NFL Nation: Brandon McKinney

Training camp competitions for the Indianapolis Colts are not shaping up the way general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano likely imagined them.

As Phillip B. Wilson points out in his blog at the Indianapolis Star, injuries are already having an impact.

Brandon McKinney is on IR with a continuing knee problem, so nose tackle looks like it’ll belong to Aubrayo Franklin and Josh Chapman, with Ricky Jean Francois able to help. What we thought could be a pretty good battle might be sorted out already.

Rookie right guard Hugh Thornton was expected to challenge incumbent Mike McGlynn, but Thornton has a boot on his right foot and has not practiced yet.

Pat Angerer is on PUP, meaning the second inside linebacker spot isn’t as much of a competition as it might be later, with Kelvin Sheppard apparently outranking Kavell Conner by so much that Wilson doesn't even mention Conner.

Rookie center Khaled Holmes might still give Samson Satele a fight at center, but Holmes had an ankle issue at USC and injured the same ankle on Tuesday.

Running back is still very interesting. Provided Ahmad Bradshaw is back to himself in time for the regular season, I’m not sure his presence on PUP with a still-healing foot hurts the competition at the spot. It might actually help. We know Vick Ballard will be second at worst, and it seems likely Kerwynn Williams will be fourth. The extra snaps could allow the staff maximum opportunity to gauge Donald Brown and Delone Carter.

While having virtually everyone good to go the first week of camp is ideal, camp injuries are inevitable. Maybe Thornton and Holmes don't miss much at all. Perhaps some of these guys will emerge in relative short order and still get into position battles the way we envisioned.

But if guys who are on the field now like McGlynn, Sheppard and Satele perform consistently well, they’ve got a chance to get a tight grip on jobs before their competition even takes the field.
When the Colts activated linebacker Josh McNary from their reserve/military list to the 90-man active roster, they waived linebacker C.O. Prime to make room.

But later Tuesday they rescinded the waiver request on Prime, keeping him on their 90-man roster and instead put defensive tackle Brandon McKinney on injured-reserve.

It’s not yet clear if this is a result of the same knee injury suffered in camp last year, when he suffered a torn ACL.

McKinney has not practiced since the team started camp on Sunday.

McKinney got a two-year, $2 million contract from the Colts in 2012. He was one of two defensive veterans the Colts brought over from the defense Chuck Pagano coordinated in Baltimore before he was hired to replace Jim Caldwell. Safety Tom Zbikowski was released after the team signed LaRon Landry in free agency. Now McKinney is also gone, and it appears unlikely he will ever play a game for Indianapolis.

The team is reasonably deep in the interior line now, and will miss him less than it did last season, when he could have been the primary nose tackle. Now Josh Chapman looks to be the leaders for the most time, and veteran Aubrayo Franklin can be a run-stuffer. Martin Tevaseu is also listed as a nose tackle.

Ricky Jean Francois and rookie Montori Hughes will also be equipped to play inside in certain situations.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Who is one highly drafted or highly paid player from each AFC South team who needs to show something during the remainder of the offseason?

Houston Texans: I can’t find a highly paid or highly drafted player who could be in jeopardy. Shiloh Keo was a fifth-round draft pick in 2011 and ranked as a Wade Phillips favorite. Keo played in every game last year, even seeing time as the often-used third safety when Quintin Demps fell out of favor. But Keo is limited, primarily because he’s slow. The Texans replaced Glover Quin with Ed Reed, which doesn’t really affect the bottom of the safety depth chart. Demps is an unsigned free agent who won’t be back. Second-round pick D.J. Swearinger will be the third safety. Keo and Eddie Pleasant are the fourth and fifth safeties now, and the team had five on the roster at the end of last season. But a good player at the back end of another position could prompt them to keep just four, which could put the limited Keo in jeopardy if he doesn’t perform well in camp.

Indianapolis Colts: A team that didn’t have a true nose tackle option last season because of injuries and personnel deficiencies will have a glut this summer if everyone remains healthy. Now they have Aubrayo Franklin and 2012 fifth-rounder Josh Chapman, who’s back from the knee injury that kept him out last year. They also have new fifth-round draft pick Montori Hughes as well as Ricky Jean Francois, a versatile lineman who can man the middle on occasion. I don’t expect Martin Tevaseu to stick, and if the rest of that pack remains healthy, one player who will need to have a solid camp to make his case to stay is Brandon McKinney, who’s due $1 million this year. Brought in as a free agent from Baltimore last year, he too is coming off a serious knee injury. He’s expected to be ready for camp but could have already lost some ground in organized team activities and minicamp.

