Colts 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis, X-Factors and More
The stage is set.
After months of offseason training, a few weeks of training camp and four preseason games, NFL teams have set their 53-man rosters. A few may change over the next day or two, but the vast majority are set. Now, just days away from the seasons opener, the only thing left to look forward to is a real NFL game.
So what, exactly, will that look like?
For Indianapolis, it projects to be an exciting season.
Starter: Andrew Luck
Depth: Matt Hasselbeck
In as good of a place as any team in the league, the Indianapolis Colts could have the best quarterback duo in the league. There's Luck, the top quarterback prospect of the last 15 years, who has enamored both fans and personnel men across the league during his two years in the league.
Luck may not have the gaudy statistics that other quarterbacks do, but he's carried a below-average roster to the playoffs in consecutive seasons. With more support than ever before, Luck is poised to take a big step in his development in 2014.
Backing him up is Hasselbeck, a former top signal-caller in his own right. Hasselbeck may not be a Pro Bowler, but he's shown that he can still pilot an offense during the preseason. With the AFC South being as quarterback-thin as it is, Hasselbeck may be the second-best quarterback in the division.
Depth: Dan Herron, Zurlon Tipton, Mario Harvey (FB)
PUP: Stanley Havili
A group with varied skills, the Colts running backs are headlined by former 2013 third overall pick Trent Richardson. Richardson has been disappointing so far in his career, leading to his trade from Cleveland to Indianapolis last September. Upon arriving in Indianapolis, Richardson's production went downhill, leading to the worst season for a running back in Colts history.
Bradshaw is the Colts' attempt at a handcuff, a player who was productive last season before a neck injury forced him to the injured reserve list. Herron and Tipton provide a nice contrast behind the two, with Herron providing the flash and Tipton the force. Both performed well in the preseason, earning themselves their first roster spots in the NFL.
Despite not having the offensive line for a power run game or an above-average fullback, the Colts were dead set on keeping a fullback on the roster. Harvey, a former linebacker, will have to suffice until Havili is healthy.
Starter(s): T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks
Depth: Griff Whalen, Donte Moncrief, Da'Rick Rogers
The battle for the Colts' No. 1 receiver spot will be hard-fought between Hilton and Wayne all season. Hilton became Luck's main target last season after Wayne's season was cut short due to an ACL injury. While he still was up and down, Hilton showed by the end of the season that he could carry the load as the first option. Whether Wayne comes back strong from injury or not remains to be seen, 10 snaps in a preseason game is hardly a declarative statement.
Joining the duo to make up a strong top three is Nicks, the former New York Giants star. Nicks is a big-bodied, well-rounded receiver and should fit in much better than Darrius Heyward-Bey or Donnie Avery ever did. Moncrief joins as a rookie, bringing speed, size and potential to the group.
As has been speculated about all month, the Colts kept six receivers, with the steady Whalen and flashy Rogers rounding out the pass-catchers. It's one of the deepest groups in the league and should be more prepared to deal with injury than the 2013 team was.
Starter(s): Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener
Depth: Jack Doyle
Another group with varied skills, the trio of tight ends the Colts elected to enter the season with begins and ends with the 2012 draftees: Allen and Fleener.
The two combined for 71 catches, 802 yards and five touchdowns in their rookie year and were poised to break out in 2013 before Allen went down with a season-ending hip injury. Fleener had a decent year alone in 2013, catching 52 catches for 608 yards and four touchdowns, but the team missed Allen's physicality and dependability. Indianapolis hopes that Allen can get back to form in 2014, as he looked like a potential star last time he was on the field.
Starter(s): Anthony Castonzo, Jack Mewhort, Khaled Holmes, Hugh Thornton, Gosder Cherilus
Depth: Joe Reitz, Lance Louis, Jonotthan Harrison, Xavier Nixon, A.Q. Shipley
Inexperience is the theme for the offensive linemen, as just Castonzo and Cherilus started any significant time in 2013. Louis also has started in his career, but he missed all of 2013 with an ACL tear. Thornton was a starter because of injury last season but had an extremely rough season all around.
Holmes, Mewhort, Austin and Harrison are all either rookies or have so little experience that they may as well be. Reitz and Nixon did a decent job as depth last season but have been injured in the preseason.
It's a very young group, with only Castonzo and Cherilus to lean on. The Colts will need them to be the cornerstones of the line while the young guys grow up quickly.
EDIT: A.Q. Shipley was signed in place of Thomas Austin after this piece was written. Shipley knows the locker room and coaches from his stint in Indianapolis in 2012, although he has not been in offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's scheme yet. He's a solid addition as depth.
Starter(s): Cory Redding, Josh Chapman, Arthur Jones
Depth: Ricky Jean Francois, Montori Hughes, Zach Kerr
With arguably the deepest Colts defensive line in the last 15 years, coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky finally have the 3-4 prototype line that they need. Redding provides grizzled experience, and Jones and Jean Francois have been brought in for their quality talent in the last two years as well.
But it's the young blood that sets this defense apart. Chapman is a force that could transform the run defense this season, while Kerr and Hughes are both versatile enough to play inside or out and can step up if called upon.
The pass rush won't be dynamic from the line, but it should be sturdy against the run, a change in Indianapolis.
Starter(s): Erik Walden, D'Qwell Jackson, Jerrell Freeman, Bjoern Werner
Depth: Cam Johnson, Henoc Muamba, Josh McNary, Jonathan Newsome, Andy Studebaker
Suspended: Robert Mathis
Like the defensive line, the Colts have spent the last three years building a linebacking corp that is fit for a 3-4 defense. It's been bolstered by the addition of the veteran Jackson this offseason, along with Newsome—a rookie—and the diamond-in-the-rough Muamba—from the CFL.
