Examining Indianapolis Colts' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

Justin OnslowContributor IIJuly 1, 2013

Examining Indianapolis Colts' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

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    The idea that the NFL revolves around elite quarterback play may be overused and worn out, but nothing is more accurate. Just ask the Indianapolis Colts.

    In a matter of one draft, Indianapolis began its rise to NFL superpower status in the Peyton Manning era, effectively reviving a franchise that spent more than a decade dominating in the AFC. With Manning’s neck injury and subsequent departure, however, uncertainty ensued.   

    Indianapolis made a bold decision to cut ties with Manning in favor of drafting Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick in 2012. What would follow was a testament to both Luck’s immense skill and the mettle of Colts brass in making a difficult decision that has proven to be a tremendous choice thus far.

    Luck led the Colts to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth last season, just a year removed from a 2-14 campaign in 2012 that led them to draft the former Stanford superstar with the first pick. Letting Manning go after more than a decade of dominance wasn’t a popular decision, but it was the right choice. The future of the franchise looks brighter than ever.

    With their franchise signal-caller in place, the Colts had only to focus on building around him this offseason. They found the biggest piece of the puzzle last offseason, and general manager Ryan Grigson was left to fill other holes without needing to worry about who will be under center going forward.

    Grigson brought in some offensive help this offseason in the form of former Detroit Lions offensive lineman Gosder Cherilus, former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, running back Ahmad Bradshaw and veteran signal-caller Matt Hasselbeck, but considering the pieces he already had in place, the young GM wasn’t forced to make a major splash on the free-agent market to shore up the offense.

    Grigson also signed safety LaRon Landry to a four-year contract to strengthen the team’s secondary, but the high-profile signings ended there. As has often been the case for the Colts, the organization filled a couple positional needs in free agency with the intent of continuing to build through the draft.

    Indianapolis did well to employ that strategy this offseason, taking advantage of value throughout the selection process in adding some quality talent on both sides of the ball. We’ll take a closer look at the Colts’ draft class in the following slideshow.

    For as well as Indianapolis turned things around last season, Colts fans have even more reason to be excited about the 2013 season and the future of the franchise. The transitional period between quarterbacks is often tumultuous, but Luck proved he is ready to lead Indianapolis back to elite status in the AFC. The future is extremely bright.

    Let’s take a closer look at Indianapolis’ offseason, including the NFL draft, free agency and positions to watch as the 2013 season draws near. We’ll also offer some predictions for this campaign and highlight the biggest games on the team’s 2013 slate. Read on.

2013 NFL Draft

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    Round 1 (Pick 24): DE Bjoern Werner, Florida State

    Round 3 (Pick 86): OG Hugh Thornton, Illinois

    Round 4 (Pick 121): C Khaled Holmes, USC

    Round 5 (Pick 139): DT Montori Hughes, Tennessee-Martin

    Round 6 (Pick 192): S John Boyett, Oregon

    Round 7 (Pick 230): RB Kerwynn Williams, Utah State

    Round 7 (Pick 254): TE Justice Cunningham, South Carolina

     

    Grade: B

     

    Ryan Grigson prefers a best-player-available approach to drafting, and while he didn’t have to worry much about what he did at the top of last year’s draft, the 2013 selection process wasn’t as cut-and-dry.

    In the first round, the 41-year-old GM stuck to his strategy and selected Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner—a player many considered one of the best pure pass-rushers in the draft class. Werner raised some questions about his positional versatility with some poor predraft workouts, but there’s no denying his pass-rushing abilities.

    With the Colts employing a two-gap 3-4 base defense, it remains to be seen where Werner will ultimately end up. Provided he shows enough athleticism for the stand-up linebacker role, he should have no problem making an impact on the Colts defense, especially as an edge-rushing option.

    Grigson then turned his efforts toward solidifying Indianapolis’ pass-protection unit—another obvious choice given the value of his franchise quarterback. Hugh Thornton and Khaled Holmes were both solid picks for Grigson, who found good value in a couple players who can have an impact on the offense in their formative years.

    In the final three rounds, Grigson continue filling in some holes on both sides of the ball, though late-round draft picks certainly aren’t guaranteed to make a sizable impact at the NFL level. Players like Montori Hughes and John Boyett will have to prove they belong, but Grigson again found good value in selecting them in the fifth and six rounds, respectively.

    In all, it was a workmanlike draft for Grgison. While no selection particularly stood out, he did his job adding the best talent available at positions of need. There’s not much to dislike about the Colts’ 2013 draft class.

Stitching Up the Secondary

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    While the Colts enjoyed plenty of success on the offensive side of the ball last season, the same can’t be said for their defense.

    Indianapolis finished 26th in the league in total defense last season, including the league’s No. 21 passing defense. While it certainly could have been worse, Indianapolis needed to focus on shoring up its secondary this offseason.

