Bill Polian and Chris Polian? Gone. Peyton Manning? Going. Wholesale change? Underway.
The Indianapolis Colts have said goodbye to the key components of a team that made the playoffs 11 times in the past 13 seasons, winning one Super Bowl and losing another. It started with the removal of the Polian’s and went further by replacing Jim Caldwell with former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. It figures to be completed as they let key players like Reggie Wayne and Peyton Manning hit the open market while possibly watching Jeff Saturday retire.
The hope for Colts fans has to be that the problems that have plagued them during their incredibly successfully decade of AFC South dominance (see their defense), are about to be rectified. For too long the franchise relied on the excellence of Manning to mask a soft middle, with his injury showing just how poor a job the front office had done of building a balanced roster. So with a new regime in place, what do the Colts need to do to challenge once again in the AFC South, and return to their lofty status? We examine their three biggest needs.
Primary Need: Defensive Tackle
For as long as the Colts have been rolling past teams with their offense, their defensive tackles (especially in base situations) have been pushed around at will. This issue was compounded in a year where they weren’t able to play with a lead and force teams to abandon the run. With a flat out poor performance from 2nd round bust Fili Moala (-17.5) and whoever lined up next to him, the Colts gave up 144 yards per game rushing their most since 2006. The only player to excite even a little was Drake Nevis (+1.9) and injury limited him to 163 snaps. This wasn’t just a one year deal with the Colts defensive tackles earning consistently negative grades as they have consistently failed to make plays.
So while it remains to be seen exactly what scheme the Colts employ on defense (though the priority placed on re-signing Robert Mathis suggests they’ll stick with some form of 4-3), they need to get some guys up front who can make plays, especially against the run. Imagine what a wrecking ball like Broderick Bunkley (+24.1) could do for Indianapolis? If they’re looking for someone who could facilitate a move to a hybrid defense then look no further than Sione Pouha (+30.1). Whatever the Colts do they can’t ignore this area any longer and they can’t trust their college scouts to find suitable talent in the draft. That’s something that just hasn’t worked for them. They need to make a big move at the defensive tackle spot.
Secondary Need: Offensive Linemen
For as long as can be remembered the Colts offensive line has practically waved pass rushers through to Peyton Manning, preferring to marvel at his excellence as opposed to engaging in blocking. Already a step or three behind without Manning, it didn’t help that injuries forced them into making change after change as they fielded eight different starting lineups. Going into the 2012 season they have more questions with the possible retirement of Jeff Saturday (+14.2), their most reliable lineman, meaning they could be shaking things up at a number of spots. As of this moment the only position the looks set is at left tackle with Anthony Castonzo (-7.0) flashing some talent in year one. Conversely, the biggest problem spot could be on the right side, with Jeff Linkenbach (-28.3), getting worse and worse as the season went on. Linkenbach was a second year college free agent from Cincinnati who was only slated to be a practice squad body prior to being forced into the lineup.
So just what do they do? Well a lot will depend on what Saturday does. If he moves on they could logically move Mike Pollak (+0.7) to center, though that would leave a hole at the left guard spot. Do the Colts see Ben Ijalana (+0.0) recovering from injury and filling this spot, or could he be a candidate to take over the troublesome right tackle spot? Will the Colts finally say goodbye to Ryan Diem (-14.4) who performance has dropped off a cliff in the past two years. The market for centers and tackles isn’t exactly great in free agency, but a player like Anthony Collins from the Bengals wouldn’t cost a lost and could compete for a spot at tackle. If Ijalana is deemed next up at RT then spending big on PFF’s top offensive guard for 2011 in the form of Evan Mathis (+34.6) could go a long way to repairing an offensive line that gave snaps to 12 different linemen last year.
Tertiary Need: Cornerback
For years the Colts have plugged in undrafted free agents and others into their Cover Two defense, safe in the notion that they had the pass rushers to limit the damage their lack of talent could do. Chuck Pagano is likely to be a tad more aggressive with his secondary and add some competition to a unit that boasts no names that really stand out. Every Colts cornerback from last year grading negatively in coverage, with marginal talents like Jerraud Powers (-2.1 coverage) and Jacob Lacey (-4.8 coverage) lacking the skill set to match up with top receivers.
So where can they realistically go? Will they spend big for a talent like Cortland Finnegan (+15.8) who they have seen first-hand excel in the league over the past four seasons? Or would a more reasonable target (financially) be Carlos Rogers (+12.0) whose age may make him a more feasible option. Both men bring with them the ability to play in the slot and have the ability to match up with top receivers. Indianapolis has a lot of needs and simply doesn’t have the cap room to fill them all. They do need to be aggressive and quickly to turnaround a defense that is low on talent.