Indianapolis Colts Position Battles Ensure A Hot Summer
The Indianapolis Colts rely on pre-season position battles to determine their 53-man roster more than any other team in the NFL.
After the first organized team activities (OTAs), Head Coach Jim Caldwell pointed out that the Colts, "average about 12 guys in [each] rookie class who participate for us. Last year, we had 18."
Last year's large group of rookie participants will make this year's competition even fiercer.
Imagine entering training camp with proven veterans and battle-tested second year players ahead of you. Imagine looking to your left and right only to see fellow rookies who are all realizing the same thing at once:
"Worrying about beating you is the least of my concern. I have to find a way to beat those guys."
Five players will engage in stiff competition for the Colts two starting defensive tackle spots.
Fili Moala, drafted in the second round of the recent draft, is 6'4", 303 lbs. He brings the kind of size to that would make him a shoe-in to start for the Colts at nose tackle in previous years.
Moala also happens to bring the length and speed that makes him ideal to play at the under tackle position, which requires the ability to generate a pass rush.
This mixture of size and speed gives Moala the tools to be the most complete defensive tackle the Colts have had on their roster since Booger McFarland.
Prior to the recent draft and post-draft moves, Moala would be a lock for a starting position. The Colts did not stop rebuilding the defensive line with Moala, however, and he will be forced to work for his spot.
In the fourth round of the draft, the Colts selected Terrance Taylor, who will be the biggest defensive tackle on the team. At 6'0", 319 lbs., Taylor is known for his ability to stop the run.
In addition, Taylor has the brute strength to push the pocket, potentially flushing the quarterback out for defensive ends Freeney, Mathis, and Brock to do what they do best.
As it looks now, Taylor is best suited to serve as a "true" nose tackle.
Do not be surprised if he does not serve in a starting role because of the Colts emphasis on speed.
The team does not need Taylor to start in order to get bigger and better against the run. Taylor will have to work very hard if he wishes to see significant time on the field.
In a surprise move, the Colts re-signed Ed Johnson. Johnson played an important part in improving the team's run defense in 2007 as an undrafted free agent out of Penn State.
He was dismissed early last year after he violated his strict contractual obligation to stay clean off-the-field.
If Johnson can work his way back to the performance level of his rookie year, his two summers and one full season of knowledge in the Colts scheme will give him an advantage over his competition.
Unlike his rookie year, Johnson has some big competition if he hopes to start for the Colts v.2009.
In an effort to fill the holes at defensive tackle left by Ed Johnson and early-retiree Quinn Pitcock last year, the Colts signed Antonio "Mookie" Johnson from the Tennessee Titans practice squad.
Mookie is entering his first summer with the Colts after seeing significant work in the second half of the 2008 season.
His presence on the field helped the Colts run defense improve.
While Mookie does have the ability to play in the under tackle position, on the Colts roster he will be competing with Terrance Taylor for reps at nose tackle. Mookie could very well earn a starting spot.
Finally, Eric Foster was Colt's President Bill Polian's diamond in the rough for 2008.
Foster started much of the season as an undrafted free agent. Unfortunately for Foster and the Colts, he was often forced to serve as the team's nose tackle even though he weighs only 265 lbs.
While undersized, Foster made significant progress last year and has a full season under his belt. Which gives him an advantage over the younger players he will be competing against.
If the Colts decide to stick with small and fast, keeping the "big uglies" on the sidelines for running situations, Foster will return to the starting lineup.
With Marvin Harrison's departure, one of these three players will have to step up into the third receiver role.
Pierre Garcon spent much of last year returning kicks but is the early favorite. He was highly productive against division III competition in college.
To this point, however, he has been unable to prove himself as a receiver in the NFL.
To his credit, Bill Polian recently suggested that Garcon will be the second year player who makes the biggest "leap" in ability this season.
If true, Garcon has shown the size and speed, as well as hands and route running ability, to fill the slot receiver position.
Garcon could be used as a wideout on certain plays, as the Colts like to move their receivers around, but do not be surprised if he sticks to one position in his first year as the team's third receiver.
Roy Hall, the most athletic receiver on the Colts roster will make Garcon work for his spot. At 6'3", 240 lbs., Hall is bigger than a handful of the Colts linebackers.
