By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Since 1998, three NFL franchises have had the top overall pick twice: Cleveland, Houston, and Indianapolis. Cleveland and Houston have legitimate excuses, considering they entered the league in 1999 and 2002 respectively. So that’s quite a dubious distinction for the Colts.
Over that same time span, 12 quarterbacks have been selected with the top pick, and subsequently signed contracts totaling $619.5 M. That figure is large enough to rank as #210 in GDPPurchasingPowerParity, ahead of countries like American Samoa, and Turks and Caicos. Yet, with all that money spent on quarterbacks, only two Super Bowl winners have emerged: the brothers Manning. Oops.
The Colts used both of their top overall picks on quarterbacks, including the centerpiece of their current rebuilding plan, Andrew Luck. If the Colts win another Super Bowl in the next nine seasons (the time it took Peyton Manning to win one), it will be well worth the distinction.
Coming off a disastrous 2-14 season, the Colts opted for a factory reset of the franchise. For the first time since 1997, Bill Polian isn’t calling the shots. Polian was the mastermind of the dominant Colts of the 2000’s, who wisely built the franchise around first ballot Hall-of-Famer, Peyton Manning. The Colts new general manager – Ryan Grigson – is following the same blueprint with Luck.
Luck has been touted as one of the best quarterback prospects in decades, but I think that may be a bit lofty, as Luck never flashed elite arm strength at Stanford. In fact, he operated much like Manning did with the Colts: showing a complete mastery of his offensive scheme, reading a defense prior to the snap, positioning his teammates accordingly, then dissecting opponents with controlled, mid-range throws. Certainly, that type of football acumen combined with Luck’s frame and athleticism should translate quite well to the NFL.
Grigson is building an offensive system to accentuate Luck’s strengths, starting with the logical hire of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. This is Arians second stint in Indianapolis, as he was previously their quarterbacks coach for the first three years of Peyton Manning’s career. Arians also had great success in Pittsburgh, and helped develop two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger.
Arians’ base set primarily utilizes two tight-ends, so Grigson doubled up at the position early in the draft, selecting Luck’s collegiate security blanket Coby Fleener and Clemson’s Dwayne Allen. This rookie trio can grow together, and should provide the Colts with a solid foundation for the future.
Reggie Wayne surprisingly returned to the Colts (3-years $17.5M) and will serve as the veteran presence on offense. For years, Wayne lined up on the left side of the formation, but Arians will move Wayne around – similar to Hines Ward – to scheme for preferred matchups. Wayne will be flanked by the oft-concussed Austin Collie (who really should retire), Donnie Avery, and rookie T.Y. Hilton.
In theory, Collie is the possession receiver, and Avery is the deep threat, but neither have developed into reliable receivers as they can’t keep themselves off the injury report. Hilton projects as the full-time slot receiver down the road. I assume Arians will scheme several quick developing route combinations, to allow Luck to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
Aside from the growing pains of developing a rookie quarterback, there are concerns about how quickly their revamped offensive line can gel, and who will emerge from a lackluster group of running backs.
The Colts will try to integrate three free agent offensive lineman – center Samson Satele (Raiders), guard Mike McGlynn (Bengals), and tackle Winston Justice (Eagles) – with promising left tackle Anthony Costanzo, and guard Joe Reitz. Costanzo is the bright spot in what appears to be a finesse offensive line, so the running game may struggle.
Seeing that Arians doesn’t utilize a fullback in his offense, it could be tough sledding for
Donald Brown. Brown has shown a flash here and there, but as a whole, he’s been a first-round bust. Brown is timid at times, doesn’t run with a physical style, and may struggle without the benefit of a lead blocker.
Grigson brought in Mewelde Moore, who is familiar with Arians’ scheme from their time together in Pittsburgh. If the Colts struggle to run the ball, they will face 3rd-and-long situations, which are a nightmare for a rookie quarterback. So, Moore could see a lot of action this fall, given his prowess as a third-down back.
