Say what you will about them, but they are all talented players (okay, calling Gardner talented is stretching things a bit) and will have to be replaced. So, too, will the team's primary kick and punt returner — Terrence Wilkins, although he could re-sign if a suitable replacement does not emerge.
There are lots of jobs open on the Colts' defense and special teams, and lots of young men who would like to fill them. Here's a quick, preliminary look at the competitions heading into minicamp:
Defensive tackle: When was the last time the Colts were truly solid up the middle? Other than a couple of good seasons from would-be Soprano Tony Siragusa and the odd flash by Leo Wisniewski, I think you have to go back to the Herb Orvis days. There was some hope when the Colts had Reagor and Simon in 2005, but injuries and other problems led them to play together only sparingly. And in 2006, Reagor played five games and Simon none; and now Reagor's gone and Simon is, from all reports, unlikely to play for the Colts ever again.
Soon after they went down last year, the Colts traded a second-round pick to Tampa for Anthony McFarland. "Booger" as he is called, was past the peak of his career and was no Simon to begin with. Still, he's a competent starter who can make the players around him better, especially is gets a few downs to rest every once in a while. The other starter is Raheem Brock. A former fixture at left end, Raheem the Dream is a similar player to Reagor, an undersized but active penetrator who works much better when he has a partner who can absorb blockers and clean up what he misses in his regular overpursuits. And, like McFarland, he benefits from a little time away from the action.
While those two are likely to start, there is no shortage of players willing to give them a break. The incumbents are Dan Klecko and Darrell Reid — both can make the odd play, neither have shown the ability to play consistently well. More likely to be the No. 3 man is third-round pick Quinn Pitcock. He's not much of a pass-rusher, but has the strength, determination and gap-discipline to make a difference against the run.
Reid and Klecko should also keep an eye on the progress of Tom Johnson (who's playing well in NFL Europe) and undrafted free agents Ed Johnson, Quintin Echols and Ramel Meekins. Any of them could make a strong case for a roster spot.
Defensive end: The Colts have two star pass-rushers in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, but both (especially the 235-pound Mathis) could use some time off to be more effective, especially on first and second downs. If Pitcock turns out as many expect, you could see Brock sliding over to spell Mathis on obvious run downs.
Another option could be Josh Thomas. He's the incumbent No. 3 end and a coaches' favorite, but hasn't been very productive so far. He's in his walk year, so he could have something to prove. Also competing for spots are holdovers Bo Schobel and Ryan LaCasse, along with seventh-rounder Keyunta Dawson and a free agent named Jeff Charleston. You can stick the phrase "undersized pass-rusher" beside any of their names and not receive much argument.
|Gary Brackett (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)|
Outside linebacker: When Gardner proved he couldn't play last season, the Colts turned to Rob Morris, the much-maligned former first-round pick Brackett replaced in the middle. To near-universal surprise, Morris played very well and is the favorite to start on the strongside again this year. But he's 32 and has never been all that consistent or reliable in the past. It'd be great if he could pick up where he left off in the Super Bowl, but it's not a lock.
On the other side, the Colts are hoping fiery, hyperactive, young Freddie Keiaho can take over for June and make the big plays he did. From what I've seen of him as a rookie and in college, I don't think he'll have much of a problem — if he can get a better handle on play-action and other misdirection plays.
Should either falter, the Colts have a number of viable candidates. Rocky Boiman is active and smart, but much better against the pass than the run. The Colts could get by with him at either spot, but he lacks any real upside. Tyjuan Hagler is a similar player to Keiaho, but is probably better suited inside or as a part-time player. Keith O'Neil is an accomplished special-teams player who is exposed if he plays too much on defense.
The wild card is rookie fourth-round pick Clint Session, who has all the skills to be an NFL starter, but will almost certainly have to spend the traditional year on specials before he gets a chance to play on defense. There are also four undrafted free-agents vying for spots. The draft books loved KaMichael Hall in the spring, but I think NFL GMs had a better handle on him than ESPN's editors did.
Cornerbacks: While the Colts lost both 2006 starters to free agency, they may actually have better corners in 2007. Marlin Jackson was a first-rounder in 2005 and Kevlin Hayden and Tim Jennings were second-rounders in 2005 and 2006. While Jackson has plenty of talent, my money's on the athletic Hayden and and blindingly fast Jennings to start and Jackson to fill in at corner and safety as needed.
This year's draft picks, Daymeion Hughes (third round) and Michael Coe (fifth), have starting potential, but will need to learn the NFL game before they get any serious playing time. Free-agent signee Antonio Smith is a super-intelligent try-hard type who may not have the stuff to be an NFLer. Speedsters T.J. Rushing and Tanard Davis are also in camp, but are cornerbacks in name only.
Safeties: While Bob Sanders is among the best players in the NFL, he's not much good when he's injured. And he's injured a lot. One of those ailments led the Colts to hand a job to 2006 sixth-rounder Antoine Bethea. He was not just capable, he was awesome. While that leaves the Colts with two excellent safeties, Sanders still can't be counted on to play 16 games.
The number three and four safeties on paper are Matt Giordano and draft pick Brannon Condren. Both are quick-thinking hard hitters who are much more effective moving forward than back. Deep coverage is not a specialty for either. When the Colts needed an extra safety last year, they used Jackson, not Giordano. They may again, but Giordano showed marked improvement in coverage as the year progressed and could well keep Jackson at corner. The other safeties in camp are mini-linebacker types, hoping to make the roster as special teamers.
Kicker: Adam Vinatieri is probably the best kicker in the league and is assured a job, health willing. The Colts also have Shane Andrus, who's looking great in NFL Europe and could net the team a draft pick in trade if he plays well in the exhibition season.
Punter: While Hunter Smith is a good enough punter, he really makes his living as an exceptional holder on kicks. The job is his. As with Andrus, the Colts have an NFL-quality punter in reserve. Reggie Hodges has a big leg and great skills as a runner and even passer. He won't dislodge Smith, but he too could be worth a draft pick in trade.
Long Snapper: The team didn't sign Justin Snow to a six-year, $6.2-million deal to cut him. Tight end/H-back Ben Utecht can also long snap well, but he's needed on offense and is too injury prone to displace Snow.
Returners: Last year, the Colts drafted T.J. Rushing in the seventh round to take over the primary return spots. But he didn't inspire much confidence, so the Colts signed old hand Terrence Wilkins to hold the fort and show the kid some moves. Wilkins did a decent job (handling 86 chances to Rushing's six), but the Colts have not re-signed him. That indicates that they expect Rushing to take over. There are other guys in camp who have potential at the position, and the Colts will look at them all in preseason, but Rushing's the only one who's been a team's primary return man in college. Still the Colts may want to give Devin Aromashadu, Clifton Dawson, Kenton Keith, Dede Dorsey, Michael Coe, Brain Hare and Tanard Davis a chance to show what they have.