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A new era might be dawning in Indianapolis. For the first time in eight years, they'll have a new head coach, Jim Caldwell, who replaced the retired Tony Dungy; their all-time leading receiver, Marvin Harrison, has been released; and they'll have new offensive and defensive coordinators, with Clyde Christensen replacing the retired Tom Moore on the offensive side and Larry Coyer supplanting Ron Meeks on the defensive side. In addition, the team made a bold statement on draft day when it selected Donald Brown with its first-round selection, perhaps signaling a changing of the guard at running back.
|Peyton Manning has at least 26 TD passes in each of his 11 NFL seasons.|
But stress that word might, because in spite of the turnover in Indy, one very important thing remains constant: quarterback Peyton Manning. The veteran gunslinger is the rock around whom this offense consistently rolls, and even when questions surround him, such as when he was coming off surgery the first few weeks of the 2008 season, he finds a way to straighten things out. Despite his early-season health issues, the team's injury-riddled and underperforming offensive line, and a running game that ranked 31st in the league, Manning amazingly rallied his team to nine consecutive regular-season victories to end 2008, advancing to the playoffs. (The team's ghastly run game was ultimately its undoing in that wild-card contest.)
Now we'll get the answer to the question, who was the true architect of the Colts' seven consecutive playoff appearances? Was it Manning? Was it Dungy? Was it (brace yourselves) Meeks, who actually led his defense to a modern (16-game-season) record six passing touchdowns allowed?
Key position battles: Running back, running back and running back. The Colts' decision to spend their first-round pick on Brown sends a clear signal that their faulty O-line isn't to blame for all of Joseph Addai's problems in 2008; it might have been Addai himself. At age 25 and in his third NFL season, Addai managed career worsts in rushing yards (544), touchdowns (5) and yards per carry (3.5), and he missed four games with hamstring, knee and shoulder injuries. He also had knee surgery at some point in either May or June. The details as to when it happened or which knee underwent the procedure are sketchy, making him a candidate to inherit the label "brittle player." Longtime backup Dominic Rhodes departed during the offseason, and since the Colts' greatest success in recent years has come when the team divides the carries to a noticeable degree (see: 2006 championship season), Brown was a natural addition. He'll have an outside chance at unseating Addai to start, especially if the incumbent somehow remains short of 100 percent come Week 1, but is likelier to inherit nearly 40 percent of the carries, which was commonplace for Rhodes. But fantasy owners hate to hear that; we dread the committee approach.
Fantasy owners would also do well to track the candidates for slot receiver, a position at which Brandon Stokley managed a 1,077-yard, 10-touchdown campaign in 2004 and that tight end Dallas Clark often occupied in his better recent seasons. Clark remains the favorite to get work in the slot, but third-receiver candidates Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon and Roy Hall will all have opportunities to steal time there. The rookie Collie, the team's first pick in the fourth round, would be an especially interesting sleeper choice with a standout preseason.
Fitting in: Rookies Brown and Collie are the two who could most impress the team's new brass, and it's a good season for them to do so, with a collection of new coaches who might be willing to embrace change. It's imperative that fantasy owners track the progress of the two throughout the preseason, particularly the high-upside running back Brown.
But let's not kid ourselves; the most obvious spot where a player will be "fitting in" is in Harrison's old No. 1 (and in more recent years, No. 2) receiver role. Reggie Wayne, who amassed 186 receptions and 16 touchdowns the past two years combined, had already inherited the lead-dog spot from Harrison, while the latter was limited to 20 games, 80 catches and six scores during that span. Anthony Gonzalez, though, is now in the spotlight as the clear No. 2 receiver, a spot for which Dungy's crew had been prepping him in his first two NFL seasons. Gonzalez bumped his number of catches from 37 as a rookie to 57 last year, and those who criticize him for not showing more signs of development in 2008 might want to recall that his role was limited behind Harrison, who started 15 times. With Harrison gone, Gonzalez has a clear chance to shine on a team that not only is unafraid to air it out, but also lacks an elite running game to lean on.
On the line: Indianapolis' offensive line absorbed much of the blame for the team's lackluster 3-4 start last year, as the team was unable to make up for injuries to center Jeff Saturday, who missed four games with knee problems, or left guard Ryan Lilja, who sat out the season with three knee surgeries. Left tackle Tony Ugoh also battled hamstring issues for a noticeable chunk of the year, exposing the Colts' lack of depth up front. The impact of Saturday's absence was most evident; in his four missed games, the team totaled 225 yards on 83 rushing attempts (2.7 average). The Colts expect their full unit to enter 2009 healthier than it did 2008, but they also did little to address their lack of depth in the offseason. One might say the O-line can only improve, but if you're banking on Addai or Brown, keep your fingers crossed this unit doesn't suffer more bad luck in the health department.
No matter the prospect for change in Indianapolis, the most likely scenario sees the Colts maintaining the status quo. Even with three key coaching changes, two of the three men in those spots have ties to the Dungy regime; Caldwell previously served as quarterbacks coach and then as Dungy's assistant, and Christensen was previously the wide receivers coach. Coyer is a fresh face, coming from the Tampa Bay organization, but he comes with a strong reputation for defensive prowess and will have one of the game's best impact players on that side of the ball, Bob Sanders, helping maintain the unit's consistency.
You know what they say: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That rings true for the Colts, who have double-digit wins in nine of Manning's 11 NFL seasons and have finished outside the top 10 in total offense only once since 1999. (Last year they ranked 15th.) Manning should keep this team as productive as ever, but that hardly means you shouldn't be checking for warning signs of a switch to a more conservative system.
Brown is a prospect to watch most closely; he's inevitably going to take over for Addai sometime in the near future, a future that could arrive before we celebrate New Year's 2010. Fantasy owners are already abuzz that he might earn an even split, or perhaps the bulk of the work, right from the start, and while neither player warrants more than flex-play consideration in a yearly format, either one might elevate to No. 2 status with a clear stake to the starting gig.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.