Muamba and Freeman make a nice pair of finds for Grigson, who will mine for talent anywhere. Most of the linebackers fit into that low-cost category: Johnson cost a seventh-round pick in a trade, McNary was found in the Army reserves and Studebaker was signed off the streets last year.
While Mathis will likely replace Studebaker after Week 4, the group has decent potential mixed with veteran stability. If Werner, or another, can emerge as a playmaker, the Colts will be in good shape.
Starter(s): Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, Darius Butler
Depth: Josh Gordy, Loucheiz Purifoy
With as much time as the Colts spend in nickel (48 percent with five or more defensive backs, per the Football Outsiders Almanac), Butler joins Davis and Toler to round out a high-ceiling core. The group could use more consistency, but when healthy, it's done the job for Indianapolis.
Gordy played well when called upon last season and can fill in adequately on the outside. Purifoy was one of the top prospects in the 2014 draft, but had a down year and some off-field issues (namely with drugs). After going undrafted, the Colts snatched up the athletic corner, whose size and physical talent make him an ideal project for the Colts scheme.
Starter(s): LaRon Landry, Mike Adams
Depth: Sergio Brown, Colt Anderson
Easily the weakest roster spot, LaRon Landry is the best of the group by a wide margin. Considering how disappointing his play was in 2013, that's not very encouraging. With Antoine Bethea leaving for San Francisco, and a new contract, the Colts have attempted to fill his spot with Adams, the former starter in Denver.
The Colts also brought in Anderson as a veteran for depth, and Brown is the special teams ace that fills the gaps.
Punter: Pat McAfee
Kicker: Adam Vinatieri
Long Snapper: Matt Overton
If there's one group the Colts can pencil in as dependable every week, it's the kickers. The Colts re-signed both this offseason, and for good reason. Though Vinatieri seems like he should age, he's as accurate as ever, and McAfee is in the prime of a very good punting career. The "Boomstick" has looked better than ever in the preseason and should have improved directional punts this season.
Head Coach: Chuck Pagano
Coordinators: Pep Hamilton (Offensive), Greg Manusky (Defensive)
Heading into his third season as the Colts head coach, Pagano finds himself at a turning point. By all accounts, Pagano is loved by his players, the Colts front office and the local media. His charisma and ability to inspire a group of 53 men is well-known and valuable. But Pagano also has had an antiquated run-first philosophy that has held the team back at times, and his on-field decisions have been questionable.
The Colts have a once-in-a-generation quarterback in Andrew Luck, and people both in the media and around the league don't feel Pagano has added enough to the team to show he's more than an average coach just yet. 2014 could be a turning point, one way or the other.
The season will be a big one for the coordinators as well. Hamilton needs to show that he's grown and can put Luck in the most favorable positions possible, and Manusky will need to scheme up pressure on the quarterback during the first four weeks with Robert Mathis suspended.
WR Hakeem Nicks
The Colts will get production from T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne, but there are questions about Wayne's ability after his surgery. If Nicks can regain his form from 2009 and 2010, the Colts will have the potential to be a devastating offense, even if Wayne stumbles.
C Khaled Holmes
Holmes is essentially a rookie after playing just 12 snaps in 2013. He's the starting center for now, and if he can be dependable at all, the Colts offensive line will be much improved.
ILB Josh McNary
Last season, the Colts used McNary as a weapon in nickel defense near the end of the season. McNary is versatile, able to rush the passer, drop back in pass rush and play the run. If he continues to develop, he could be a dangerous weapon for defensive coordinator Greg Manusky's creativity.
S LaRon Landry
The Colts need playmakers on all areas of the defense. Landry is getting paid like one, but he's yet to perform like one. He has the talent, but a lack of discipline (in areas like tackling) leads to allowing big plays at times. The Colts need him to be dependable with Bethea gone and create opportunities for the defense.
Colts at Denver Broncos, Sept. 7
Easily the most-anticipated game of the season, any matchup between Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning is going to draw eyes. But to start the season, on Sunday Night Football? Batten down the hatches, folks.
Colts vs. Cincinnati Bengals, Oct. 19
Last season, the Bengals destroyed the Colts at home late in the season, winning 42-28 in a game that wasn't as close as the final score. Now, the Colts get to host and will be looking to prove their worth as one of the AFC's elite teams.
Colts vs. New England Patriots, Nov. 16
Another revenge game, the Colts come off their bye to face the Patriots on Sunday Night Football. They lost in the playoffs in January, but the Colts hope to boost their playoff hopes with a home win. The Patriots are projected to be one of the top two teams in the conference, and a win for Indianapolis would be a boost from which to launch the second half of the season from.
Colts vs. Houston Texans, Dec. 14
If the Colts are in any kind of trouble near the end of the season in terms of making the playoffs, they will need a strong divisional finish. They can keep their undefeated record against the Texans at home and pick up a key divisional win at the same time.
MVP: Andrew Luck
Is this even a question? Luck's been the MVP for the last two years in Indianapolis. This year he'll have a chance to compete for the league-wide award as well.
Most Improved: Hugh Thornton
There are several candidates for this, including Bjoern Werner, but Thornton will get unlimited opportunity and flashed a lot of ability at the end of last season.
The Colts may not be an elite team this season, but an easy division and improved offense should lead to a 12-win season. The most difficult stretch will likely be playing the Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles back-to-back to start the season.
Final Game: AFC Divisional Round
The Colts will be a better team this season, but they won't go further than last season unless the defense takes an unprecedented step forward.