He also happens to run a sub-4.4 40 yard dash.
Last year, Hall generated a lot of buzz around camp as a vastly improved receiver. He was unable to demonstrate his ability as he went down to an early knee injury and missed the first 11 weeks of 2008.
All told, Hall has missed more than two-thirds of the Colts games in his first two years with the team.
The Colts displayed a tremendous level of faith in his abilities when they chose to keep him on the roster during an injury plagued 2008 season.
This summer may be the first time Hall will have an opportunity to show why he has earned the trust of his coaches.
If Hall shows significant improvement in his hands and route running ability he will present a vertical threat and certain mismatch for opponents.
Keep an eye on Hall this summer because he may snag the third receiver position from Garcon.
In the fourth round of the draft, the Colts selected Austin Collie. Collie led the NCAA in receiving as a Junior in 2008.
At 6'1", he brings size to the receiver corps but he has also shown the hands and route running ability to draw comparisons to Brandon Stokely, the Colts former "slot machine."
At 24 years old, Collie enters the league with more maturity than the average rookie and will use that to his advantage in his fight for the third receiver spot on the depth chart.
I believe Collie may shock everyone by beating out both Hall and Garcon to be the third receiver for the Colts by the end of the year.
He has all the tools to be something great and seems like the kind of player you can count on to consistently bring his "A" game.
One thing is for sure, Peyton Manning will have a reliable third target at wide receiver in 2009.
What's more, the two players filling back-up roles will give Manning one of the deepest wide receiver groups of his career.
After Ben Utecht, the team's second tight end in 2006 and 2007 left for Cincinnati, the Colts entered the 2008 season with three new faces at the position.
Practice squad development player, Gijon Robinson spent much of last year as the team's second tight-end and H-Back.
To his credit, Robinson performed better than expected and proved to be a serviceable blocker and receiver.
Unfortunately for Robinson, Bill Polian used two draft picks in 2008 to address the position and will likely look to get those picks involved in the offense in 2009.
Robinson will need to show superior blocking skills and more quickness with the ball in his hands if he hopes to lock down the second tight end spot again in 2009.
In the fourth round of the 2008 draft, the Colts selected Jacob Tamme of Kentucky.
Tamme earned a reputation as an outstanding pass-catcher in his college career and drew comparisons to his new mentor, Dallas Clark.
Like Clark entering the league, Tamme is not known for being an effective blocker and is respected more for his ability to create mismatch opportunities as a route runner.
If Tamme hopes to serve as the team's primary option as the second tight end, he will need to show marked improvement as a blocker.
If last year showed anything for the Colts, it showed that the offensive line is in a period of transition and that blocking help is required from both the tight end and running back positions.
If Tamme cannot step up in that capacity, he will be reserved to a receiving role and will only see the field if Clark needs a breather.
The second tight end on the Colts roster this year will be Tom Santi. Santi, selected in the sixth round in 2008, brings the kind of size and bulk the Colts lost in Utecht.
Santi showed the ability to catch the ball and made an important grab in the comeback against Houston last year.
Santi has the size, tools, and reputation as a blocker to be in the driver's seat for the spot this year. Santi appears faster on the field than Robinson and at 6'3", he is two inches taller.
If Santi stays healthy this summer, he will be the second tight end, lining up opposite Clark in 2009.
No matter who wins the spot, look for the Colts to keep all three players on the roster again this year.
The Colts enter 2009 with a deep roster of hopefuls for the third running back position.
If Lance Ball and Chad Simpson hope to win a spot on the roster they have to beat Indy's sixth round selection in 2008, Mike Hart.
It did not take Mike Hart long to make an impression on his new team. In his first three carries in pre-season play, Hart ran for 44 yards.
He finished the pre-season as the team's leading rusher.
Against Baltimore, early in the season, Hart had the most spectacular two-yard run I have ever seen. After he was stuffed by a defensive tackle and slammed by an incoming linebacker (whose helmet flew off as he took a seat on the turf), Hart pushed through two defenders for a two yard gain to keep the Colts possession alive.
Unfortunately for Hart, a few plays later he caught a dump-off pass on the left side of the field and tore his ACL when he planted his leg in an attempt to juke the defender.
