In fact, so much change has taken place in Circle City this winter that, at this point, it’s easy to forget just how important the upcoming draft really is.
The Colts have already named a new general manager and head coach this offseason, after all, and with huge decisions still looming about the team’s current roster, particularly the drama surrounding quarterback Peyton Manning, it’s starting to feel like the draft itself is actually just a minor detail in this top-down rebuilding process.
All great teams were built through the draft, including the one Indianapolis had been fielding for a decade straight before last season. And with both high-profile hires the team made this offseason appearing in their respective roles for the first time ever (Ryan Grigson as general manager and Chuck Pagano as head coach), a lot is clearly riding on those seven crucial picks this April.
What will the new management group do with this tremendous opportunity they’ve been given?
Have they bought into the Andrew Luck hype like everyone else?
And where do they begin to address all the other issues Indianapolis experienced last season when, on several occasions, they looked like one of the worst teams in the history of the game?
We probably won’t have those answers anytime soon, but there are definitely clues available to help us predict just how it’s all going to play out this spring, for better or for worse.
Here’s a look at what we think we know so far about Indy’s fresh new faces and, more importantly, the tough decisions they’ll likely be faced with when this year’s draft commences.
First, the easy part.
Andrew Luck is about the closest thing to a consensus No. 1 overall pick as the league has ever seen, and if the Colts somehow end up not taking him with the No. 1 pick this April the entire sports world will be totally flabbergasted.
As a prospect, Luck embodies every quality a scout is trained to look for. He fares well in virtually every measurable statistic, he displays all the intangibles you want to see in a quarterback and his potential to develop into a franchise player of the future is unmatched in this draft.
Any team would be thrilled to add this guy to their roster, regardless of circumstance.
Thanks to last year’s pitiful performance, the Colts are that team.
Biggest Clue: No matter what Grigson or Pagano may have to say about it, Colts owner Jim Irsay has already made it clear he plans to select Peyton Manning’s heir in this draft and, reportedly, he’s already decided that heir is Luck.
With so many obvious needs and such a high position to draft from, the Colts would be wise to stay flexible with this pick and simply take the best available player.
Zach Brown looks a lot like that guy at this point, as the 6’2", 230-pounder very well may still be available at No. 34. He did more than enough to distinguish himself in his senior year last season and he definitely has the potential to make an immediate impact at the next level.
Brown isn’t the biggest linebacker in this year’s class, but with punishing acceleration, a keen ability to read offenses and an unmistakable ability to make plays all over the field, he just might be the most versatile.
Brown was the recipient of the 2011 Elite Linebacker Trophy, and even though he won’t be an ideal fit if Pagano implements a 3-4 scheme in Indianapolis as many suspect he eventually will, his raw talent alone may prove just too hard to pass on at this point in the draft, no matter what direction the defense is heading.
Take the best player you can, worry about what to do with him later.
What’s so hard about that?
Biggest Clue: Pagano has spent the last four years coaching a defense anchored by one of the best linebacker duos in NFL history, Baltimore’s Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. The Colts, meanwhile, have had just two Pro Bowl linebackers in the last 24 seasons and have three potential free agents at the position this offseason. That’s a rough transition for anyone to make, and there’s no way Pagano will pass up a golden opportunity to ease it for himself if one appears on draft day.
It’s impossible to predict which receivers will still be available in this slot, but it seems inevitable that Indianapolis will take one here if they didn’t already in Round 2.
Longtime No. 1 receiver Reggie Wayne appears to be on his way out of town this offseason, as the 33-year-old veteran will need a new contract and Indianapolis, now fully ensconced in rebuilding mode, doesn’t appear willing to offer him one at the price he’ll be asking. Anthony Gonzalez and Pierre Garcon could also potentially leave via free agency in the coming weeks if the Colts don’t offer new deals to them too, and even if both stay the unit as a whole will still be weak at best.
Add to that the fact this team, in all likelihood, will be starting a rookie quarterback next season and it doesn’t take long to see the Colts will be gunning for a stud receiver this April, no matter how the chips happen to fall.
Enter Dwight Jones.
