With a healthy Reggie Wayne and a blossoming Andrew Luck, Indianapolis should cruise to the AFC South title again. The defense could determine how long the Colts stick around in the postseason
By Dan Greene
I’m at Anderson University in Anderson, Ind., the Colts’ summer home for the past five years and from 1984 to ’98 before that. Anderson, a city of 55,000 roughly 40 miles northeast of Indianapolis, is understandably Colts-crazy, with seemingly every other business on Scatterfield Road displaying a greeting for the team or declaration that this is “Colts Country.” (And if you go out to eat in town as a group of males in your 20s and 30s, there is a chance the wait staff will ask if you are members of the team.) On Tuesday, two days before the team’s preseason opener against the Jets, the Colts practiced without full pads or tackling. The defensive players seemed hungry for such conditions to change in their first taste of game action. “I’m tired of hitting Hugh Thornton,” defensive end Cory Redding said. And when a reporter prefaced a question with “I know it’s not a real game, but…” defensive lineman Arthur Jones was quick to cut him off. “It’s a real game,” Jones said with a smile. “Don’t get it twisted.”
One vivid memory from watching practice
Reggie Wayne, 35 years old and coming off a torn right ACL last October, jogging off the field after practice to chants of “REG-GIE! REG-GIE!” It was the bleachers’ loudest outburst of the day. Wayne looked comfortable cutting and coming out of breaks on his surgically repaired knee. Staffers have been amazed at his healing ability, but that hasn’t stopped coach Chuck Pagano from being cautious enough handling Wayne that the receiver has been employing boxing metaphors to describe their give-and-take. (Wayne, eager for live action, will be held out of Thursday’s preseason game.) The Colts have surrounded Andrew Luck with a strong bevy of receiving options including free agent signee Hakeem Nicks, last year’s breakout receiver T.Y. Hilton, returning tight end Dwayne Allen (hip injury), and tight end Coby Fleener. A fully healthy Wayne capable of producing as he did last season—75.5 yards per game in the six full games before his injury—would only nudge the receiving corps even closer to the league’s top.
How this team can go 12–4
Armed with all those weapons, Luck continues his steady development and takes up residence among the game’s top passers in a dynamic offense. Some combination of a rejuvenated Trent Richardson, who averaged just 2.9 yards per carry as a Colt last season, and a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw, who ran well early before a neck injury ended his 2013, gives offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton the dependable running game he lacked for much of last season. And with the division’s strongest quarterback play and overall offense, the Colts will repeat as AFC South champions as the teams behind them try to build themselves into contenders.
Oh, and the defense answers its two most pressing questions: Can it pressure the quarterback, and can it stop the run? The former takes on an added importance early in the season as all-pro outside linebacker Robert Mathis serves his four-game PED suspension. Mathis’s 19½ sacks last season were nearly half of the team’s total (42) and according to Pro Football Focus, he had nearly a quarter of the team’s quarterback hurries (39 of 167). Bjoern Werner, a first-round pick in 2013, will start in his place after a strong offseason, but replicating Mathis’s impact will likely require multiple contributions and creative blitz packages. Ex-Raven Arthur Jones should aid the run defense on the line, but after ranking 26th in yards allowed and 25th in yards per carry allowed last season, there is ample room for improvement.
How this team can go 4–12
A multi-pronged disaster including injuries and the failure to improve in the three areas addressed above: running the ball, stopping the run, and getting to the quarterback. Luck and his receivers should be able to compensate if the running game stagnates again, but the defense will have no such luxury. The Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount-led backfield obliterated the Colts on the ground (46 rushes for 234 yards) in their division-round playoff loss. And that was before Indianapolis lost safety Antoine Bethea, a capable run stopper who signed with the 49ers as a free agent. And how’s this for an opening two weeks without your best pass rusher: at Denver, followed by a Monday-nighter with Chip Kelly’s relentless Eagles.
Now, from fantasyland …
Keep these things in mind for your fantasy draft:
1. Don’t take him over any of the big three – Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees – but Luck could be the best quarterback in the next tier. With so much to work with at receiver and tight end, the Colts may open up the passing game a bit more, giving Luck an opportunity to produce the best numbers of his young career.
