AFC South: Drake Nevis

Indianapolis Colts cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2013
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Most significant move: Defensive lineman Fili Moala didn’t play in the preseason because was he was still rehabbing a knee injury from late 2012, but that didn’t stop him from making the roster. Keeping Moala put an end to fellow defensive lineman Drake Nevis’ time with the Colts. Fullback Dominique Jones was cut, leaving the Colts with only one fullback on the roster, Stanley Havili.

A feel-good story: Linebacker Caesar Rayford kept hearing from NFL teams over the years that they liked what they saw out of him on video while he played in the Arena Football League. Rayford, however, never got an invite to a training camp from any of those teams. That changed this year when the Colts, led by general manager Ryan Grigson’s willingness to search anywhere for talent, invited Rayford to camp. Rayford didn’t disappoint, either. He had a team-high five sacks during the preseason. Rayford now has a spot on the 53-man roster. The 27-year-old rookie’s best bet to get on the field will likely be on special teams. He’ll take it after getting looked over for so many years while he played in the Canadian and Arena Football League.

What’s next: Grigson and his staff aren’t going to sit tight. They’ll continue to monitor which players -- especially offensive linemen and possibly fullback -- around the league were released, and don’t be surprised if the roster the Colts take into their season opener against Oakland on Sept. 8 is completely different than the current one. The Colts will likely add quarterback Chandler Harnish and linebacker Daniel Adongo to the practice squad if both players clear waivers. Adongo didn’t play in the preseason, but the Colts are intrigued by the former rugby player. Harnish was on the practice squad last season.

Colts cuts: LB: Daniel Adongo, Josh McNary, Monte Simmons, Shawn Loiseau. DB: Larry Asante, Marshay Green, Sheldon Price, Daxton Swanson. OL: Thomas Austin, Ben Ijalana, Bradley Sowell, Lee Ziemba, Emmett Cleary. DL: Lawrence Guy, Drake Nevis, Martin Tevaseu. QB: Chandler Harnish. FB: Robert Hughes. TE: Dominique Jones. WR: Jeremy Kelley, Jabin Sambrano, Lanear Sampson

Predicting the Colts' 53-man roster

August, 30, 2013
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Here’s my projection at what the Colts' 53-man roster will look like:

Quarterback

Andrew Luck, Matt Hasselbeck

Comment: The Colts are in good hands with Luck and Hasselbeck.

Running back

Ahmad Bradshaw, Vick Ballard, Donald Brown, Kerwynn Williams

Comment: Williams locked in his spot as the fourth running back by rushing for 92 yards against Cincinnati. He’ll also likely return kicks.

Fullback

Stanley Havili, Dominique Jones

Comment: Havili proved that he can be another option for Luck to throw to out of the backfield against Cleveland last weekend.

Wide receiver

Reggie Wayne, Darrius Heyward-Bey, TY Hilton, LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen, David Reed

Comment: Colts are set with Wayne, Heyward-Bey and Hilton, but depth is still a concern at receiver.

Tight end

Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, Justice Cunningham

Comment: You have to cross your fingers that Fleener’s preseason problems were just that and they won’t linger into the regular season.

Offensive line

Anthony Castonzo, Donald Thomas, Samson Satele, Mike McGlynn, Gosder Cherilus, Hugh Thornton, Joe Reitz, Khaled Holmes, Jeff Linkenbach

Comment: The Colts’ scoring success depends heavily on how well this unit protects Luck

Defense

Defensive line

Cory Redding, Josh Chapman, Ricky Jean Francois, Aubrayo Franklin, Montori Hughes, Lawrence Guy, Drake Nevis

Comment: The defensive line has to prove it can stop the run.

Linebackers

Robert Mathis, Erik Walden, Bjoern Werner, Caesar Rayford, Pat Angerer, Jerrell Freeman, Kavell Conner, Mario Harvey, Kelvin Sheppard

Comment: Rayford is the surprise name on this list, but the 27-year-old former Canadian and Arena League player earned a roster spot by having a very strong training camp.

Cornerbacks

Greg Toler, Vontae Davis, Darius Butler, Cassius Vaughn, Josh Gordy

Comment: The Colts are in good hands if Davis and Butler play like they did during the preseason.

Safeties

LaRon Landry, Antoine Bethea, Joe Lefeged, Larry Asante

Comment: Asante made a strong case to make the roster with an interception against Cleveland and 13 tackles against Cincinnati. Don’t count out Sergio Brown, though.

Special teams

Adam Vinatieri, Pat McAfee, Matt Overton

Comment: No comment necessary

Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star made his 53-man roster projection earlier this week.

Conrad Brunner of 1070 The Fan did the same.

Observation deck: Colts-Giants

August, 19, 2013
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The transition to being more of a run-oriented team is still a work in progress for the Indianapolis Colts.

That’s understandable when the quarterback is Andrew Luck, who set three rookie passing records last season.

Indianapolis gained 22 yards on eight rushes while Luck was in the game during their 20-12 victory over the New York Giants on Sunday.

That stat is misleading. Luck gained 14 yards scrambling on one play. You don’t have to be a math major to realize that means the Colts gained a total of eight yards on their seven other rushes.

Ouch.

The Colts have attempted 19 passes and 11 runs in two preseason games with Luck on the field.

Establishing the run will make things easier for Luck. The Colts want to avoid having him throw the ball 50 times a game, and it’ll open things up for opportunities downfield, especially once Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) joins Vick Ballard in the backfield.