Jacksonville Jaguars: While the Texans don’t have a highly paid or highly drafted veteran who could be in trouble because they have drafted well and their roster is solid, the Jaguars don’t really have one because they are young and largely unproven. They already parted with an expensive guy who wasn’t worth his contract in strong safety Dawan Landry. Tight and Marcedes Lewis ($4.2 million base this year) and defensive tackle Tyson Alualu ($1.8 million) are overpaid based on recent production, but the Jaguars have money and don’t have promising replacements for either.

Tennessee Titans: I don’t think right tackle David Stewart is in jeopardy. But he’s coming off a down year when he committed too many penalties, is recovering from a broken leg, has an ankle that seems to be a lingering concern and is due a $5 million base salary. I’m not sure Mike Otto or Byron Stingily, the team’s two primary backup tackles, are starting-caliber guys. But the team did visit with free agent Eric Winston, who worked with offensive line coach Bruce Matthews in Houston. If Winston remains on the market and Stewart doesn’t look ready to bounce back, perhaps the Titans would still consider adding Winston and allowing him to slug it out with Stewart. That could be an epic battle.
Antonio Johnson worked hard to be a 3-4 nose tackle for the Colts last year and started 13 games.

But if the Colts are healthy they’ve now got four, much bigger options for the spot in their second year of the 3-4 front.

Fifth-round pick Montori Hughes went 139th overall. He started his college career at Tennessee, found trouble and finished up at Tennessee-Martin.

He’s 6-foot-4, 329 pounds and joins Josh Chapman (316), Brandon McKinney (345) and Aubrayo Franklin (315) as options for the nose. Ricky Jean Francois (295) can kick inside in some instances as well.

Chapman and McKinney missed last season with injuries. Franklin and Jean Francois are free-agent additions.

Scouts Inc. says he’s above average against the run and below average against the pass.

The big issue is his background, which the Colts clearly feel he addressed sufficiently as they scouted him.
“Was present at site of bar altercation in July 2010 and reportedly involved but not charged by police. He was suspended one game during 2010 season for violation of team academic rules. In addition, he was suspended twice from team activities during offseason of that year. Was involved in an on-campus altercation (dorm) in May 2011 that lead to his dismissal from the Tennessee football team. Coaches at Tennessee also have openly questioned his work effort and passion for the game. Has made strides in terms of maturity and was not a problem for the coaches during his time at Tennessee-Martin. In the end though will he work hard enough off-the-field (practice, conditioning, diet etc.) to reach full potential?”

Reassessing the Colts' needs

April, 3, 2013
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The Colts have restocked their roster in a big way since free agency opened, adding 10 veterans from the outside.

Some are sure to be upgrades, like right tackle Gosder Cherilus and safety LaRon Landry. Others require a wait-and-see approach as we find out how strongside linebacker Erik Walden and defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois fare with expanded roles.

Despite an 11-win season, Indianapolis headed toward the second season of Ryan Grigson as the general manager, Chuck Pagano as the head coach and Andrew Luck as the quarterback with some significant holes.

With all the additions, the pressure to find answers at certain spots in the draft is significantly lightened. That makes for a far better atmosphere in which to draft.

Here’s my assessment of what they’ve done to fill roster gaps and what now rank as the team’s primary needs with the draft drawing near.

[+] EnlargeGosder Cherilus
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsGosder Cherilus, left, provides an infusion of talent to a Colts O-line that was lacking it last season.
Offensive line -- Cherilus is a physical player who can help change and set a better tone for a position that simply didn’t have enough talent last season. Donald Thomas will upgrade a guard slot as well. Is it enough? I think they should add at least one more lineman in the draft who can contend for a guard spot or at center.

Cornerback -- Greg Toler could be a fine second starter, but they qualify as three deep at best with Vontae Davis, Toler and Darius Butler. They have to have another solid guy in the mix, and the draft should provide someone who will automatically qualify as better than Cassius Vaughn.

Wide receiver -- Can they get more out of Darrius Heyward-Bey than they got out of Donnie Avery? I would think so. Is DHB going to be the ultimate successor to Reggie Wayne? I highly doubt it. They need to be looking for that guy to go with T.Y. Hilton, their lone long-term sure thing at the position.

