The ultimate goal during the off-season for any NFL franchise is to improve the team. There are many ways to evaluate whether a team improves or takes a step backward, the most common of which is only possible at the end of each season; record and playoff run. For the Colts, improving on the 2009 version of the team by this measure is only possible if Indianapolis brings home its second Super Bowl.
There is another time that it is worthwhile to consider where a team stands compared to its prior season, the off-season. What is fun about this time is that the evaluation is far more subjective but the ultimate importance of it could have greater implications, it gives fans a reason to be excited about the coming season or a reason to temper expectations.
While the Colts did not re-sign Dominic Rhodes at the end of the 2008 season, bringing in Donald Brown in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft certainly left many feeling that the running backs would be superior to the 2008 group, particularly by the time the team reached the post-season. Likewise, it can be expected that while losing Raheem Brock in the defensive end rotation hurts depth, many will probably feel that drafting Jerry Hughes in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft improves the pass rushing threat from the front four from a year ago.
This story will take a look at each position and discuss whether it is likely that the Colts will have more or less talent as a team, by the time training camp and preseason play ends, than it had at the same time a year ago.
Ultimately there will be no change here. Peyton Manning is in his prime and will most likely be backed up by a young player without a great deal of in-game experience in the NFL. All indications would suggest that Curtis Painter will continue to be the back-up in 2010, and it seems relatively likely that the Colts will keep only two quarterbacks on the roster in the coming season.
The only thing that could be gained at the position is Painter having a bit more experience, after he played in a couple of regular season games at the end of the 2009 season.
There are reasons to believe that the Colts running backs will be better in 2010 than they were in 2009. First, Joseph Addai managed to play much of the year healthy, showed grit by playing through some injuries, and appeared to run harder and faster than he had since the early parts of his sophomore season in the NFL. Barring any setbacks with his health, Addai should be on pace to pick up where he left off.
Second, Donald Brown spent all of last year learning the Colts offense, and had the opportunity to deal with Manning scrutiny. This year he will be more familiar with the system, should be more comfortable taking the field with his teammates, and should run with more confidence than he did in 2009.
Mike Hart has also continued to be impressive in his limited carries. It should not be overlooked that Hart was given the opportunity to carry the ball in the Super Bowl, an obvious sign that the coaches and organization have confidence in him. A year removed from a serious knee injury, and coming into what will amount to his second season in the NFL, he should perform at his highest levels in 2010.
What has happened with the Colts at wide receiver in the past two years is rather astonishing. Consider that two seasons ago Marvin Harrison, the best Colts receiver in history, was still a member of the team. His replacement, Anthony Gonzalez, was injured on the first offensive play of the first game of the season in 2009. Former Division III wide receiver Pierre Garçon and fourth round rookie Austin Collie joined Reggie Wayne as the primary wide receivers on the team.
Despite this reality, the Colts passing attack was dangerous, ranked second in the league, and led them to the Super Bowl.
This year the Colts will return Garçon and Collie, who now both have nearly a full year of experience as NFL wide receivers under their belt. They have both had the opportunity to develop timing and trust with Peyton Manning.
Anthony Gonzalez, former first round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, will take the field again. The same Gonzalez that was more successful in his first two years with the Colts than Reggie Wayne. The same Gonzalez that was likely primed for his first 1,000-yard season in 2009.
Then, take a look at the pool of young talent like Blair White, Dudley Guice, and Taj Smith. There is reason to be extremely confident that the Colts wide receiver depth will be stronger than a year ago.
Smith nearly made the roster in 2009 and stayed with the team on the practice squad throughout the entire season. White may well be the next Polian undrafted free agent steal. Who comes out of that three-way competition will merely need to be more valuable than Hank Baskett, who contributed very little to the team during his stay.
Dallas Clark earned the right to participate in his first Pro Bowl in 2009, having one of the best statistical season for a tight end in NFL history. Clark caught 100 passes for 1,106-yards and 10 touchdowns, continuing his four-year run of improving statistically each season. While it is not likely that Clark will be more productive in 2010 than he was in 2009, he is playing his best football and should not drop off if he stays healthy.
Both Jacob Tamme and Tom Santi showed that they are capable of contributing to the Colts. Santi did more to show skills as an offensive weapon (when healthy), and Tamme showed more as a special teams weapon but both are solid back-up tight ends going into their third NFL seasons. That experience, and growth should help them solidify the Colts tight end roster, and their development alone likely makes Indianapolis stronger at this position than in 2009.
The key development at tight end is the addition of Brody Eldridge in the fifth round of the 2010 draft. Eldridge will look to take over for Gijon Robinson at the H-Back position, serving primarily as blocking tight end and as a short-yardage back.
Eldridge has far superior size, blocking experience, and played a much larger program (Oklahoma) than Robinson and should supplant him as a rookie. This move should drastically improve the blocking aspect of the Colts offense at the tight end position. Eldridge’s experience in college as a fullback should also add more versatility to the position than it had a year ago.
To begin the 2010 off-season the Colts cut Ryan Lilja, long-time starting left guard. His vacated position on the starting offensive line, more than any other move the Colts made following 2009, will leave fans wondering if the team has improved the offensive line.
Keep in mind, though, the offensive line was not a disaster. In fact, Peyton Manning was the least sacked quarterback in all of the NFL.
Although Charlie Johnson was never supposed to be a legitimate starter at left tackle in the NFL, he did a great job in 2009. There is little reason to believe that his skills at the position will not improve in his second year.
Tony Ugoh is also still around, and although he lost his starting position to Johnson in training camp and preseason last season, he is a solid back-up left tackle in the NFL no matter how he is judged by fans. His competition with Johnson for the starting spot this summer should also push both players to improve.
Ryan Diem may not play at the level he used to but he is joined this year by Adam Terry, former starting right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, who is younger and has solid NFL experience. Needless to say, depth at right tackle, no matter how the competition pans out, is far superior than the Colts had a year ago.
Kyle DeVan proved to be very capable at right guard as he was eased into the position throughout the 2009 season. He replaced former second round pick Mike Pollak and was arguably as solid inside as Lilja in the latter-half of his starting run. DeVan should be better than last year, if he is asked to start at right guard again.
This leaves Jeff Saturday and the replacement left guard as areas of potential concern. First, Saturday is certainly not as young, athletic, or strong as he was in prior seasons. He is entering the twilight of his career and will certainly not be vastly improving as a player heading into another season.
Second, whomever starts at left guard will most likely have very little experience doing so in the NFL. However, what is potentially a silver-lining for the Colts offensive line in 2010 is that the biggest shortfall for this unit over the past few years has been an inability to consistently generate holes for the Colts running game.
With players like Jacques McClendon, Jaime Thomas, and Andy Alleman joining the competition, there is a strong potential for a lot more “big” in the Colts “big uglies.” Alleman is 310-pounds, McClendon is listed at 324-pounds, and Thomas is the largest at 330-pounds.
Whoever comes out of the competition at guard will bring more size, and a greater value in run-blocking than Lilja brought in 2009. If that player can also keep Manning upright, believe it or not, it’s possible for the offensive line to be better than a year ago.
What are your predictions? Do you have major concerns?