The Colts have a lot to be excited about in 2009. The defensive line has received a lot of attention, the secondary is proven, they are sporting a pair of Pro Bowl pass rushers, Peyton Manning is healthy, they have two first-round draft picks at running back, and starting left guard Ryan Lilja is nearing a return.
The team looks full on talent and deeper at many positions than it has been in a long time.
Even more encouraging is that so many players will be entering the season with added motivation. Players tend to play best when they feel a need to distinguish themselves.
The best example of this intangible in action is the 2006 Colts defense, who was responsible for most NFL analysts predicting the team's early playoff exit. The defense included corner backs Nick Harper and Jason David who were in contract years.
Safety Bob Sanders missed much of the year to injury. Rob Morris, who had long been removed from the starting roster, took over for Gilbert Gardner at strong side linebacker. Suffice it to say, the defense had a lot to prove as the team entered the playoffs.
The result? The defense was outstanding and the team won its first championship in over 30 years.
Like the 2006 Colts defense, this team is filled with players who are under a lot of pressure to step up their game. Watch for these players to push the Colts to play with greater intensity in the coming season.
Cornerback Marlin Jackson is not known as a "cover corner," who will shut down an opponent's passing game by playing tight coverage against receivers. But Jackson is an excellent open-field tackler, brings a lot of energy to the secondary, and is one of the hardest hitting corner backs in the league.
Midway through the 2008 season Jackson suffered a torn ligament in his right knee and was placed on the injured reserve. The timing could not have been worse.
Jackson's play this year will determine his future in the NFL and whether he will be recognized as one of the league's best corner backs, deserving of a large contract offer, or only a role-player who is entering free agency during the prime years of his career.
What Jackson has going for him is that he is one of the most tenacious players on the Colts. It does not take additional pressure or inspiration to get Jackson into a frenzy on the field. This "extra" pressure will only prove to make him more dangerous and should make him a player to watch in 2009.
Jackson's surgically repaired knee is recovering at light speed. If he can continue progressing he will be at full strength entering the season and will look to use this season to make a statement to the rest of the league.
Look for "ball-hawkin'" and "head knockin'" from Jackson this year.
Since joining the team, Bethea has consistently overachieved.
As a rookie he intercepted two passes during the playoffs, on the Colts road to Super Bowl XLI. He followed that up by leading the team with four interceptions in 2007.
Last year he led the team with 126 tackles. There is no doubt that Bethea has put together a very impressive NFL resume in his first three years in the league, and he has only missed five games over that span.
That said, Bethea finished 2008 with two interceptions while backup safety Melvin Bullitt had four, even though Bullitt saw the field on significantly fewer defensive snaps.
This is hardly an indictment of Bethea's abilities but it does show that he has been joined by some legitimate competition, and potentially a future replacement.
Bethea has earned a Pro Bowl invitation and is one of only four Colt defenders who have earned that honor. Normally this would be an encouraging fact for any player.
What makes it different for Bethea is that the Colts boast one of the strongest safety rotations in the league. In the age of the salary cap, there is only so much money available to re-sign your best players.
If he wishes to re-sign with the Colts, Bethea will have to prove that he is clearly better than Melvin Bullitt. If he hopes to earn a lucrative contract with another team, he will need to use this season to show that he is still improving and that the best years of his career are ahead of him.
There is no way that Bethea wants to depart the Colts and he knows that his performance this year will determine the nature of his new contract, on his current team or elsewhere in the NFL. Look for Bethea to step up his intensity even more in 2009.
For the last four years Gary Brackett has been the starting middle linebacker and defensive captain for the Indianapolis Colts. Anytime you can pick-up, develop, and retain an undrafted free agent who is able to perform at near Pro Bowl levels for the bulk of his career, you have found something special.
After finishing 2008 on the sidelines due to a leg fracture, Brackett will have to prove to the Colts and the rest of the league that he has fully recovered and can still play at a very high level.
