Without looking, how many defensive starters can you name from the Indianapolis Colts?
Ok, I named one in the title of this post, Dwight Freeney, the former first-rounder out of Syracuse.
Some of the talented defenders of the AFC champion Colts are household names now, like linebacker Gary Brackett, the heart and soul of the unit.
But it's truly amazing to see how many unheralded players emerge on the Colts, year after year. Most of them are former late-round draft picks or undrafted free agents.
Looking over the depth chart for the Colts, Pro Bowler Robert Mathis was a fifth-round draft pick out of Alabama A&M. He has been an unstoppable force opposite Freeney since his arrival into the league in 2003.
Starting defensive tackles Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir weren't big-ticket acquisitions either. Johnson was drafted in the fifth-round by the Tennessee Titans in 2007, and Muir was undrafted out of Kent State and was waived by the Packers after his rookie season.
Pro Bowl middle linebacker Gary Brackett was a walk-on at Rutgers, and after making the Colts team as an undrafted free agent has become one of the best middle linebackers in football.
Brackett is flanked on the strongside by Philip Wheeler, (who the Colts nabbed at the end of the third round in 2008), and on the weakside by Clint Session, who was drafted in 2007 at the end of the fourth round.
The secondary of the Colts was in a state-of-flux this season due to injuries, and at one point, they had two rookies starting at cornerback in Jacob Lacey and Jerraud Powers.
Although not exactly a "steal" like some of the undrafted, unwanted players on the Colts, starting corner Kelvin Hayden is another homegrown player, a second round pick out of Illinois.
Powers, now the starter at right corner when healthy, was a nice find for the Colts this past year in the third round. Lacey, a fellow rookie who started in his place against the Jets in the AFC title game, is–you guessed it–another undrafted gem unearthed by the Colts.
As for the starting safeties, Melvin Bullitt has made a name for himself this season, notably as the player who stopped Patriots running back Kevin Faulk short on the infamous 4th-and-2 conversion attempt to help Indianapolis keep it's undefeated season alive. Bullitt is a former undrafted free agent in his third season.
Last but not least, Antoine Bethea, the starting free safety and habitual playmaker in the Colts secondary was a sixth-round draft pick in 2006.
Don't get me wrong, the Colts are not the only club to have struck gold in recent years on players that no one else seemed to think very highly of. One could look to the other sideline and see the Saints and their explosive offense, featuring former seventh-rounder Marques Colston, and undrafted running backs Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell.
However, no team seems to get more out of these guys than the Colts. Credit it to team president Bill Polian, who has always had an eye out for talent.
It's not just limited to the defensive side of the ball either. Standout wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie were unknowns four months ago. Garcon was a sixth-round draft pick in 2008 out of Division III Mount Union College who had all of four receptions in his rookie season. Collie is a rookie this season, drafted in the fourth round.
Everybody knows about the superstar Pro Bowlers of the Colts offense, Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, and Dallas Clark. They were all first-round draft picks, as were running backs Joseph Addai and Donald Brown.
But every good team becomes great with a great offensive line, and the Colts may have the best offensive line in football again this year.
Jeff Saturday is the center, the leader of the line. Saturday is the one tasked with calling line protection shifts to match Manning's audibles, making sure the entire offense is in sync with each other. Saturday is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, but was undrafted out of UNC.
Saturday is one of three starting offensive linemen that were undrafted and snapped up by the Colts, along with guards Ryan Lilja, and Kyle DeVan. That's right, the three interior offensive lineman tasked with protecting the game's most important offensive threat were not even drafted. The starting tackles Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem were sixth and fourth-rounders, respectively.
My point is this: no matter how many stars the Colts seem to turn out every year, there is always a contingency plan.
One quick example. In 2008, when Saturday went down with an injury, the Colts did not miss a beat starting a rookie center for seven games. That rookie, Jamey Richard, who is a guard, was drafted in the sixth-round that year out of my alma mater of Buffalo.
The Colts are playing without arguably one of the best defensive players in football, safety Bob Sanders. Sanders, the NFL's defensive player of the year in 2007, has played in less than half of his career games in the NFL due to injury since coming into the league.
So who steps up in Freeney's absence if he indeed can't go on Sunday?
More than likely, it will be a combination of Raheem Brock, Eric Foster, Fili Moala, and Kenyunta Dawson with Brock taking most of the snaps.
In case you were wondering, three of those four players were either seventh-rounders or undrafted. Eight undrafted players in total will start for the Colts on both sides of the ball on Sunday if we include H-Back Gijon Robinson.
I think the Colts have shown in years past that the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back. While losing Freeney is not something the Colts are too excited about, don't think for one second that they don't have a plan for it.
Whether Freeney plays or not, it should be an exciting Super Sunday in Miami.
(For more football talk, as well as the best Mets, Jets and Nets analysis, visit my personal blog, MetsJetsNetsBlog)