20130429-135523.jpgAs the Colts players make final preparations to report to Anderson University Saturday morning for training camp, they’re packing something extra – and quite a bit heavier – this year.

Expectations.

By setting a remarkably high bar with an 11-5 record and a playoff berth in the rookie seasons of GM Ryan Grigson, Coach Chuck Pagano and quarterback Andrew Luck (among many others), the Colts have erased the uncertainty of a year ago and replaced it with a demand for excellence.

In year two, it’s time to put Houston in its place (second, that is) in the AFC South. It’s time to not only win a playoff game, but start thinking rings.

As we’ve chronicled in this week’s series of articles previewing the dawn of the second season of a new era, we’ve looked at key positional battles, the potential impact of the 13 new veterans acquired through free agency and/or trades, and the possible sleepers that could emerge from the depths of the roster to play significant roles.

For the Colts to take another step up the ladder, all must succeed. But the key to any team lies in its core group, its returning veterans, those that establish and enforce a winning culture and ultimately bear the greatest responsibility for the team’s growth.

Today, we examine six of these players – three on offense, three on defense – who must become bigger game-changers for the 2013 Colts.

>> ANDREW LUCK

So many moves have been made around Luck. His former Stanford offensive coordinator (Pep Hamilton) was brought in to replace Bruce Arians, bringing a more quarterback-friendly system that should reduce Luck’s exposure to the pass rush while increasing his efficiency with shorter, quicker throws. The line was bolstered specifically to cut down on those 41 sacks. Ahmad Bradshaw was signed to beef up a running game that will be more frequently featured to bring more balance to the attack. What remains is for Luck to make it all work on the field while allowing his natural leadership skills emerge in the locker room. It’s his team now, so he might as well take full ownership.

>> ANTHONY CASTONZO

Veteran upgrades at right tackle (Gosder Cherilus) and left guard (Donald Thomas), as well as high draft picks Hugh Thornton and Khaled Holmes all should give the Colts a much more capable, consistent line. But the key to it all is Castonzo, who enters his third season and needs to transform talent and potential into productivity. Grigson showed great faith in the young left tackle by addressing every other position on the line, it is now up to Castonzo to supply the reward.

>> COBY FLEENER

Truth be told, it would be hard to categorize Fleener’s rookie season as anything other than at least a mild disappointment. A high second-rounder who teamed with Luck at Stanford, Fleener had just 26 receptions and missed a month with a shoulder injury. The Colts have a tradition of highly productive, difference-making tight ends and Fleener was drafted to be next in the line of succession. With Hamilton and Luck, the elements are in place for him to make a big jump into the land of Dilger, Pollard and Clark. With depth problems at wide receiver, the Colts must lean on their tight ends, so there should be ample opportunity for Fleener to begin to emerge.

Andrew Luck (L) and Robert Mathis both carry an even greater responsibility for the Colts' success in 2013. (Photos: Icon SMI)

Andrew Luck (L) and Robert Mathis both carry an even greater responsibility for the Colts’ success in 2013. (Photos: Icon SMI)

>> ROBERT MATHIS

The old dog learned some new tricks in his 10th season, shifting from 4-3 end to 3-4 strong-side linebacker and was typically productive with 51 tackles and eight sacks. Now, his role changes again as Mathis transforms from sidekick to superhero. After years as the Robin to Dwight Freeney’s Batman, Mathis now must don the cape and become the primary force in the pass rush. First-round pick Bjoern Werner is expected to contribute but Mathis’ job will be to make things easier for the rookie, not the other way around.

>> VONTAE DAVIS

As Castonzo is the key to the offensive line, Davis is for the secondary because of the responsibility that comes with the position. As the primary cover corner, Davis will draw the opposing team’s best receiver every week. After a slow start, he gained confidence and played much more aggressively and effectively the longer he was in the system. Entering a contract year, Davis needs to show he can be consistent, not allow mistakes to send him into an emotional funk and prove once and for all he is something close to a shutdown corner.

>> PAT ANGERER

Thought to be one of the few certainties for the defense last season, Angerer instead battled a foot injury throughout the season. While Jerrell Freeman emerged in his absence, he is more of a sideline-to-sideline pursuit linebacker. Angerer is an aggressive, physical run-stuffer – or at least he has been when healthy. Another defender entering a contract year, Angerer needs to stay healthy and return to the 150-tackle level to give the Colts’ defense what it demands from the position.

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