Safety -- LaRon Landry is a significant upgrade over Tom Zbikowski. He and Antoine Bethea should be a nice tandem. Joe Lefeged is fine as depth. But in a good safety year and with Bethea heading into his eighth season, I think it would be a good move to add a young player at the spot.

Outside linebacker -- Walden was a controversial addition, but they’ve emphasized his ability to set the edge. That does not make for much of a pass rush opposite Robert Mathis. I hope they aren’t counting on big production from Jerry Hughes or Lawrence Sidbury. They still need a pass-rushing outside 'backer.

Defensive end -- They resigned Fili Moala and hope Cory Redding will be more durable. Newcomer Ricky Jean Francois could start outside and move inside in nickel. Another guy in that mix wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Running back -- Vick Ballard, Donald Brown and Delone Carter are the three-pack that will return. Ballard showed a lot of promise, but the other two are not sure things. Bruce Arians’ offense didn’t throw to backs much. Pep Hamilton’s offense will do so more. If Grigson sees a versatile back as a value, I expect he’ll add one.

Defensive tackle -- Went from being a need to not being a need. Jean Francois will play some tackle and some end. Aubrayo Franklin can be an early-down run-stopper. And they expect Brandon McKinney and Josh Chapman to be healthy and equipped to contribute. They could have a lot of options at this spot who fit the 3-4 front.

Quarterback -- They did well replacing Drew Stanton with Matt Hasselbeck as Luck’s backup. The No. 2 was never going to come from the draft.
In just his second season, Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano is going to have linemen far better equipped to play his 3-4 front.

A team that already added the versatile Ricky Jean Francois, who can play all three spots, has now signed Aubrayo Franklin. Not too many years ago he was a hot, hot property. Now he’s changed teams four times in four years, from San Francisco to New Orleans to San Diego to Indianapolis.

Here’s what Scouts Inc. has to say about him.
Franklin has a wide body with above-average initial quickness, agility and short-area agility. He plays with good knee bend and natural leverage as he keeps his pad level down to get under opponents' pads and leverage the play. He does a good job of recognizing blocking schemes and will feel and fight back through pressure. He is a good technician who knows how to use his hands to control and shed blockers and keeps his feet active as he works his way to the ball. He lacks top lateral range and makes most of his plays in the guard-tackle box. He is not going to give anyone a top pass-rushing threat from the inside.

So he’s an early-down run-stopping option for a team that now has swingman Jean Francois, ends Cory Redding, Fili Moala and Drake Nevis, nose tackle Martin Tevaseu and two other nose tackles coming off injury, Brandon McKinney and Josh Chapman.

The addition of Franklin would seem to end any hopes Antonio “Mookie” Johnson, who transitioned from 4-3 tackle to 3-4 nose last season, may still have of being re-signed.

Franklin played four years with Baltimore and four with the 49ers before the one-year terms with the Saints and Chargers. This will be his 11th year.
Some Colts fans have been in touch, confused about the awarding of compensatory draft picks. The Colts were awarded one pick, the final pick of the draft (No. 254).

But in the league's formula that figures out who gets what in terms of the extra draft selections, Indianapolis didn't actually "earn" a pick. Compensatory picks add the equivalent of one round worth of selections to the draft. When there aren't enough awarded by the formula, the league adds picks for the near misses until it gets to 32.

One thing many people forget is that many of the biggest losses for the Colts were released. Only players who reach free agency with expiring contracts count here. So Peyton Manning, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Gary Brackett and Curtis Painter were all let go and didn't factor in at all.

According to the NFL, these are the players who did factor into the equation for compensatory draft picks for Indianapolis.

Players lost: Jamaal Anderson (Cincinnati), Pierre Garcon (Washington), Dan Orlovsky (Tampa Bay), Jeff Saturday (Green Bay), Jacob Tamme (Denver), Philip Wheeler (Oakland).

Players signed: Guard Mike McGlynn, defensive tackle Brandon McKinney, defensive end Cory Redding, center Samson Satele, quarterback Drew Stanton and safety Tom Zbikowski.

Stanton counted despite the fact that the Colts traded for him, because he was signed by the Jets as a free agent in 2012 before that deal. A player with such circumstances is part of the formula.

Garcon was the lone giant contract on either side of that ledger, and apparently the Colts did enough to offset that signing with what they brought in.

Here's the league's language explaining the process.
Under the rules for compensatory draft selections, a team losing more or better compensatory free agents than it acquires in the previous year is eligible to receive compensatory draft picks.

