The Indianapolis Colts enter the 2009 season with comparatively few holes on the roster. What else is new?
The Colts, a playoff team the last seven seasons and the AFC South champions from 2003-2007, made the playoffs last season as a wild card team, and while the offseason has been about coaching staff change, they have sustained comparatively few personnel losses.
They released wide receiver Marvin Harrison and decided not to re-sign running back Dominic Rhodes. They also lost defensive tackle/special teams ace Darrell Reid to Denver in free agency.
All three players played a role last season, but the reality is the loss of all three players were calculated, expected decisons. Harrison, while an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, wasn't as productive the past two seasons as he had been eight seasons previously. Rhodes was a solid backup, but entering his ninth NFL season. Reid was a special teams force but not a factor on the defensive line.
The team didn't want to lose the players, but in the free-agency era, they belong in the category of acceptable losses. The Colts have been a consistent postseason team the past decade largely because they have anticipated losses and had players to move into roles, and this season is no different.
Still, in the free-agency era, every team enters the season with issues to be addressed, and the same is true of the Colts. So, as we prepare for the organized team activities to begin, we'll take a look at the five areas of biggest concern on the Colts' roster:
5) Punter. The Colts opted to not re-sign Hunter Smith, the team's punter the last 10 years who instead signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins. Smith was solid as a field-position punter, and did well considering he often was underused in the Colts' productive offense.
What the Colts need is a punter who can kick in clutch situations despite being called upon only once or twice a game at times. They addressed the issue in the NFL Draft, selecting kicker/punter Pat McAfee in the seventh-round.
McAfee punted from a rugby-style formation at West Virginia, but the Colts believe in his ability and Colts President Bill Polian said shortly after the draft McAfee will have every chance to win the punting job.
4) Wide receiver. To the casual observer, this may seem an area of concern because of the loss of Harrison, who had at least 1,000 yards receiving and at least 10 touchdowns every season from 1998-2006. The reality is Harrison declined dramatically statistically last season, and the Colts likely will have little trouble replacing his 60 receptions for 636 yards and five touchdowns.
Anthony Gonzalez, a first-round selection in the 2007 NFL Draft, started extensively in Harrison's place as a rookie and he caught 57 passes for 664 yards and four touchdowns as the third receiver last season.
The third receiver position is more of a question. The Colts drafted Austin Collie from Brigham Young in the fourth round in April, and he could compete with second-year veteran Pierre Garcon and third-year veteran Roy Hall. The Colts need one of the three to emerge as a legitimate option.
3) Guard.The Colts played last season with rookie Mike Pollak and veteran Charlie Johnson as the primary starters. Johnson started 10 games the previous season at left and right tackle, and ideally, he would be the top backup at guard and tackle. Pollak played solidly for a rookie, but it would be expected he would improve in his second season.
The key question regarding guard is the health of 2004-2007 starter Ryan Lilja. He missed last season with a knee injury, and if he can return to full health, the Indianapolis running game—31st in the NFL last season—should improve significantly.
2) Defensive tackle. The team addressed this area in a big-time way. The Colts finished 24th in the NFL run defense last season, finishing the season with Eric Foster (a 2008 free-agent signee from Rutgers) and Keyunta Dawson (a 2007 seventh-round selection from Texas Tech) as the starting tackles.
The Colts selected defensive tackle Fili Moala of Southern Cal in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft and defensive tackle Terrance Taylor in the fourth round from Michigan. Each play at more than 300 pounds, and Polian said following the draft getting better and bigger at the tackle position was a priority over draft weekend.
The Colts also recently re-signed Ed Johnson, who started 16 games at defensive tackle as a free-agent rookie in 2007 before being released after one game this past season because of an arrest for marijuana possession. On paper, the Colts have upgraded this spot significantly.
1) Coaching.This is cheating a bit, because the task is to address positions where the Colts have offseason concerns, but there has been no greater area of turnover around the team than the coaching staff. Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy retired in January, with Associate Head Coach Jim Caldwell succeeding him.
Caldwell then replaced defensive coordinator Ron Meeks with Larry Coyer and special teams coordinator Russ Purnell with Ray Rychleski. Recently, issues with the NFL pension program led to the retirements of offensive coordinator Tom Moore and offensive line coach Howard Mudd, though both may be brought back as consultants before training camp.
If Moore and Mudd indeed are involved, that's a significant step toward stability, because the thought here is that while Dungy was one of the NFL's best head coaches, Caldwell is also a capable, strong leader at the position.
There's little reason to think the moves to hire Coyer and Purnell shouldn't lead to improvement on those two unites. Without question, this is an area to watch and the Colts have rarely undergone much change, but there's also no reason to think the Colts will be weakened just because of the transition.