If Brackett's performance should fall-off, he knows that it would send a bad message about his ability to produce moving forward, which would hinder him in free agency.
If Brackett hopes to stay with the Colts, his job will be even more difficult as the team is deep at linebacker, with three players who either have played or are suited to play the middle linebacker position.
Also, Larry Coyer places a greater emphasis on size at linebacker. If Brackett hopes to have a future in Indy, he will have to show Coyer that his small size will not limit his effectiveness.
Brackett has been around the league long enough to feel the pressure of youth building below him and to know that it will take a special performance in 2009 to earn him a lucrative contract as he heads into the final years of his career.
Look for these factors to influence Brackett's play in 2009.
Bullitt took the league by surprise in 2008 because he entered the year without participating in much of training camp or preseason, due to injury. When Bullitt did get his chance, he impressed.
In a reserve role behind Bob Sanders, Bullitt compiled 72 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 9 passes defensed - not bad for player in a reserve role. Beyond that, since joining the squad, Bullitt has been a productive special teams player on coverage units.
Bullitt definitely has a lot going for him but he is entering a contract year and will likely be a restricted free agent at the end of the coming season.
If he can continue his strong performance or even build upon last year, he could make it worthwhile for the Colts to sign him to a long-term contract and move him into a starting role.
However, if Bullitt's performance should falter this year or if he gets injured, all bets are off. Bethea would likely re-sign and Bullitt would be stuck in his reserve role, behind two Pro Bowlers.
Not an ideal situation for a player trying to prove that he deserves a starter's salary and is ready to take on starting responsibility. If he fails to clearly establish himself this year, he may be forced to accept a much smaller salary to stick with the Colts as a reserve.
It is in Bullitt's best interest to work extremely hard this year, show that he is ready to step in, and provide the Colts with a more cost-efficient option of maintaining a very talented secondary.
Bullitt is smart enough to know these things. These factors will play a role in the tenacity and effort Bullitt displays on the field in the coming season.
Joseph Addai is in a precarious position entering the new season. For more than a year, his performance has dipped below what the Colts expect from a former first round draft pick and the team's feature back.
His inability to stay healthy is well-documented and has raised question-marks about whether he can "carry the load" as a feature runner in the NFL.
With the addition of Donald Brown the pressure on Addai is greater than ever to perform at the Pro Bowl level he displayed in 2007.
Addai is signed through 2010 but this season will likely set the stage for his future. If he fails to stay healthy or fails to drastically increase his production, the window will open for Brown to receive significant carries and make his mark on the NFL.
If Brown proves capable, Addai could transition to a reserve role, which will certainly have an impact on the nature of his new contract.
Addai knows this is the season he needs to show that he is the running back the Colts thought they were getting when they drafted him in 2006.
It is disconcerting to think that, despite this fact, Addai has been sitting out of organized training activities and mini-camp to recover from having his knee scoped this offseason.
He will need to rehabilitate and get to full speed quickly to ensure that he is ready for the start of the season and have a full year to show that he is worthy of a long-term contract extension.
Don't be surprised if it appears like Addai is running with a greater sense of urgency in 2009. He will have to; his future career depends on it.
Roy Hall played on a team in college which saw two of its three top receivers drafted in the first round. As a result, Hall had few opportunities to produce at Ohio State. Still, he possesses all the physical characteristics teams look for in a receiver.
Hall is 6'3", 240 lbs., making him as large as a tight end or linebacker. What really sets him apart from other potential "project receivers" is that he runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.4 seconds range and has an exceptionally well built frame.
Entering the league, the question-marks for Hall were his ability to run routes effectively and his hands. In 2008, the coaches indicated that Hall had worked very hard to improve his abilities as a receiver and looked to make a big jump at the position in his second year.
What has held Hall back more than anything has been a string of injuries. As a rookie, Hall had one of the most impressive special teams plays of the year for the Colts, earning the "wedge-buster" label from many fans when he broke up a wedge against Houston.
The collision was so powerful that it ended his season and ended the recipient's career.
