The most important thing any NFL team can do is to keep improving. Last year, the Colts had a tremendous year, but that was last year. If Indy wants to win it all, they’ll have to play even better in 2010 than they did in 2009. Let’s look at each position grouping and see where the team stands in comparison to last year.
Quarterbacks: Last year, the Colts carried three quarterbacks. We’ll assume 2010 Manning is wash with 2009 Manning. Curtis Painter has clearly improved over this 2009 self, though I admit that’s not saying much. The 2009 Colts had Jim Sorgi to lean on, except that Sorgi got hurt (ironically from throwing too much) right when they most needed him. Let’s call the quarterback position a wash.
Runningbacks: Addai looks great, and Don Brown ought to have a better grasp of his responsibilities in the offense. I’d love to predict much better seasons statistically from the run game, but we all know better. Still, with Addai playing for a contract and Brown trying to break through, I think it’s fair to say the Colts are slightly ahead of where they were last year at running back.
Verdict: BETTER (slightly)
Wide Receivers: This is a massive growth area for the Colts, and everyone and their brother knows it. I expect Wayne will start to show the first signs of a slow down, but this will be offset by gains by Garcon and Collie, and the presence of Gonzo.
Tight Ends: Colts fans are salivating at the addition of Brody Eldrige. He’s a road grader at TE, but has shown strong pass catching skills. I worry about Dallas Clark’s age catching up to him, but for now, the arrow is pointing up.
Offensive Line: How do we even grade this group? We still have no idea who is in this group! Still the 2009 line was horrible, so improvement shouldn’t be difficult. For all the hilarious talk about ‘a change in philosophy’ from the Colts along the line, the most likely starting 5 will be Diem, DeVan, Saturday, Ugoh and Johnson. Basically, the same guys who played last year. Unless swapping out Lilja for Ugoh qualifies as a ‘philosophy change’, I guess the Colts meant what they said. Better? Worse? We have no idea.
Verdict: Incomplete. If I had to guess I would say EVEN
Ends: Freeney and Mathis will now be spelled by Chick and Hughes. Despite whispers and worries about Hughes, I’m thinking this unit will be improved.
Tackles: It’s mostly the same mediocre, but improved, bunch as before. Gone is Raheem Brock (where do we even classify him?), but Moala has shown some life this preseason. I’m not going to get giddy until I see some real production. My sense is that this group will be slightly improved, but they haven’t earned the benefit of my doubt.
Linebackers: Wheeler is the full time starter now. Hagler started last season until he got hurt. Wheeler improved weekly through the playoffs, and I feel good about where he is. Angerer has shown flashes of becoming an excellent player, but we should all hope he doesn’t see much of the field this year. The question is whether Hagler with Wheeler as a back up is better than Wheeler (with more experience) with Angerer as the primary backup.
Secondary: The secondary was a patchwork quilt last year as Marlin Jackson, Kelvin Hayden, Bob Sanders, and later Jerraud Powers all missed time. While I don’t expect Sanders to play 16 games, he’s a massive improvement over Bullitt. Bullitt is a competent starter and an excellent backup. Sanders is a special talent. If the corners can stay healthy, I think they’ll be better as a group than the 2009 team had. Injuries will tell the story in 2010.
Kicker: Vinatieri is healthy. As long as he can actually hit a 50 yard field goal, this is a major improvement over a gimpy AV and ghost of Matt Stover.
Punter: McAfee had a wonderful rookie season. I expect a similar effort this year.
Return game: Moore of the same (thanks, I’ll be here all week!). Seriously, the Colts’ problem is not with kick returners. It’s in roster construction. There is little correlation with excellent return games and winning football games. This is just not a high value area for the Colts, and I won’t believe they’ve improved until I see it.
Verdict: BETTER (on AV alone)
To be honest, this is the big question mark again. Mudd is gone. Moore has stepped aside, though he’s still present. It remains to be seen what Caldwell took away from from his first season as head coach. Larry Coyer seems to be getting more aggressive (which I think would be an awful trend). I don’t dislike the coaching staff, but I don’t have a lot of trust in anyone on it. From everything I can see, they’ve been handed a roster that is at least as good and probably better than they had last year. I don’t necessarily expect 14-0 again, but it’s important that the team not lose focus in year two of Caldwell. I’ll be watching the key indicators: penalties, timeouts, two minute drills. That’s where you see institutional erosion taking place.
Verdict: WORSE (for the loss of Mudd, voluntary demotion of Moore)
This team is better. On the field, there’s no position where they’ve suffered obvious decline. The only villain could be age (for Manning, Wayne, Freeney, and Clark) leading to injury.
The bottom line is that Bill Polian has done his job. He’s given his coaches a better roster than they had last year. Let’s see what they do with it.