With the kind of widespread team change that has occurred in Indianapolis following the 2011 NFL season, fans are presented with the dawning of a new era and reason to track the team’s progress as it moves into the future with a clean slate. A new general manager, coaching staff, scouting staff, franchise quarterback, and major player turnover all make what Colts fans knew from 1998 to 2010 — 2011 being the albatross — no longer relevant.
In order to assess the state of the franchise in the summer, before games have been played in a new offensive scheme, defensive scheme, special teams arrangement, and with a lot of players new to Indianapolis, I will do my best to analyze the 2011 team roster at each position and compare it with those who will fill the roster — or who may fill the roster — in 2012. Readers are invited to chime in with their opinions, provide their own insights, and help educate the Colts Authority staff and community with any knowledge or insight about specific players and positions in this series.
2011 – Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez, Blair White, Quan Cosby
Although Reggie Wayne’s defense of Curtis Painter fell a little flat when Dan Orlovsky took over and outplayed him, Reggie played with a lot of heart in 2011. There were very limited opportunities for Colts receivers and he still nearly topped 1,000 receiving yards. He appeared to take the end of the season particularly personal, hauling in 8 catches in each of the final two games.
Pierre Garcon continued to step up his role in the Colts offense in 2011. He ended the season with 70 receptions for 947 yards and 6 touchdowns, matching or exceeding his career highs in each category. Garcon continued to show his strength as a run blocker and hard-nosed, don’t quit attitude. He did make some poor decisions at times reaching too hard to make a big play, a theme he has displayed throughout his career. Follwing 2011, Garcon signed with the Washington Redskins, who paid much higher than the Colts would or should have been willing to pay.
The receiver whose progress was hindered most in 2011 was Austin Collie. In 2010, despite suffering multiple concussions, Collie flashed the ability to be one of the league leaders in receptions and touchdowns. In 2011, his presence in games diminished as the quarterbacks throwing his way either did not get to his read in their progressions or were unable to get the ball to him with regularity. Collie ended the season with 54 receptions for 514 yards and 1 touchdown — all career lows.
Former first round pick Anthony Gonzalez followed the same path as most backup players on the Colts offense in 2011 — he did not have an impact. He finished the season with 0 receptions, was only active for 8 games, and was cut following the season. He was picked up by the New England Patriots only to be let go again. Gonzalez remains a free agent.
The only other receiver who could make a major claim for getting hurt most by the quarterback inconsistency and Peyton Manning’s injury in 2011 is Blair White. White spent time on the field filling in for Austin Collie in 2010 and began to establish some familiarity and rapport with the former signal caller. The receivers all managed to stay healthy in 2011, while White dealt with a nagging back injury, and the quarterbacks who took the field did not have much of a chance to work with him as they were dealing with enough trying to run a Manning offense with the starters. Following the 2011 season White was cut, after returning only 7 punts and making no receptions. White is still a free agent.
Quan Cosby joined the Colts roster late in the season but never had an impact in games. He will head into the 2012 off-season under contract after he was added off waivers from the Denver Broncos.
2012 – Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Donnie Avery, T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill, Quan Cosby, Jabin Sambrano, Griff Whalen, Jeremy Ross, Jarred Fayson, Kris Adams
Reggie Wayne was awarded in the off-season with a three-year $17.5 million contract. This deal likely ensures that Wayne will finish his career in Indianapolis and guarantees that rookie quarterback Andrew Luck will have a veteran receiver to help him transition into the NFL. While Wayne has lost a step or two in his last couple seasons, he is still a reliable route runner with excellent hands. Look for him to get a lot of targets, especially on third downs and in the red zone. He will very likely out-perform his 2011 production.
Austin Collie has to be looking forward to the arrival of Andrew Luck. After a lackluster 2011 season and with the exit of Pierre Garcon, Collie should be in line to see a drastic uptick in opportunities and production. Look for Collie to put up career highs in receptions and yards, and most likely touchdowns as well. Cross your fingers that Collie’s new advanced helmet, designed by Simpson, and a potential move outside will improve his longevity and keep him healthy.