Last year, Hall suffered a knee injury that kept him off of the field for 11 weeks. While it is encouraging that the team chose to keep Hall on roster, in the face of widespread team injuries, it is clear that his opportunity to prove that he is a capable receiver is coming to an end.
Marvin Harrison is no longer with the team and the third receiver spot has opened for the first time. If Hall does not show that he can run the route tree and has the hands to serve as a reliable pass-catcher for Manning, he will have to prove his future worth in the league as a special teams player.
It would be a shame to see so much physical ability go to waste and for Hall's career to begin and end on the coverage unit. Hall knows that he is in a difficult competition for the third wide receiver position and that this year may be his only chance to earn a starting spot on an NFL roster.
Look to see an inspired Hall this season. If he can stay healthy he may surprise everyone.
Freddy Keiaho has spent the last two seasons as the starting weak side linebacker for the Colts.
In 2007, he made a strong impression early but suffered a dislocated elbow that would limit his effectiveness for the rest of the year. Although fans entered 2008 with high hopes and expectations for Keiaho, he failed to live up to them.
As a result, the Colts unceremoniously allowed Keiaho to enter free agency, signaling that he not only lost his job as the starting weak side linebacker but that he was an expendable asset.
Add to this that Keiaho had very few suitors as he sat in free agency and it is clear that his future in the league has been questioned and that he has a lot to prove if he hopes to stay in the NFL long-term.
This year he will likely have to compete against Philip Wheeler, Tyjuan Hagler, and Adam Seward for a chance to start on the strong side.
At only 5'11", 226 lbs. it will take an extraordinary effort for Keiaho to prove best suited for a position that requires a great deal of physical strength, often shedding blockers to get to running backs.
The challenge is even bigger when Coyer's emphasis on size at linebacker is added to the equation.
To think for one minute that Freddy Keiaho is not entering 2009 with a chip on his shoulder and with a desire to prove to everyone that he is a starting caliber linebacker for any team in the league would be short-sighted.
The wake-up call could not have been any louder for Keiaho and it will most certainly have an impact on the effort he shows on the field when he is given the opportunity this season.
Tyjuan Hagler joined the Colts in 2006 and was one of the team's top special teams performers. By year's end, he was the popular choice for replacing Gilbert Gardner as the starting strong side linebacker.
Instead, the Colts gave Rob Morris his chance in late 2006. Early in 2007 Morris would suffer a career ending knee injury and Hagler would have his shot.
While Hagler struggled a bit in the early going, he improved as the season progressed. As a result, the team was confident naming him the starter heading into the 2008 off-season.
Disaster struck when Hagler pulled a pectoral muscle lifting weights during offseason workouts. The recovery time for this injury would keep him out of the first two or three matchups.
The Colts response to his injury has to leave Hagler feeling disrespected at this point. He lost his starting position to a non-football related injury. He returned to health and had to watch as Clint Session continued to start in his place.
Even when Gary Brackett went down with an injury, midseason free agent acquisition Buster Davis, got on the field before him. Then, he was allowed to enter free agency.
While the Colts did re-sign him, there is no doubt that the statement to Hagler was clear:
You have not proven that you are ready to be an every down linebacker in this league. If you wish to remain with the Colts or in the NFL, you will have to show us you are ready to return to a starting role.
Hagler returns to the team with another camp competition ahead of him and will have to beat out Philip Wheeler, Freddy Keiaho, and Adam Seward for the starting strong side spot.
At 6'0", 236 lbs. he has decent size and speed for the position and will be given the chance to make his statement. His veteran status will not give him an edge.
There is no doubt Hagler will enter this season feeling that he has something to prove and he will need to earn a starting spot all over again if he hopes to have a chance to display his value to the rest of the league. Hagler will be inspired to play at a high level in 2009.
Adam Seward joins the Colts after spending four seasons in Carolina as the team's primary backup at middle linebacker. Many Panthers fans will argue that Seward was only in a reserve role because the Panthers have had Pro Bowl caliber middle linebackers playing ahead of him.