The number of picks a team receives equals the net loss of compensatory free agents up to a maximum of four. The 32 compensatory choices announced today will supplement the 222 choices in the seven rounds of the 2013 NFL draft (April 25-27), which will kick off in prime time for the fourth consecutive year.

The first round will be held on Thursday, April 25 and begin at 8 p.m. ET. The second and third rounds are set for Friday, April 26 at 6:30 p.m. ET followed by rounds 4-7 on Saturday, April 27 at Noon ET.

This year, the compensatory picks will be positioned within the third through seventh rounds based on the value of the compensatory free agents lost.

Compensatory free agents are determined by a formula based on salary, playing time and postseason honors. The formula was developed by the NFL Management Council. Not every free agent lost or signed by a club is covered by this formula.

Two clubs this year (Indianapolis and the New York Giants) will each receive a compensatory pick even though they did not suffer a net loss of compensatory free agents last year. Under the formula, the compensatory free agents lost by these clubs were ranked higher than the ones they signed (by a specified point differential based upon salary and performance).
For a team with money to spend, I’m more inclined to look at fit and potential than at finances.

So if the Indianapolis Colts have Ricky Jean Francois lined up to be a starting defensive end in their 3-4 front for four-years at $22 million, I lean toward excitement about his potential to produce in a bigger roll than toward worry about the price tag.

While we don’t know about the contract's guarantees or structure, we do know that Jean Francois is highly regarded by evaluators and served as a key piece, though a role player, for the 49ers NFC Championship defense.

Adam Caplan of Sirius/XM had those contract details and really likes the player if not the contract.

“Reason why as many as 10 teams were on him earlier this week: Only DL capable of starting at all 3 positions on 3-man DL,” Caplan tweeted.

Scouts Inc. says this:
“He has a quick first step and does a good job of using his hands to defeat and shed blockers but can struggle trying to hold up at the point of attack. He does a good job of keeping his pads down to leverage blockers but lacks the overall strength to plug up the middle. He is more effective when asked to shoot gaps and try to penetrate to create problems in the backfield. Although he lacks the explosive upfield acceleration to be a pass-rusher, he will keep his feet active as he works his way to the pocket. He is quick to locate the level of the ball and takes good angles to get there.”

I’m sure the Colts expect to help him get stronger and to help put him in situations where, playing between a nose like Brandon McKinney or Josh Chapman and an outside linebacker like Erik Walden, he can make the most of his skills.

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 suspect to correlate with an 11-win team.

They 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 year.

“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 inside 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 Bruce Arians said while he was interim coach that 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 to play weak inside linebacker, they’ve got one less spot to worry about as they continue to build the roster.

Minus McKinney, Colts need DT help

August, 26, 2012
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We wrote recently about how the Colts' transition to being a big team was going to take some time.

McKinney
It’s now going to take some more time.

The biggest newcomer, 345-pound nose tackle Brandon McKinney, is out for the year after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament against the Redskins in Washington on Saturday.

The Colts signed McKinney as a free agent from Baltimore, where he played in the system new head coach Chuck Pagano brought to Indianapolis.

That leaves Antonio Johnson, who’s starting, as the team’s lone big nose tackle. He said early in camp he was up to 330.

Josh Chapman, a fifth-round pick from Alabama, is listed as 316, and he came into the league recovering from his own ACL injury.

He’ll be on the physically-unable-to-perform list to start the season, meaning the Colts won’t have access to him for at least six weeks into the regular season.

“He’s coming along great,” Pagano told Colts beat reporters. “I think he’s ahead of schedule. Again, I think his injury was significant enough that it takes eight to 10 months to get that thing fully rehabbed and healed. Again, I think he’s ahead of schedule and will remain on PUP, which is once you start the season on PUP, there is a six-week period in which you just do strength and conditioning rehab and you’re not allowed to practice. After that six-week period, you’ve got a three-week window to start and get him back in practice mode, which we feel really confident by that time, he’ll be ready to go.”

The loss of McKinney could get the Colts looking for additional interior help. It's not a three-down job. End Cory Redding can move inside in the nickel package. But the only other healthy nose tackle on the depth chart is undrafted rookie Chigbo Anunoby.

Veteran Shaun Smith was recently cut by the Titans and could fit Indianapolis’ scheme.
The Colts are making a lot of big changes all at once.

