1. Can Bob Sanders stay healthy?
Former Browns, Eagles and Raiders executive and NFL.com/NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi caused a bit of a stir this week with what seemed like a throwaway line in his column at NFL.com.
Lombardi wrote, "There is some concern Colts safety Bob Sanders might never be able to play football again, with his shoulder and bicep issues. He reduced his contract, but his rehab has been slow."
The response from Sanders' and the Colts' camps was swift, with agent Tom Condon telling the Indianapolis Star he didn't know of any new injury concerns and the team essentially denying Lombardi's assertion.
Lombardi, as you may remember, was the man who first broke the story of Peyton Manning's late-summer, second knee surgery in 2008. That was something that the team had kept hushed up, but Lombardi was later proved correct.
When I contacted Lombardi regarding the Manning story, he told me "my source is impeccable" and said other writers had heard the same thing over the summer but couldn't nail a source down.
With his latest report on Sanders, however, he's being accused of getting it wrong, but what it sounds like is that Lombardi is in a similar to the "other writers" he mentioned to me — in that he's heard something but can't nail it down. And really, to call his report off base may be going too far. Sanders has been plagued by injuries for the last four seasons, and one has to think that if he can't recover this year, his football career may be in danger.
Sanders, of course, proclaimed himself healthy and participated in OTAs for the first time in several summers in May and June. But all eyes will be on Sanders when training camp opens Aug. 1, to see if the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year is on the field. If he can't make it through camp without injury, then it may be time for the Colts and Sanders to take a long hard look at his future.
2. What will the wide receiver pecking order be?
Reggie Wayne is unhappy with his contract, and has hinted he may not show up for training camp on time — something that would be out of character for the receiver, but a possibility nonetheless.
Regardless, Wayne remains the Colts' No. 1 receiving threat whenever he does take the field. The question is really how the rest of the receiving pecking order will play out, following a breakout performance by Pierre Garçon in 2009, the emergence of Austin Collie as a rookie and the return of Anthony Gonzalez after a knee injury that caused him to essentially miss all of 2009.
Garçon seems to have the skills, size and speed to take over an outside receiving spot full-time and should be the starter opposite Wayne, leaving Gonzalez and Collie to share time at the slot. Gonzalez has reportedly recovered from his knee injury and regained his speed, and he also could see some time at the outside position.
Collie has impressed many, including yours truly, with his work ethic, but Gonzalez is also a hard worker with a strong grasp of the offense. His athletic ability should give him a slight edge over Collie, but really, all four receivers should see the ball plenty this season. The situation gives the Colts excellent depth at the position and is a nice problem to have, but this is a position that will be worth keeping an eye on as the preseason goes on.
3. Is there enough experience at cornerback?
The Colts got strong performances from a pair of rookie cornerbacks last season. Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey were thrust into action because of injuries and responded quite well under the as first-year NFL players.
There was the occasional gaffe, to be sure — such as Lacey getting outfoxed by a fellow rookie, Mark Sanchez, for an 80-yard touchdown in the AFC Championship game — but for the most part, both Powers and Lacey were solid.
And now, they will have to be, as the two second-year players will form the core of the team's cornerback duo, along with veteran Kelvin Hayden. Marlin Jackson — himself beset by injuries the last two seasons — was let go in free agency, and ended up in Philadelphia (where he was again injured). Longtime backup and whipping boy Tim Jennings was also let go, along with T.J. Rushing. In fact, the Colts have just one corner, Hayden, who was on the team before 2009. After that, it's Powers, Lacey and a bunch of rookies.
Now, there's no doubt that a rookie or three will emerge to claim a spot in the rotation if any of the top three go down. Lacey impressed from day one last summer and ended up making the All-Rookie team. The team drafted Kevin Thomas for just such a purpose, but he was injured in rookie camp and won't see the field this season. Still, the lack of experience is worrisome, and will be worth paying attention to as the Colts open camp.
4. How will things be different with Clyde Christensen calling the plays?
One of the most overlooked storylines about this offseason is the fact that Peyton Manning will be working with a different offensive coordinator for the first time in his brilliant career. Of course, it may not end up being that big of a deal, since new coordinator Clyde Christensen has been an offensive assistant with the team since 2001, and former coordinator Tom Moore is still with the Colts in a senior offensive assistant role.
All coordinators want to put their own stamp on their unit, but this is a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" situation. Moore and Manning have excelled by making the simple look intricate and the direct look complex, by putting simple packages on the field, allowing Manning to analyze the defense, and pushing the tempo to force the other team to adjust.
However, Christensen's a smart guy, and the 2010 version of the Colts' offense should look very similar to the 2009 edition (and the 2008, 2007, 2006 ...) and produce similar results. While he's certain to have his fair share of ideas, with his longevity on the team, it's likely we've already seen them implemented in the offense under Moore. But if you're in Anderson, be sure to take a look to see if anything looks different.
5. What's up with the offensive line?
The offensive line was probably the team's biggest weakness in the last two years, although it sometimes didn't seem like it until it was too late. The inability to get a couple of yards in key situations reared its head in both the AFC Championship against the Jets and in the Super Bowl against the Saints last season, and a short-yardage failure in the playoffs in 2008 almost certainly led to the Colts' exit that season.
However, to watch the Colts week in and week out, you might not notice much was wrong. Even if Joseph Addai wasn't gaining a lot of yards on the ground, so what? The Colts are usually able to move the ball effectively, thanks to Moore and Manning's skill in directing the ball through the air and using the run game effectively. Bill Polian has often said that balance for the sake of balance is pointless, and as usual, his logic is sound.
But those short-yardage failures lead the team and its fans to wonder what could have been had the team picked up those first downs against the Chargers and Saints — would the team have another Lombardi Trophy or two in hand? And it can't be overlooked that the one Colts team that did win the Super Bowl — the 2006 team — was able to not only run the ball effectively, but to impose its will through the running game.
Which leads us to the offensive line, which does a good job of keeping defenders off of Manning, but needs to improve on opening holes for runners. And some fairly significant changes could be afoot there.
Jeff Saturday — who is not quite at the All-Pro level he once was, but is still effective — will return at center, and Ryan Diem will most likely be the right tackle. But it's possible we could see different starters at the three other positions on the line.
Charlie Johnson did a nice job at left tackle last season, and something tells me he'll keep his job going into this season. But he isn't a prototypical NFL left tackle, and the one player on the roster that is — Tony Ugoh — has been practicing at guard this offseason. The team added tackle Adam Terry in the offseason, and he's a possibility, as well.
Things are even less settled at guard, where the left-side starter, Ryan Lilja, was let go after failing a physical, and the right-side starter, Kyle DeVan, was an afl2 refugee put into action after the failure of 2007 second-round pick Mike Pollak.
DeVan, Pollak, Ugoh, free agent pickup Andy Alleman, draft pick Jacques McClendon and others will all get opportunities in what has to be considered an open competition at guard. Who will emerge? Will they be more effective than in the past?
The answers to these, and the rest of the questions, will be played out over the next six months. But we'll start getting our first clues when the team takes the field on Aug. 2.
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