What's next (cont.)
Not really applicable this year. See above, Saints salary-cap situation.
The Colts don't have the bevy of restricted free agents the Saints do, but there are players like Bethea, Jennings, Johnson, Francisco, cornerback Marlin Jackson, and linebacker Tyjuan Hagler who could potentially create some action on the offer sheet front. All told, there are more than 200 players league-wide who would have been unrestricted free agents this year under the previous cap-era CBA rules, but will now be restricted.
Indianapolis has one key cog it wants to re-sign: middle linebacker Gary Brackett, the team's 29-year-old defensive captain. The Colts value the job Brackett does and his leadership abilities, but their history is they won't throw stupid money at linebackers (see Mike Peterson, Marcus Washington, David Thornton and Cato June, all of whom left Indy via free agency).
Brackett sounds like he's seeking big bucks, because the seven-year veteran accepted a fairly modest, below-market second contract from Indy a few years back, so this figures to be his career's big payday. It also helps Brackett that he'll be one of the bigger names to reach unrestricted free agency this year.
With no cap implications to worry about this year, it's possible the Colts could move preemptively to lock up Brackett in the next four weeks and not let him reach the market. But it seems more likely he'll want to find out his worth, and then allow the Colts to stay in the game and compete with any potential offers. The only other headline name who is headed for unrestricted free agency is kicker Matt Stover, but he's 42, and was just the injury replacement for Adam Vinatieri this season.
Last year at this time, the head coaching torch was being passed from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell, in a transition that has to go down as one of the most seamless in NFL history. Caldwell failed in his attempt to become the fifth rookie head coach to win a Super Bowl, but going 16-3 and not losing your first game until after Christmas is not too shabby for your first season.
The Colts have a very veteran assistant coaching staff, and they'll be losing some of that expertise, because senior offensive line coach Howard Mudd made it clear during Super Bowl week he intends to retire. Mudd's as old as, well, mud, and his 36 years of NFL coaching experience won't be easily replaced. But Pete Metzelaars is already on staff as the team's offensive quality control/assistant offensive line coach, and figures to be one option.
Tom Moore, the team's senior offensive coordinator, says he still wants to coach and doesn't have plans to follow Mudd into retirement. Moore is on a year-by-year basis at this point in his long career, but he's still important to what Peyton Manning and the Colts do on offense, and the odds are he'll be back with Indy in 2010. As long as No. 18 is in his corner, Moore's role is probably somewhat safe.
With their No. 31 draft pick in the first round, the Colts have a couple different directions they could go when it comes to need. Their defensive tackle position still could use an upgrade, and Penn State's Jared Odrick is a name that many believe the Colts might be interested in. Losing Brackett could prompt Indy to dip into the inside linebacker market, but somehow Bill Polian always finds a quality replacement for veteran linebackers who leave and seek their fortunes via free agency.
Offensive tackle is the other logical position for the Colts to consider. Left tackle Charlie Johnson did a good job guarding Manning's blindside this season, but that spot could be upgraded and if the right guy's on the board it would represent great draft value at No. 31.
Backup quarterback could be addressed lower in the draft. Jim Sorgi was out with an injury late in the year, which meant rookie Curtis Painter saw way more action than Indy probably wished he saw in Weeks 16 and 17. If there's potential greatness in Painter, let's just say it has yet to reveal itself.
In a season in which I predicted them to take a step back and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2001, the Colts managed to start 14-0, win another AFC South title, and log an NFL-record seventh consecutive year of 12 wins or more. So I'm not getting fooled again. The Colts will enter next season as the favorites in their division, just as they have been for almost the entire length of Manning's 12-year NFL career.
The highlight of the Indianapolis schedule next season will once again be a showdown with New England, but for the first time since November 2006, the game will be played at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. The last four meetings of the two bitter rivals have been on the Colts' home turf, including the 2006 AFC title game.
The Colts next year have five games against teams that went to the playoffs this season, but three of those are at Lucas Oil Stadium: visits from the Chargers, Bengals and Cowboys. Only trips to New England and Philadelphia look particularly tough, although division rivals Houston, Tennessee, Jacksonville always play the Colts fairly tough. Though Indy was 6-0 against those three this season, just two games separated the 9-7 second-place Texans from the 7-9 last-place Jaguars.
Indianapolis will play the rugged NFC East in their four-game interconference schedule, with home games against the Cowboys and Giants, but trips to Washington and Philly. Drawing the AFC West for their intraconference opponents looks a little more inviting, especially since division champion and Colts nemesis San Diego must travel to the Midwest.
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