Ranking the Indianapolis Colts by Position Group: Pre-Training Camp Edition
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Despite a lack of top-flight talent at every position, the Indianapolis Colts won 11 games in 2012 through hard work and composure in pressure situations.
After an offseason spending spree by the Colts front office, however, the team looks to be more equipped talent-wise to compete with the powerhouses of the AFC.
Is the revamped offensive line better than the defensive line now? How about the secondary versus the linebackers? These questions will all be answered as we look into how the Colts rank at each positional group heading into training camp.
The groups will be divided into the following categories:
Quarterbacks, running backs/fullbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers, secondary and special teams.
Rankings will be based not only on the talent of the starter(s) of that position group but the depth at the position, both relative to the rest of the NFL.
Note: All stats from Pro Football Reference, unless otherwise indicated.
9. Offensive Line
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It was hip to make fun of the Colts' poor offensive line last season, especially when arguing for Andrew Luck's candidacy as the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year. Luck's exploits were made even more impressive because he had very little protection and often had to throw on the run, people said.
While the ridicule of the line became cliche by the end of the season, it couldn't have been more accurate.
According to Advanced NFL Stats, the Colts offensive line allowed 105 quarterback hits in 2012. None of the other lines allowed more than 93 hits. And the three teams ranked directly behind the Colts were the Eagles, Jaguars and Cardinals—three teams that combined for just 11 wins, the same amount that the Colts had by themselves.
So yes, the Colts offensive line was bad last year, especially in pass protection. But their ranking here is not an indication that they haven't improved. Rather, it is a testament to how well the Colts shored up their other weaknesses during the offseason.
With the acquiring of probable starters Donald Thomas (left guard) and Gosder Cherilus (right tackle), as well as the increased familiarity with each other from last season, the Colts line should make the leap from poor to mediocre.
8. Defensive Line
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The Colts won't have a star on their defensive line in 2013, but they possess a lot of depth, especially at the end positions.
According to Bleacher Report's NFL 1000 Rankings for 3-4 defensive ends, the Colts possess four of the top 29 ends in the game. And that was before the acquisition of the likely starter at right end, Ricky Jean-Francois from the San Francisco 49ers.
The other new starter on the line is Aubrayo Franklin, a journeyman who steps in at nose tackle. He should be a key factor in the Colts improving on a 29th-ranked rush defense.
In the end, the lack of any top-flight players will prevent the Colts defensive line from too much success in a division rife with strong running backs.
7. Running Backs/Fullbacks
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Once again, the Colts have improved here, but other positions have improved as well, which keeps the running backs and fullbacks' ranking somewhat low.
Ahmad Bradshaw is the biggest addition, a free-agent pickup from the New York Giants who ran for over 1,000 yards last year. An article from Stampede Blue also noted that Bradshaw was ranked No. 1 among running backs in 2012 in pass-blocking compared to 2012 starter Vick Ballard's No. 43 ranking.
However, Ballard is still a tough downhill runner (814 rushing yards as a rookie last year) and should compete for a lot of carries, ending up with pretty close to an even split with Bradshaw.
Veterans Donald Brown and Delone Carter will compete for the No. 3 spot in a rushing attack that looks to improve on its No. 22 ranking in 2012. Stanley Havili should be the starter at fullback, according to ESPN.
Unfortunately, the Colts play in one of the best running divisions in football (Arian Foster, Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew start for the other three teams), which makes their solid corps of backs look not quite as impressive as they might otherwise.
6. Special Teams
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It's rare when a punter is one of the best players on a football team, but Pat McAfee sure is for the Colts.
I would concede that a No. 1 ranking might be a little bit high, but McAfee is still a great punter and kickoff specialist.
Adam Vinatieri is still a decent kicker at 40 years old, but he had a bit of a down year in terms of his accuracy, hitting only four of seven field goals in the 30-39 yard range.
The Colts coverage units were mediocre, bordering on poor, ranking No. 22 in opponent's yards per kickoff return and No. 26 in opponent's yards per punt return.
The Colts' returning of kickoffs and punts was similarly mediocre, but rookie seventh-round pick Kerwynn Williams looks to improve that in 2013 as the favorite for the kick returner job, according to Stampede Blue.
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The best way to describe the Colts in the secondary is average. Every starter in the secondary is close to an average-starting player at their position.