Another Tarheel who completely blew up in 2011, Jones is a physical behemoth who stands 6’4", weighs 225 pounds and whose greatest football asset is his ability to run after the catch. There are concerns about his hands and vision, but when paired with a quarterback as talented as Andrew Luck, who leaves Stanford as the most accurate passer in Pac-12 history, it’s easy to see that Jones would have all the tools he’d need to excel in this league for years to come if Indy selects him come draft day.
Jones averaged at least 14 yards per catch during both his junior and senior seasons at UNC. Even though his critics are quick to point out how many drops he experienced last year, the guy still racked up over 90 receiving yards in seven of 12 regular season games.
This is a guy who will make plays happen if you can just find a way to get him the ball, and the size advantage that helped him dominate his position in college should translate to the pros right away.
The Colts are perfectly positioned to not only draft Jones but also to make full use of him next season.
Biggest Clue: During Grigson’s rise with the Eagles from 2004 to 2011, the team took a wide receiver within the first three rounds in three of the seven drafts in which the 39-year-old Indiana native was involved. Two of them panned out immediately, as Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson both had solid rookie and second-year campaigns. With the wide receiver situation in Indianapolis as murky as it is, Grigson will definitely be looking to score another instant contributor at the position through this draft if he can.
At 36, it’s clear Jeff Saturday will not be the Colts' starting center for too much longer, and with a new contract necessary to bring him back next season, there’s a very real possibility the Colts may have already seen the last of him.
Saturday is the most prolific offensive lineman in franchise history and it pretty much goes without saying that he won’t be easy to replace.
Whether it happens this season or not, Indy will be forced to move on from Saturday sometime soon, so they might as well address the situation now by taking advantage of a fortuitous draft position that should give them an edge with every pick they make.
Blake sounds like a great choice for one of those very picks, as the 26-year-old All-Big 12 selection seems experienced enough to fit in with the complex offense Indy will likely still be running next season. He should hang around just long enough for the Colts to snag him at the start of Round 4.
At 6’2" and 312 pounds, Blake won’t just fill the void Saturday leaves behind whenever he goes, he’ll flatten it like an asteroid from outer space. The guy is massive. He squats 600 pounds. He has experience playing both guard and center and he spent last year protecting a Baylor offense that finished second in the nation in total yards.
Who’s to say Blake wouldn’t have that same kind of success playing with a quarterback like Andrew Luck on an offense expected to produce at that same high level week after week in order to win?
Biggest Clue: Peyton Manning has played behind one center for 11 of his 14 NFL seasons. Tom Brady has played behind just two since 2003. There’s a natural bond between these positions that should never be downplayed, as both are, by definition, key participants in every play the offense runs. When you find the right fit, history has shown us the results can be extraordinary. Expect the Colts to try and secure just that kind of bond in this year’s draft by selecting not only a quarterback they feel comfortable with, but also a center they can trust.
This may be the toughest pick for the new management group to convene on, because by the time it’s made the team’s most obvious replacement needs should, in theory, have already been addressed.
At this point it becomes a game of not only prioritizing, but also simply trusting your natural football instincts.
For a few seasons last decade, the Colts' pass defense actually seemed like an elite unit, even if their performance was skewed by the pathetic rushing defense they simultaneously displayed at the time (why throw against a defense when you can just run at will?).
Whether their success in years past was real or not doesn’t matter now, however, because today the Indy pass defense is clearly a huge liability that needs to be strengthened at some point through this year’s draft, arguably the sooner the better (opposing quarterbacks posted an average passer rating of 103.9 against the Colts last year, the second worst average allowed in the league).
There should still be plenty of options for Indy to do just that when Round 5 begins, and Pellerin, at this point, looks to be the cream of the crop.
Pellerin has a combination of size and speed that will be very hard to obtain if the Colts wait any longer to pad the ranks of their defensive backs. The 23-year-old cornerback stands 6’0" and weighs 195 pounds, he’s logged playing time in both safety positions as well as cornerback and he was a track star in high school to boot.
Pellerin was named First Team All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference last season, the only player from his team to receive the honor, and he led the conference with 15 passes defended in 2011.
Indy’s secondary has been secretly subpar for years, and after finally being completely exposed last season, it won’t be long before we see some very big changes on that front.
Chances are those changes begin this April.