Luck played like he's ready for the regular season against the Giants. He also had some good fortune.

Luck was under pressure when he threw a pass that should have been intercepted by Giants cornerback Aaron Ross. Ross hit the ball up in the air and Reggie Wayne, for whom the pass was intended, also tapped the ball in the air before coming down with it in the end zone.

Luck finished 9-of-13, including completing nine of his last 10 attempts, for 107 yards, two touchdowns and no sacks. Luck’s second touchdown to T.Y. Hilton was perfectly thrown right out of the reach of the Giants defender. Hilton showed off his footwork by keeping both feet in bounds.

Luck completed passes to four different players, including his top three receivers Wayne, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Hilton (four catches, 42 yards).

The Colts finished the game with more rush attempts -- 33 for 88 yards -- than pass attempts -- 28.

Other observations:
  • Two of general manager Ryan Grigson’s free-agent signings had impressive performances. Linebacker Erik Walden (six tackles) easily beat Giants tackle David Diehl for a sack on Giants quarterback Eli Manning in the second quarter. The Colts are looking for another player besides Robert Mathis to put pressure on the quarterback. Cornerback Greg Toler came underneath and intercepted a Manning pass intended for Hakeem Nicks. Toler’s aggressiveness isn’t surprising. That’s how the Colts secondary has played throughout camp.
  • After spending the first quarter not getting any pressure on the quarterback, the Colts finally got it going after Walden’s sack. They finished with six sacks. Linebacker Caesar Rayford and defensive end Drake Nevis each had two sacks. Colts coach Chuck Pagano told reporters after the game that Rayford, a former Arena Football League player, will make things difficult once it’s time to trim the roster down.
  • Tight end Coby Fleener's preseason hasn’t gone well. He left the game with a sprained knee. The sprained knee added to another unimpressive performance. He dropped what should have been a long catch and run from Luck in the first quarter. Then, he wasn’t looking for the ball coming across the middle on a pass from backup Matt Hasselbeck in the second quarter. Sunday’s performance added to to his fumble, dropped touchdown and concussion during the Aug. 11 game against Buffalo. The Colts have high hopes for Fleener and fellow second-year tight end Dwayne Allen this season. Allen is out with a foot injury and Fleener can’t hold onto the ball to go with his now sprained knee. That’s not good.
  • Rookie linebacker Bjoern Werner had an impact in his preseason debut. He made a tackle for a 4-yard loss and barely missed out on a sack. Werner is making the transition from playing on the defensive line at Florida State to being a rushing linebacker.
  • Veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri used his 40-year-old leg to nail a 52-yard field goal on the final play of the first quarter. The 52-yarder was Vinatieri’s longest since he made a 53-yard kick against Tennessee last season.
We pick up our series in which ESPN.com’s resident scout, Matt Williamson, ranks the AFC South position-by-position.

Today, we examine defensive lines.

Williamson’s AFC South defensive line rankings:
1) Texans (J.J. Watt, Earl Mitchell, Antonio Smith, Jared Crick, Chris Jones)
2) Titans (Ropati Pitoitua, Sammie Hill, Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley, Mike Martin, Lavar Edwards, Antonio Johnson)
3) Jaguars (Jason Babin, Sen’Derrick Marks, Roy Miller, Tyson Alualu, Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick, Andre Branch, Jeremy Mincey)
4) Colts (Cory Redding, Josh Chapman, Ricky Jean-Francois, Drake Nevis, Fili Moala, Aubrayo Franklin, Montori Hughes, Brandon McKinney)

I struggled a bit as I sort through that and consider how my own list should look. Ultimately I co-sign what Williamson has done here, and will explain it a bit after we talk with him.

SportsNation

Matt Williamson's ranking of AFC South defensive line units is:

  •  
    60%
  •  
    26%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 616)

My questions for Williamson based off of his list:

Your overall assessment of the AFC South defensive lines:

“Overall, I wouldn't say this is a fantastic division for defensive line, but I think the Jags' defensive line is a little underrated since they produced so few sacks. With Watt in the picture, Houston is pretty strong with their 3-man front.”

Does judging a couple 3-4s vs. a couple 4-3s complicate things here?

“Judging varying schemes isn't difficult, but it is hard to overlook that teams that run a 4-3 have more starting caliber linemen and of course the opposite is true when evaluating linebackers in a 3-4, but I just look at it as to how well these players do their respective jobs”

Can you rank them in order of depth?

“Just in terms of depth, I would go: Tennessee, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Houston.”

Can you name a potential breakout player?

“Morgan could break out, he pressured the quarterback well last year but didn't get home quite enough. I also think Babin is still a very good player and while he has already ‘broken out,’ he could be perfect in this new Jacksonville D.”

How big a gap do you see between Houston and Tennessee?

“As I noted, I see Tennessee as deeper than Houston, but the Texans have the star power. Watt just might be the best defensive player in football and Smith is no slouch either. Like the entire Titans' D, their defensive line is solid, but they lack a true star or difference maker.”

Are you not a believer in the Colts new additions and newfound health with Chapman and McKinney?

“It’s hard to say on the Colts. They have a lot of bodies, but who will step up? Better health of course is important, but I have a tough time handicapping their defensive line overall right now.”

As for me…

The Texans should get the biggest production and have the best player in Watt and a candidate for the second-best player in Smith. The Titans and Colts seem certain to be equipped to slow the run far better. With the change of scheme and personnel additions in Jacksonville things will improve against the run and pass.