The acquisition of LaRon Landry at the strong safety position will help but not as much as some might think. The 2012 Pro Bowler should help in supporting the run, but his pass defense has never been good.
While the Colts were bad against the run last year, they also struggled against the pass, ranking 22nd in opponent's passing rating (90.1) during the regular season. Landry will have to improve his pass coverage skills to help the Colts become better against the pass.
Greg Toler, who arrived from the Cardinals early in the offseason, will provide plus depth at cornerback for the Colts, who already have other capable players in Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy as backup cornerbacks behind starters Vontae Davis and Darius Butler.
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Now we start to move into the units where the Colts are better than average. First up, the linebackers.
The inside is where the Colts will really be strong. Jerrell Freeman and Pat Angerer project as the starters here.
Freeman joined the Colts in 2012 from the Canadian Football League, and all he did was place fifth in the NFL in tackles as a rookie, wrapping up 145 ball-carriers on the season. Angerer spent the majority of last season injured, but he was fourth in the NFL in tackles in 2011. These two look to be a formidable combination in 2013, if fully healthy.
On the outside, the Colts will be starting the old, reliable Robert Mathis on the right side, who made the Pro Bowl in 2012 in his first season at linebacker.
On the left side, newcomer Erik Walden from the Packers and rookie first-round pick Bjoern Werner will fight for snaps in training camp.
The depth is solid at inside linebacker, with Kavell Conner and Kelvin Sheppard as backups, but thinner at the outside positions.
3. Wide Receivers
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I'm really high on the Colts receivers this year, partly because of the mixed bag of challenges they bring to an opponent's defensive game plan.
Reggie Wayne (No. 1 receiver) isn't big or fast, but he might play with super-glue on his hands. T.Y. Hilton (No. 2) is small, shifty and fast, and Darrius Heyward-Bey (No. 3) has track-star speed, nice size (something the Colts lacked from their wideouts last season) and a great vertical leap.
The only reason I have them here and not higher is the uncertainty of Darrius Heyward-Bey. He has been extremely inconsistent in his professional career thus far and drops have been a problem.
But apparently, he has been impressive in organized team activities, according to Colts.com, and has meshed well with Andrew Luck. We still have yet to see how this transfers to the field in an actual game, though.
The depth is decent, with Nathan Palmer and LaVon Brazill supporting the top three receivers. Unfortunately, Brazill will serve a four-game suspension to start the regular season.
2. Tight Ends
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The Patriots' vaunted tight end duo of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski has been broken up, for obvious reasons. But Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener could stake their claim in 2013 as the best tight end duo in the game in 2013.
Third-round pick Allen was fantastic as a rookie in 2012, blocking like a madman, making key catches and doing all the little things the Colts asked of him.
The other rookie tight end, second-round pick Fleener, was not as impressive. However, a shoulder injury in late October affected his play in the second half of the season, when he was not on the field at all.
In 2013, Fleener will be back with his offensive coordinator from college (Stanford), which should make him feel more comfortable. Meanwhile, Allen should continue as a very reliable blocking and catching option for the Colts.
The depth is not impressive at all after Allen and Fleener. The unproven Weslye Saunders and Justice Cunningham, Mr. Irrelevant from the 2013 NFL draft, are behind Allen and Fleener on the depth chart.
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The tight ends are a close second, but the combination of Luck and Hasselbeck at QB1 and QB2 is just too tantalizing to keep from the No. 1 slot.
Not only is Hasselbeck still talented enough to start (he was ranked No. 27 among quarterbacks in Bleacher Report's NFL 1000 rankings), but he comes in with 12 years of starting experience and the right attitude to mentor a young quarterback.
USA Today notes that Hasselbeck has called Luck "off-the-charts impressive" after seeing Luck's interaction with fellow players and coaches and his leadership ability.
When a veteran as respected around the league as Hasselbeck is effusive in his praise of a player that will be keeping him off the field in 2013, you know it means something. Not only that Hasselbeck is a great mentor, but that Luck is an outstanding quarterback.
Tot that point, I believe that Luck will experience the polar opposite of a sophomore slump, improving in all of the important statistical areas under a familiar offensive system and an improved supporting cast; 4,500 yards passing, 30 touchdowns and a 95 passer rating in 2013 are not out of the question, people.