see a ton of growing pains and breakdowns in execution especially at corner and the interior DL. This makes the Colts one of those difficult teams to forsee because they haven’t any established identity. With that in mind, the Indianapolis Colts took….

…two steps forward. They simply have too many holes to fill and too little experience with the switch to the 3-4 to have much cohesion early in 2012. How this team performs in the second half of the season will speak volumes about the new regime in place as everyone gets settled in. I’d expect Indy to win 5 games plus or minus simply through improved QB play. The team had a couple of close losses last year, so 5-11 or 6-10 may be within their grasp this year.

Next up…the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Topics: Andrew Luck, Chandler Harnish, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts, Josh Chapman, Justin Anderson, LaVon Brazill, Stanford Cardinal, T.Y. Hilton, Tim Fugger, Vick Ballard

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