It’s difficult for me to put the Colts last as they’ve added a lot and get Chapman and McKinney back healthy. Their crop of defensive linemen are now all 3-4 guys.

I want to bump the Titans down as I like their depth but not their lack of proven sack guys, but look behind them and it’s not as if the Jaguars or Colts do, either.
Reading the coverage…

I’ll miss this site, which has pointed this blogger to many, many radio interviews of note pertaining to the AFC South over the years.

Houston Texans

DeAndre Hopkins is showing support for the Rockets, which immediately helps him with Houston fans, says John Brannen of the Houston Chronicle.

To which I say: An easy move straight out of Winning Over a New Market 101. Did they offer that at Clemson?

Twitter handles for the Texans rookies, courtesy of Patrick Starr of State of the Texans.

A closer look at sixth-round receiver Alan Bonner from Battle Red Blog.

Indianapolis Colts

Reggie Wayne intends to join the list of receivers who’ve had 1,000-yard seasons at 35 or older, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

Does Bjoern Werner have acting/commercial chops? Watch this video he was part of in high school, courtesy of the Indianapolis Star.

Colts players say they would accept a gay teammate, says Phillip B. Wilson of the Star. Also, Kelvin Sheppard has been reunited with several teammates from LSU: Defensive tackle Drake Nevis, safety LaRon Landry and defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois.

A draft class breakdown from Brad Wells of Stampede Blue.

Jacksonville Jaguars

A position-by-position look at the Jaguars after the first round of free agency and the draft from Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

Justin Blackmon’s next misstep must be his last as a Jaguar, says Gene Frenette of the Times-Union.

How safety Josh Evans fits in with what the Jaguars plan to do, says Hank Joness of Big Cat Country.

Tennessee Titans

Receiver Lavelle Hawkins told Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean he was unsurprised to be cut: “I was due to make ($1.9) million. And for a guy who caught five balls last year, that’s unheard of. I totally understand.”

The offensive line revamp serves as a wakeup call for everyone on the line, says left tackle Michael Roos. Read more of John Glennon’s story from The Tennessean.

David Stewart still doesn’t have full flexibility back after surgery to repair a broken leg but thinks he’ll be back to regular work in June, says Glennon.
One of the guys Chance Warmack will be asked to slow is Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt.

Warmack spoke of him when the Titans introduced their first-round pick today.

When I asked the guard out of Alabama who ranked as his toughest matchup during his college career, he pointed to another member of the AFC South.

“Probably Drake Nevis,” he said of the former LSU defensive tackle who’s now with the Colts. “I think somebody told me he is in the same divisions as we are? Yeah, I was kind of excited about that. I can get my rematch on him.

"He opened my eyes to what you see in a great 3-technique, he helped me improve and be a better player over the course of my time at Alabama. He’s an excellent 3-tech, and excellent D-lineman.”

As for Watt, Warmack laughed when he was asked about the reigning defensive player of the year.

“Everybody talks about J.J. Watt,” he said.

“He’ll worry about that Week 2,” coach Mike Munchak interjected.

“We talked about J.J. Watt when I was a junior in college,” Warmack said. “He’s an excellent football player. I can’t wait to see him.”

Freeman needs to help stop Rice

January, 3, 2013
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The Colts' run defense didn’t post run-defense numbers you’d expect to correlate with an 11-win team.

The Colts gave up 104.4 rushing yards a game (29th in the NFL) and 5.1 yards a carry (31st). They lost a bunch of people on the defensive line.

Free-agent addition Brandon McKinney didn’t make it to the regular season before he landed on IR. Josh Chapman, who the team knew might not play this season when he was drafted in the fifth round out of Alabama, didn’t make it back from his knee rehabilitation. Drake Nevis missed the final seven games and is on IR. Antonio Johnson missed the final two games.

Behind that three-man front, the linebackers have had to do more than can reasonably be expected.

[+] EnlargeIndianapolis' Jerrell Freeman
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe Colts have credited Jerrell Freeman, who led the CFL in tackles last season, with 203 tackles in 2012.
The front will face perhaps its biggest challenge of the year in Baltimore running back Ray Rice on Sunday.

Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky spoke to Indianapolis media Thursday about Rice, saying that Maurice Jones-Drew is the most similar back the Colts have faced this season.

“Good running back, great sight lines, a hard runner to bring down,” he said. “We need multiple people to corral him and put him down. He’s got great vision. He sees the hole and does a great job of cutting back and making plays in the open field and making guys miss. We’ve got to corral him and get him down.”

Getting run on has not killed the Colts, in part because they’ve found the most crucial stops.

“We just survive; we pull together when we need to in crunch time,” inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman told me. “We’ve had a lot of new guys and it’s been about the next man up. The 3-4 is all about being on the same page.”

The Colts credited Freeman with 203 tackles this season. When they signed him out of the CFL, he figured he’d have to make the team as a special-teamer.

“If I had to tread water, I would have done that too,” he said.

Freeman had seven visits scheduled with NFL teams last January. He met with the Jets, the Buccaneers and the Steelers before he got to the Colts.

He cancelled the rest of the trips and signed the deal the Colts offered because he felt they were such a good fit.

General manager Ryan Grigson was hired on Jan. 11. He signed running back Darren Evans to a future contract on the 17th and Freeman two days later.

The linebacker shined in camp, but even the biggest optimist couldn’t have expected that Freeman would plug in and stick for 16 starts after Pat Angerer cracked his foot. Angerer missed five games, and interim coach Bruce Arians said the 2010 second-round pick wouldn’t be back to pain-free, full-strength play until next season.

