6 Things We Learned from the Colts' OTAs
While the Indianapolis Colts still have one more OTA session this week, and mandatory minicamp next week, we're already seeing trends emerge that fans can look forward to as the season approaches.
While these sessions are voluntary do not include any contact, the direction and feel of a team during OTAs can resonate throughout the season. Last season, during OTAs, free agent acquisition RT Winston Justice commented on the team's chemistry, saying it was better than his previous team's, the 2011 Philadelpia Eagles.
The chemistry theme was one that would continue into the regular season, where the below-average roster strung together eleven wins and a playoff berth, all while their head coach was battling leukemia.
What kind of themes can we take from this year's OTAs? Which players are impressing and are poised for a stand-out year?
Coby Fleener Has All the Tools to Succeed in 2013
While he was hampered by injuries and coaches who didn't use him well in 2012, second-year tight end Coby Fleener should have no such excuses in 2013.
Fleener has been impressing in camp, including a touchdown and Hail Mary-type catch last week in front of reporters.
With his athleticism and prior connection with Andrew Luck, Fleener's improvement this year needs to come in the mental aspect: the ability to break down coverages and consistently be a target in the passing game.
With Pep Hamilton's offense being installed, in which Fleener excelled during his senior year at Stanford, head coach Chuck Pagano thinks Fleener's numbers will increase dramatically in his sophomore season.
"He’s making progress every day. What did he have 20-, 30-some catches last year? That should double."
In my opinion, Fleener has the chance to be one of the more influential playmakers in the 2013 offense, just as he was at Stanford in 2011.
Newcomer Darrius Heyward-Bey Could Play a Key Role
With T.Y. Hilton's exciting rookie year, expectations for free-agent acquisition Darrius Heyward-Bey have been toned down for 2013. Most fans and analysts have projected, and rightly so, that Hilton will likely be the second wide receiver when it comes to targets.
Heyward-Bey may get the official "starts" once the season begins, but Hilton showed a repertoire with Luck last season that has fantasy gurus projecting up to 70+ catches in 2013. For that reason, many have downplayed Heyward-Bey's role.
But the Colts organization and their coaches are not, citing often Heyward-Bey's potential in Hamilton's system.
Heyward-Bey has a unique attribute that eludes the rest of the Colts wide receiver corp: height. The Colts wide receivers all struggled in the red zone last year, save Hilton. But I don't think Hilton's success is sustainable, due to his lack of size and questionable hands. Heyward-Bey, on the other hand, has generally fared well in the red zone and could be a valuable asset there.
Free Agent CB Greg Toler Continues to Impress
After last week's OTAs, newly-acquired CB Greg Toler's play was all the rage. Toler impressed coaches with his playmaking in the defensive backfield, deflecting several passes and keeping tight coverage throughout practice.
Toler also caught the eye of teammates, such as Cory Redding and Antoine Bethea, during that first session.
Now, after another week, it seems that Toler continues to impress the Indianapolis coaches. Defensive backs coach Mike Gilhammer was especially excited about Toler:
We are really happy with Greg. He’s come in here with a great attitude. He’s so powerful. He reminds me of a big game cat, like a cheetah. He’s just so powerful, he can spring. His attitude has been awesome. He’s been everything that we’d hoped he be.
Toler continues to show that he has the ability to be a top-level corner, as long as he can handle the weight of being a full-time starter. Toler was a primary starter for Arizona in 2010, but that was his only season as a starter in his four-year career and also his worst season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Andrew Luck Continues to Develop
The possibility for future Colts championships lies on his development more than any other factor. If he becomes an elite quarterback, as fans and analysts believe he can be, the Colts will be in prime position to succeed as they did during the Manning era.
Well, several weeks into Luck's first full offseason, he has already captured the praise of veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
I knew he was a great player, I obviously saw him play in college and also last year. But I really didn’t know what kind of leader he was in the locker room. It just comes real natural to him.
He’s got a great sense of when to pull somebody aside, how to deal with coaches, just how he treats everyone around him. He’s been off-the-charts impressive that way.
Luck has been impressing other teammates during OTAs as well with his play. One reportedly noted that Luck had been giving defensive backs "the business" during drills in OTAs.
Coaches Being Cautious with Injured Players
The Colts saw numerous key players go down with injury last season, seriously threatening their playoff chances and forcing poor backups into starting roles.
Among the players who missed key games last season: cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Jerraud Powers; defensive linemen Cory Redding, Fili Moala and Drake Nevis; and edge defenders Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney.
That's just the defenders.
According to George Bremer of the Herald Bulletin, the Colts coaches aren't taking any chances, sitting any players who have the slightest tweak:
We're going to err on the side of caution, especially this time of year and not push it. It'd be silly for me or anybody else (to push it). They want to go. We have to protect those guys from themselves. They want to be a part of everything. Push him out there and force the issue with him, then have something serious happen this time of year would be not very smart on my part.
Among players who have sat are Toler and Heyward-Bey, with small foot and hamstring issues, respectively.
Moves Continue to Be Made on and off the Field
As the offseason rolls on, moves will continue to be made. Rosters will develop and change until training camp, as the front office continues to try to improve the back end of the 90-man roster.
Last week, the Colts signed DE/OLB Caesar Rayford, cutting LB Jake Killeen. ProFootballTalk's Mike Wilkening has the details:
Rayford, 27, has been a defensive end with the Utah Blaze of the Arena Football League the last four seasons, notching 27.5 sacks. The Colts will try the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Washington product at outside linebacker.
The 27-year-old Killeen, meanwhile, is a former Indoor Football League standout whom the Colts signed in January. Like Rayford, the Colts listed him at outside linebacker.
Meanwhile, the Colts staff off the field continues to change as well, with the team hiring Shaun Terlecky as an assistant coach and Chelsea Durham as a marketing assistant:
Terlecky joins the Colts after spending the last three seasons (2010-12) as a defensive quality control coach working with the linebackers at Louisiana State University. Prior to LSU, he coached at Mercyhurst College (2004, 2008-09) and was a graduate assistant coach at the University of North Carolina (2005-07), where he worked with Head Coach Chuck Pagano in 2007.
Durham started with the Colts as a marketing intern in 2012 before assuming her current role. Previously, she served as a marketing and promotions student assistant in the Ball State University athletics department (2010-13) and an account coordinator at Cardinal Communications (2010-11).