Postcard from camp: Colts
Peyton Manning is expected to be ready for the season opener after neck surgery
Anthony Castonzo looks like the answer to Colts' neverending left tackle question
Colts should survive tough schedule to set record for consecutive 10-win seasons
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
In Anderson, Ind., where the Colts have returned for a second year to Anderson University after moving their training camp from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute. They do love the guys with the horseshoes on their helmets here. In fact, the city goes all out and paints the team's blue horseshoe logo on the streets around camp. About 9,000 football-starved fans showed up for the Colts' night practice on Wednesday, prompting team owner Jim Irsay to observe: "It's as if, if you went on a long vacation to Bali at the end of the season, and just came back a few days ago, you wouldn't think anything had happened at all in the offseason.''
1. I'm happy to report that Peyton Manning is alive and moving around reasonably well. Because I saw No. 18 standing out there at practice Wednesday night, shooting the breeze with his fellow quarterbacks, even though he can't practice yet due to his rehabilitation from May neck surgery. As for exactly when Manning can be expected to return to the field, no one around here seems to know, but they also don't seem overly concerned. Everyone's quick to point out that Manning won his third MVP award in 2008 after missing a good chunk of the preseason following surgery to clear up an infected bursa sac behind his knee.
It's easy to predict there's no way Manning won't be ready for the team's Sept. 11 opener at Houston, because, well, Manning has never missed a game in his 13-year NFL career. But he is 35 now, and just because it has never happened doesn't mean it never will. Still, my sense is that Manning probably plays at some point in the preseason (Week 3 is always a good guess, as the dress rehearsal game), and definitely will be there when the bell rings in Houston. Until then, it's (Curtis) Painter Time.
I asked Colts head coach Jim Caldwell if anything the team gets out of Manning in the preseason is gravy, and he liked the sound of that assessment. "That's probably a good way to put it, because we just don't know at this point in time,'' he said. "He's working to get himself ready and he's doing everything he can. He knows his body better than anybody, and he knows how to get it into position to function as well.''
2. I had to check a couple times to make sure I really was in Colts camp. Because in the span of a few days Indy did the very un-Indy-like thing of signing three veteran free-agent defenders who happened to be former first-round picks: ex-Atlanta defensive end Jamaal Anderson, ex-Chicago defensive tackle Tommie Harris, and ex-Philadelphia linebacker Ernie Sims. Harris and Sims have had some success, but not lately, and Anderson was a first-round bust in Atlanta.
Both Harris and Sims, the former Lions first-rounder, have experience playing in the Tampa-2 defensive system that Indy still uses, so those additions make sense from a depth perspective. As for Anderson, he never amounted to anything much for the Falcons after they took him eighth overall in 2007 (just 4.5 sacks in four seasons). But the Colts hope they can use him to spell ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and maybe unlock some of his pass-rush potential.
Colts general manager Chris Polian told me that while it's not usually Indy's style to make those kind of roster additions, Manning did tell Irsay he'd sign for less if the Colts use the extra money on getting more players. There are also different circumstances at work this year in free agency. "Maybe because we had the draft and now these guys are becoming available afterwards,'' Polian said. "And salaries are compressed in the condensed time frame of free agency we're working with. I think it's just weird timing this year. But when Peyton did his deal, he said to Mr. Irsay he'd take the right numbers as long as you're willing to get players.''
3. I believe Austin Collie is poised for a huge, breakthrough year. Don't forget, before the injuries started mounting last season, Collie through six games was among the league leaders in catches (44), yards (503) and touchdowns (six). Then a broken thumb, two concussions and lingering concussion symptoms first stalled and then ended Collie's season. Even though many consider him the league's poster child for the concussion issue, I think Collie comes back strong, and so does Chris Polian. "I don't think he'll change the way he plays,'' Polian said. "He's a one-speed guy, and a very tough-minded guy. I would be surprised if he changes his game at all. I don't think he's capable of playing that way.''
Melvin Bullitt, safety. With the oft-injured Bob Sanders gone to San Diego and no longer casting a shadow of sorts in the Indy secondary, Bullitt will have the strong safety slot all to himself. The Colts re-signed Bullitt in free agency this month, even though he had his own injury problems in 2010, missing the final 12 games with a broken bone in his shoulder. But Bullitt, a 2007 collegiate free agent signee, has produced for the Colts in part-time duty, starting 24 of his 48 games, with six interceptions and 178 tackles. He'll be a full-time starter now, alongside underrated free safety Antoine Bethea, and the Colts like the back line of their defense.
How long have the Colts been sort of piecing things together at left offensive tackle? Twenty years? Thirty? The hope is that's finally over, given that the team at last threw some resources at their problematic offensive line, drafting Boston College's Anthony Castonzo at No. 22 of the first round, and taking Villanova guard Ben Ijalana in the second round. The loss of the entire offseason program is thought to have cost Castonzo a chance to start right away at left tackle, with Colts coaches more likely to give early playing time to second-year man Jeff Linkenbach. But Castonzo is a quick study and might have something to say about that if he progresses smoothly this month. Even if it takes a little time for him to ascend the depth chart, the Colts are confident their on-again, off-again issues at left tackle will soon be a thing of the past.
The Colts can set an NFL record with their 10th consecutive playoff season this year, but they'll really have to earn it, as they did with 2010's season-closing rush. It's the NFL's fifth toughest schedule by opponent won-loss record (133-123), and there are plenty of challenges. For starters, the Colts don't get their bye week until the week before Thanksgiving, in mid-November. And there's a trip to New England for the annual Colts-Patriots showdown (on a Sunday night in December for a change, not November), a Week 7 trip to the Saints on Sunday night, and another Sunday nighter, at home against the Steelers, in Week 3. Indy has five national TV games all told, and opens its season against the motivated Texans in Houston for a second year in a row. But I'm not rolling the dice and predicting the Colts' streak of double-digit win seasons will end. No sir. A 10-6 mark sounds about right once again in Indianapolis.
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