  • To a new general manager and coach.
  • From Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck at quarterback.
  • From a 4-3 that played Tampa 2 to a hybrid 3-4 that will play far more man coverage behind it.
  • And from small to big.

It’s not easy to, literally, reshape a roster.

[+] EnlargeBrandon McKinney
AP Photo/David DrapkinThe regime change in Indianapolis has brought a change in philosophy which favors larger players such as Brandon McKinney (96).
The team brought in bigger people where it could, with an emphasis on the lines. Nose tackle Brandon McKinney is listed at 345 pounds, rookie nose tackle Josh Chapman is 316 and end Cory Redding is 315. Right tackle Winston Justice is 317 and right guard Mike McGlynn is 327.

“You have to actually have the bodies available to start making that transition,” GM Ryan Grigson said. “When they come available, you watch the film and you see if they are an upgrade or not. Because sometimes a smaller body is still the better choice because they are the better football player, have better technique or can hold down the position better.

“In our situation, you have to be patient. You only can build through waiver claims, free agency and ultimately in the draft.”

Though all teams are physical, the Colts under Bill Polian were a team that relied on finesse and speed.

The new Colts seek size and power.

All 10 defensive linemen on the current roster weigh 305 or more. Last year the team had just two of 11 defensive linemen who finished the season on the roster or on IR who topped 300.

Of the 16 offensive linemen with the team currently, only starting center Samson Satele isn’t 300 pounds. He’s listed at 299. Last year’s team had three offensive linemen who were under 300 pounds.

“They brought in some guys, the first time I saw them I was like, ‘Sheesh, how much do you weigh?’” cornerback Jerraud Powers said. “Guys were saying 330, 340. If you ask Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner about their first couple years here, they probably haven’t had a D-tackle that’s that big. That’s going to take a lot of pressure off the linebackers.

“I’m excited for it. I’m glad that once we get in warm-ups, we’re going to look just as big as the team we’re playing. I remember one year we played the Cowboys and I looked across and thought, ‘God, these guys are like giants out here.’ That’s the whole style of the 3-4 hybrid system. You’re going to need some big guys, especially up front, some guys who can push the pocket.”
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.

Colts: One big question

May, 4, 2012
5/04/12
12:00
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Who’s playing pass defense for the Indianapolis Colts?

New coach Chuck Pagano will convert the Colts, a longtime 4-3 team, to a 3-4. He’s cited the Texans’ changeover a year ago as an example of how it can happen in one year and how the front actually gets scrambled up and can often still have the look of a 4-3.

In Year 1 for Pagano in Indianapolis, however, it’s the personnel that may dictate more of the old base front. The Colts signed a veteran nose tackle (Brandon McKinney) and a veteran end (Cory Redding), and drafted a nose tackle in fifth-rounder Josh Chapman. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will be less predictable coming forward from outside linebacker positions.

The problem is in the secondary.

Indianapolis was 15th against the pass last year. But that ranking is misleading because offenses could run against the Colts and often handed off while trying to run time off the clock and preserve leads.

Antoine Bethea is a quality free safety and Jerraud Powers is a good corner. Beyond them, the Colts are thin and unproven in the defensive backfield.

They didn’t draft any defensive backs, though their initial undrafted rookie group of 15 includes five of them.

No matter how well the Colts rush out of the new front, the team needs people behind it who can cover, which is not the strong suit of the veteran addition to the group, strong safety Tom Zbikowski.
Through three rounds and four picks, the Indianapolis Colts had gone all offense. Chuck Pagano said his defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky, was spending a lot of time on the elliptical machine burning off his energy while remaining empty-handed.

Manusky's exercise session ended with the first pick of the fifth round.

Pagano and Manusky need a lot as they build a 3-4 defense, and their first drafted help comes in the form of Alabama nose tackle Josh Chapman.

A shade over 6-feet tall, Chapman weighs in at about 316 pounds. I’d imagine Chapman will work in tandem with free-agent acquisition Brandon McKinney as the Colts nose tackle, which could mean Antonio Johnson is a swing guy playing some inside and some outside. GM Ryan Grigson recently spoke of Johnson as the team's second nose tackle.

Pro Football Weekly’s NFL Draft guide’s write-up of Chapman offers reason to be encouraged about the pick:
“Stout, gritty, two-down, block-occupying plugger with a lunchpail mentality, Can provide a team comfort knowing what it’s getting given his dependable play for a national champion.”
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.

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