On that play he was only able to carry the ball for an 18-yard gain.
Some think Hart is a huge question-mark entering the season as it often takes a full year for a knee to return to normal after undergoing surgery for an ACL tear.
Those people must not "get it" yet about Mike Hart. He will be back, he will be ready, and he will be the man to beat for the third running back spot on the Colts roster.
In Hart's absence, Chad Simpson saw some time on the field as the third back.
At no time did Simpson show that he has the ability to be outstanding as a running back in the NFL, nor did he prove himself as the team's primary kick returner.
If Simpson plans to make this roster he has a lot of proving to do this summer. It is good that he got some on-field experience as a running back last year, and that he is entering his second off-season with the Colts.
However, if Mike Hart is healthy, Simpson will either be competing with Lance Ball for a spot on the practice squad or will need to win a spot as the team's kick returner.
The Colts picked up Lance Ball from St. Louis last year. He was quickly called to action against the Titans in week 17 and turned heads with his performance.
Ball carried the pigskin 13 times for 83 yards in his regular season debut.
At 5'9", 220 lbs., Ball brings bulk to the running back rotation. If Ball hopes to beat out Hart for a roster spot he will have to show the ability to gain tough yards on short-yardage and goal line situations.
Besting Hart's two-yard run against Baltimore last year is no short order.
The Colts are deep at running back. Simpson is probably the least exciting of the options for the Colts entering the summer.
Ball could bring something special to the Colts backfield and play a role similar to James Mungro, when he was on the team.
Mike Hart is the most exciting of the three and he was on pace to push for primary back-up responsibilities by the end of the season last year, forcing Dominic Rhodes down a spot on the depth chart.
How much his knee will keep him from pushing his competition is one of the biggest stories to watch as the Colts head into training camp.
As the Colts inched closer to the 2009 draft, the linebacker position seemed volatile. Tyjuan Hagler and Freddy Keiaho, two former starters, were both still sitting in free agency.
The Colts ended up retaining both players and picked up Adam Seward as a free agent from Carolina but the winds of change seem to be coming to Indianapolis with new Defensive Coordinator Larry Coyer.
Pen Gary Brackett in at the starting middle linebacker position. At this time, pencil in Clint Session as the starting weakside linebacker. Beyond these two players, let the battle begin.
There will be a three way competition between second year player Philip Wheeler, and former starters Keiaho and Hagler for the starting strongside linebacker spot.
The Colts drafted Wheeler with their third round selection in 2008. Wheeler brings more size to the rotation and an unfamiliar pass-rushing element to the squad as well.
With Coyer's history with linebacker blitz packages, it would seem that Wheeler could fit in to the new defensive coordinator's starting rotation.
That said, Wheeler has proven nothing as a linebacker in the NFL and did little to "wow" fans in pre-season last year. Whether he is capable of providing the run stopping presence required from a strongside linebacker is not known.
What the Colts do know is that Hagler and Keiaho have proven strong against the run. Neither player is necessarily suited for pass-rushing responsibilities, nor gifted in coverage, but they could be reliably called upon to keep runners from focusing on Dwight Freeney's hole, allowing him to get up the field to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
Both players have lost their starting spot in one form or another. Hagler tore a muscle in his chest last summer while lifting weights and lost his starting spot to Clint Session.
Keiaho seemingly lost his starting spot when the Colts placed little emphasis on retaining him when he entered free agency, not even making a low-level tender to keep him as a restricted free agent.
The "dark horse" candidate who could mix things up for the three front runners is Adam Seward. Seward also brings more size to the linebacker rotation and is probably best suited to play in the middle linebacker position.
If history is any indication, players who are suited for the middle linebacker position can make an easy transition into the SAM role as well.
Former MIKE backer Rob Morris moved to the SAM position in 2006 and helped the Colts defense make one of the most drastic defensive recoveries of any team entering the playoffs.
Seward is a five year veteran who has be itching to earn the opportunity to start. Should the Colts like what they see from Seward, he may force all three front-runners into reserve roles.
What is clear is that while the Colts may not have as many rookies in prominent roles in 2009 as they did last season, they will boast one of the most competitive summer rosters in the NFL.
If the team can manage to come out of this competition healthy, the 2009 Indianapolis Colts will be a very deep football team.