Last week Colts Authority started taking a close look at how the Indianapolis Colts has changed as a franchise. Last week’s stories considered all of the pieces that were a part of a string of historical regular season success that have departed Indianapolis and some of the new faces on defense and how they will fit into the team’s future.
Today, Colts Authority will consider what the Colts have gained on offense and where work will likely still need to be done for the team to have a competitive 2012 season. The theme of this series of stories hinges upon the following question and answer:
Are the Colts in a full-scale rebuild? The obvious answer is yes, but the ramifications of that rebuild may be different than what it has been for teams in the past.
Six central pieces of the Indianapolis Colts offense have departed: Peyton Manning, Jeff Saturday, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, Joseph Addai, and Jacob Tamme. Trying to replace players who have had that kind of impact for a team certainly will be a challenge general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano will have to work out.
A solid place to start for a team with a transitioning offense is to play to the strengths of the players that remain.
It is no secret that the Indianapolis Colts will select Stanford superstar quarterback Andrew Luck with the top overall pick in the 2012 draft. Some things about Luck are known that can help explain some of the offensive moves that have been made during the off-season.
First, consider that Luck played in a pro style offense at Stanford where he had the authority and control to audible and adjust the offensive game plan at the line of scrimmage. He had a fullback that he utilized often, liked using his tight ends, was not afraid of checking down to the run — had an offensive line that gave him protection no matter which way he went — and was not surrounded by many tremendous skill players.
Grigson has put some focus into solidifying a group of offensive linemen that will give Luck the protection he needs to be effective as a passer — and a scrambler if necessary — along with a group that is strong enough to get real push for running backs. The current group consists of new centers Samson Satele and A.Q. Shipley, new guard Mike McGlynn, and new tackle Winston Justice. These players will join a young group including Anthony Castonzo, Benjamin Ijalana, and Joe Reitz.
What should be understood about this new offensive line is that size has drastically increased and that run blocking ability has been a focus for the acquisitions. While Ijalana is still a bit unknown, and his role with the likes of Winston Justice joining the team may still be up in the air, all signs indicated that he was a very capable athlete during a very short stint at left tackle. There is a strong likelihood that the telent-level and performance of the offensive line will improve noticeably in 2012 over very disappointing performances in 2010 and 2011.
The offensive line changes should have a noticeable impact for the Colts running backs. The ball carrier set to benefit most is former first round pick Donald Brown.
There is no doubt that Brown’s young career has not been as productive or successful as any Colts fan or member of the front office would have liked. His learning curve was steeper than many expected and it was not until last season that he started to flash some of his home run ability.
What many fans may not entirely understand about Brown’s collegiate success is that he was a speedy, one-cut, downhill type of runner. Having to be shifty in the hole without any lanes to run through as his bread and butter was not his skillset. Get him past the line of scrimmage and make him beat a linebacker or safety and he could cause the defense a great deal of trouble. 2012 will very likely be the first time as a professional that he’ll see lanes open up more often, allowing him to use his burst and speed to put defenders behind him.
While the modern NFL is absolutely a pass first league, an effective running game will be key to easing Andrew Luck’s transition into the NFL. Putting power backs like Delone Carter and Darren Evans on the field behind a beefier offensive line and a fullback is a recipe for improved short-yardage football. Pagano’s “build the monster” mantra may well be an accurate description for the way the Colts are able to run the football as well.
The attention must turn to who Luck will be throwing the football. Losing Clark, Garcon, and Tamme as options leaves the team with a receiving group consistening of Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Blair White, Donnie Avery, and Brody Eldridge. There are a couple of unkowns in this group that will cause the fan base to pause, and a couple of things the fan base should find some comfort in — though many will not.
Can Austin Collie make a successful transition to the outside if necessary? Much ado has been made about his history of concussions, and with the modern day emphasis on head injury safety for good reason, but he did not suffer an injury in 2011 and moving outside would actually decrease his risk of taking the kinds of hits that often result in some kind of head trauma. He is not a speedy wideout but does have the route-running ability, hands, and cerebral aspects as a receiver to be effective if called upon outside.
Does Donnie Avery have anything left after his knee injury? Avery was a homerun hitting, speedy, outside receiver earlier in his career. He was the kind of game-changer that would be an absolute steal if he could return to form. There is a reason, of course, why previous teams have let him go — expecting him to be what he was is probably expecting too much.
Although Blair White has been downplayed and dismissed often by fans for being too slow or just being a blue-collar safety receiver who is effective in the red zone, I think he has the potential to be much more than that. He is the kind of guy who will spend the extra hours with Collie and Luck to develop a rapport and get his timing down with the rookie quarterback. He has excellent hands, good body control, and has worked hard to earn everything in his football career. Personally, I don’t bat an eye if he starts — inside or out.
The real question for Luck as he joins the Colts is who he is going to throw to up the seams? Eldridge is not a pass-receiving tight end and will likely not play a regular role in that part of the offense. This means that Grigson will either have to locate a free agent tight end, trade for one, or find one in the upcoming NFL draft.
The dream scenario is having the luxury of selecting former teammate Coby Fleener in the second round, keeping the two together after years of work in college. That kind of relationship breeds long-term NFL success as long as both players can stay healthy and could be the kind of combination that fans got used to with Manning to Harrison in Marnning’s rookie season. There are other receiving specialist tight ends in the upcoming draft as well and one of them will likely be on the Colts radar.
In the end, on the offensive side of the ball, there is a relative likelihood that the offensive line talent level and play will improve over the 2010 and 2011 version. The improved offensive line — particularly for the running game — along with the use of a fullback should increase the effectiveness of Colts ball carriers and the creation of lanes could make Donald Brown particularly dangerous. The receiving corps could use an infusion of speed and athleticism at receiver and tight end, with tight end needing more attention — the receiving group though, in this writer’s opinion, is strong enough to be competitive without adding a whole lot.
The most important part of any successul NFL offense, of course, is the quarterback. While I do not expect Andrew Luck to come into his rookie season and dominate the league, I do expect him to be strong enough to win games the Colts should be able to win against lesser opponents. I do expect him to potentially surprise fans as being more prepared and capable than they might expect — while still finishing somewhere outside the top 10 in quarterback “rankings.” With a solid quarterback teams can do a lot and while Luck will not be Manning as a rookie, I think he’ll be solid enough to win some football games and provide fans with reason to be confident about the future.
It is for this reason that I really only see the need to focus on two offensive positions in the draft, with a third optional position if Pagano wants to change things up. A tight end is a must, a receiver to develop in the middle rounds would be ideal but not a deal breaker for the season, and maybe drafting a running back to include in a competition or insert into the rotation. Otherwise, the offensive line has enough new pieces and young talent to not be a big need area in 2012 — leaving a lot of picks to help build the defensive side of the football.
Tomorrow, Colts Authority will consider the implications of the changes to the offensive and defensive sides of the football in 2012 and what kind of outlook fans should have for the team’s short- and long-term future.