    Struggling against the run was to be expected after making the switch to a 3-4 last season. The Colts simply didn’t have the right pieces in place to field a top-tier front seven, and both defensive units suffered as a result.

    With another offseason nearly in the books, there’s reason to be hopeful for marked improvement this season—starting with some additions to the secondary.

    LaRon Landry was arguably the Colts’ biggest offseason signing, and he’ll go a long way toward shoring up a secondary that was too often exploited by the big play last season. Paired with veteran free safety Antoine Bethea, the back end of Indianapolis’ secondary shouldn’t have the same issues in 2013.

    Injuries and youthful inconsistency slowed Indianapolis’ cornerbacks in 2012, but with the addition of former Arizona Cardinals cornerback Greg Toler should go a long way toward patching up those issues.

    Toler wasn’t a big-name signing, but he was a major contributor in the Cardinals’ secondary. Paired with Vontae Davis, the Colts enter the 2013 season with added depth and a little extra talent at the position.

    Toler will compete for the starting role opposite Davis, and there’s a good chance he earns the spot. While Darius Butler had a solid season in 2012, he may be of better use as the team’s nickel corner going forward, as long as the starting duo doesn’t struggle with inconsistency or injuries.

    Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy also remained with the team this offseason, both in line for sub-package roles in 2013. Neither player should be considered a contender for the starting role, but Indianapolis returns plenty of depth at the position this season.

    With Landry and Toler in the fold, it’s hard to believe the team’s secondary won’t show at least a little improvement in 2013. As long as the Colts can facilitate some continuity in the starting roles, it wouldn’t be a surprise for Indianapolis to field a top-15 passing defense this season, especially with a friendly schedule on the horizon.

     

    Projected Secondary Depth Chart

    CB1 Vontae Davis
    CB2 Greg Toler
    SS LaRon Landry
    FF Antoine Bethea
    Nickel Darius Butler
    Sub-Package Cassius Vaughn


A Trio of Talented Targets

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    With a franchise quarterback in tow, the Colts need to continue adding weapons to their receiving corps. Reggie Wayne still has a little gas left in the tank, but he won’t be the team’s No. 1 option forever.

    Still, Wayne was extremely productive in 2012 after a slow 2011 campaign marred with poor quarterback play. Last season, the 34-year-old hauled in 106 passes for 1,355 yards and five touchdowns—not too shabby for a player many thought would be on the downside of his career.

    Wayne returns this year as Luck’s No. 1 target, but he won’t be the only player carrying the team’s receiving corps. Darrius Heyward-Bey and T.Y. Hilton will also have a hand in that.

    Heyward-Bey failed to live up to expectations in Oakland after being drafted No. 7 overall in 2009, and while he hasn’t exactly shown the elite talent the Raiders hoped for, he’s still an intriguing option for the Colts going forward.

    At 6’2” and 220 pounds with terrific straight-line speed, the Maryland product gives Luck another big target he can exploit down the field. Provided Heyward-Bey can stay healthy, it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe Luck can still make him a quality receiving threat in 2013.

    Hilton, on the other hand, exceeded all expectations last season after being drafted by the Colts in the third round last year. Hilton isn’t a big target (5’9” and 178 pounds), but he has tremendous speed and showed above-average ball skills and body control last season in catching 50 passes for 861 yards and seven touchdowns.

    Hilton averaged 17.2 yards per catch in 2012, and with Heyward-Bey in the fold, the Colts are now looking at a trio of players who can stretch the field vertically for the big-armed Luck. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out how they fit together.

    Heyward-Bey isn’t a prototypical slot receiver, and he lacks the sure hands to spend too much time running routes in the middle of the field. But Wayne has plenty of experience in the slot and Hilton is among the quickest wideouts in the league. Ideally, one of the two will line up primary in the slot this season—Wayne being the most likely given the straight-line speed bot Heyward-Bey and Hilton possess.

    Second-year wideouts LaVon Brazill and Nathan Palmer in the mix, Indianapolis has some solid depth to work with, especially with young pass-catching tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen likely to play a larger role in the passing offense this season.

     

    Projected Depth Chart

    WR1Reggie Wayne
    WR2 Darrius Heyward-bey
    SlotT.Y. Hilton
    WR4 LaVon Brazill
    TE1 Coby Fleener
    TE2Dwayne Allen

Pass-Rushing Prowess

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    The transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base (and vice versa) is often a dreaded switch given the time it takes to find the right pieces to make it work. Typically, such a transition takes two to three years to complete.

    The Colts have two offseasons of roster moves under their belt. Given the draft-day additions of Bjoern Werner and Montori Hughes and a bevy of additional roster changes, in the last year, Indianapolis should field a much more stable front seven this season.

    In a two-gap 3-4 front, the main focus is creating traffic at the line of scrimmage and getting pressure on opposing passers with linebackers—one of the reasons Robert Mathis was able to transition to outside linebacker in the new front.