If this is true, the Colts may have found a player who is ready to start right away.
What makes Seward an interesting candidate for the Colts roster is his size. At 6'3", 250 lbs. Seward is much larger than most Colts linebackers. His four years of experience also give him more experience than all of the Colts linebackers but Gary Brackett and Tyjuan Hagler (Hagler is tied with Seward).
In preseason action last year, Seward gave the Colts offense fits, finishing the game with two tackles, half a sack, and an interception in limited action.
He has indicated his desire to start and is on a roster which is notoriously small at the position. With a defensive coordinator who places greater emphasis on size at linebacker, Seward knows this may be his best opportunity to break into a starting role.
Look for Seward to play with great effort heading into preseason and make the competition at linebacker even stiffer for 2009.
To this point, Tony Ugoh has yet to establish himself as the top-tier left tackle the Colts were seeking when they traded a 2008 first-round draft pick to select him in the second round of the 2007 draft.
Injuries have kept Ugoh from staying on the field in both of his first two seasons while his Pro Bowl predecessor, Tarik Glenn rarely missed any time on the field.
Additionally, Ugoh has shown weakness against elite pass rushers, allowing more pressure from Manning's blind-side than he has experienced at any other time in his career.
Ugoh's future in the NFL depends on his play in 2009.
If he proves that he can protect Manning, the Colts will quickly work on a lucrative contract extension that will see him lock down the starting left tackle spot for the remainder of his quarterback's career.
If he does not, he will be moved inside to guard or pushed into a reserve role and the Colts will be forced to look elsewhere for a left tackle.
There is little doubt that Ugoh is aware of what is expected of him coming into this season, and what is in play for his future. Look for him to work very hard to establish himself as one of the top left tackles in the NFL.
The Colts' offense struggled without Ryan Lilja in 2008. Lilja earned a lucrative contract extension over former teammate Jake Scott, who signed with Tennessee, only to be sidelined for the year after undergoing multiple knee surgeries.
Teams rarely choose to hang on to contracts of those players who do not play in games. Obviously, Lilja needs to show the Colts that he has fully recovered from his surgeries and can continue playing at the high-level he displayed before he missed time.
The Colts have placed a great deal of emphasis on adding talent on the interior of the offensive line.
While the primary reason for the emphasis has more to do with finding a suitable heir for Jeff Saturday and a replacement for Jake Scott, Lilja cannot afford to allow the Colts to find a cheaper substitute at left guard.
The competition for the starting guard spots has not been tougher in Indianapolis and Lilja will have to get back to playing speed and strength quickly to hold on to his starting position.
A veteran like Lilja is completely aware of this and, as long as he stays healthy, should perform very well for the Colts this year.
At only 6'2", 265 lbs. Foster is under-sized for any defensive tackle position in the NFL. Even so, the Colts were forced to put Foster to work as the starting nose tackle in 2008 and, as a result, the Colts run defense struggled mightily.
This year the team has placed a great deal of emphasis on shoring up the weaknesses along the interior of the defensive line and will have more than four players over 300 lbs. competing for spots at defensive tackle, including one who is more suited to serve as an under tackle (Fili Moala).
Needless to say, Foster has his work cut out for him if he wishes to retain a starting spot at defensive tackle and no one is more aware of this than him.
Any player who is able to improve against NFL level offensive linemen out of his natural position and is able to play the year without injury, is someone who will come into the new season prepared.
It is pure tenacity and want-to alone that would allow a player like Foster to make the goal-line stand against Pittsburgh, which kept the Colts in a position to win the game.
Look for Foster to come out with a chip on his shoulder, ready to work over-time against his competition to retain a starting spot on the defensive line. If he does, Moala and Foster could form a formidable one-two punch on the newly revamped Colts defensive line.
Two years ago, Bob Sanders was voted the NFL's defensive MVP.
Unfortunately, last year, he returned to the sidelines with nagging injuries.