2. About all that receiving talent: It’s hard to tell just how many looks Wayne, Hilton, Nicks, Allen, and Fleener will get. Despite his age and recent injury Wayne, might be the safest bet of the group given his established role and how remarkably well he seems to be recovering. Though all of them will contribute, keep an eye on personnel groupings during the preseason and be sure not to overpay.
3. Rookie receiver Donte Moncrief should intrigue keeper and dynasty leaguers. Even with all the talent ahead of him on the depth chart, the 6-2 third-rounder from Ole Miss may force his way onto the field this season. And given Wayne’s age and Nicks’s one-year contract, he could be in line for bigger things down the line.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|WR1||Reggie Wayne||LDE||Cory Redding|
|LT||Anthony Castonzo||NT||Josh Chapman|
|LG||Jack Mewhort||DT||Arthur Jones/Ricky Jeans-Francois|
|C||Khaled Holmes||OLB||Robert Mathis/Bjoern Werner|
|RG||Hugh Thornton||ILB||D'Qwell Jackson|
|RT||Gosder Cherilus||ILB||Jerrell Freeman|
|TE||Dwayne Allen||OLB||Erik Walden|
|WR2||T.Y. Hilton||CB||Greg Toler|
|WR3||Hakeem Nicks||CB||Vontae Davis|
|QB||Andrew Luck||SS||Delano Howell/Mike Adams|
|RB||Trent Richardson||FS||LaRon Landry|
|FB||Mario Harvey/Stanley Havili||Nickel||Darius Butler|
|K||Adam Vinatieri||P||Pat McAfee|
Mathis is in no danger of losing his job, but the athletic, aggressive Werner will be starting in his place during Mathis’s four-game suspension… The competition is tight across the defensive line. Don’t be surprised to see Jones and Jean-Francois in the mix at end as well… Harvey, a 6-foot, 264-pound converted linebacker, has taken over at fullback while the incumbent Havili is on the PUP list following offseason shoulder surgery. It could be Harvey’s job to keep… Howell started three games while Landry was sidelined last season and has been running ahead of Adams, a former Bronco, at the safety spot vacated by Bethea.
Best new player in camp
Jack Mewhort, LG. The team’s second-round pick from Ohio State was already in the mix for the starting left guard spot before Donald Thomas tore his quad last week; now the job is his. He’s impressed coaches with his smarts early and Pagano has called him “unflappable.” He will need to be.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Reggie Wayne will become the fourth receiver to have a 1,000-yard season after turning 36, which he will do in November. The other three to do it: Jerry Rice (three times), Jimmy Smith, and Joey Galloway.
Something I’ve never seen before
So much ado about haircuts. The night before, the Colts held a team bonding party in which the veterans busted out some clippers and went to town on the poor rookies’ scalps.
Hands down the best haircut from last nights team bonding party pic.twitter.com/iSg8luQ9eZ
— Matt Overton (@MattOverton_LS) August 5, 2014
Of course, this meant much of the team’s midday media availability was spent discussing the festivities. (Pagano’s assessment: “They were all pretty egregious.”) No one appeared to enjoy such talk more than Cory Redding, who held court with a group of reporters on dreadlock-shearing etiquette (“You respect the dreads… You just shave their face”), approaching such initiations carefully in a post-Incognito NFL, and his fondness for haircutting (he owns a barbershop in Austin). As the jovial interview session wound down, Redding told the gathered scribes he was happy to “give y’all something to write about. Y’all always write about the same stuff, you know?”
What I thought when I walked out of camp
This is an obvious playoff contender, especially in a division where so much needs to be sorted out elsewhere, but the questions about the Colts defense will determine where they truly stand within the AFC’s upper half. What I’m most looking forward to seeing is how this passing game takes shape and how creative Hamilton gets in mixing and matching this group of pass-catchers. Hamilton came into the NFL from Stanford preaching a run-first offense. Now he’s got the ingredients for a passing attack that can give opponents fits and the right emerging quarterback to take advantage.