Freeman didn’t know what to expect, but he never doubted he could play in the NFL.

When he failed to make the Titans as an undrafted free agent out of Mary Hardin-Baylor in 2008, Tennessee had a starting lineup at linebacker of Keith Bullock, David Thornton and Stephen Tulloch as well as some young draft picks behind them.

Freeman wound up with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL in 2009.

His first remembrance of football in Canada?

“Cold,” he said.

“It was fun,” he continued. “It was a great experience. It’s a totally different game. I had to cover receivers. They don’t run the ball as much. I got to hone my skills.”

While he worked more in coverage in the CFL because of the nature of the game, he said he thinks he is a pretty balanced NFL linebacker, able to step up to tackle a running back or drop and cover.

Now, he’s a symbol for the Colts as they head to the playoffs. The right guy given the right opportunity can be a difference-maker. Having found one difference-maker to play weak inside linebacker, the Colts have one less spot to worry about as they continue to build their roster.
Jerraud Powers’ season is over for the third consecutive season because of an injury.

Ponder
Powers
The Indianapolis Colts cornerback went on injured reserve after 10 games in 2010 with an arm injury, after 12 games in 2011 because of an elbow issue and now after nine games because of a toe injury.

It’s a very unfortunate development for a solid player at a position where the Colts are not deep.

Indianapolis beat Jacksonville last Thursday without both starting corners -- Powers and Vontae Davis. Darius Butler had a big game with two interceptions and a fumble recovery. But the Colts are going to face tougher opposition than the Jaguars moving forward.

Butler and Davis, once he’s recovered from his knee injury, are the likely starters going forward, with Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy as the guys in line for nickel and dime roles.

I find Powers to be one of the most thoughtful guys in the division, so I will selfishly miss being able to look for him in the Colts locker room when I cover them.

His rookie contract is also expiring, and the injury history is going to work against him when the Colts, and maybe an outside bidder, make their offers.

It may be a string of bad luck, but if you’ve got a string of bad luck like this one, you’re officially injury-prone.

In other Colts developments, the team activated nose tackle Josh Chapman from the non-football injury list. He’s practices for three weeks and is all the way back from the torn ACL he suffered in his final year at Alabama.

Adding him to the 53-man roster is offset by losing Drake Nevis for the year. He too went on IR with a hand injury.
video

At each stage of the process, Andrew Luck seems to provide some magic.

That was certainly the case Sunday as he played in his first NFL preseason game. The Colts' rookie quarterback’s first preseason throw, a little dump-off over the middle to running back Donald Brown, turned into a 63-yard touchdown pass as Brown turned and ran, finding the seas parting.

With an arm up, pumping in celebration, Luck chased the play excitedly, a big smile showing off a blue mouthpiece. He looked to the bench on one side; he looked toward one of the blockers who sprung the play on the other.

“Historic beginning!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted. “The legend has begun!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

The Colts' 38-3 thrashing of the Rams at Lucas Oil Stadium was the lone NFL preseason game of the day, and Luck fittingly offered a singular performance.

Peyton Manning’s first preseason toss with the Colts was a short pass to Marvin Harrison that went for a long touchdown, too.

Luck looked beyond comfortable and in command.

He knew where to go and delivered the ball in good spots. The protection was not always great, but he moved away from pressure and kept his eyes downfield, giving up on a handful of plays when he knew they weren’t going to turn into anything. He threw from the pocket and on the move.

An intermediate pass up the left side to rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton was just beyond the reach of Rams rookie corner Janoris Jenkins, and Hilton showed good footwork. Just in case it wasn’t good enough, Luck and the Colts' offense hustled to get the next snap off to avoid a challenge.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Michael ConroyAndrew Luck was all smiles after his first preseason pass with the Colts went for a touchdown.
Luck later kept a safety honest before hitting Austin Collie with a 23-yard TD strike.

He engineered a third scoring drive -- running back Delone Carter went airborne to get the ball over the goal line -- before yielding to Drew Stanton.

Irsay gave the rundown in a tweet: “n less than a half,#12 was 10/16..188 yards,2 TDS...142.7 QB rating..WOW..yes it's only the beginning in pre-season,but OH,WHAT a BEGINNING!”

Stanton and rookie Chandler Harnish were also on target against a wildly ineffective Rams defense.

It’s just a preseason performance, but it’s all Luck and the Colts have to offer right now.

I’d expect a decent day at the box office Monday, and I suspect that in Indiana, a few more Manning jerseys will get pushed closer to the back of closets, replaced by new No. 12s.

The defense also had a great showing, with eye-catching work from players like outside linebacker Jerry Hughes, inside linebacker Kavell Conner and defensive lineman Drake Nevis.

Chuck Pagano’s team has worked hard to do what the new coach and his staff have asked. A ton of work lies ahead, but the first checkpoint of the preseason couldn’t have been better, and the Colts now get a day to catch their breath.

They are scheduled to return to practice Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. and again at 1:50 p.m. They break camp Friday at Anderson University in Anderson, Ind., ending their dorm lives and heading home. The Colts' second test, coming next Sunday, will be tougher: a trip to Pittsburgh.

Luck has done nothing so far to reduce expectations for that, and well beyond.
ANDERSON, Ind. -- What’s next?

As the Indianapolis Colts begin a new era, the centerpiece of change is Andrew Luck.

