Each season, NFL teams enter training camp with question marks. Here are the Colts’ top five concerns as they proceed through preseason and prepare for opening day (In reverse order of importance).
5. Injuries — It’s always the No. 1 goal of every team to try to get through the exhibition preparations with the fewest serious injuries possible. But the Colts have already lost two key players for the season in running back Vick Ballard and offensive left guard Donald Thomas. And center Khaled Holmes is going to miss at least a couple weeks with an ankle injury. So preseason has been unkind, and what you don’t want to see is a snowball effect. Every year, some teams are gutted by guys subtracted from the equation. Just like that, the Colts have lost a reliable running back and perhaps more importantly, because of Thomas rupturing his quad a second consecutive year, they are thin on the offensive line. The Colts still have the parts to make a serious run. But more subtractions reduces the likelihood of being a valid title contender. Quite often, the team that is able to weather injuries the best — be it because of depth or just luck — ends up making the playoffs and competing for a trip to the Super Bowl.
4. Safety — The loss of veteran Antoine Bethea to free agency meant the Colts had a hole in their defensive back line. LaRon Landry returns for his second season since signing a lucrative free-agent deal, but who takes Bethea’s spot. Delano Howell played when Landry was hurt last season and is slotted initially as the starter. But Howell also got hurt last season and was limited to six games. That begs the question: What happens if Landry or Howell go down? Special-teams ace Sergio Brown has made his share of plays, but most of them were covering kicks. It’s different when a player is the last line of defense. That’s probably why GM Ryan Grigson signed 11th-year pro Mike Adams, formerly of Denver. Fifth-year pro Colt Anderson is also in the mix for the first time. Landry missed camp time with a soft tissue injury, too, which raises concerns about the physical safety’s ability to stay on the field. It’s worth keeping a close eye on, who plays when during preseason, to determine the pecking order that could prove to be vitally important come the regular season.
3. Pass rush — NFL reigning sack champion Robert Mathis is sitting out the first four games due to testing positive for taking a fertility drug. That means the Colts’ 3-4 defense must figure out an effective pass rush in his absence. OLB Erik Walden isn’t known for getting sacks and second-year OLB Bjoern Werner, a 2013 first-round pick, is still adjusting to the new position. Injuries set him back as a rookie, although he showed glimpses of potential late last season, when he played more. While the Colts will try to pressure opposing quarterbacks with timely blitzes, it’s still imperative that Walden and Werner bring heat from the edge. Don’t do it and a guy like Peyton Manning will carve up this defense on opening night in Denver. LB Josh McNary has shown an ability to get to the passer when he blitzes. It’s possible the Colts use him in pass-rush situations. Leading tackler Jerrell Freeman is also an inside backer who has shown a knack for getting to the pocket as needed on blitzes. Still, if the Colts are going to have a steady pass rush, which is a must in this scheme, Walden and Werner are going to be the guys that need to deliver. It’s not always about sacks, but pass rushers must speed up the quarterback’s internal clock so a passer knows he doesn’t have much time to get rid of the ball.
2. Running back — Ballard’s departure puts more pressure on the Colts needing Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw to stay healthy and productive. Richardson struggled last year after being acquired from Cleveland for a 2013 first-round pick. The Colts say he’s adjusted now to his new surroundings, understands what is needed in the playbook, and will be more relaxed and should flourish. Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano had better be right. The Colts took a big gamble on Richardson, and nothing short of exceptional play will justify the price paid. Bradshaw was the best back on the team’s roster for three games last year, then he suffered a season-ending neck injury at San Francisco. Bradshaw runs hard and brings a veteran presence to help mentor Richardson, who is just in his third year. It’s a decent tandem if they’re splitting the workload and able to stay fresh. But lose one of those guys and now the Colts have a hole. It’s not ideal to put too much responsibility on one guy. That position gets beat up like no other, it seems. Perhaps another back, maybe Boom Herron, can emerge in what would have been Ballard’s role, an effective third option who can deliver reliable results.
1. O-line interior — Even with Thomas in the fold, the Colts had question marks in Holmes at center and Hugh Thornton at right guard. Thornton was inconsistent as a rookie. On the positive plays, he gave every indication he could be a regular NFL starter. On the bad ones, he looked like a rookie still trying to adjust. If it’s true that NFL players grow the most from the first season to the second, Thornton’s improvement could be a huge factor in how the O-line performs for QB Andrew Luck. Holmes was on the field for about a dozen plays as a rookie. The team said he wasn’t needed, although former center Samson Satele underperformed and was let go with a year remaining on his contract. So now Holmes is supposed to be ready, but he’s already hurt. Take Thomas out of the equation and that means second-round pick Jack Mewhort, a rookie who played left tackle at Ohio State last year, is at left guard. Holmes and Mewhort were asked to double team a defensive tackle on many of the plays in which they were on the field together during the preseason opener at the New York Jets. While the double-team scheme makes sense, opponents can read this pretty quickly and will adjust. That means those young players will inevitably get isolated on blitzes and other pass-rush situations. The Colts’ O-line is listed as the No. 1 concern because it not only affects the time Luck has to throw but impacts if the team will be able to achieve some play calling balance by running the ball. If the Colts can’t run, that puts more pressure on Luck to make plays. And an offense that is one-dimensional becomes too predictable too often. It makes an opposing defense’s job that much easier come Sunday.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.