When the Colts opened training camp in 2012, it felt a little bit like the first season of an expansion team. From the GM to the coaching staff to most of the roster, it seemed everything and everyone was new.
Coach Chuck Pagano’s job wasn’t so much about fine-tuning a contender as finding enough guys, the right kind of guys, to fill out a depth chart that didn’t even look one-deep.
Somehow, that island of misfit toys scrabbled its way to the playoffs with an 11-5 record despite being outscored by 30 points. Not only does that not happen a lot, it simply does not happen.
According to a research piece by Bill Barnwell for Grantland.com, the Colts were the first team in NFL history to win at least 11 games while being outscored. The average record of a team outscored by 20 to 40 points since 1989 was 7-9.
GM Ryan Grigson did not delude himself about the roster. This was not a typical budding contender that could tweak a position here and there while relying on the continued development of its young core to improve. And so the overhaul continued, and the byproduct should be evident when the team opens its second camp under Pagano Saturday at Anderson University.
With 13 veterans acquired through free agency or trades and a handful of draft picks capable of grabbing some snaps right away, the competition for starting jobs, for roles – for jobs – should be incredibly intense.
In the first of a series previewing the opening of camp, let’s examine the hottest of the hot spots on the roster.>> DEFENSIVE LINE: MORE PLAYERS THAN JOBS
Thinned by injuries last season, the defensive front has by far the most depth of any area of the roster heading into camp. Assuming the Colts keep seven or eight players here, that means somebody that could’ve started for the team last year won’t even make the roster this time around.
Start at nose tackle, where Josh Chapman enters his first healthy season since his junior year at Alabama. He is an absolute block of granite against the run, but must beat out free agent Aubrayo Franklin, a 10-year veteran with four seasons of experience in Baltimore. Another former Raven, Brandon McKinney, will be in the mix after spending last season on injured reserve.
At tackle, free agent Ricky Jean-Francois is the most likely starter, but he will have Fili Moala and Drake Nevis, both coming off injuries, pushing. And keep an eye on fifth-round pick Montori Hughes, a ridiculous athlete but raw prospect.
The only lock is at end, where incumbent Cory Redding anchors the group, backed by the solid Ricardo Mathews.
>> OFFENSIVE LINE: MEN IN THE MIDDLE
While things are pretty well set at both tackle spots with Boston College bookends Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus, the battles inside will be intriguing and likely ongoing.
Free agent Donald Thomas was signed from New England to step in at left guard, opposite right guard Mike McGlynn, with incumbent Samson Satele at center. The Colts are extremely high on draft picks Hugh Thornton, who could push for one of the guard spots, and Khaled Holmes, who may well challenge the injury prone Satele. Joe Reitz could also factor in the mix at guard, with Jeff Linkenbach ready to step in just about anywhere.
Ben Ijalana, a second-round pick in 2011, will be attempting his second comeback from major knee surgery. He has the talent to be a factor but could be derailed by a balky left knee.
>> RUNNING BACK: WHO’S THE MAN?
As much as the defense is focused on stopping the run, the offense will be on establishing a ground game after the team finished 22nd in rushing yards last season.
It’s not clear if Ahmad Bradshaw’s foot will be fully healed for the start of camp but what is clear is this: once the two-time Super Bowl winner with the Giants is up to speed, he will move into the starter’s role. Because of his problematic foot, however, the Colts likely will use a committee approach at this position.
Vick Ballard was the best available option last season and made the most of his opportunity with 814 yards. Donald Brown has big-play potential. And rookie Kerwynn Williams, a small but shifty runner, might factor here as well as the return game.
>> WIDE RECEIVER: PROVING GROUND
Once you get past Reggie Wayne, this position oozes with opportunity.
Free agent Darrius Heyward-Bey will get first crack at the starting role opposite Wayne and while the former Raider has the physical tools necessary to succeed, he has yet to put it all together. The one-year contract should be a motivating factor to get the most out of this season.
If DHB falters, the Colts will have to learn on a very young group led by T.Y. Hilton, who showed flashes of playmaking ability as a rookie but struggled with drops. LaVonn Brazill may have played his way off the roster with a four-game suspension for substance abuse, opening the door for Griff Whalen – one of Andrew Luck’s favorite targets at Stanford – Nathan Palmer, Jabin Sambrano and Jeremy Kelley.