The impressive rookie quarterback has been sitting in meetings, running through every piece of the offense. Coaches are always looking for acknowledgement that a player gets it before moving forward. Coaches often circle back and go over something again and again and again, but Luck has helped them pick up the pace.

“Everything we’ve given him to this point he’s been able to handle,” coach Chuck Pagano said. “He’s one of those guys that’s probably got a photographic memory or something like that. Because he just gets it. It’s not like you’ve got to come back and repeat something and give it again and give it again.

“The coaches will sit there and they’ll be installing the offense and they’ll be like, ‘Are you with me, do you understand it?’ And he’s like ‘Yeah, yeah, next thing up, next thing up.’ As a coach you’re always looking for affirmation: 'Do you understand? Do you get it?' He’s, ‘Yeah I’ve got it, what’s next? Yeah, I’ve got it, what’s next?’”

What’s next in bigger terms is a preseason debut Sunday against the St. Louis Rams at Lucas Oil Stadium, the continuation of training camp and the buildup to the Sept. 9 opener at Chicago.

As rebuilding teams around the league wonder if they’ve got the right quarterback, the Colts can skip right past that fundamental question.

Luck’s exceptional maturity extends to the practice field as well.

"The day I got him a couple times (with interceptions) at practice, he came up to me and [Antoine Bethea] and said, ‘If I’m tipping off anything presnap or y’all get any read off me during the course of a play, please let me know,’” said the Colts' top cornerback, Jerraud Powers. "'And just let me know if there is any way I can help y’all.'

“That right there, for a guy to be so young and able to realize that, it shows you what type of guy he’s going to be.”

Such interplay was completely natural for Luck.

“It’s been nice to talk to Antoine and Jerraud, maybe once a week, once every two weeks,” Luck said. “Any help I can get as a rookie that doesn’t know the ropes, I’ll try to take it.”

That timetable for learning the ropes is going to be the most interesting thing about the 2013 Colts.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeDwight Freeney
AP Photo/Michael ConroyLongtime defensive lineman Dwight Freeney will be adjusting to a new position in Chuck Pagano's 3-4 scheme.
1. How will Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis fare as outside linebackers? The transition is bigger for Mathis than Freeney. Per Mathis, he will be in the role Jarret Johnson played in the Ravens defense (now filled by Paul Kruger), while Freeney will be in the Terrell Suggs role. (Courtney Upshaw’s there now, while Suggs is out after shredding an Achilles.)

That means far more of an adjustment for Mathis, who will regularly be dropping into coverage as the strongside linebacker, while Freeney will be moving forward from the rush linebacker spot. They are great, veteran football players, and a smart defensive coach like Pagano would not put them into roles that take away their strengths.

But it will take a lot of repetition for them to break old habits and operate in different ways and hop around. Both are excited about being less predictable and expect big production as a result of the element of surprise. The energetic Mathis seems invigorated by the change as he talks enthusiastically about an “exotic” defense after playing in what could fairly be called a bland Tampa-2 scheme in recent years.

2. Can they run? Whether they try a bell-cow approach or a committee, it’s hard to envision Donald Brown, Mewelde Moore, Vick Ballard and/or Delone Carter providing the level of run-game output that Pagano and his staff keep emphasizing.

Also, will a patchwork offensive line with at least three new starters be able to make room for those backs? The Colts gained size with the addition of center Samson Satele, right guard Mike McGlynn and right tackle Winston Justice. But simply being bigger doesn’t complete the change to playing bigger. This is a team that has long had a smaller, more mobile, more finesse line and offensive mentality.

It’s yet another transition to be monitored, and one that was hard to read in the early days of camp.

3. Where is the depth? With massive roster turnover, the Colts could only do so much replenishing with one draft class and minimal money to spend in free agency. They didn’t get much done in terms of big-time additions at cornerback or on the offensive line.

Even if they manage to be alright at those spots in the starting lineup, the depth is very poor. When they suffer injuries and guys miss games, will they have quality backups?

Maybe they will on the defensive line. Maybe there are young options at receiver or running back. Otherwise, they’ll be facing some big problems. Good health would be a big help, but you can never count on that.

Sixty percent of the Colts' 90-man roster right now is new to Indianapolis. That can be a great thing when you’re talking about Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill and Cory Redding, but it’s not great when you’re talking about backups.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Chuck Pagano and Jim Irsay and Ryan Grigson
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThere's nowhere to go but up for the Colts' new regime: Chuck Pagano (left), Jim Irsay (center) and Ryan Grigson (right).
There is nowhere to go but up. Last year was a complete cave-in, and after a 2-14 year with Peyton Manning sidelined by a neck injury, owner Jim Irsay decided it was time for a restart. He booted the powerful head of the organization, Bill Polian, and ultimately changed coaches, too.

Enter general manager Ryan Grigson and Pagano. Manning was let go, and Luck arrived via the No. 1 overall draft pick.

It’s a fresh start in virtually every respect, and the team is swallowing a huge chunk of dead money this year. While no one wants to concede anything, the franchise more or less is playing with house money this year. Things will be better than last year, and as long as the Colts show growth, improvement and direction, it’s 2013 that will be big. That's when they’ll have money to spend on free agents and a second draft class with which to further restock.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Change can be slow. The expectations are high for Luck, but it’s a big transition, and beyond Reggie Wayne, we aren’t sure about his weapons. We have no real idea about how several groups will produce, especially the corners, offensive line and running backs.

