The Indianapolis Colts wrapped up their mandatory minicamp on Sunday, but the highlight came in their Saturday practice, which was open to the public.
It was the first chance for fans to see the Colts since their Super Bowl loss to New Orleans in February. For a team minutes from its second championship in four years, it's easy to understand why fans were excited.
There were cheers galore for Peyton Manning, and players like Austin Collie, Dallas Clark, and Dwight Freeney garnered a lot of attention.
One couldn't help but notice the glaring absences of Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, and Antoine Bethea.
The Colts' hopes for 2010 were supposed to be lifted when Bob Sanders and Anthony Gonzalez began training again. They would be primed for another Super Bowl run by adding a former Defensive Player of the Year and a solid wide receiver.
Instead, the contract situations of Wayne, Mathis, and Bethea have cast some doubt over the 2010 season. Theirs is a far greater loss than can be rectified by what Sanders and Gonzalez can add to the team.
I'm not here to pass judgement on how the three players are handling things. An uncapped year, threats of a future holdout, and individual player goals are all difficult things to evaluate. It's easy to see what the Colts would miss if any or all of these players decided to make a statement by holding out, or in the case of Bethea not signing his tender and losing part of the 2010 season.
An AFC title defense would be greatly hampered without these top-tier players. Mathis keeps teams from triple-teaming Freeney. Bethea is, quietly, one of the team's defensive leaders and one of the league's most underrated safeties. On offense, Wayne is the Colts' leading receiver.
It's a gamble on the players' part as well.
Mathis is just 29 and second on the Colts' all-time sack list behind teammate Freeney. Edgerrin James was just 28 when the Colts decided to let him follow the cash to Arizona and turned to rookie Joseph Addai as his replacement.
In the April Draft, the Colts drafted Jerry Hughes, a Mathis-like clone as far as body build goes.
Hughes may have been drafted to strengthen the defensive end rotation in the short term, but he could end up as the long-term replacement for Freeney or Mathis. Should Mathis hold out, and Hughes have a rookie season even half as good as Freeney's in 2002, then Mathis may find his chance at a contract renegotiation disappear completely.
Likely? No. But definitely possible considering Bill Polian's history of letting youngsters step into key roles.
The same could be said for Wayne. The Colts may not have drafted his replacement, but the return of Gonzalez means they have three solid wideouts should his holdout turn serious. Collie and Pierre Garcon both came on strong when Gonzalez got hurt last season.
Should Gonzalez live up to his potential, Manning will still have plenty of weapons at his disposal. For Wayne, who will turn 32 during the season, it may mean the beginning of the end of his stay in Indy.
Remember, it wasn't that long ago that the Colts worried about life without Marvin Harrison. That turned out okay, so why shouldn't the same happen for the loss of Wayne?
Bethea's situation is probably the most understandable, though he's also the hardest to replace. Unlike Wayne and Mathis, Bethea is not currently under contract. Rather, he has simply refused to sign a one-year offer. It's obvious he wants a long-term deal, and frankly, it's a deal the Colts should really consider.
Bethea won't be easily replaced. Moving Bullitt over means you are counting on him to play as well in a different role than he played last year. It also means you are counting on Sanders to stay healthy for an entire year.
The Super Bowl showed what can happen to a thinned-out Colts secondary. Losing Bethea would make the defense significantly worse. The Colts could make do—they have in the past—but it would be harder to pull off.
That's not to say the Colts could survive without Wayne and Mathis easily. Sure, the Colts thrived with all the changes in 2009, but it's asking a lot to replace so much production again in 2010.
The calendar reads just early June, so there's plenty of time to keep this situation from having a negative impact on the team. Hopefully, the Colts work out deals with all three players so they can get back to what's important: getting back to the Super Bowl.