Indianapolis Colts Training Camp To-Do List
This is the week that football begins again for Indianapolis.
Training camp, hosted by Anderson University, starts on Wednesday as the entire roster reports. We'll be covering camp closely for the next four weeks, but before the Indianapolis Colts camp starts, we have a few things to get to.
Camp is about player competitions, installing playbooks and improving chemistry, and the Colts have a number of issues to address in those categories this season. As the team enters into its third year of the Andrew Luck era, it seems to be a tipping point. Will the era reflect the overall greatness of Peyton Manning's career under Bill Polian, or will it be marked by wasted talent? Or will it land somewhere in between?
There are arguments to be made for both sides, but the last two years, as whole, have been thrilling. Now we look for the team to make the leap into true Super Bowl contention. But before the Colts get there, they must answer a few questions.
Find a Starting Safety
Safety is an underrated component of a strong defense.
Cornerbacks, linebackers and defensive ends get the big sack numbers, the interceptions and the fame while safeties quietly run the show from the back end. Antoine Bethea was a longtime leader of the Indianapolis defense and was a key part in the transition from a traditional Tampa 2 to Greg Manusky's hybrid 3-4.
Bethea oversaw the defense in its on-field adjustments, working with the linebackers and cornerbacks to get everybody in the correct position coverage-wise. Even with all the defensive injuries, including one that took out starting cornerback Greg Toler for the latter half of the season, the Colts finished 13th in Football Outsider's passing defensive DVOA, their highest ranking since a Super Bowl run in 2009.
But now Bethea is in San Francisco, and the Colts are looking for a replacement. Nobody on the roster has near the pedigree of Bethea, who finished his Colts career with the third-most tackles (including assists) in franchise history.
The job will likely come down to Delano Howell or Mike Adams, who are complete opposites in the experience department. Howell has just two years of NFL play under his belt and started his first game last season when LaRon Landry was injured. Adams is a 10-year vet and has started for three different teams throughout his career.
Both will likely get a shot, but the Colts will need somebody to step up next to Landry, who has disappointed so far in Indianapolis.
Improve 3rd-Down Performance
In 2012, the Colts were fourth in the league in converting third and fourth downs, but they dropped down to 16th in 2013. Being less effective on those critical downs caused an inconsistency on offense, as drives often stalled before they could begin.
The drop occurred throughout the offense, whether it was passing or running, but a big factor was Andrew Luck's step back. After being one of the league's best in his rookie year, Luck's success rate was below average in 2013.
There were many reasons why the regression occurred, but the most apparent reason I found in my film review was Luck's lack of quality targets. With Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen out, Luck's primary intermediate targets disappeared, and T.Y. Hilton was the only reliable receiver left on the field. Luck had his own issues, like missing open running backs in the flats, but for the most part, Luck displayed as much brilliance as he had the previous year.
But with a poor offensive line and inexperienced receivers (besides Hilton and a bench-riding Darrius Heyward-Bey, the Colts receivers were UDFAs and a sixth-round pick from the last two years), it was too much of a burden on Luck. With Wayne and Allen returning, Hakeem Nicks and rookie Donte Moncrief in the fold, and the hopeful development of the offensive line, those numbers should increase.
It will be a massive disappointment if the team doesn't take a leap forward in 2014.
Settle on a Running Back Rotation
Last season, Vick Ballard came out of training camp with the starting running back position over Ahmad Bradshaw and Donald Brown. He started Week 1, picking up 63 yards on 13 attempts (4.85 average). After Ballard was placed on the injured reserve list with a torn ACL, Bradshaw started the next two games, picking up 160 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries (4.71 average).
Then Bradshaw went on the injured reserve list with a neck injury, resulting in the first season in which he's played in fewer than 12 games. The load now fell on Trent Richardson, who struggled mightily through eight starts before being benched. Richardson ran for 252 yards and a touchdown on 90 carries (2.8 average) as a starter and was subsequently benched.
Now, all three are set to be a part of the Colts' rotation in 2014; the only question is how much of a role each will have. There was talk of having a three-headed monster in 2013, but that was never going to be a great system. Splitting carries between two backs is one thing, but three severely limits a back's ability to find rhythm running the ball. At some level, there's always going to be a hierarchy.
The assumption among most analysts is that Ballard is the default odd man out at this point, coming off of an ACL tear. Richardson has the edge for the starting role, according to ESPN.com's Mike Wells, but the situation is fluid. The Colts are sure to continue a power running game, and the rotation they feature at running back could have devastating effects on how effective it is.
Will Richardson redeem himself, or will the Colts revert to a back coming off of a season-ending injury?
The Indianapolis Colts have an injury problem.
Not the 2014 Colts. Not the Ryan Grigson-era Colts.
The franchise has an injury problem. During the last five years, the Colts have finished in the top five of most injuries every year, according to Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost (AGL). The first year Football Outsiders began releasing AGL totals was 2008, when they finished with the ninth-most games lost.
Every single year, the Colts are decimated by injuries. It's not just fans complaining; it's a legitimate concern with a statistical trend. Whether it's team doctors, training staff or something in the water, it's hard to believe that it's just a coincidence anymore.
With several key veterans coming off of serious injuries in 2014 (Wayne, Thomas, Allen, Toler, Bradshaw, Ballard) health will be as important as ever. Those players will need to do all they can to be healthy during training camp, so the Colts can ascertain a somewhat-clear vision of the assets they have available for their lineups.
Are injuries out of the team's control? To some extent, yes. But the coaching staff, training staff, doctors and whoever else needs to make sure they do all they can to get players rehabilitated and on the field. Maybe it means a lighter snap load for veterans in camp. Maybe it means playing fewer starters in the preseason.
Whatever it is, get it done.
Solve the Pass-Rushing Problem
As most people are well-aware of by now, star pass-rusher Robert Mathis will be suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season. The circumstances surrounding his suspension are complex, but the result is set in stone: The Colts will play a quarter of the regular season without the most dynamic defensive player on their roster.
How can the Colts replace Mathis? I've broken down the different options before, but the direction that the Colts will go is still yet to be unveiled.
Bjoern Werner will be the first player to which the team turns, but he's hardly the only factor here. Erik Walden, who predictably struggled in 2013, set more sacks as his primary focus in 2014 this offseason, per Kevin Bowen of Colts.com.
Then there are the young pass-rushers, like rookie Jonathan Newsome, former 49er Cam Johnson and native Kenyan Daniel Adongo. If any of those players make a leap, it will be a huge boost to the pass rush and defense as a whole.
After the players, of course, comes the coaches. There is only so much the roster behind Mathis can do. There's simply not a high level of pass-rushing talent. But there are things that the Colts can do to increase their efficiency, whether it's stunts, pre-snap formations or blitzes. Without Mathis, the coaching will be critical, especially against Manning's Broncos and the Chip Kelly-led Eagles during the first two games of the season.
The Colts have high expectations in 2014, and losing both of the first two games would be a big blow, even if the team was still division favorites at 0-2.