    While Mathis spent most of his career as a one-gap defensive end, his responsibilities aren’t all that different. At its core, Mathis’ job is to rush the passer from the edge, just as he did as a defensive end.

    Mathis will slide over to the spot vacated by Dwight Freeney’s departure, leaving the strongside outside linebacker position unfilled. The Colts signed former Green Bay Packers linebacker Erik Walden to assume that role, though, and the 6’2”, 250-pound Middle Tennessee State product shouldn’t have a hard time finding his rhythm.

    Ryan Grigson seems especially pleased with the acquisition, as quoted by Kevin Bowen of Colts.com:

    In a 3-4 that’s what your outside linebackers have to do and this guy (Walden) does it in the textbook way. He jolts people’s heads back on contact and he’s violent with his hands and he definitely knows how to set the edge. His motor never stops. So really excited about him.

    With the inclusion of Walden, Indianapolis' pass rush won’t skip a beat this season, especially with Werner also in the mix.

    Good coaches know how to make use of their best players. In this situation, Werner is likely to see plenty of playing time on passing downs as an extra rusher, potentially lining up at the end of the line in nickel packages given his background as a 4-3 defensive end at Florida State.

    Werner didn’t perform particularly well at the combine, but he’s not the type of player whose physical attributes stand out. What Werner brings to the table is a high motor and innate ability to get after opposing passers. Head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky won’t have a hard time finding a fit for him in Indianapolis’ pass rush.

    After notching just 32 sacks last season (tied for 23rd in the league) and with Freeney out of the picture, the Colts need Walden and Werner to step up in 2013. Both players have a lot to prove, but they also have a lot of talent. Provided Mathis doesn’t take a step back in 2013, Indianapolis’ pass rush should be fine.

2013 Schedule

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    2013 Indianapolis Colts Schedule
    WeekDateOpponentTime (ET)
    TV
    1Sept. 8
    vs. Oakland Raiders1 p.m.
    CBS
    2Sept. 15
    vs. Miami Dolphins1 p.m.
    CBS
    3Sept. 22
    at San Francisco 49ers4:25 p.m.CBS
    4Sept. 29at Jacksonville Jaguars 
    1 p.m.CBS
    5Oct. 6vs. Seattle Seahawks1 p.m.FOX
    6Oct. 14at San Diego Chargers8:40 p.m.
    ESPN
    7Oct. 20vs. Denver Broncos8:30 p.m.NBC
    8Oct. 27BYE WEEK
    9Nov. 3at Houston Texans8:30 p.m.NBC
    10Nov. 10vs. St. Louis Rams1 p.m.FOX
    11Nov. 14at Tennessee Titans8:25 p.m.
    NFL Network
    12Nov. 24at Arizona Cardinals4:05 p.m.
    CBS
    13Dec. 1vs. Tennessee Titans1 p.m.CBS
    14Dec. 8at Cincinnati Bengals1 p.m.CBS
    15Dec. 15vs. Houston Texans1 p.m.CBS
    16Dec. 22
    at Kansas City Chiefs1 p.m.CBS
    17Dec. 29
    vs. Jacksonville Jaguars1 p.m.CBS

     

    *For a complete look at Indianapolis' 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.

Season Outlook

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    There’s little to not like about what Ryan Grigson did this offseason.

    In adding Darrius Heyward-Bey and Ahmad Bradshaw, the GM infused some additional talent to an already impressive core of excellent skill position players in Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener, Vick Ballard and Donald Brown. Along with Andrew Luck, the Colts won’t have any problems scoring points this season.

    Defense is the biggest question mark facing the Colts this season, but they did well to bring in complementary pieces to facilitate a growth period in 2013. It’s hard to predict how the defense will fare this far from Week 1, but all signs point to an improved unit that will make some big strides in 2013.

    And with a fairly easy schedule, Indianapolis is in line to make even bigger strides as a team.

    Granted, the Colts will play the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals—along with the division rival Houston Texans—but the rest of the slate is riddled with questionable squads.

    Outside an AFC South schedule that features the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans, the Colts will also take on the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Charges, Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs—four non-divisional foes against which Indianapolis should be favored.

    Nothing is guaranteed, but Indianapolis certainly has an opportunity to make a big splash in the AFC South this season.

     

    Prediction: 12-4, First in AFC South

    I also expect the Houston Texans to piece together a campaign similar to their 2012 season, and realistically, only the Texans and Colts should be fighting for the division title when all is said and done.

    At this point in the year, it’s entirely too early to make accurate full-season predictions, but there’s enough to go on to expect the Colts to experience a lot of success in 2013.

    If all goes right, Indianapolis should be looking at 10-plus wins facing an easy regular-season schedule. Twelve wins may be the limit given the handful of elite opponents on the slate, but the Colts could certainly reach that mark.