The 5 Biggest Issues Facing the Indianapolis Colts with OTAs Wrapped
The Indianapolis Colts’ organized team activities (OTAs) will finish up this week after three weeks of work, giving way to the team’s mandatory minicamp next week. The players will then have over a month to themselves before training camp begins at the end of July.
There have been a lot of developments during OTAs, and the offseason is a time of eternal optimism, but the Colts are not wart-free. With holes still littering the roster and philosophical makeup of the franchise, there remains certain issues that must be resolved by the time the regular season begins.
Today we look at those warts, noting the most prominent potential problems that the Colts must address yet this summer.
Identifying a Starting Running Back
Going into OTAs, there was a big of a split on who would be the Colts’ starting running back come September. Trent Richardson has the youth and expensive investment. Ahmad Bradshaw has the productivity and the higher floor for 2014. Richardson was awful in 2013 and has yet to prove that he can be a competent, much less good, starting back. Bradshaw has had chronic injury problems and his success in 2013 was in a minuscule sample size.
I’ve flipped back and forth on who I expect to win the starting job over the last few months, and now it seems the Colts are as well. During the first week of OTAs, with Bradshaw sidelined, Richardson received the bulk of first-team carries and the “red jersey” treatment. But during the second week of OTAs, Bradshaw returned and took over that role.
Until September begins, expect the back-and-forth to continue. The Colts want Richardson to succeed, and will give him every opportunity to do so, but Bradshaw is the one that’s shown the brightest flashes in this offense.
Replacing Robert Mathis
What more can be said about this topic that hasn’t already been said? Robert Mathis, suspended for four games for a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, is the most impactful player on the Colts defense.
Adam Schein of NFL.com recently ranked Mathis as the No. 3 most indispensable defender in the league, behind Madden 15 cover-winner Richard Sherman and 2013 AP Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. I’d put him ahead of those two, personally, given the talent supporting them (Earl Thomas in Seattle and a top-notch defensive line in Carolina). Mathis has no cushioning unit to pick up the slack when he’s not performing.
Luke Kuechly has never forced a fumble in his NFL career. By comparison, Robert Mathis forced 10 last season.— Bryn Swartz (@eaglescentral) June 8, 2014
Clearly, the first four weeks of the 2014 season are going to be interesting. The Colts face the record-breaking Denver Broncos offense and Peyton Manning in Week 1 and the innovative Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2. The two offenses ranked first and third in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA in 2013, and look to be among the league leaders in 2014 once again.
Definitely sack total is my primary focus. No reason, no excuse, just get it done. I have to remain solid, stopping the run, setting the edge, but sacks are my primary focus. It's an emphasis since big homie (Mathis) is gone for four games. It's going to take all of us. I'm putting pressure on myself to replace 19½. Somebody has to do it.
It’s difficult to gauge pass-rushers during the minimal-contact OTAs, so the bulk of those battles will come during training camp. Do keep an eye out during mandatory minicamp next week, in which the entire roster will finally be present in Indianapolis.
Solidifying the Starting Safety Relationship
One of the underappreciated aspects of a secondary is the chemistry and communication between its members, especially the safeties. The safeties see the defense in its entirety from the back line and help facilitate the organization and roles of the entire defense, but namely the secondary. Antoine Bethea was excellent at this aspect of the job, and did it for the last five years in Indianapolis.
Now it’s up to LaRon Landry and Delano Howell (likely), a combination that we’ve yet to see on the field together. Howell’s starting snaps came in place of Landry last season, and the two rarely worked together in the capacity that they will in 2014.
Folks have asked about @Colts S LaRon Landry not being at OTAs. These aren't mandatory and he's in shape. But still wish he was here.— Phillip B Wilson (@pwilson24) May 29, 2014
With Landry opting out of attending the team’s OTAs, the two will first get a good feel for playing together at minicamp next week, but the bulk of the relationship will likely be forged in training camp. Not only does the team have to identify the player to take Bethea’s leadership role, but Howell and Landry must build a system of trust and communication to effectively fill their roles in the Colts defense.
Balancing the Offense
The talk about the Colts offense this offseason, and for much of last season as well, has been dominated by examination of Pep Hamilton and his philosophies. It was a common sentiment last season that Hamilton focused on the run too much and did not set the offense up for success by allowing Andrew Luck to utilize his best gifts.
Going into this season, Hamilton told reporters that the Colts will be “score-first,” in response to questions about last year’s run-first reputation. What that means to the offense has yet to be seen, but as I broke down last week, a few stylistic modifications are bound to occur.
It’s not just running versus passing. It’s a matter of when to run and when to pass, how far to send receivers and which playmakers should be put on the field.
The latter is likely going to be the most stress-inducing topic throughout the early parts of the season. The Colts are very deep at wide receiver and have two tight ends that need playing time as well. My biggest concern is that despite the record pace that T.Y. Hilton has begun his career on, he still won’t get enough playing time.
You would think that putting together arguably the greatest single postseason receiving game in NFL history would buy you some confidence. But you’d also think that an offensive coordinator would never play Darrius Heyward-Bey over T.Y. Hilton consistently, and that happened for eight weeks last year.
Cleaning Up the Mess on the Interior
Sure, the Colts brought in some pieces to help the interior offensive line this year, and they let go of the massively disappointing Samson Satele and Mike McGlynn.
But the interior line really has just as many questions as it did a year ago. The five players that should make up the majority of the rotation include:
- A vet still recovering from two season-ending muscle tears who has never started a 16-game season
- A veteran 17 months removed from playing in a regular-season game who has never started 16 games
- A second-year guard who was among the league’s worst during his rookie season
- A second-year center who played 13 snaps during his rookie season
- A rookie
Of course, there are positives as well. Donald Thomas looked good as a part-time starter in New England. Lance Louis has been effective as a rotational player in Chicago. Hugh Thornton flashed a high ceiling at times in 2013. Khaled Holmes played well on those 13 snaps. Jack Mewhort could be a long-term piece.
But overall, the quality of the 2014 offensive line is a complete unknown. There is nobody to plug in and concretely rely on for quality, consistent play. If it wasn’t for the pair of above-average tackles, the Colts offensive line would have to be one of the league’s worst on paper going in to 2014.
Now it's the coaches' jobs to sort through the mess and find the best group. It's going to be a challenge.