Indianapolis Colts 2013 Offseason Preview
SI.com is laying out offseason road maps for all 32 teams as they start their journey for the Lombardi Trophy -- two teams per day, from the teams that need the most work to contend in 2013 to the ones that are in pretty good shape. See them all.
2012 Record: 11-5; lost to Ravens in wild-card round
Key Pending Free Agents: Donnie Avery, WR; Darius Butler, CB; Antonio Johnson, NT; Winston Justice, OT; Jeff Linkenbach; Pat McAfee, P; Fili Moala, DT; Mewelde Moore, RB; Jerraud Powers, CB; Joe Reitz, OG; Drew Stanton, QB; Cassius Vaughn, CB.
List of Draft Picks (pending compensatory picks): 1 (24), 3 (86), 4 (118), 6 (182), 7 (214)
Available Cap Space: $46 million
GM/Coaching Moves: Hired VP of football ops Jimmy Raye to replace Tom Telesco, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton to replace Bruce Arians, special teams coordinator Tom McMahon to replace Marwan Maaloof, assistant offensive line coach Hal Hunter to replace Joe Gilbert and offensive assistant Tim Berbenich. Promoted Joe Gilbert from O-line coach from assistant.
The season's most inspirational story began on a bluesy note. The Colts' iconic quarterback walked out. Some $38 million in "dead money" obligations -- or the bonuses and other guaranteed payments due to departing players like Manning, All-Pro tight end Dallas Clark, Pro Bowl rusher Joseph Addai and stalwart linebacker Gary Brackett -- had left Indianapolis with just enough cap money to be broke, and thus unable to spend much of anything in free agency.
A 1-2 start -- the first loss a 20-point road blowout to the Bears in Week 1, the second a near victory at home against the Jaguars in Week 3 -- seemed a harbinger of a second straight dismal season to come. Just when things couldn't get any worse, first-year coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia and forced to take an immediate leave of absence. For receiver Reggie Wayne -- a still-in-his-prime veteran who was swayed by Pagano, a dear friend since their days together at the University of Miami, to re-sign with a young Colts team over more glittering opportunities during his free agency -- all of this hurt something awful.
And then, with one late lunge over the goal line against Green Bay in Week 4, the Colts turned all that hurt into a mighty wellspring of inspiration. A 30-27 victory over the Packers, one powered by Wayne's career-high 212 receiving yards and game-winning TD, announced the Colts as the worst kind of wounded animal -- a dangerous one. With offensive coordinator Bruce Arians calling the shots and Chuckstrong as a rally cry, the Colts were reborn as one of the league's best closers, posting a 9-1 record in games decided by one possession or less.
Leading the charge were rookies Andrew Luck, whose 4,374 passing yards reclaimed the NFL rookie record for Indianapolis from Cam Newton; T.Y. Hilton, who led the team in TD catches (seven) and set a franchise rookie mark for 100-yard receiving games (five); and Vick Ballard, whose 814 yards rushing was the highest by a single Colts rusher in three years. The success of those draft picks (Nos. 1, 92 and 170, respectively) along with the surprising emergence of long-shot linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who was signed out of the CFL as a reserve and wound up leading the team in tackles (with 145), seeded a level of faith and confidence in first-year GM Ryan Grigson unseen since the dawn of Bill Polian era.
A 24-9 defeat to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens in the AFC wild-card round, a disappointment that began in the most Colt-like of ways -- with Arians hospitalized with flu-like symptoms on the eve of the game, about a month before he was named the league's coach of the year -- would do little to dim spirits in Indy. If anything, locals are more excited than ever to hear and see what the team will do for an encore.
9. Uptick in victories from 2011 to '12, which trails only the cellar-to-penthouse swings of the '07 and '08 Dolphins and the '98 and '99 Colts -- both tied at plus-10 -- for the largest year-over-year turnaround in league history.
Stick with that throw-first mentality. Luck set the league rookie record for attempts with 627, which was better than Manning's old mark by 52 and the '12 league average by 74. But Luck completed those passes at a woeful 54.1 percent overall rate. Worse, he dipped to 50.8 percent inside the final two minutes of halves.
One expects that the Stanford product, whose seven game-winning drives was another NFL rookie record, will be even more effective under incoming coordinator Pep Hamilton, also of Stanford. The West Coast attack the coach brings from Palo Alto, with its shorter routes, should restore Luck's accuracy to the 70-percent standard Hamilton held him when they last worked together in 2011, while reducing the stress on a Colts O-line that conceded a league-high 245 sacks, hits and hurries per Pro Football Focus.
50. Passes that were dropped by Colts receivers, the most by any NFL team per Pro Football Focus.
The Colts' transition to a 3-4-based defense might have gone smoother had Pagano, a defensive mastermind by reputation with the Ravens, been well enough to oversee it. Instead, his deputy, coordinator Greg Manusky, was left to hatch a solution with players who didn't necessarily fit the scheme. Chief among them was the once-fearsome rusher Dwight Freeney, whose speed losses forced a conversion from defensive end to outside linebacker.
The net result was a unit that ranked 21st in scoring, 29th against the run and felled opposing passers a pitiful 32 times -- 10 of which came against Green Bay and Jacksonville, two of the league's most inviting offenses. Expect the Colts to improve behind a healthy Pagano and linebacker Pat Angerer, who was beset by a fractured right foot most of '12. If Grigson can add to that by signing a top-flight edge rusher (looking at you, Paul Kruger), the Colts D has a chance to be something few figured it could be without Freeney -- a free-agent-to-be Indy is not expected to re-sign -- and that's devastating.
1. Poach the Ravens. Talk about a sweet way to avenge a playoff loss. Along with picking up Kruger, the Colts should also swipe inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, whose versatility as a tackler and pass rusher would tie the pieces in Indy's hybrid scheme together nicely. If either Raven is going to fly the coop, it's going to be to play for their old coach.
2. Add a nickelback. The lack of pass rush put considerable pressure on corners Vontae Davis and Darius Butler. What better way to alleviate some of that than by signing a quality nickel corner, like Cardinals unrestricted free agent Greg Toler -- an unsung star who could be available for cheap?
3. Franchise Pat McAfee. It might not be typical treatment for a special teamer, but it's not unprecedented. Two years ago, the Giants tagged Steve Weatherford, then quickly agreed to a five-year, $12.5 million extension. With a career-high average of 40.3 net yards per punt and a 60.5 percent touchback rate, McAfee wasn't just a boon to the Colts' special teams. He made a bad defense that much better.
Look for optimism to run slightly higher than it did on the heels of the team's last drastic turnaround, coming off of the 1999 season. The reason being that an updated cast of "triplets" (Luck, Ballard and Hilton) will be backed up by a new and improved defense. An embattled offensive line will finally start to show some fight.
The Colts will look, in other words, like a title contender. Whether perception meets reality will depend on how smoothly they make the transition from ultimate underdog to everyday frontrunner. There was nothing easy about the team's 2012 run. But this year, they play the third-easiest schedule. Only once the season is underway will we know for sure whether Indianapolis is the kind of team that needs adversity to thrive or the kind that thrives regardless.