Predicting the Colts' Starting Lineup After the First Wave of Free Agency
With one wave of the offseason complete, the Indianapolis Colts have begun the process of filling holes for the 2014 season. Despite getting to the divisional round of the playoffs last season, Indianapolis was a fringe Super Bowl contender at best, with major issues on both sides of the ball.
Fortunately, the team had some resources to address those issues this offseason, with the fifth-most cap space in the league, according to Michael Ginnitti of Spotrac. With just five draft picks in the 2014 draft, the Colts needed to use free agency wisely, especially with 25 of their own players becoming free agents.
So with a few multi-year deals completed, what does the Colts 2014 starting lineup look like?
There was no question here. Andrew Luck is and will be the starting quarterback for the Colts as long as his arm still works. Luck has some issues to clean up, but he has as much potential as any quarterback in the league. The team is fully committed to him and rightfully so.
Matt Hasselbeck is still on the roster as a backup quarterback, but Luck is the past, present and future.
The Colts have three running backs that are all around the same level in Vick Ballard, Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson. You probably could make an argument for any of them starting in 2014.
Vick Ballard was the starter late in 2012 and going into 2013. Ahmad Bradshaw was arguably the most impressive running back on the team in 2013. Trent Richardson has the most physical potential and the most invested in him by the Colts.
But, both Ballard and Bradshaw are coming off of injuries, and Richardson was one of the biggest disappointments of the 2013 season and had surgery in February. In the end, I give it to Bradshaw, the veteran of the group, if he is healthy. He's shown the most talent in his career, both in Indianapolis and New York.
Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks
If you're a T.Y. Hilton fan, don't come at me with torches and a pitchfork yet. I would love to see the third-year receiver get more snaps than either Wayne or Nicks but right now I expect to see the two veterans in the Colts' base sets.
Hilton is the most explosive receiver the Colts have, and he proved how important he was last season after Wayne was injured. But Wayne and Nicks are both bigger and better blockers, something the Colts value greatly in their base sets because of the versatility it gives them on early downs. Both Nicks and Wayne also have been legitimate No. 1 receivers in their career, although Wayne is coming off of a serious knee injury and Nicks has had a rough couple of years.
It will depend on how things go in training camp—and all three receivers will have a healthy rotation—but if all three are healthy, Wayne and Nicks are the favorites for the Colts' two tight end sets.
Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen
Again, no surprises here. The two third-year tight ends are the starters
Allen's return is one of the most anticipated things about the 2014 season. The former Clemson tight end was phenomenal as a rookie, showing strong hands and fantastic blocking ability. Allen was Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) second-overall tight end in 2012. He seemed to be getting off to a good start in 2013 as well, catching a 20-yard touchdown—a strong catch while absorbing contact—in the Colts' season-opening win over Oakland.
Losing Allen may have been the biggest blow in an injury-riddled season, and his return will allow offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton much more flexibility with his offensive sets in 2014.
LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Donald Thomas, (Free agent signing at center), RG Hugh Thornton, RT Gosder Cherilus
The return of left guard Donald Thomas should be a boost in 2014 as well. This will allow second-year guard Hugh Thornton to return to right guard, while giving left tackle Anthony Castonzo a more consistent partner on the left side.
Thornton had a rough rookie season, but he showed flashes of the talent that convinced GM Ryan Grigson to draft him in the third round last season. He may compete with Lance Louis for the starting spot, but it would be a big surprise if Thornton wasn't starting in September.
Center is the only position that is really still in flux. The Colts signed free agent Phil Costa and still have 2013 fourth-round pick Khaled Holmes waiting in the wings but neither are legitimate starting options right now.
Costa has been the bane of Cowboys fans' existence for years, while Holmes played for just 13 snaps last season. It still seems as though the team may be looking for another free-agent signing to solidify the position, but it wouldn't be a surprise if they went into camp with Costa and Holmes competing for the position.
Cory Redding, Arthur Jones, Ricky Jean Francois
Unless the Colts sign another true nose tackle, or draft one high, they may play Jean Francois or Jones at nose tackle in 2014, getting their three best linemen on the field.
Josh Chapman is the only true nose tackle currently on the roster, but Jean Francois and Jones both have limited experience in the middle. Neither are ideal size for a run-plugging nose but at about 300 pounds each, there is enough mass there to make it work.
In today's age of multiple fronts and disguised schemes, these three will give the Colts versatility and an ability to rotate freely. The Colts still need a disruptive pass-rusher on the line, but in terms of pure talent, the unit is fine.
ROLB Robert Mathis, ILB Jerrell Freeman, ILB D'Qwell Jackson, SOLB Erik Walden
Outside linebackers Robert Mathis and Erik Walden return for 2014, unless second-year linebacker Bjoern Werner improves enough to supplant Walden, who has been ranked in the bottom 12 among 3-4 OLBs by PFF (subscription required) in each of the last three years. Of course, that would take quite a bit of improving by Werner based on his rough rookie season.
Jerrell Freeman returns for 2014 after another strong season by the former CFL linebacker. Freeman is overrated by many Colts fans, but he's a solid, versatile starter. The pairing with D'Qwell Jackson will be interesting. Jackson has done a poor job in Cleveland over the last two years, finishing 41st and 42nd in the last two years in PFF's inside linebacker rankings (subscription required).
Jackson and Freeman have both been inconsistent, or simply bad, against the run in recent years, but both can play space well. Jackson should improve the Colts' 25th-ranked defense against tight ends last year, but he likely won't impact the run defense positively at all. The Colts will need the defensive line to have a collectively fantastic year to keep the linebackers free in that regard.
Vontae Davis, Greg Toler
The two starters from 2013, Vontae Davis and Greg Toler put together a solid start to the season last year before Toler was injured in Week 7. With Darius Butler taking up the slot cornerback spot, the Colts have a solid secondary when healthy.
The problem is, Toler can't stay healthy, and 2013 was the first year Davis has played 16 games. Even if healthy, the Colts could use an upgrade over Toler, who was inconsistent. Don't be surprised if the team adds a corner early in the draft, although Davis and Toler should still be the starters come Week 1.
LaRon Landry, (Rookie or free agent)
The biggest question mark outside of center is LaRon Landry's partner in the back. The Colts let long-time fan-favorite Antoine Bethea go in free agency, and they need a replacement for him on the back end. The team could look to free agency to replace Bethea but most of the options are gone at this point. Chris Clemons, however, is still available.
If the Colts go to the draft, they'll need to draft a safety in the second or third round to be a legitimate potential starter. Otherwise, Delano Howell may end up starting. Howell did a decent job filling in for Landry last season, but he isn't an ideal starter.
The Colt could bring in a versatile, strong-safety type and run a system without set strong and free safety roles again, or they could bring in a coverage specialist. Considering the coverage holes Landry resulted in last year, I'd prefer a true, center-fielder type of safety, but we'll see what the Colts do from now until May.
P Pat McAfee, K Adam Vinatieri, LS Matt Overton
The Colts brought back Matt Overton, Pat McAfee and Adam Vinatieri after fantastic 2013 seasons, and the trio will be back for at least two more years as Vinatieri finishes out his career.
The three are very close personally, especially Overton and McAfee, and all three are very involved in the community. Both from a football and public relations standpoint, having the three back again is a great move.