Donnie Avery is looking to get his NFL career back on track as a speedy downfield threat option with a rookie quarterback on a rebuilding franchise. Following a solid 2009 season, Avery’s stock was moving up and many were expecting his role to increase significantly in 2010. A season-ending knee injury in the preseason ruined his chances to take a step forward and landed him in the background for the Titans in 2011. If his knee is fully recovered now, along with his speed, his hands and veteran presence could offer Luck and the new Colts a solid receiving weapon.
Rookie third round pick T.Y. Hilton is the kind of speedy electric receiver/returner the Colts have been without for a long time. His small school background could impact his ability to be a big time contributor on offense but look for him to compete for a role as a returner early in the season as he develops offensively. It will be interesting to see how his speed at Florida International translates to the NFL.
Rookie sixth round pick LaVonn Brazill is a very similar type of receiver to T.Y. Hilton, and is also an option in the return game — he returned punts at Ohio. Brazill’s game is predicated on his speed, which is the kind of threat Luck was used to utilizing at Stanford and is the kind of threat offensive coordinator Bruce Arians likes to develop. He projects as a backup to Hilton and special teams option, and may have to wait a season on the practice squad if he loses the competition with Donnie Avery.
When the Colts added Quan Cosby at the end of the 2011 season, many projected that he would get a close look as a returner. He earned honors in college for his return ability and entered the NFL following an uncommon path. Cosby was drafted into Major League Baseball and started his collegiate football career late. Though Cosby is young in the NFL, he is already 29 years old. If Cosby hopes to make the roster he will likely have to prove to be a solid special teams weapon.
Rookie receiver Jabin Sambrano has made early waves at Colts rookie minicamps and off-season workous. He has established himself as one of Luck’s favorite off-season targets and impressed the coaching staff and media covering these events. While he is a long shot to make the team, he is ahead in the off-season race to be considered for a final spot on the receiving depth chart as a reliable pass-catcher. Training camp and preseason will be his chance to prove he is ready to contribute on offense, or at least that he is worthy to develop on the practice squad.
Griff Whalen, another former Luck teammate at Stanford, also found his way on the Colts off-season roster via undrafted free agency. What plays in his favor is the obvious familiarity and timing he has with his former Cardinals teammate. What could work against him is that he was unable to attend early off-season workouts because he had to finish school. Either way, if Whalen shows the kind of rapport with Luck that he established over his career at Stanford, he has a chance to find his way on the practice squad.
Jeremy Ross is entering his second off-season in the NFL and shares a special teams returning history with Cozby, Brazill, and Hilton. The former Cal Bear did not establish himself as a major offensive threat in his senior season and is a developmental prospect who has one season on the Colts practice squad to aid him heading into training camp.
Jarred Fayson is another developmental player with blazing speed (4.38 at his Pro Day) and some familiarity on return units. He started his collegiate career at Florida as an all-purpose play who spent time in the backfield, as a receiver, and on special teams units. He transfered to Illinois and lost a year of eligibility. He went undrafted in 2011 and spent time with the New Orleans Saints before the Colts signed him to the practice squad in November of 2011.
Kris Adams will enter training camp as the tallest Colts receiver, 6-foot 3-inches and 194 pounds. His career at UTEP was relatively productive but he went undrafted in 2011 and spent time with the Bears, Titans, and Vikings before the Colts picked him up this off-season. He is another long-shot receiving prospect who will need to really highlight his ability to be a red zone threat for Luck if he hopes to have an opportunity to stick on the regular season roster.
What the Colts lost in experience — losing Garcon, Gonzalez, and White — they have gained in athletic ability. Avery will try to ease the pain on years lost, while Hilton, Brazill, and Sambrano attempt to provide more athletic depth for Andrew Luck. The upside is that both Collie and Wayne will likely increase their production noticeably in 2012 and serve as reliable options for the rookie quarterback. The downside is that hoping for a resurgence from Avery is nothing more than hope, until he proves it, and the other options behind Avery are rookies or first year receivers.
Given the offense Luck worked in while at Stanford, though, the options at his disposal should prove vastly superior to what he’s worked with and the speed receivers could give him an opportunity to exploit aggressive defenses over the top. The receiving corps will be inferior to 2011′s group when the season opens with much more room for development and improvement than the previous group. With a rookie quarterback, it’s not a bad direction to take.