In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June and July, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
By Russ Lande
Not many teams that win 11 games enter the following season with as many open questions as the Colts have. With general manager Ryan Grigson, head coach Chuck Pagano and quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts are strong at the three most important spots, but there's a lot uncertainty surrounding the team, starting at the top. Owner Jim Irsay was arrested, and his status has yet to be determined by the NFL. In addition, veteran receiver Reggie Wayne is recovering from season-ending surgery to repair his knee, longtime starting safety Antoine Bethea left as a free agent, and 2013 NFL sacks leader Robert Mathis has been suspended for the first four games of 2014.
Biggest Offseason Moves
After allowing 77 total points in their two playoff games last season, it is clear that the Colts will only be able to go as far as their defense allows them to in 2014. With Bethea gone and Mathis suspended, the Colts needed to find replacements, and they understood that just replacing two good players on a suspect defense would not be enough. With two seasons and three starts, all during 2013, safety Delano Howell is the frontrunner to win Bethea's former starting spot, next to LaRon Landry, but the Colts also signed veteran safety Mike Adams to compete with Howell for the job. A smart and instinctive player who shows no fear or hesitation coming up and making strong hits, Howell must prove during training camp that he can handle the coverage responsibilities to win the job. In limited time in the NFL, he has shown that he understands coverage, reads and reacts well and does an excellent job on passes in front of him. Although similar in stature, Adams is more of a steadying force on the backend than a playmaker at this point in his career. At 33, he will need to prove to the Colts that he can still be a playmaker and an asset in coverage, in order to beat out Howell for the starting job.
It's never easy to replace 19.5 sacks, but the Colts only have to live without Mathis for four games. They acquired two outside linebackers during the 2013 off-season, free agent Erik Walden and first-round draft pick Bjoern Werner, but those two combined for only 5.5 total sacks. Both need to produce more if the Colts' pass rush is going to improve. Do not be shocked if second-year linebacker Daniel Adongo is a bigger part of the pass rush than many expect, as he is a top athlete with the talent to make an impact rushing off the edge. Not only do the Colts need more production from Walden and Werner, but their defensive line needs to make strides in 2014.
Veteran nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin was the man in the middle of the Colts' 3-4 defense in 2013, with Josh Chapman rotating in as he learned and adjusted to the NFL. Now Chapman will be counted on to man the starting spot, and while he has the ability to be a solid fire hydrant in the middle of the Colts defense, he is unproven as a starter, which leaves their interior line in question. Signing Ricky Jean-Francois last year turned out to be a good move, and while veteran Cory Redding can still be effective, at 33, he cannot play 60-plus snaps each game. The Colts signed another former Raven in defensive end Arthur Jones, who should fit in perfectly and upgrade their defensive line.
Former CFL linebacker Jerrell Freeman turned out to be a tackling machine and playmaker at one inside linebacker spot, but the Colts have struggled to put a quality linebacker next to him. When the Browns released veteran D'Quell Jackson, the Colts jumped at the chance to sign a tough, hardnosed leader who has experience playing in a 3-4 defense. Jackson was a consistently productive linebacker with the Browns and is an ideal fit next to Freeman, giving the Colts one of the NFL's better 3-4 inside linebacker tandems.
Biggest Offseason Gamble
The Colts have to get production from whomever handles the bulk of carries for them, now that Donald Brown is gone, but if their interior offensive line is not improved it likely will not matter who is carrying the ball. Veteran center Samson Satele is not returning this season because the Colts would like to become bigger, stronger and more physical at that position. The leader in the clubhouse to start at center right now is last year's fourth-round pick, Khaled Holmes, who played in only three games as a rookie. Although Holmes is not as nimble or agile as Satele, he is a thicker center who blocks more aggressively. He has the playing style and attitude that I believe the Colts want in the middle of their line, but he is unproven as a starter and must show that he can function making the proper protection calls with Luck. The Colts also hope that veteran Donald Thomas will return to his pre-injury form, to add the same strong, physical blocking style he showed in the first two games of 2013, before he was lost for the season due to injury. If Thomas and Holmes play as well as the Colts hope, their offense will make big strides, but it is definitely a gamble to rely on a first-year starter at center and a guard who has started only 10 games over the last four seasons.
Biggest 2014 Questions
Even though Trent Richardson struggled during his rookie season with the Browns, many expected him to pick things up once he joined the Colts' well rounded offense, where opposing defenses would not be so keyed on stopping him. But Richardson struggled again throughout the 2013 season and ended up backing up Brown down the stretch. Now, entering training camp, Richardson will be competing for playing time with Vick Ballard (coming off a season-ending surgery) and free agent signing Ahmad Bradshaw. As long as the Colts get good overall production from the running back position, they likely will be happy, but that is an unknown. Richardson looks like a bust at this point, Ballard is coming off major surgery, and Bradshaw has always struggled to stay healthy.
Amazingly, the receiver position has nearly as many questions as running back. T.Y. Hilton had a breakout 2013 season, catching more than 80 passes for over 1,000 yards, but his play and the offense's overall production were up and down after losing Wayne to a knee injury. While all the reports surrounding Wayne's recovery from ACL surgery are very good, the history of receivers coming back at age 35 to play at their pre-injury level is not good. To protect themselves, the Colts signed veteran free agent Hakeem Nicks and hope that he or youngster Da'Rick Rogers can step up this season. Nicks is a gifted receiver with the ability to be an impact player, if he can stay healthy and produce as he did early in his NFL career.
While many people have ripped Grigson for missing on last year's first-round pick, I believe Werner will prove Grigson right this year. Werner was never viewed as a "special" athlete coming out of Florida State, but rather as a good one with outstanding competitiveness, instincts and production. These types of players often need a season to adjust to NFL pass blockers and refine their technique, before they are able to produce at the level they did in college. Although Werner likely will only start the first four games of the season while Mathis is suspended, I believe he will produce at a high level as the Colts' third pass rusher, spelling both Mathis and Walden for the final 12 games of the season.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him @RUSSLANDE.