Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star wrote an excellent article on the 6th of November documenting the issues related to nepotism in the Colts organization and the recent draft failures of the Polians, which are allegedly intimately linked, so this entry will not rehash these central organizational issues. I do want to emphasize, though, that problems in the personnel department are the central loci of the Colts’ failures this season, not simply the loss of star quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning’s loss alone, to be sure, should have cost the Colts a return trip to the playoffs, but it should not have led to the complete collapse of the entire 2011 season. Serious decisions about the future direction and composition of the franchise need to be made to right the ship and build a roster that can survive the loss of a single player, even if that player is Peyton Manning. With that in mind, let’s examine the need areas that must be addressed this offseason for the Colts to return to relevance in the AFC South.
QB: The Colts may have chosen a fortuitous time to tank a season. With Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck expected to enter the 2012 NFL Draft, the Colts–following the Dolphins victory over the feast-or-famine Kansas City Chiefs–are the front-runners to retain his services with the No. 1 pick. The potential acquisition of Luck represents a win-win situation for the Colts moving forward at the games most important position. If Peyton Manning can make a successful comeback from his latest neck surgery and Luck falls into their lap, Indianapolis would boast an embarrassment of riches at the quarterback spot. If Manning’s storied career is over, the Canton-bound phenom can pass the baton to the surest quarterback prospect to enter the draft since John Elway, a Stanford alum who was originally drafted with the first pick by the Colts of Baltimore in 1983. If Indy is not lucky enough to obtain Luck than they will surely be in a prime position to select another top QB prospect, if that is the direction they choose to go in, such as Oklahoma’s Landry Jones or Southern Cal’s Matt Barkley.
Indianapolis will also be in a more competitive situation than previous years, due to Manning’s shaky status or the presence of an untested rookie, to sign a top veteran back-up quarterback that knows he now may have a legitimate chance to play in Indy. Having a more competent back-up QB situation would allow the Colts to weather storms, such as this year’s disaster, without having to rely on untested, late-round quarterbacks like Curtis Painter to hold down the fort.
RB: Indy has intriguing numbers at the position. Joseph Addai has been a solid presence in the backfield for the Colts as a runner, receiver, and blocker since he was drafted in the first round in 2006, but Addai needs to stay healthy in order to solidify his future with the team. Donald Brown has been better this year, but has yet to live up to his lofty draft status. Rookie Delone Carter has shown well, currently leading the team in rushing with 313 yards on the ground, but needs to take better care of the football moving forward.
WR: Indianapolis is going to have to make some tough decisions at the receiver position in the offseason. Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, and Anthony Gonzalez are all free agents after this season. Reggie Wayne, though still productive and capable of being a lead receiver, is getting older and will likely be allowed to walk in the offseason. Anthony Gonzalez, a former first-round pick that has been unable to stay on the field due to injuries, has not produced since 2008 and is as good as gone. Garcon should be the prime target for an extension. Though his drops can be maddening, he has elite speed and has been very productive this season even without the presence of Manning. This will be an area of focus in the draft and free agency.
TE: Dallas Clark has officially hit the wall. Injuries in the past two seasons bring his long-term durability into question. With a large cap number and diminishing returns, the Colts may look to cut the cord with their longtime tight end. Brody Eldridge is strictly a blocker. Jacob Tamme will have a chance to prove himself with Clark being out, but is a free agent after the season. If Clark is let go and Tamme proves to not be the answer, tight end will be an area where the Colts will look to rebuild in the offseason.
OL: Rookies Anthony Costanzo and Ben Ijalana have looked promising when healthy and look to be the bookend tackles of the future. The interior of the line will need to be rebuilt. Guard Ryan Diem and Center Jeff Saturday likely will leave as free agents in the offseason, ending their long and productive runs with the team. G/C Mike Pollack will also likely not be retained. It will be interesting to see what type of interior lineman the Colts pursue in the offseason, which will offer significant insight into the expected run-pass balance of the offense going forward. Look for two-to-three new interior starters on the line on opening day of 2012.
DL: DE is another position group in transition. Robert Mathis is set to become a free agent and the Colts likely will not restrict his movement. Tyler Brayton and Jamaal Anderson, both veteran back ups on one-year contracts, also may not return. Jerry Hughes, a first round pick in 2010, is on his way to being a bust. The only reasonably sure thing is that Dwight Freeney is likely to return for another season of harassing quarterbacks with the Colts. Like many other position groups on the roster, the Colts will need to add playmakers for depth and at least one starter through free agency and/or the draft.
At defensive tackle there are some pieces in place. Rookie Drake Nevis looks like a keeper. Fili Moala has been a contributor, if uneven at times, but has enough talent to keep him firmly in the rotation moving into next season. Eric Foster, if healthy, could be brought back, as he has been a productive player on the line. Look for the Colts to add depth and possibly a potential starter to the mix.
LB: The linebacker corps, along with safety and running back, is one of the more stable position groups on the team. Pat Angerer is a sure thing at either SLB or MLB going forward. He has been one of the few difference makers on defense this season. Kavell Conner, starting on the weak side, looks to continue manning that position in the future. Philip Wheeler is set to leave as a free agent. The Colts seem willing to let him go. Consistency has always been an issue with Wheeler. Diminishing skills, an inability to stay healthy, and a high cap number could spell the end of the Gary Brackett era.
DB: Is it a down year or a new normal for the Colts’ corners? Jerraud Powers is playing less than inspired ball, Jacob Lacey has regressed, and the depth has been shaky at best. Reinforcements are needed for depth and as potential starters in the draft and free agency.
The safety play has not been great, but I believe this starting group stays put. Melvin Bullitt has been sorely missed and will look to regain his starting position next season. Antoine Bethea, much like the rest of the team, hasn’t played his best football this season, but he is a respected leader and has been an impact player. Look for him to return to form in 2012.
Summary: The Colts have a lot of work to do in getting this roster back to contender level, and it starts with the quarterback. If Manning is back healthy, they’ll have a chance to compete. If it is Luck, I expect a similar year to the one that Cam Newton is having in Carolina, competitive but not quite there yet. A few years to retool is likely in order for the Colts heading into 2012. Beyond quarterback, the focus in the draft and free agency should be securing starters and depth at corner and defensive end. Wide receiver and the interior line will need to be addressed, as will tight end if Dallas Clark is shown the door.
Indy also has to take a look at a front office that has failed to build a strong roster, across the board. Everyone in the NFL has holes, but the Colts do not have a single position group playing at a consistently high level. Changes need to be made to the philosophy behind which the Colts procure talent, because it is not one that leads to sustained competitiveness, obviously. And any coaching staff that trots a team out onto the field that seems as woefully unprepared as the Colts have, should be feeling the hot seat really burning.