Biggest Clue: Chuck Pagano has made a career out of turning around secondaries. In 2001, Pagano helped the Cleveland Browns lead the league in interceptions in his first year as an NFL coach, just one season after the team finished tied for the sixth fewest overall. In 2006, he did it again, this time with Oakland, turning what was the league’s third worst passing defense in 2004 into its best statistical unit within two seasons. With a record like that, chances are Pagano views the many problems he’ll inherent in Indianapolis as opportunities rather than challenges, and chances are he views the secondary as an integral part of the turnaround process he’s envisioning.
At this stage in the draft, the decision very well may hinge on one extremely oversimplified question we all ask ourselves from time to time: Now or later?
Now, as in, is it more important that the player be able to contribute right away?
Or later, as in, does it make more sense to use this pick to address a more long-term need?
If the Colts choose the former, this selection will probably be the most explosive running back still available at the time, fresh legs who can come in and challenge Indy’s cluttered backfield for playing time within months. Maybe they’ll find the next James Starks, a sixth-round pick in 2010 who deserves a fair share of the credit for Green Bay’s Super Bowl-winning playoff run in his very first season.
If they choose the latter, however, which at this point seems like a more likely scenario considering all the change the franchise will inevitably experience over the next few years, the selection will probably be a guy just like Jacquies Smith.
Smith is a versatile defender who, at 6’2" and 247 pounds, could easily transition into a solid outside linebacker if Pagano makes the switch to a 3-4 set in years to come. But he could still contribute as a menacing pass-rusher for this defense regardless, no matter what kind of system they decide to utilize.
Plus, if they do keep him at defensive end, Smith will fill a future need the team should already be anticipating, because even though Jim Irsay has called re-signing Robert Mathis a top offseason priority and Dwight Freeney just finished his seventh career Pro Bowl season, both superstars are over the age of 30 with only so much left in the tank. The challenge of replacing both of them in rapid succession will be a monumental undertaking moving forward.
Smith could give the Colts a head start on that daunting task for nothing but a sixth-round pick here. At just 22 years of age, there’s still plenty of time to develop the young prospect into the kind of player they want, whatever that turns out to be.
Biggest Clue: In 2010, Ryan Grigson’s first season as Philadelphia’s director of player personnel, the Eagles used four of their 13 picks on defensive linemen, including three defensive ends. It’s an area the Eagles excelled in during Grigson’s time there too, compiling the sixth most sacks in the league from 2005-2011 for the third most yards lost. Even though Grigson must be thrilled about the opportunity to work with a pair of ends like Mathis and Freeney, then, he’ll definitely be looking to secure the position well into the future if he expects to sustain the level of success he’s managed so far.
Anything goes when you get to Round 7, and if ever there was a time to feel comfortable taking a risk with your football team, this is it.
After the breakout season big, athletic tight ends like New England’s Rob Gronkoswki and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham had last year, expect plenty of teams to be suddenly willing to take just such a risk on a tight end of their own in this year’s draft. And considering the current state of the position in Indianapolis, expect the Colts to be one of those very teams.
Right now, Indy’s corps includes Dallas Clark, a 32-year-old former All-Pro who has yet to prove he can play at an elite level when anyone but Peyton Manning is throwing him the ball; Jacob Tamme, a solid backup who has also looked great playing with Manning but not so great without him; and two pretty average substitutes named Brody Eldridge and Anthony Hill.
It’s not that any of these guys have looked bad in the opportunities they’ve been given to play, it’s simply that none are long-term options at this point. And when your franchise is in the condition Indianapolis' is, that’s priority No. 1.
Someone who might be a long-term option, on the other hand, is Chase Ford, the latest product of the monster tight end factory that is the University of Miami, who at 6’6" and 258 pounds at least has the size to excel in the NFL, if nothing else.
Ford is the kind of prospect who just might turn to gold if only you have the time to develop him, and let’s face it: With the state of the team what it is today, Indianapolis has nothing but time to fill for the foreseeable future.
Biggest Clue: The tight end position was completely revolutionized last season, as six of the top 17 NFL receivers last year were tight ends, including three of the top eight. The former has never happened before, while the latter hasn’t happened since 1983. Tight ends athletic enough to create a coverage mismatch will be all the rage in the NFL for the next several years as a result, and for any team that doesn’t already have one, the search begins this April. After last season’s debacle, is there any question which category Indy falls under?