Preview: Change is the word in Indy

The Colts have a new head coach, new defensive coordinator and several personnel changes. It's all a bit odd for a team that has experienced as much success as Indianapolis has, but those changes will take to the field for the first time Friday against the Vikings.

The first preseason game is typically one that has a lot of intensity early and fades quickly, as the stars play for the first series or two and give way to many of the players who won't be on the final 53-man roster.

That being said, Friday's preseason opener with the Indianapolis Colts has considerably more intrigue than most matchups – primarily by design in Indy. For starters, head coach Tony Dungy is gone and longtime assistant Jim Caldwell is in as the new boss. The Colts have a staggering record of success, winning 12 or more games in each of the last six seasons. That included conceding the division title at midseason with a loss to Tennessee that dropped the Colts to 3-4. All they did was win their final nine games to finish at 12-4 and keep the streak alive.

Theirs is a system that has worked. Perhaps no team has more money tied up into fewer players than the Colts. Peyton Manning, Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Jeff Saturday, Dwight Freeney, Bob Sanders, Kelvin Hayden and Adam Vinatieri are all among the top paid at their positions. With so much money tied into so few, the Colts rely heavily on getting depth out of the draft and through undrafted free agents. While most teams have their rosters essentially set, give or take a half dozen picks, the Colts training camp is much more a fight for survival. Unknowns make the team every year and those will be the guys making an impression in the second half Friday.

Any game involving the Colts has to start with Manning. In his 11 NFL seasons, Manning has never missed a game and has defined the position in terms of attacking a defense. He doesn't look like his skills are deteriorating, but he's getting to an age where the inevitable slide begins. As a result, the Colts likely won't keep him out on the field too long – which may not be good news for the younger Colts. Backup QB Jim Sorgi is out for at least two weeks with a hamstring pull, leaving the quarterbacking to a pair of rookies. Chris Painter was a sixth-round pick out of Purdue who is viewed as an "upside" guy like John David Booty was when he was taken by the Vikings. Then there's Chris Crane, an undrafted free agent out of Boston College. He spent the OTAs and minicamps with the Colts, was cut prior to the start of camp, re-signed last weekend and now will likely see a lot of action in the second half with Manning likely doing a cameo and Sorgi not suiting up at all.

Injuries have taken a toll on what many expect may be a changing of the guard in the Colts backfield. Their recent history has been to draft a running back and push the starter out of the way. They did it (in order) with Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes – the latter being pushed out by Joseph Addai. In his first two seasons, Addai was on fire as both a rusher and receiver and was viewed as one of the top young backs in the league. But injuries dropped his rushing total to 155 carries for 544 yards and just five touchdowns. Without much in the way of top-end backups, the Colts struggled to move the ball on the ground. As a result, they used their first-round pick to take Donald Brown out of Connecticut. He is built similar to Addai, but has better power in his legs and is expected to get more than his share of carries – with a chance to take over the running game as the season progresses just as Addai did as a rookie. Brown hasn't helped his own cause too much in camp. While Addai has been having a very strong camp, Brown was sidelined for several days with a sore quad muscle. The Colts historically keep few running backs – as few as four some years – which will make it difficult. Fireplug Mike Hart out of Michigan saw his rookie year wiped out by a torn ACL. He's a favorite to be the No. 3 back, but he's missed valuable time with a sprained right ankle. Chad Simpson, who made the team last year as an undrafted rookie, is looking to keep his spot. The second half will likely showcase Lance Ball, a first-year player from Maryland who is the fifth and last player on the Colts RB depth chart. Because of the way the team uses tight ends, they technically don't have a fullback on the roster. The combination of Gijon Robinson, who started 15 games but never rushed ball and caught just 19 passes, and Jacob Tamme, who played in 12 games as a rookie last year, serve as the de facto fullbacks.

The biggest change in the receiver corps is that longtime staple Marvin Harrison is gone. Released after the 2008 season, the Colts have done little in the way of bringing in big-name free agents. As is their custom, they build from within and keep things in the family. As if he hadn't already been anointed as the main man, Reggie Wayne is the clear-cut go-to receiver for Manning. He is consistently at or above 90 receptions and 1,200 yard with double-digit touchdowns – just what you expect from your lead dog. Third-year pro Anthony Gonzalez moves into the starting lineup. He is an excellent route runner adept at reading defenses along with Manning. His role is to become Harrison, a player who runs specific routes and has the ball delivered where it is supposed to be. Gonzalez had at least one catch in every game as the No. 3 receiver. As a full-time starter, he could be dangerous. Wayne is likely to see little action, but the competition is among the youngsters. Pierre Garcon has good gliding speed and is capable of big plays, and fourth-round rookie Austin Collie has made a lot of noise in camp for being extremely physical and catching just about everything thrown his way. Untested Taj Smith, John Matthews, Brett McDermott and Sam Giguere have never played a regular season down in the NFL, but at least one of them is likely to make the 53-man roster.

At tight end, Dallas Clark has become a co-favorite of Manning, especially in critical situations. Clark can stretch the field and line up wide if asked to, because the system employs so many tight ends as blockers, H-backs, fullbacks and downfield threats. As mentioned earlier, Gijon Robinson has a roster spot locked up, but the third or fourth spot may be up for grabs, with Tamme battling second-year man Tom Santi and practice squad player Jamie Petrowski for only one or two roster spots.

