Burning Questions for Indianapolis Colts Training Camp
2012 was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Colts.
It was the first year after a 2-14 collapse without Peyton Manning. It was the first year under a new regime, new coaching staff and overhauled roster. That roster was one that was incredibly underwhelming in terms of overall talent.
But what was unexpected was Andrew Luck's ability to succeed in clutch situations, which allowed the Colts to pull off multiple wins that otherwise would have slipped away, much like they did in 2011.
Add that to a highly emotional and motivated roster, and you have the perfect recipe for a surprising run to the playoffs.
But now the Colts are known, and the rest of the league isn't going to take them lightly in 2013. Can they pull off another playoff run with a roster that still lags behind most of the league?
The answer will depend on multiple factors, questions that continue to linger as the Colts' head into training camp.
Is Chuck Pagano a Top-Notch Head Coach?
While Chuck Pagano's battle with leukemia, and his courageous response to that battle, was a major part of the Colts' resurgence in 2012, he's still a relative unknown when it comes to in-game coaching.
There are some things that Pagano showed last season: he connects with players very well, he motivates them and he's been very good in terms of public relations.
But he only coached in 5 games last season, and the Colts went 2-3 in those five games. That doesn't prove that Pagano is a bad coach, it's just a reminder that most of the Colts' success last season came under Bruce Arians.
There are some definite areas of concern while watching Pagano next season. Two main areas stick out: aggressiveness and halftime adjustments.
Pagano was one of the most conservative coaches on fourth down last season, despite the fact that he has one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league, and a poor defense. It's generally more efficient to be aggressive on fourth downs than overly conservative, so it will be an interesting area to watch this season.
The other area is halftime adjustments: during the five games that Pagano coached in, the Colts were outscored 37-13 in the third quarter. The one touchdown the Colts' scored was a kick return by Deji Karim in the Colts' win over Houston in Week 17. The Colts will desperately need to improve on that in 2013.
How Much Will the Interior Line Improve?
Last season, the Colts' interior offensive line was easily the weakest link on the team. Mike McGlynn and Samson Satele were two of the worst at their respective positions, and the combination of Joe Reitz, Jeff Linkenbach and Seth Olsen was horrendous for most of 2012.
The Colts knew this, and tried to address it by signing Donald Thomas in free agency and drafting Hugh Thornton and Khaled Holmes in the third and fourth rounds, respectively. Nevertheless, the interior is still a huge question mark.
Thomas has never been a full-time starter, and was surrounded by much more talent in New England. He'll start at left guard in Indianapolis, but it's not a sure thing that he'll be able to handle the load as well as he handled a rotational role in New England.
At center and right guard, Satele and McGlynn are still penciled in as starters, with the rookies backing them up. Both spots will be up for grabs in camp, and the Colts' performance will largely depend on who wins those positions.
If Satele and McGlynn end up starting again, the Colts' overall offensive line improvement could be minimal.
Will Andrew Luck's Efficiency Improve as Much as Expected?
While the 2012 first-overall draft pick Andrew Luck was not lacking in playmaking in 2012, his efficiency left something to be desired.
Yes, he threw for an NFL rookie-record 4374 yards, and yes, he made countless plays happen for the Colts that won 11 games. Nevertheless, he has a lot of room to improve his efficiency for his sophomore season.
Luck's completion percentage of 54.1 was one of the lowest numbers for any starting quarterback in 2012. While there certainly were some factors outside his control that contributed to that number (wide receiver drops, a vertical offense, poor offensive line, etc.), the simple fact is that Luck's accuracy was inconsistent in his rookie season.
Should it improve in 2013? The short answer is yes.
Luck will be in a more comfortable and more efficient system under Pep Hamilton, and his wide receiver group should be improved as well. Add in the second-year jump that most elite quarterbacks make (See Peyton Manning's 56.7 to 62.1 completion percentage jump for example), and Luck should be in prime position to add efficiency to his already-impressive repertoire.
But still, it's not a certainty that Luck will drastically improve, and the Colts' success will depend heavily on him once again.
Where Will the Pass Rush Come From?
A big part of the Colts' problems in pass coverage in 2012 came from the lack of pressure on the quarterback. While Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney still could get around the edge frequently, the complete lack of pass rush up the middle allowed quarterbacks to avoid the edge pressure fairly easily.
Now with Dwight Freeney gone for 2013, the Colts made several critical moves to try to improve the pass rush.
The most obvious move was the drafting of Bjoern Werner in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. Werner is a pass-rushing specialist out of Florida State with a lightning-quick first step. He should play opposite Robert Mathis in passing situations and occasionally replace him at ROLB when necessary.
The Colts also signed numerous linemen, but none offer much in pass rush. Both Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin are much better against the run than in pass rush. Lawrence Sidbury was brought over from Atlanta, but he's a developmental prospect.
Werner should give some boost in pass rush, but he is a rookie and will have a learning curve. There's not much else on the roster that has high-potential in pass rushing, so where pass rush will come from in 2013 is unknown.
Can Former Reserves Handle a Starting Role?
The Colts signed several players in this year's free agency period to big contracts, despite the fact that they've only been reserves or spot starters up until this point. Greg Toler, Ricky Jean Francois and Donald Thomas all are slated to start in 2013, but have never been primary starters in their young careers.
