UPDATE: As of Monday evening, 1/30/2012 Keith Butler has allegedly declined the interview with the Colts that was expected to be a formality in his hirng and has decided to stay with the Steelers. He will get a new contract to keep coaching LBs there and likely was promised the DC job there once Dick LeBeau retires. The needs are still the same for the Colts. The only difference is that they will now need DE help rather than OLB help if they do not try to transition to a 3-4 scheme with whoever they eventually hire at DC.
Well, that was one heck of a wasted year for the Indianapolis Colts! 2011 was a year to forget for the Horseshoes and the real question now becomes is this a small bump in the road or has the franchise plummeted into a cavernous void for the foreseeable future?
I am a die-hard Colts fan and have been preaching Peyton Manning’s brilliance for years. We all knew he was good. I was one that always bristled at the suggestion that Tom Brady was a better or more important QB. I also hated the “how many Superbowls has he won?” argument since Superbowl wins are a team victory and not an individual accolade. Manning always had the individual accolades and numbers. That and the MVPs. So when he went down and it became more and more apparent he was not coming back any time soon, I said to a friend “Let’s see who is more important to their team. The Patriots went 11-5 without Brady and with Matt Cassel. Cassel is nothing special. He has been pretty terrible when not paired with Charlie Weis. Let’s see if the Colts drop-off more than 5 games without Manning. Well they did. The plummeted off the deep end of a cliff like the wreckage in the movie The Abyss.
So is all lost for the Colts? Can Manning’s possible return help them? If Manning is as good as gone as most folks believe, can a rookie QB with a world of potential help revive the organization back to relevance and eventual post-season competition? Is the cupboard completely bare?
Here are the biggest need areas the Colts need to address:
Quarterback: Well this one is a no-brainer. The Colts team was built to win with a lead. They needed not just a good, but a great QB to be remotely decent. They needed a Hall-of-Famer to be a contender. The funny thing is that if Peyton Manning is fully healthy and comes back this year I would certainly pick them to win the AFC South despite the resurgence of the Houston Texans. He is that good and that capable of carrying a team. The sad reality is Peyton Manning is not coming back to Indy. Heck he may not play anywhere. The final nail in the coffin was sealed when the Colts let go of Clyde Christensen this week. In doing so, the Colts cut the final tie to the Manning era. No more Bill Polian or Tom Moore or Jim Caldwell or Christensen. Sure the Colts brought back Bruce Arians and him and Peyton have history. However people are missing the big point: Bruce Arians was huge in coaching up a young Peyton Manning early in his career as his QB coach. He helped refine Ben Roethlisberger recently. Arians is not being brought in for any reason other than to develop and accelerate the learning curve and rise to prominence of the future leader of the Colts: Andrew Luck.
Outside Linebacker: The era of the fast undersized LBs in Indy is as good as over. Chuck Pagano will work with what he has to be successful for now. Make no mistake though, Pagano and the soon to be hired Keith Butler will try to transform this unit into a hybrid 4-3, 3-4 defense before a full transition to the 3-4. This is going to be painful. Very painful. The Colts do not have a single rush OLB on the roster and their best pass rusher is Dwight Freeney, an undersized DE. But this is the time to do this. The Colts are likely to lose DE Robert Mathis in free agency and they will need to re-do Freeney’s contract (19.0M+ cap charge this year) as they head into 2012. The time to blow things up on defense is now. Maybe Freeney is retained and transformed like Mario Williams was. Maybe Jerry Hughes can succeed more as a rush OLB then he has putting his hand on the ground at DE. Either way, the Colts will need to get athletic and better at rush OLB as this transition begins.
Wide Receiver: It is about to get as ugly as it has ever been in Indy at WR. No more Marvin Harrison. No more Reggie Wayne. I expect Wayne to leave in free agency. Clearly he does as well since he removed his nameplate from his locker at the end of the season. Anthony Gonzalez was a flop and is as good as gone. Pierre Garcon is a free agent. That basically leaves Austin Collie. He is the only solid WR left on the roster and he is one hit away from being out for the season with his history of concussions. I expect the Colts to do whatever they can to keep Garcon. I am not sure this is wise, but it is their only move. Then they need to hit free agency and the draft to fill this group out. There is no point in drafting Andrew Luck and giving him no weapons to throw to. Look what that did to Sam Bradford this year and Blaine Gabbert. The Colts need to fill this position out and ASAP. Their cap situation could be solid after this year if Manning is not retained. Can they sign a big name WR to a back-loaded deal when they will have the cap room? There are tons of solid guys out there this off-season in Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston, DeSean Jackson, Mike Wallace, etc. Many will be tagged and retained, but those that aren’t could be great additions for a young rebuilding team with a high upside young signal caller.