New head coach Chuck Pagano is a long-time defensive assistant, who only has one year as a NFL defensive coordinator (Baltimore in 2011) on his resume. Pagano’s day one mantra was “simple me, complex you”, meaning his goal is to install a scheme that is simple for his team to grasp, yet it looks complex to opponents. These words would be much easier to believe in if Pagano brought the entire Ravens starting defense with him to Indianapolis.
Pagano hired Greg Manusky to coordinate the defense. Completely overhauling a defense to new scheme is a daunting task in itself, and those challenges are compounded when you have a dearth of talent on your roster. Hopefully Colts fans show a little patience, as this transition will require years to complete.
The linchpins of the scheme remain Robert Mathis (who signed a 4-year $36M extension) and soon-to-be free agent Dwight Freeney. After playing for years with their hands in the dirt, Mathis and Freeney will have to adjust to operating as outside linebackers from a two-point stance, reading keys, playing off the line, taking on run blockers, and most foreign of all, occasionally dropping into coverage.
If the transition is bumpy, the Colts will struggle to put pressure on the quarterback. For a team that allowed opponents to complete a staggering 71% of their passes in 2011, the Colts can ill-afford an anemic pass rush.
A 3-4 is only as good as its nose tackle, as they must effectively take on double teams and collapse the pocket, so there is a lot of pressure on Antonio Johnson to anchor the interior. Brandon McKinney was brought over from the Ravens to help out on the nose, but he suffered a torn ACL, leaving the Colts very thin at the position.
Cory Redding – another Ravens transplant – will give the Colts needed experience on the edge. Redding has been slowed by a knee injury, but vows to be ready for the season opener. The Colts are counting on contributions this season from recent high draft picks Fili Moala and Drake Nevis.
The Colts secondary – specifically cornerback – remains the biggest concern on defense. Jerraud Powers is the only returning cornerback from the 2011 roster. Grigson recently made a trade with Miami, giving up a second-round pick for Vontae Davis. Assuming the second-round pick ends up being a high selection, the trade stings a bit, but Davis has rare athleticism, so it is worth it to add a talented playmaker to the secondary.
At safety it is a different story, as Antoine Bethea is as steady as they come. At 28, Bethea has already earned two Pro Bowl appearances. Bethea provides both stout in-the-box run support and is reliable in coverage. Bethea will be paired with Tom Zbikowski – yet another former Raven – who knows Pagano’s scheme.
It’s plausible to think the Colts inability to sustain drives on offense last year exaggerated their defensive woes. But when you critically look at the current roster, they have holes at every level of their defense, which makes it hard to predict much defensive success in 2012.
Let’s face facts for a moment here. There was no chance Grigson could repair this roster in one offseason, but they did get the biggest piece of the puzzle – Andrew Luck – in place, at least they hope they did. The past decade has proven you can’t sustain a long January playoff run without a franchise quarterback. So this season is all about developing Luck.
Looking within their division, the Texans have a window to win that spans the next two to three seasons. So, if Luck pans out, and Grigson has success in the draft like Philadelphia (his previous employer) has, the Colts could be back to prominence. Admittedly, that’s a lot of if’s and requires a little luck, but maybe the Colts got some this past April.
When the Bears have the ball: Keep an eye on how the Bears offensive line responds to pre-snap looks from the Colts. Chances are Pagano will show multiple blitzers in a few gaps before the ball is snapped (even if they aren’t actually blitzing), to cause confusion along the Bears offensive line. Seeing that the Bears had both mental and physical lapses on the line in the preseason, this could be a fun chess match to watch.
When the Colts have the ball: Keep an eye on where Bears safety Major Wright is lining up. If Wright is creeping into the box (leaving the Bears in a Cover 1 Man Free look), the Bears are clogging running lanes in an attempt to neutralize the running game and make the Colts one-dimensional.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.