Toler was a starter back in 2010, but was inconsistent both in coverage and against the run. After injuries knocked him out in 2011, he returned in 2012 in a rotational role once again. The Colts signed him to a three-year, $15 million contract, and expect him to start, and stay on the field, in 2013.
Jean Francois has excelled against the run while taking on a rotational spot on the defensive line in San Francisco. Starting in Indianapolis, alongside a line that won't be nearly as talented, will be much more difficult than what Jean Francois has done thus far.
Thomas was a depth guard in New England, only making it on the field when injury dictated it. Like Jean Francois, Thomas was surrounded by much better talent on his previous team, and the ability to be a blue-chipper at the position is questionable.
Will the Defense Be Able to Force Turnovers?
Last season, one of the key problems with the Colts' was their inability to force turnovers. The defense finished 27th in the league in turnovers per drive, and rarely gave the offense a short field.
As a result, the Colts' offense started their average drive near their own 24-yard line, the 3rd-worst average starting line of scrimmage. In turn, that was a big factor in the Colts' inability to put up a lot of points, despite moving the ball fairly effectively.
So, in 2013, where will the turnovers come from?
Two major differences should be the addition of Greg Toler and LaRon Landry in the defensive backfield. Both have impressed coaches and media alike with their activity in OTAs, and should provide some much-needed energy into the unit.
Unfortunately, the answer will still largely depend on the front seven, and whether or not they can get to the quarterback and force both fumbles and poor throws. Unless that happens, all the playmakers in the world in the defensive backfield won't be able to carry the load.
Who Will Stand out in the Battle for Depth Positions?
An overlooked part of rosters is the depth in key positions. While a starting unit may look like one of the league's best, if the players behind them are a major drop off, then injuries can cause a team's strength to be one of the league's worst units.
For example, last season, the Colts' starting duo of Jerraud Powers and Vontae Davis looked like a decent pairing to start the season. After struggling against the Bears in week one, the two put together a couple solid weeks.
But, after injuries caused both to sit out (and caused Powers to be put on injured reserve), players like Josh Gordy and Cassius Vaughn were forced to play crucial snaps and even start. By the end of the season, the Colts' secondary was a thin, over-matched group.
This year, key positions will have crucial camp battles for the final spots on the active roster, including tight end, wide receiver, linebacker and cornerback.
2013 Mr. Irrelevant Justice Cunningham will be competing for a roster spot with Weslye Saunders and Dominique Jones at tight end, while Nathan Palmer, Griff Whalen and several others fight it out for the fifth, and likely final, wide receiver spot.
Depth linebacker will be an interesting competition on the outside between players like Lawrence Sidbury and Josh McNary, while Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy will fight to keep their roster spots from last season as several UDFAs and 2012 practice squad members look to take them away.
How Will the Running Backs Be Used?
With the addition of Ahmad Bradshaw, the Colts now have four backs with significant experience in their backfield, along with 2013 7th-round pick Kerwynn Williams.
The question that remains is how will they all be used?
Conventional wisdom would give the starting position to Bradshaw, who has the most experience and has has the best tape on his resume. Bradshaw is still in his prime and, if healthy, he's easily the most talented back on the roster.
Ballard's spot on the roster should be safe, as he showed a lot during his rookie year that has fans and coaches excited. He'll split carries with Bradshaw and should be primarily used between the tackles, as he doesn't have the speed to excel around the edge.
The big questions come after that. The Colts' running back coach has spoken highly of Donald Brown, but Brown is similar to Ahmad Bradshaw's skill-set, and Delone Carter is a better short-yardage back. The Colts should use three backs in rotation this year, and one of these two should fill that role.
Of course, Kerwynn Williams is the dark horse. He should contribute on special teams, but can he produce on offense as well?
Can Darius Heyward-Bey Excel with Andrew Luck at Quarterback?
The Colts' signing of Darius Heyward-Bey was the team's big "splash" signing at wide receiver, brought in to replace Donnie Avery as the starting wide receiver opposite Reggie Wayne.
All signs point to Heyward-Bey as being a perfect fit. He has the speed to replace Avery as a downfield threat, and size (6'2", 216 pounds) to be a red zone threat that the Colts lacked at wide receiver previously.
But, despite the measurables, Heyward-Bey has struggled to be consistently productive while in Oakland. One would believe that his production should go up while on a stable team, as his time as a Raider has been marked by a revolving door both at quarterback and head coach.
On a team with a more efficient offense directed by one of the most promising quarterbacks in the league, Heyward-Bey should have his best season. But, in the end, it's up to him.
Will the Colts' Regress?
Even after the Colts have improved at just about every single position heading into the 2013 season, there is still a significant chance that the team's win total regresses and they miss the playoffs.
The 2012 Colts were incredibly lucky, going 9-1 in one-score games. As much as some of that success can be attributed to Andrew Luck's clutch play, expecting him to pull that kind of ratio off every year is unfair.
The good thing for Indianapolis is their schedule, which looks favorable, all things considered. The Colts play San Francisco, Seattle and Denver, but outside of those three, all of their games should be very winnable.
The Colts are aiming for a division title, but their roster still lags behind the Texans at most positions. The Colts will once ago go as far as Luck can take them.