STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Peyton Manning era in Indianapolis came to a surprising and sudden end as the Colts decided this past offseason to part ways with much of the personnel that helped the team win 10 or more games in 11 of the previous 12 seasons. The Colts have a new GM in Ryan Grigson, a new head coach in Chuck Pagano, and a new face of the franchise in No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck.
Significant housecleaning also took place on the roster, where many of Manning's favorite targets were let go (Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Pierre Garcon, Jacob Tamme) and only three starters will return on offense.
The rebuilding begins with Luck, who most evaluators consider a once-in-a-generation talent given his size, athletic ability, success in college and rare poise for his age. The Colts decided to support Luck with eight of 10 picks on the offensive side of the ball in the draft, including college teammate, TE Coby Fleener. Reggie Wayne is the lone veteran on offense who was re-signed. He'll give Luck a dependable and savvy pass-catcher to help aid his development. WR Austin Collie, who dealt with multiple concussions in 2010, returns after a healthy but unproductive 2011 season. Free agent addition Donnie Avery and third-round pick T.Y. Hilton were also added to give the receiving corps some needed speed.
While Indianapolis added talent to the passing attack, their 27th-ranked running game remains largely the same. Donald Brown returns as the starter, but will likely split carries with Delone Carter and fifth-round pick Vick Ballard. Brown has largely been a first-round bust, but had an impressive 4.8 YPC and finally showed some explosiveness, with five runs over 20 yards last season. The Colts may now utilize run-oriented blocking schemes, including two-tight end sets and possibly a fullback, which were rarely seen in the Manning era.
The changes are equally as dramatic on defense, where the Colts will move to the 3-4 defensive scheme Pagano used as the defensive coordinator in Baltimore. However, the Colts didn't bring in much new talent for the new system. They re-signed Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, but it's not clear if the former defensive ends can be as productive at linebacker. The Colts also added no high-profile talent to a secondary that was one of the worst in the league.
The first year of the rebuilding program will likely show flashes of success on offense, but a defense that will struggle against the pass. The rebuilding process may not take too long if Luck shows he can be an elite quarterback, but expectations are for the Colts to have another high pick in the draft in 2013.
Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford (Round 1, 1st overall)
Luck will start at quarterback right away and try to prove that releasing Peyton Manning was the right move for the team's long-term future.
Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford, (Round 2, 34th overall)
His ability to stretch a defense vertically and towards the corners will make him dangerous, and his familiarity with Luck from Stanford could help make him a big part of the offense immediately.
Dwayne Allen, TE , Clemson (Round 3, 64th overall)
He was productive in college (49 receptions for 592 yards (12.1 YPC) and eight touchdowns in 14 games at Clemson), but may be a second option to Fleener in Indy's offense.
T.Y. Hilton, WR , Florida International (Round 3, 92nd overall)
Hilton was a dynamite playmaker at Florida International and has the speed to make an immediate impact as a returner, plus he could emerge as the team's slot receiver.
Peyton Manning, QB (Broncos)
Colts owner Jim Irsay made a big decision to part with the franchise icon to rebuild for the long term.
Pierre Garcon, WR (Redskins)
His departure opens a spot for a starter opposite Reggie Wayne.
Joseph Addai, RB (Patriots)
Donald Brown and Delone Carter will take over at running back, as they did during Addai's frequent injury issues.
Dallas Clark & Jacob Tamme, TE (Buccaneers/Broncos)
While the Colts will feature a two-TE offense, they decided to go with youth.
CAN ANDREW LUCK SUCCEED OUT OF THE GATE?
The Colts gave Luck as much support as possible by using eight of 10 picks on offense in the draft, including college teammate Coby Fleener. They also decided to bring back veteran Reggie Wayne to ease the transition.
While the offense will frequently use two-tight end sets and try to run the ball to take pressure off Luck, the organization clearly has made throwing the ball its top priority. Last season's poor quarterback play exacerbated a four-year trend of declining per-play production from Wayne, but he'll still give Luck a veteran No. 1 receiver. Moreover, Austin Collie's good hands have always produced when a quarterback has been able to get him the ball. Meanwhile, T.Y. Hilton and Donnie Avery could add a critical speed element. The result is a competent pass-catching corps that gives Luck a chance to put up decent stats in his first season.
CAN THE COLTS RUN THE BALL?
Donald Brown returns as the starter, but will likely split carries with Delone Carter and Vick Ballard. The former first-round pick has constantly battled injuries, and when on the field, he had averaged just 3.8 YPC during his career, while struggling in pass protection. But Brown saw a larger role in the offense in the second half of the season after Joseph Addai was hurt and Carter had fumbling issues. In that span, Brown had an impressive 4.8 YPC and finally showed some explosiveness with five runs over 20 yards. Carter could emerge as the goal-line back since he is seen as a tough inside runner and Vick Ballard, a fifth-round draft pick, could emerge as a third-down back after coach Chuck Pagano praised his pass-catching in spring practices.
HOW WILL THE COLTS ADJUST TO A 3-4 DEFENSE?
The Colts will move to the 3-4 defensive scheme that Pagano used in Baltimore, but with little new talent and some odd pieces from the team's previous system. The team re-signed Robert Mathis and kept Dwight Freeney and both may have some problems dropping into coverage as linebackers. Still, the new system may give the team's pass-rushers a better chance to exploit mismatches in blocking.
Indy's biggest problem in 2012 will likely be the secondary, where little talent was added to a unit that was 26th in YPA against and had the fewest interceptions in the league. Antoine Bethea leads the unit as a steady and durable tackler at free safety. Jerraud Powers is the only reliable player in coverage at one cornerback slot, although he's returning from a season-ending elbow injury. After missing the 2010 season, Kevin Thomas had some growing pains in his first action in 2011 and could start at the other cornerback spot. Strong safety is an open competition, but Tom Zbikowski is the leading candidate, given his familiarity with Pagano's system.
RISING: After two disappointing seasons, there was talk that Donald Brown would be cut last summer, but he gave the team a spark late in the season and should emerge as the starter.
DECLINING: Reggie Wayne will no doubt miss Peyton Manning, but he at least provides Andrew Luck with a veteran anchor to lean on.
SLEEPER: The Colts showed in the draft that they're going to make it a priority that Andrew Luck succeeds right away. A shaky secondary will also force Indy to pass to catch up more often than not.
SUPERSLEEPER: T.Y. Hilton has the speed to make an impact as a returner right away, and could win a significant role in the passing game.
Dwight Freeney, LB
Can still get to the QB, but faces a transition to the 3-4 defense.
Robert Mathis, LB
As is the case with Freeney, his sack production faces uncertainty with the move to the 3-4 defense.
Pat Angerer, LB
Was fourth in the NFL in tackles after taking over at middle linebacker after Gary Brackett was lost to injury and should fill a similar role in the new 3-4 defense.
RotoWire Rank: 32