Take nothing away from Sanders for his monumental impact on the success of the Colts defense but he can only play a key role in the team's games when he is on the field.
Surely, no one more frustrated by sitting on the sidelines than Sanders. He lives to be out on the field head-hunting, setting the tempo for the rest of his teammates.
His impact has been so great and the holes in the Colts run defense have been so large that he has had to play roles his frame cannot withstand.
The good news is that Sanders will likely have a fortified defensive line playing ahead of him and he will likely not be asked to blow through offensive linemen who outweigh him by more than 100 lbs. to destroy ball carriers. Instead, Sanders should be allowed to line up deeper in the secondary.
Anytime Sanders has the opportunity to play in space and use his vision to make plays it tends to be a bad omen for opposing ball carriers. This tiger has been caged for too long and will enter 2009 ready to return to his game-changing role on the Colts defense.
Opponents better watch out. The last time the Colts defense was questioned, Sander's return led to the Super Bowl.
While Kelvin Hayden is known most for his game-sealing interception in Super Bowl XLI, he has developed into the most complete corner the Colts have had this decade. He is the best pure cover corner on the roster and also plays the run extremely well, laying hard hits on ball carriers.
Last season Hayden suffered through injuries and was able to fly under the radar. The Colts knew what they had and signed him to a long-term contract extension although Hayden has not had a chance to prove himself worthy of that contract.
Experts and fans have argued that the Colts over-paid to keep him on the team. Hayden is familiar with the Colts defense receiving blame for the team's short-comings and knows that his contract puts a great deal of pressure on him to perform.
The last time he was put under this kind of pressure he sealed a Super Bowl win. Look for him to distinguish himself as one of the top corner backs in the league in 2009.
Despite the fact that Mike Hart is the all-time leading rusher for a power-house college program like Michigan, he entered the NFL as a long shot. The experts listed him as too small, too slow, or as having too many miles on his body to succeed in the NFL.
It is too early to reach a conclusion on Hart's future but what is known is that he dominated preseason competition in 2008 and gained positive yards nearly every time he touched the football.
Most impressively, Hart took his first three carries in the NFL for 44 yards. Against Baltimore in the regular season he carried the ball for one of the most impressive two yard gains this writer has ever seen.
Unfortunately, Hart's season ended early in the same game as his memorable two yard run. This is precisely what Hart needed to not happen. Anything that would delay his ability to carry the football or keep him off of the field will stifle his journey to NFL legitimacy.
No one is more aware of the impact of his injury than Hart. He has dealt with adversity before and has not let it stand in his way. He suffered injuries in college only to return to his dominant form.
Whether Hart can return to the Colts healthy for training camp and preseason competition is unclear but if his past is any indication, it is all but certain.
Look for Hart to be far more comfortable in the Colts offense this year and shock the league by being seemingly undistracted by his injury last year. When Hart touches the ball, he will run with purpose.
He will need to if he wishes to win a roster spot in 2009, in what could be his last chance to make it in the NFL.
In 2007, T.J. Rushing established himself as the Colts primary return man and a serviceable nickel corner. Then, before the 2008 season could get off of the ground, Rushing suffered a knee injury which would keep him from playing for the entire year.
Since his injury the Colts have given many players an opportunity to develop as kick and punt returners. Additionally, Tim Jennings, Dante Hughes, and Melvin Bullitt all gained a lot of experience in the secondary.
The gap Rushing had created has closed and he will enter another offseason unsure of his role on the team.
If Rushing plans to continue playing in this league he will have to come into this offseason with purpose and make it clear to the coaching staff that he is ready to be a difference maker in the return game, and will not present a weakness for the Colts defense.
Rushing is back at ground zero and will have to earn his spot on the roster. He has been around the league long enough to know how things work.
Accordingly, look for Rushing to be flying around the field, with or without the ball in his hands, competing with the same urgency as the rookies around him, doing anything they can to make their way onto an NFL roster.