Corner Back: I won’t bore you will all of the metrics here. Suffice it to say the back four in Indy was terrible this year. They have two starters worth a darn: Jerraud Powers and the ultra-underrated Antoine Bethea. They need depth at CB badly. Jacob Lacey regressed a lot, though he finished strong. He is a decent nickel corner and very good dime back. Chris Rucker might pan out as a solid guy in a year or two. Kevin Thomas struggled mightily in what was his first season. Plain and simply the Colts need at least another starting-caliber CB and maybe a solid 3rd CB as well. They can probably get that in this year’s draft where they will pick at the top of the 3rd round.
Right Tackle: This is a position where they need to draft well or sign a solid player to help on two front. The Colts OL was better this year than last year. The numbers may or may not show it, but they were. Anthony Costanzo is the future at LT. He struggled a bit but will grow and be a solid cornerstone of this unit for years to come. Ben Ijalana is best served to many an OG position. In order for that to happen the Colts need a solid RT. Ryan Diem and his huge contract are finally about to be wiped away. That leaves a huge hole at RT. Jeff Linkenbach is just not the answer. They need a mammoth road-grader who can plow the way for the run game and hold his own in pass protection. As Manning leaves, so does the need for quick, light, agile linemen who can run the stretch play and who can press the hurry-up no-huddle offense down the field. Time to revamp and restructure this line. A solid RT will begin that process and sure up at least the LT, RT and one OG spot all at once.
Center: Jeff Saturday is not only likely gone, he is contemplating retirement. If Manning leaves then Saturday will follow him out the door. Maybe they re-unite somewhere else. Maybe Saturday rides off into the sunset after one heck of a career. Either way, the Colts need help at the pivot point of the OL and need a new field general on the OL for the next decade. This guy needs to be someone who can grow and gel with Andrew Luck. Centers do not go very high in drafts. The Colts can target one in the top of the 4th or 5th round and get a pretty good one. They have whiffed on players like Mike Pollak and Jamey Richard before. Hopefully Ryan Grigson does not whiff.
Strong Safety: Antoine Bethea has the FS spot locked down. However, the Colts just cannot get a SS to stay healthy. First there was the brilliant, but brittle Bob Sanders. Now there is the often-injured Melvin Bullitt. The Colts need some stability here. They cannot get by with guys like David Caldwell and Joe Lefeged manning the starting spot. Lefeged has some upside, but the Colts need an enforcer back there. If Bethea is going to do his best Troy Polamalu impersonation and is going to rack up league-leading tackle numbers amongst DBs as he plays center field, the Colts need their version of Ryan Clark to be the hammer in the back end of their D. Sanders was that guy but he broke down. The Colts need a new guy to step in or step up.
I could go on and on here. Most folks will add DE or DT to the list. The Colts will not rely on their front 3 to get pressure if they start to shift to a 3-4. That’s the only good thing. The Colts do have some bodies that can suck up space as 3-4 DEs. They just will need a NT. Those are not easy to come by. Others may add TE. Dallas Clark is getting long in the tooth and could be cut as the Colts rebuild and go young in the future. However, a player like Jacob Tamme is solid and will be a decent replacement if he is still on the team by the time Clark’s time is up. An argument could be made for a RB, but RBs are a dime-a-dozen these days and Donald Brown actually showed a bit of a pulse down the stretch. Plus the Colts already spent a pick on Delone Carter to be their hammer if they are going to transition to more of a power running game.
It will be a long journey for this team. However, if Andrew Luck can even become a Matt Ryan caliber player, this team will be a playoff team again in the next two or three seasons. By that time the transformation to a 3-4 D will be complete and hopefully all will be right with the world again in Indy. Hey, a fan can dream!