The State of the Colts: Specialists

Jerry Langton takes a look at the Colts' kicking, punting and returns units and what Indianapolis might do this weekend to address any needs.

What they have
Thanks to a surprise free-agent signing, the Colts have one of the best kickers in NFL history in Adam Vinatieri (20/25 FG, 40/41 XP in 2005). Some might say they already had a great kicker in Mike Vanderjagt, but Vinatieri is well known for his coolness under pressure, his playoff triumphs, his strong kickoffs (62.38 gross/41.31 net, 10 TB in 2005) and his winning personality — all areas in which Vanderjagt was often described as lacking. Although some many think the Colts were too generous in rewarding the South Dakota State product, it should be noted that he saves them a roster spot they'd normally spend on a kickoff specialist and makes any close game winnable.

The team still has young Shane Andrus on the roster, but I don't see how or where he fits in the long-term unless they decide they don't want Vinatieri handling kickoffs.

As strong as they are at kicker, the Colts have nothing to worry about at punter either. Veteran Hunter "the Punter" Smith is not only one of the league's best (44.25 gross/37.10 net) at punting, he's a good athlete who can help on fakes and coverage and may not have any peer as a holder, often corralling errant snaps before the kicker even sees them. Smith's critics say he takes too long to get the ball off, but he's only had four kicks blocked in 425 tries and none in the last two seasons.

The guy who gets them the ball, long-snapper Justin Snow, does a decent job (although he is helped immeasurably by the quick-thinking and sure-handed Smith). I can only remember one truly bad snap in his six seasons with the Colts and he's a decent blocker who gets downfield quickly and tackles decently.

If there's a problem with Snow, it's that he makes $540,000 and really doesn't do anything else. The only other long-snapper on the roster is backup tight end Ben Utecht, who worked at the position last preseason and appeared very comfortable.

While the kicking and punting batteries appear to be in enviable shape, the return positions are full of questions. Dominic Rhodes had some excellent production as a kick returner (25.06 average in his first four seasons), but he looked tentative and decidedly less quick last year (20.85 average). Besides, and I hate to even type this, the team is counting on him to be their starting halfback unless they draft a better one. Either way, he'll probably be too busy on offense to worry about bringing back kicks.

The Colts did have an even better kick return man in Brad Pyatt, an undrafted free agent who burst onto the scene with a 28.63 average in 2003. But, like many Colts return men before him, he suffered a serious injury and his average dropped to a more ordinary 23.0 in 2004 as he lost the dardevil spirit that made him so good as a rookie. When he missed the entire season in 2005 with another injury, the Colts waved good-bye and he signed with the Rams.

Things are no better at punt returner. Troy Walters has kept the job for the last four seasons. He's good at catching the ball and rarely fumbles, but never seems to break the long one. Walters has some value as a fourth receiver, but he's also an unrestricted free agent and the Colts don't seem to be in a hurry to bring him back.

There are other return prospects on the roster, but they're mostly theoretical projections. The team recently signed former Northern Illinois speedster Dan Sheldon, who was a blaze of lightning on returns in college, but has yet to establish himself in the NFL after a stint on the Cardinals' practice squad during his rookie season.

What they'll do
With the Colts likely to draft a halfback in the first or second round, either he or Rhodes (whichever one isn't the primary ballcarrier) will most likely handle kick return duties. I wouldn't be surprised if wide receiver Roscoe Crosby is also given a chance to return kicks. Although he has very little meaningful experience in football (and none at the position), he's big, fast and has natural elusiveness. Sheldon is the favorite to bring back punts, but will be given competition.

How about… The Colts have been looking at various backs as potential first-day picks including Minnesota's Laurence Maroney, LSU Joseph Addai, UCLA's Maurice Drew, and Washington State's Jerome Harrison. Although not all of them have kick-return experience, any of them could easily step in and produce or be a good enough back to bump Rhodes back to return duties.

Drew is a wild card. Some consider him too small to be a full-time back, but few disagree that he's one of the best return prospects (32-787-2 on kicks, 25-579-4 on punts for his college career) to come around in years. Even if he didn't make big impact on offense, he'd still be a weapon. Although he's had much less experience, Maroney has also showed some flash at the position as well (24-571-1 for his college career), but isn't the natural Drew is.

The Colts have also looked at Nebraska's Cory Ross, who excelled in limited exposure as a punt return man (10-116-0 for his college career) and could be available in the sixth round.

No matter what happens, you can expect the team to bring in late-round or undrafted prospects with return experience. Don't be surprised to see South Carolina State's Rondreikas Darby (15-484-1 on kicks, 5-81-1 on punts in 2005), Hampton's Marquay McDaniel (49-714-0 on punts in 2005), Lafayette's Brandon Stanford (20-438-1 on punts in 2005) or Southern's James Vernon (19-355-1 on punts in 2005) showing up at training camp this summer.

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