If there has been a controversy during Colts camp, it was the move to take offensive left tackle Charlie Johnson off the Physically Unable to Perform list and moving him directly to the first team ahead of Tony Ugoh, who has been the starter the last two years. Ugoh may be a player to watch, because he's angry and will be working with the second unit Friday. The other starters are expected to only see a couple of series, especially since Sorgi isn't going to play – which could keep the first-team O-line out on the field for an extra series. Last year, the offensive line was a mess due to injuries, but the return of left guard Ryan Lilja, who missed all of 2008 with a right knee injury that forced him to endure three surgeries, has solidified things. Unlike the Vikings, the Colts re-signed their starting center, Jeff Saturday. He and nine-year veteran ORT Ryan Diem flank second-year man Mike Pollak, who was forced to make the transition from center to guard as a rookie and held up pretty well. When the starters leave, look for Ugoh to see plenty of action, followed by third-year project Michael Toudouze in the second half. On the right side, second-year man Corey Hilliard is fighting off a challenge from undrafted free agent Tom Pestock. At center, Steve Justice is being groomed to replace Saturday, leaving Kyle DeVan potentially battling it out with guards Daniel Federkill, a fourth-year man who started three games last year, Jamey Richard, a converted center who started four games at center when Saturday went down and three at guard as a rookie in 2008, as well as undrafted free agents Jamie Thomas and Brandon Barnes for what may just be two roster spots. The guys to watch are Federkill and Richard. They have the most to gain and to lose in Friday's game.

It will be interesting to see how the other big juggling act holds up, as Caldwell has shuffled the deck with his defensive line depth chart as well as his offensive line. Versatile eight-year vet Raheem Brock, who plays both end and tackle and started 15 games last year, has been dropped to second team on the depth chart behind Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney. While it doesn't mean Brock won't be a significant player in the Colts D-line rotation, it does symbolize change. Robert Mathis, who started just two games last year out of the 15 he played, is expected to get the start against the Vikings. In the middle, the Colts are inexperienced. Antonio Johnson has good size, but was just a part-time player last year. One of the stories of the season could be Ed Johnson. A third-year pro, Johnson had 10 tackles in Week 1 of 2008 after starting all 16 games as a rookie in 2007. Days later, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and released within 48 hours. He was re-signed in the offseason and is expected to bolster this group. Vikings fans may be seeing the future with second-round rookie Fili Moala of USC. Both he, 11-game starter Eric Foster and third-year tackle Daniel Muir are expected to compete for jobs behind the Johnson Wall. In the second half, fourth-round rookie Terrance Taylor of Michigan will try to prove that he belongs and deserve what might be an extra roster spot to stay. At the end position, Brock will be moving in and out, along with Keyunta Dawson, who started 14 games last year, and special teamers Marcus Howard and Curtis Johnson. With six ends who have experience with the team, cutting one of them may be difficult.

The linebackers were much improved in 2008, but remain the weakness of the Colts defense. They again have a blend of youth and veterans comprising the LB corps. In the middle, they have three beasts – Gary Brackett, a seven-year vet who is the greybeard of the group, 250-pound mauler Adam Seward and fourth-year man Freddy Keiaho, who started 14 games last year. Brackett has had some injury problems, but the promise of Seward and experience of Keiaho are big insurance policies. On the right side, third-year man Clint Session has established himself as a solid starter and isn't being pushed by special teams player Jordan Senn and undrafted rookie Ramon Humber. That isn't true on the left side, where second-year man Phillip Wheeler is pushing fourth-year man Tyjuan Hagler for the starting job. Both are sure to make the team, but the starting job will be hotly contested in Camp Caldwell.

The entire starting secondary for the Colts will not be starting on Friday. If Bob Sanders was healthy, this secondary would rank among the best in the league. But Sanders has been on the PUP list since the start of camp and won't play. His absence has opened up an opportunity for third-year man Melvin Bullitt and second-year man Jamie Silva. Bullitt started nine games last year when Sanders was out and Silva was a solid special teamer as a rookie. Both will share time Friday. At free safety, Antoine Bethea is in his fourth year and third as a full-time starter. It's his job to keep (except on Friday), since his primary challengers are fifth-year part-timer Matt Giordano and first-year man Travis Key. The Colts made CB Kelvin Hayden their top offseason priority and locked him into a long-term contract. He and Marlin Jackson have become formidable zone defenders and are rock solid. Behind them is where the fun is and features the players the Vikings will see. Third-round rookie Jerraud Powers is going to be given every chance to battle with third-year man Dante Hughes, former starter Tim Jennings and fourth-year man T.J. Rushing for the nickel back role. In the second half, a host of young players will try to make an impression, including third-year holdovers Michael Coe and Nick Graham and rookie Jacob Lacey.

Even the special teams have been affected by injury for the Colts. Adam Vinatieri started camp on the PUP list with a hip problem, so the kicker duties will be handled by unknown Shane Andrus of Murray State. If the game is close late, he could make or break his fledgling NFL career.

With most preseason openers, the interest level for many fans wanes steadily as the game progresses. But given the amount of players on the Colts roster with less than two or three years experience, it is clear these games mean a lot to Indianapolis because, when all is said and done, a lot of these young players will end up making the team.


Viking Update Top Stories