While Houston has shown a transition to a 3-4 can be successful quickly, it’s far more common for a team to take time to adjust. The Colts don’t have nearly as many pieces who are natural fits for the scheme as the Texans did. Pagano wants a defense that looks like Baltimore’s, but it will take time to reshape things to fit that model.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Beyond Powers, we can’t be certain the guys who will play corner on opening day are on this roster yet. Maybe it’s Justin King and Cassius Vaughn, but the Colts will certainly be looking at other options who become free agents. Powers and others in the group have rallied around each other, which is what you want. You also want the group to turn over if it needs upgrading.
  • It’s hard to tell much at all about the running game at this point. But Pagano is determined for the Colts to run effectively, to ease pressure on Luck and the defense and establish a physical tone. Brown’s been touted as an every-down back, but it may be more encouragement/hype at this point. He’d like that role but will take whatever he’s given.
  • Antonio "Mookie" Johnson is the lead guy at nose tackle, with Brandon McKinney behind him. Johnson’s up 10 pounds to 330, but the Colts aren’t looking for a mere space-eater. Like the Texans last year in their first incarnation of the 3-4, Indianapolis can be fine without a dominant tackle. And when they go to nickel, they’ll basically look like a 4-3 again, with Freeney and Mathis creeping up to the line, sandwiching Redding, who is likely to kick inside, and perhaps tackle Drake Nevis.
  • I jokingly proposed a pool to the Colts' beat writers with the money to be collected by the guy who prompted anyone within the organization to say anything remotely negative about Luck. They said it would have to exclude Luck himself. That’s great. When you’re the linchpin of an organization and everyone is going to constantly rave about you, even if it’s deserved, you do yourself a great service by being consistently self-critical.
  • Austin Collie is starting off as the No. 2 receiver in a base offense that now features two tight ends. But he will move around, spending time outside and in the slot when the Colts put an extra wideout on the field.
  • One spot that probably hasn’t gotten enough attention as a depth concern is quarterback. The Colts saw how much a bad backup plan can hurt last year, with Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky trying to fill Manning's shoes. Now, Drew Stanton is the guy behind Luck, and he wasn’t very good in the camp practices I watched. Will they look to upgrade as third quarterbacks around the league come free? Or will they feel like camp work for Stanton gives him an experience advantage?
  • I’m not sure how much the tension Polian cast over the organization reached players, but there is certainly a looser atmosphere around the team. When players' families sat on a hillside during a recent practice, one regular observer pointed out how they never would have been allowed there under the previous regime. Minor difference? Maybe, but I think a team with a broader circle of trust and more emphasis on family -- a Pagano and Grigson theme -- can be a healthier environment.
  • Watch Brazill as a punt coverage gunner. He’s had a lot of hands-on work with new special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf.
  • Allen looked excellent in early camp. He will move all over the place as part of Bruce Arians' two-tight end scheme and, like Fleener, can be an impact guy early.
Who’s got the best young talent in the NFL?

There is a lot of it in the AFC South. But in league context, it didn’t fare as well in this ranking Insider from Danny Tuccitto and Rivers McCown of Football Outsiders as I might have guessed.

7. Tennessee Titans

Outsiders: “The Titans offense was already replete with young talent in the passing game even before they drafted WR Kendall Wright (Baylor) in the first round. Jake Locker (24) is the heir apparent at quarterback, and Kenny Britt (24) is the star apparent at wide receiver despite his 2011 knee injury. Jared Cook, one of our top 25 prospects last season showed flashes of top-10 tight end performance at times, which was expected given his physical makeup.

“On defense, six of 11 starters are 25 or younger, and the emerging talent is spread out across all positions. “

Kuharsky: Any ranking of young talent pertaining to a team that’s drafted a quarterback of the future boils down largely to how well that quarterback can play. If Locker pans out, the Titans have great young talent. If he doesn’t, much of the rest of it won’t matter as much.

10. Houston Texans

Outsiders: “With only S Danieal Manning and DE Antonio Smith over 30 years old, Houston has one of the youngest projected starting defenses in the league. Inside linebacker Brian Cushing (25) was the Texans' most valuable defender last year, but 2011 first-round pick J.J. Watt (23) was a one-man wrecking crew during his rookie season… Watt's 2011 classmate, outside linebacker Brooks Reed (25), was a constant nuisance to opposing quarterbacks in the role of pass-rushing specialist, accumulating 20 hurrries (fourth-most on the team) despite limited snaps.”

Kuharsky: This is a nice ranking when you consider there is some age on offense in center Chris Myers, receiver Andre Johnson and quarterback Matt Schaub. They may all have a lot of good football in front of them, but they don’t score on the young scale.

13. Indianapolis Colts

Outsiders: “Yes, the Colts have (Andrew) Luck at QB now. But look beyond him and you'll see that this is shaping up to be a real nice draft for Indianapolis. The Colts added two of the best tight ends in the draft in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, as well as an interesting (if tiny) receiver in T.Y. Hilton. Add those four onto the core that was already in place (CB Jerraud Powers, T Anthony Castonzo, LB Pat Angerer, LB Kavell Conner, DT Drake Nevis, RB Donald Brown) and there is enough young talent to conceivably find the Colts dealing with a short rebuild rather than a long one.”

Kuharsky: Give them another offseason and if all those guys listed are pointing up and they have a solid draft, this ranking will shoot up.

