Ugoh & Sanders: Sharing an Unusual Connection

It hit me almost as hard as I would imagine one of Bob Sanders' bone-rattling tackles. Colts rookie offensive lineman Tony Ugoh and the man Indianapolis calls "The Eraser" will likely be tied together for years to come by fans of the Indianapolis Colts.

It really didn't hit me until I thought a bit about a tidbit that mentioned that Colts safety Bob Sanders has the option to void the final two years of his contract after this season and become an unrestricted free agent.

But within minutes, I mentally connected the dots--which is easier some days than others-- and realized that Sanders and new rookie offensive lineman Tony Ugoh have a unique connection that significantly impacts the future of this franchise.

And it left me shaking my head and smiling after I realized once again how astute Colts president Bill Polian is when it comes to personnel decisions and managing the salary cap.

As I thought about Sander's future with the Colts, I wasn't the least bit optimistic that the team would be able to afford to re-sign him once he hit the open market next March. As smart as the Colts have been about contracts, Peyton Manning should hit the cap somewhere in the ballpark of $19.5 million in 2008, Marvin Harrison for another $12 million, and at least three more will ding it in the $6 million to $7 million range--wide receiver Reggie Wayne, defensive tackle Anthony McFarland and offensive tackle Ryan Diem. And if they don't release defensive tackle Corey Simon and absorb the full cap hit this year of about $9 million in prorated bonus money, he'd be an $8 million hit in 2008 if he's still on the roster.

Oh, and then there's the small matter of the whopper of a deal that defensive end Dwight Freeney will sign as the team's 2007 franchise tag player. And it will be huge, let there be no doubt about it.

As if that isn't bad enough, tight end Dallas Clark, offensive tackle Tarik Glenn, and starting guards Jake Scott and Ryan Lilja will all be unrestricted free agents next year in addition to a number of other Colts.

So how in the world will the Colts keep Bob Sanders?

Tony Ugoh (AP Photo/Tom Strickland)
Clearly, they have to find a way. He's the man who energized a Colts defense that was mocked last year for being unable to stop the run during the 12 games he was forced to watch from the sidelines. Just as his nickname--"The Eraser"--implies, he erases the big plays of opposing offenses when he's on the field.

Head coach Tony Dungy mentioned last year that his defensive scheme is designed to funnel runners to Bob Sanders in the same way his Tampa Bay defense forced runners into collisions with safety John Lynch many years ago. Without Sanders out there, who would move into that critically important role in 2008?

And then it hit me almost as hard as one of his ferocious tackles. Bob Sanders will get Tarik Glenn's money in 2008.

Glenn is currently eating up roughly $8 million in cap space during the final year of his contract. To lock Sanders down, the Colts will likely have to say goodbye at the end of this year to Glenn, a wonderfully talented veteran who--by the time he suits up for the 2008 season--will be 32 years old and will have 11 NFL seasons of wear and tear. That cap space will give Indy plenty of room to work with to hold onto Bob Sanders as the leader of their secondary, pairing him up with Dwight Freeney as the foundation of this Colts defense for years to come.

And that's why the team didn't miss the chance to grab Arkansas offensive lineman Tony Ugoh--this year. And what a brilliant move it was.

If the Colts truly had Ugoh pegged as a first-round talent, why not give up next year's first round pick to get him in camp now? It was obvious the Colts needed to use their first-round pick this year on a slot receiver, so if they had any hope of holding onto Sanders, they would have been forced to use that first-round pick next year on one of the top-rated offensive tackles.

Of course, there's one huge problem with that. Waiting until next year to find Glenn's potential replacement would force the Colts to place a rookie on the line that is entrusted with protecting the heart of the franchise--Peyton Manning. And to boot, that rookie would get tossed onto an offensive line that could be missing both starting guards in addition to Glenn next year.

What the Colts did was nothing short of brilliant. They drafted next year's No. 1 pick now and are giving him the opportunity to get acclimated before Glenn--and most likely Scott and Lilja--leave to continue their careers with other teams. And in the process they have set the stage to free up the cap room needed to keep Bob Sanders. They perfectly anticipated next year's free agency and cap situation.

So check this out. Even if the Colts lose those three offensive line veterans next year, they can re-sign Dylan Gandy as a restricted free agent to slide into one guard spot. Gandy has already proven to be a solid player and he's already gotten plenty of game experience while Ryan Lilja was out last year with his knee injury. Charlie Johnson looked very impressive as a rookie at offensive tackle stepping in for Ryan Diem due to injuries, even during the Super Bowl. There's no doubt he'll be ready to start by the time he heads into his third season in 2008. And then you have Jeff Saturday at center, who shows no sign of wearing down or slowing down.

That leaves one guard and one tackle position open. And guess what? Diem has experience playing guard and tackle in this offense. And it appears that Ugoh will try both guard and tackle as well during his rookie year so the team can determine where the two fit in best next year. You could end up seeing Johnson and Diem or Johnson and Ugoh as the starting tackles. And you could see Gandy and Ugoh or Gandy and Diem as the guards. And if veteran Rick DeMulling can return to form, that's a huge bonus, giving the team even more options.

So next year while Colts fans wait impatiently until the second round for Indianapolis to make their first selection of the 2008 NFL Draft, don't forget that the 2008 first-round draft pick is already on the team--and already has a year of valuable experience under his belt.

And also don't forget that he's part of the reason you'll see Bob Sanders wearing blue and white again in 2008 rather than lining up for another NFL team.

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