Why the Colts Future is not in Doubt

Peyton Manning speaking gealic to his offense in Super Bowl XLI. (Jed Jacobsohn | Getty Images)

With Indianapolis struggling recently, a lot of fans are questioning the team’s future. Many complain about recent drafts and believe the young talent will be incapable of replacing the perennial Pro Bowl and future Hall of Fame talent that is starting to age.

This negative perspective is premature. As long as Peyton Manning is healthy and playing at a very high level in the NFL, the Colts future is safe. With that in mind, it makes sense to focus on the players who represent the team’s future, consider their talent level, and where that talent can take the Colts moving forward.

Fans are quick to point out that recent drafts have been unable to unearth players like Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and Bob Sanders. These fans are concerned that players like Joseph Addai, Anthony Gonzalez, Tony Ugoh, Marlin Jackson, Kelvin Hayden, Tim Jennings, Fili Moala, Donald Brown, and Mike Pollak are not of the same caliber and represent a weaker future in Indianapolis (some are already gone).

Throwing out the obvious disparity in comparing these players to the Colts more recent draft selections, like Freeney’s 11th overall draft position, there are a lot of reasons that these concerns are overstated. The best way to break it down is to consider the age and talent in Indianapolis at each position.

The safety position is full of talent. Sanders’ injury history aside, the Colts have signed Antoine Bethea to a long-term extension and former undrafted free agent Melvin Bullitt is a legitimate starter in the NFL. This tandem took the team to the Super Bowl in 2009.  It is rather likely that Indianapolis will sign Bullitt to a long-term extension in the off-season. Behind them, Jamie Silva is a trusty backup, and the number of safety prospects already on the roster is astounding. The core of the unit is already in Indianapolis, and even before the draft there are a lot of options for the future.

Cornerback was one of the biggest concerns entering the 2010 season. Polian traded a draft pick to the Washington Redskins for a young and promising corner, Justin Tryon. Two second-year players who started much of the 2009 season — who took the Colts to the Super Bowl — are under long-term rookie contracts. While Kelvin Hayden may not be as good as his contract suggests, he is a legitimate starter in the NFL and is also secured long-term. Waiting in the wings is Colts 2010 Third Round selection, Kevin Thomas.

The Colts linebackers are as talented and deep as they have been in a long time. Gary Brackett is locked in long enough for his future replacement, rookie Pat Angerer, to develop. Outside linebackers Philip Wheeler and Clint Session have shown streaks of solid play and have promising players behind them. Rookie Seventh Round pick Kavell Conner has been a pleasant surprise and offers a stout run defending linebacker for the future.

Cody Glenn is in his second season (now on injured reserve) in Indianapolis and has shown promise, along with excellent special teams abilities. Tyjuan Hagler is a talented security blanket who continues to have an impact and is a thrifty option the franchise could choose to retain.

Defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are rare talents, and Mathis is in a contract year. There are some concerns with Mathis’ contract, since Indianapolis will have to spend a lot to retain Peyton Manning. Still, the Colts drafted Jerry Hughes in the First Round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and while most fans are upset that he has not been used more, those complaints seem somewhat silly in context. Giving Hughes significant time on the field during the Colts worst season since 2002, over perennial Pro Bowlers, and the best defensive end tandem in the NFL, is not a wise decision. It should be relatively easy to understand that.

Although Keyunta Dawson is not a long-term answer at defensive end, Eric Foster plays a hybrid role similar to Raheem Brock and has improved each year with the Colts. John Chick is on the practice squad and looked very promising in preseason, and could have an impact on defense as early as 2011.

The defensive tackle rotation in Indianapolis is playing rather well and is relatively young. It is unlikely that Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson would demand huge contracts in free agency, so there is a decent chance the Colts can retain one or both of their big defensive tackles. Although Fili Moala may be considered a disappointment to some fans, there is little arguing the fact that he has improved significantly in 2010, is young, a starter, and is locked up long-term under his rookie contract. As mentioned previously, Eric Foster continues to improve. Even Seventh Round rookie Ricardo Mathews has shown some flashes in limited work.  Some may think this group is not spectacular, but other than years when the Colts brought in marquee free agents like Booger McFarland and Corey Simon (who did not work out), it is the best they have had in a long time.

Accordingly, there is only one high-profile defensive starter with a major contract issue in the immediate future. Even if fans are concerned about the state of the Colts’ defensive tackles, that concern has been with the team for many years and has not stopped them from being one of the best teams in the NFL. This leaves very little to warrant a great deal concern for the future of the Colts defense.