22. Jacksonville Jaguars

Outsiders: “The Jaguars' young talent is all about quantity over quality. On both sides of the ball their youngsters affect the passing game, which we like. However, LT Eugene Monroe (25) gave up 8.3 blown-block sacks in 2011 and QB Blaine Gabbert (23) looked like a deer in the headlights at times last season… If Monroe and Gabbert don't show progress, then it's a wonder how first-round pick Justin Blackmon (22) will have much of an impact in his rookie season…

“DT Tyson Alualu is coming off knee surgery after a season in which he gave up the most yards per running play among Jacksonville's starting front seven for the second year in a row.”

Kuharsky: The Jaguars themselves have talked about it being time for their highest-ranking young guys to shine. That starts with Gabbert, who’s got to be a lot better, as well as Monroe, who they’d like to see graduate to elite. Alualu's knee can’t be an issue again.

Depth check: Indianapolis Colts

July, 10, 2012
7/10/12
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I’ve been pondering depth in the AFC South, and thought as we await the start of training camps we should look at what position groups compose the deep end, and which compose the shallow end on each roster.

We’ll start in Indy…

Deepest: Depth is an issue all around for a rebuilding roster. It’s possible they have four legitimate options at running back with Donald Brown, Delone Carter, Mewelde Moore and rookie Vick Ballard. And I don’t know who the third tight end will be, but they sure feel good about their first two, second-rounder Coby Fleener and third-rounder Dwayne Allen.

Thinnest: They have numbers at cornerback, but beyond Jerraud Powers, we have no idea who can play. I worry about offenses working hard to get the Colts into nickel and dime, and challenging corners until they prove they can hold up. I also wonder about defensive end, where free-agent addition Cory Redding is a proven 3-4 end, but there really is no one else who’s proven himself at the spot at the NFL level. Fili Moala and Drake Nevis will have the chance to show it’s not an issue.

Ranking the AFC South defenses

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
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1. Houston Texans: Wade Phillips did some great things with this defense a year ago. But he’s not the only member of the Texans’ organization who deserves credit for an incredibly improved defense from 2010 to 2011. Houston’s front office was very aggressive in addressing the defensive side of the ball last offseason. Now, Houston has big-time players at each level of its 3-4 defense.

For those who don’t yet know, J.J. Watt immediately established himself as one of the up-and-coming defensive players in this league. Not only is Watt is a fantastic hustle player, but he has ideal size and length for his 3-4 defensive end position to go with well above-average athletic ability. Watt will be a star. Like Watt, Brian Cushing did everything asked of him really well from his inside linebacker spot last season and has established himself as one of the better second-level defenders in the league.

Before last season, the Texans paid a premium to sign him, but simply put, Johnathan Joseph is one of the very best cornerbacks in the NFL today. He is the total package and probably the best player on this excellent defense -- which is really saying something. The Texans could use one more cover man to step up, though. Overall, Houston is well-equipped in coverage and of course the pass rush helped a lot in that capacity.

Maybe what the Texans’ defense did best in Phillips’ first year was rushing the quarterback -- even without Mario Williams for much of the season. The Texans did add Whitney Mercilus to further enhance their threat off the edge and Connor Barwin could be knocking on the door of stardom.

Besides the first-round selection of Mercilus, who is in an ideal position to learn the outside linebacker position slowly, the Texans mostly stuck to improving their offense in the draft. However, Houston did land an intriguing prospect to play behind Watt and the underrated Antonio Smith in late fourth-round pick Jared Crick, who is an ideal fit for this defensive scheme. Only the Steelers, 49ers and Raves allowed fewer points than Houston last year. Don’t expect much of a drop-off this year.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars: The AFC South has a shot to have two top-five defenses in 2012. Mike Malarkey takes over as the Jaguars’ head coach, but his focus will be getting quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s career straightened out and improving a dismal Jacksonville passing game.

The defense will be in Mel Tucker’s hands. Tucker wants a fast-flowing, physical and aggressive defense that doesn’t blitz a lot and gets most of its pressure from the defensive linemen. The Jaguars found a gem in Jeremy Mincey, who’s excelled in all facets of playing defensive end in their 4-3 scheme. But this defense really lacked a complementary end to Mincey, especially as a pass-rusher. Jacksonville used the No. 38 pick in this year’s draft on Andre Branch, who could help immediately on passing downs but offers little against the run.

One guy who let this defense down last season is Tyson Alualu, who really had a down 2011 season in all regards. Still, only three teams bettered Jacksonville in rushing yards allowed per attempt in 2011. A vastly underrated positional group in the NFL is the Jaguars’ linebacker corps, especially Daryl Smith, who does everything well on the second level. Paul Posluszny isn’t much behind Smith and was a fine addition to Jacksonville’s defense in free agency a year ago. The Jags’ secondary lacks star power but it is pretty solid at each position. The Jaguars were 10th in the league in points allowed last year. They could improve upon that in 2012.

3. Tennessee Titans: There isn’t a lot of star power here, but the Titans are very young on defense and could be poised to improve. Youngsters Jurrell Casey, Karl Klug, Alterraun Verner, Jason McCourty and others are much better players than many casual NFL fans know. Third-round pick Mike Martin should be the perfect complement to the run-stuffing Casey and the lighter pass-rushing Klug in the Titans’ defensive tackle rotation.

The Titans’ pass rush was a huge problem last season, as only Tampa Bay recorded fewer sacks than Tennessee, but it should be much better this year, especially with the addition of Kamerion Wimbley. Former first-round pick Derrick Morgan also should finally be healthy. This is a key season for Morgan -- and the Titans need more from him.

