Projecting the Indianapolis Colts' Starting Lineup Before the NFL Draft
With the NFL draft just a week away, we're evaluating everything and anything that relates to the Indianapolis Colts in our preparation. On Friday, I'll be going through each position to nail down exactly when and where the Colts should be targeting certain positions.
Before we get to that, however, we're going to take a look at the complete starting lineup for the Colts today. Free agency is all but officially complete. It's unlikely that another starter is signed between now and training camp beginning. The only other starters likely to join the team would come from the draft.
Though strong depth is important, the starters will be responsible for the lion's share of the Colts' success (or failure) in 2014. As of right now, who will be starting in September?
A surprise to nobody, Luck enters his third season as the unquestioned leader of both the Colts offense and the team as a whole. Without Luck, the Colts would be lost. Going forward, he'll continue to be just as important. That's just how franchise quarterbacks work.
Fortunately, Indianapolis is used to leaning heavily on its quarterback. It's been that way for 15 years. That is both the blessing and the curse of drafting the two best quarterback prospects in the last 25 years.
A month ago, I had Ahmad Bradshaw in this slot. Bradshaw is the most talented and proven of the Colts' running backs, and I'd like to have him get the lion's share of the snaps in 2014.
But the more the offseason progresses, the more likely it seems that Richardson will continue to be the guy for Indianapolis. The team continues to promote Richardson's offseason growth and potential, and Richardson himself talks as if he'll be the guy from here on out.
With Bradshaw and Vick Ballard both coming off of season-ending injuries, it makes sense (he typed reluctantly). Richardson is the one the team has tied its future to, and he has the most physical upside. He's not the best player right now, but he probably will get the first crack at the starting job.
Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton
In the Colts' two-tight end base offense, just two wide receivers will start. While a third one (Hakeem Nicks) will get plenty of snaps as well, I'm sticking with Wayne and Hilton as my Day 1 starters for now.
Sure, it would be a historic achievement for Reggie Wayne if he came back from an ACL tear at 35 to be a starter once again. Sure, Nicks has more upside than Wayne's potentially crippled, aging body does.
But until I see Wayne's decay show itself, I'm going with him. He's a potential Hall of Famer and has been an offensive constant for the last three years. If anyone can join the exclusive club of receivers to have over 1,000 yards after the age of 35—which includes Jerry Rice, Joey Galloway and Jimmy Smith—it's Wayne. Nicks gives them some insurance if Wayne's bounce back is a little flat, but hopefully that will be a luxury rather than a necessity.
Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen
The de facto starters at tight end, the Colts' most versatile offensive weapons could be what makes or breaks Pep Hamilton's offense in 2014.
Hamilton's offense is so run-heavy and based on multiple formations that the flexibility of the two tight ends should be a critical piece.
The return of Allen, whom Pro Football Focus classified as one of the biggest injury losses of 2013, will be one of the most intriguing stories of the season for Indianapolis.
LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Donald Thomas, C Khaled Holmes, RG Hugh Thornton, RT Gosder Cherilus
The loss of center Phil Costa, who retired unexpectedly last week, puts Holmes squarely in the driver's seat for the starting position. Even if the team drafts a center early in the NFL draft, Holmes has the year of experience (even if it was mostly on the sidelines). There's a possibility that a rookie could come in and win the job, but for now, Holmes is the favorite.
The team missed its opportunity to sign a better center in free agency, and now it's up to Holmes to come through.
Free-agent addition Lance Louis, or a drafted rookie, could compete for a starting spot at guard as well, but Thornton is the long-term piece. That's the hope anyway.
Ricky Jean Francois, Cory Redding, Arthur Jones
Sure, the lineup probably needs a starting nose tackle. If that's the case, Josh Chapman would enter this group. But these three are the team's best linemen, and they should do what they can to get them on the field.
Jones and Jean Francois have the ability to play nose tackle, especially in the Colts' hybrid scheme, so it's not unheard of.
Chapman likely will end up being the listed starter, but these three will be powering the train.
ROLB Robert Mathis, ILB Jerrell Freeman, ILB D'Qwell Jackson, SOLB Erik Walden
The only change here is the addition of Jackson, which brings another veteran leader to the locker room (joining Mathis and Cory Redding). My expectations for Jackson on the field are low, but he'll be a great addition from a team-building standpoint.
Mathis and Freeman are cornerstones of the Colts defense, while Walden is adequate at best. Unless outside linebacker Bjoern Werner takes a monumental step forward in 2014, the job will stay Walden's.
The unit could see inside linebacker Josh McNary step in during the back half of 2014, especially if Jackson struggles or gets hurt.
Vontae Davis, Greg Toler
The same duo that started 2013, the effectiveness is largely going to depend on Greg Toler's health.
Sure, Vontae Davis needs to continue to play like a top-10 cornerback. If his play drops off after signing an enormous contract with Indianapolis, it'll haunt the team for years. But the onus, as a unit, lies on Greg Toler.
When healthy, Toler was an adequate starter last season. But then he was injured, and he missed the vast majority of the second half of the season. When he did return, he was ineffective, getting burned on multiple occasions.
If Toler can return at full strength, the Colts will be okay. Not great, but okay.
FS LaRon Landry, (Rookie)
While Delano Howell and Sergio Brown may get opportunities to start next to Landry, the most likely scenario seems to be a rookie drafted in the second or third round of the draft.
Having used Landry mostly in a free safety role last year, it seems that the team will be trying to fill Antoine Bethea's role as a versatile strong safety rather than the center-fielding free safety that many fans would like to see. Prospects that could fit that profile include NIU's Jimmie Ward and Washington State's Deone Bucannon.
P Pat McAfee, K Adam Vinatieri, LS Matt Overton
The old guy and the two best friends, the Colts specialists are a talented, productive group that adds a bit of flavor to the team's locker room. After re-signing McAfee and Vinatieri to deals this year, the Colts don't have to worry about those positions.
The trio is dependable, and that's all you can ask for.