On the offensive side of the ball, Peyton Manning’s future with the team, both in terms of his contract and his age, are obvious issues that really do not require a lot of time or discussion. When Manning’s career in Indianapolis is over, the team will drop off considerably and enter a rebuilding mode. All fans should be aware of that.

Joseph Addai is up for a contract extension at running back. With his recent injuries it could help the team keep Addai for a reasonable price, as he is an all-purpose back that many teams would not utilize in the same way the Colts do. Whether or not he is retained, Indianapolis has former Sixth Round draft pick Mike Hart who has showed real promise. The team selected Donald Brown in the First Round of the 2009 NFL Draft. Although he has disappointed, the jury will remain out on him until there is some kind of improvement along the offensive line or at least until next season. Undrafted free agent Javarris James and local running back/kick returner Devin Moore both have shown some real promise. These players make up a pretty solid collection of talent, most of it rather young, for Indianapolis to develop.

The Colts wide receivers are arguably the deepest and most talented unit on the team. Reggie Wayne is still under contract for 2011, and behind him is a group of young receivers who appear ready to take on more prominent roles. Austin Collie has looked outstanding in his second year. Anthony Gonzalez will return healthy in 2011 and represents a very talented receiver who is capable of starting for many NFL teams, including the Colts. Undrafted free agent Blair White looks more and more like a consistent, dependable, young receiver with a bright future in Indianapolis. At 6-foot 3-inches tall, he also represents the tallest of Manning’s future targets. Pierre Garcon is still with the Colts, giving the team a deep threat and a legitimate five-deep corps of receivers, including one (White) who has looked good returning punts.

The emergence of Jacob Tamme and Brody Eldridge in the tight end rotation makes the future very bright behind Pro Bowler Dallas Clark. When Clark and Eldridge are both healthy, the offensive line improves, the way defenses will be forced to play the Colts favors Indianapolis, and a lot of the offensive line weaknesses are harder to spot. This group is probably one of the most talented, young, and diverse tight end groups in the NFL. Before Tamme had his chance this year, few realized that. Now they do. Do not forget that Tom Santi, who has suffered from numerous injuries, also looked good in limited action in 2009, remains on the roster.

This leaves only the offensive line as an area of major concern.

Jeff Saturday has been outstanding in his career and has snapped the ball to Peyton Manning more than any other center in the history of the NFL has snapped to a single quarterback. He is aging though, and it would seem that currently the Colts are hoping Mike Pollak, Jamey Richard, Kyle DeVan or Jacques McClendon can adequately replace Saturday as his career comes to an end. Ryan Diem’s play has dropped off significantly, so finding another offensive tackle to replace him will have to be a pretty high priority in the near future. Charlie Johnson is considered a stop-gap solution at left tackle and has played hard but does not have the physical tools necessary to stay at the position long-term. A lot of fans complain that Kyle DeVan was an undrafted free agent and former Arena League II player who would not be on any other roster, Mike Pollak has disappointed at guard, and Jeff Linkenbach does not look like the answer there either.

Consider, though, that there are a lot of young, talented offensive linemen on the team right now who seem to be playing out of position. Diem’s career at right tackle may be coming to a close, but Charlie Johnson looks like the kind of player who could be a solid tackle in his spot. Diem could move inside to guard and last another three or four years, solidifying the position. Jeff Linkenbach may not be a right guard but he has looked very promising in preseason, and in one start against the Denver Broncos in the regular season, at left tackle. A better option is to try to trade for or draft a left tackle but at least a young, cheap, player is already on the roster who shows potential. Another player many fans probably forget about is Joe Reitz, who is sitting on the practice squad familiarizing himself with the Colts system. While he may not have stuck on other NFL teams in his career to this point, not making the cut on teams with offensive lines as good as the Dolphins and Ravens is not a major indictment of his talent or potential.

Kyle DeVan may be a former Arena League II player but he has been the Colts most consistent offensive lineman two years running. Even Pro Bowl offensive linemen make mistakes once in awhile, and DeVan is not that, but he has played pretty good football in Indianapolis. Indianapolis has also been preparing 2010 Fourth Round pick Jacques McClendon and former Seventh Round pick Jaimie Thomas to compete for starting guard spots.  If none of those players work out, as is the case at any position, the team either turns to free agency, a trade, or back to the draft.

This means the primary offensive concern has to be the offensive line, which is also the dominant area of current and future weakness for the team on the whole. All other positions are stacked with talent, most of it young and secured long-term, leaving Indianapolis with a core that will be capable of high-level competition for years to come. If the team can manage to retain many of their talented players at a reasonable cost, and can address the offensive line concerns, there is little reason to believe the Colts dynasty is crumbling.