On the second level, the Titans are now very young and active. Colin McCarthy is a tackling machine and should quickly establish himself as a leader of this defense. Tennessee lost Cortland Finnegan to the Rams in free agency, but overall, their coverage people were above average last season -- despite that suspect pass rush. Finnegan had an excellent season, though, and will be difficult to replace.

The Titans look to be improved up front in their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks, but not as strong on the back end in coverage. Only seven teams allowed fewer points than Tennessee during the 2011 season. Maintaining that standard could be difficult, but overall, this is a pretty solid group in just about all areas.

4. Indianapolis Colts: The Colts might have the worst defense in the NFL this season. Their run defense was abysmal last season. Indianapolis has nowhere to go but up in this department and additions such as Cory Redding, Brandon McKinney and Josh Chapman should help shore up the run defense at the line of scrimmage. Still, such a drastic scheme change really leaves Indianapolis in a bind on this side of the ball for 2012.

Although the Colts surely will not be playing with the lead as much as they did when Peyton Manning was behind center, the edge pass-rush presence of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis should still rank among the best in the NFL. Mathis was probably the Colts’ best defensive player last season. He can still get it done. I believe the same is true with Freeney. As good as Freeney and Mathis still are, just the Titans and Buccaneers sacked opposing quarterbacks less than Indianapolis.

Besides Freeney and Mathis, Pat Angerer and especially Antoine Bethea are above-average starters for their respective positions. But outside of these four, the remaining prevalent members of the Colts’ defense are littered with flaws. One player I am very high on is Drake Nevis, but Nevis was drafted to be an upfield disruptive three-technique. The problem here is that if Indianapolis goes with a predominantly 3-4 alignment, Nevis’ great penetrating abilities could be wasted. That is the problem with switching schemes -- players from the former philosophy aren’t well-suited for what the new coaching staff has in mind. This applies to many members of the Colts’ defense, which up until now was a fast-flowing undersized unit built on speed. Now this unit will be building to be much like what Chuck Pagano coached in Baltimore -- and Nevis is one of many examples of the problems with making such a change.

The Colts were not strong at all in coverage last year -- and it doesn’t look as though they will be much improved in 2012. They are particularly weak at cornerback. Indianapolis also had the fewest interceptions in the league last year. Pagano and his defensive staff will be more creative with their looks and pressures, which he hopes will leads to more turnovers created. Getting more Ravens-type of defensive players will be a massive priority for Indianapolis next offseason.
We’re talked a lot about needs for the Colts, beyond quarterback which will be addressed when they draft Andrew Luck first overall: cornerback, safety, nose tackle, tight end, receiver and perhaps an offensive lineman.

We’re expecting Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney to spend most of their time at outside linebacker in a new 3-4 the Colts will be in as often as possible. If so, then some guys who were tackles in the old 4-3 will shift to end in that front. Fili Moala and Drake Nevis would head the list to work with free-agent addition Cory Redding. Nevis was not mentioned by GM Ryan Grigson recently when he talked of free-agent addition Brandon McKinney and holdover Antonio Johnson as the team’s primary answers at nose tackle.

In this scenario, the Colts are quite thin at outside linebacker.

I fully expect Jerry Hughes will get a chance there. The next most notable linebacker names on the roster for a spot that needs a great deal of depth are Kavell Conner and Scott Lutrus. And Conner may be an inside guy.

While Mathis and Freeney will surely be asked to do much of what they’ve done through successful careers as outside backers, the fact remains that there isn’t one proven 3-4 outside linebacker in that group. (And beyond Pat Angerer, there isn’t a guy we know can play inside in a 3-4 either -- though that situational job isn’t as difficult to fill.)

Freeney is also entering the last year of a very expensive contract.

The Colts have 10 picks in the draft, five in the first 136. They’ll need to address linebacker somewhere along the way.
Our chat suffered a technical interruption Thursday. Thought we still go a lot of good stuff in, I’ll pay back an extra 15 minutes sometime soon.

If you were there at the right time, you still got quality stuff like this:

Kyle (Ottawa, Ontario)

What do you do if your Jacksonville? Sign Vincent Jackson and draft Melvin Ingram or sign Mario Williams and draft Kendall Wright/Michael Floyd?

Paul Kuharsky

I LOVE Vincent Jackson. But if you can get Mario Williams, I think you have to go that direction. Very good question. You have the lead.

2ToneBlueBlood (murfreesboro tn)

I've seen you mention a few times that you think the Titans should pursue [Robert] Mathis or [Dwight] Freeney. Chances you think it will actually happen?

Paul Kuharsky

Freeney is under contract. If he's released they'd have to look. And they have to look at Mathis. They know they need a guy with special rush skills and that there are few of them. But if someone is giving them crazy money, it probably won't be Tennessee.

Awayne (Indy)

Colts go 3-4 what do you do with [Drake] Nevis, good potential but doesn't fit in 3-4 probably doesn't have much trade value?

Paul Kuharsky

Which is why it's a gradual shift, not a one-year overhaul.

Tyler (Duval)

Your thoughts on Gene Smith saying the Jags won't be as active in free agency this year as we were last year. Kind of upset me. I understand building through the draft but free agency is a very nice tool you can use.

Paul Kuharsky

Don't like it. Hope it's not a set up for a reveal that [new Jaguars owner Shahid] Khan won't spend all that money. Two big guys and a draft, that'd be fine.

Richard (Knoxville)

You can revoke a franchise tag up until July 15.

Paul Kuharsky

Not if he signs it.

For all that and much, much more, move directly past go and click right here.

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