When the lockout ended and the rare, league-changing period of frenzied free agency began, teams that were already better than the Colts (Patriots, Eagles) improved substantially and teams that were not far behind the Colts (Texans, Jaguars) got significantly better. And while the Eagles were stockpiling talent with cap-friendly deals, the Patriots were trading virtually nothing for All-Pro defensive tackles like Albert Haynesworth, and the Texans were adding top flight talent to their secondary, the Colts were doing nothing.
As a result, folks like me started to rightly question whether this organization was serious about winning a Super Bowl in 2011.
Thankfully, the Colts reacted to the spending spree by doing what the Eagles and Patriots did: Sign low risk, high reward players in an effort to solidify depth.
Because of these signings, which include players like Tommie Harris, Ernie Sims, Jamaal Anderson, and Dan Orlovsky, I personally have a much rosier outlook on this club's chances to playing 'at home' for Super Bowl XLVI.
But, as with all things, there are still a lot of 'ifs' associated with this team. While an infusion of talent via free agency was critical if the Colts were to truly compete, but let's not kid ourselves. This team has a lot of holes to fill and many questions surround several key areas. As we gear up for the first preseason game of 2011, many of these 'ifs' will (hopefully) get answered.
Here's my list of 'ifs' for the 2011 Colts as we enter preseason this weekend.
If... Jerry Hughes has indeed developed, as all early signs in camp suggest he has, the Colts are in very good shape when considering pass rush. I am hard on Hughes for the simple fact that he was abjectly awful in 2010, and first round picks are not afforded the luxury of 'developing' for this franchise. They must play, and play well, early. Hughes didn't do that. Now, camp reports say he looks impressive. If he stays healthy and plays the way the team expects him to, the Colts pass rush will be very potent.
If... Tommie Harris and Drake Nevis can do what their talent allows them to do, then (just like with Hughes) the Colts pass rush becomes a force again. Last year, despite having Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the Colts were terrible at getting sacks. They ranked 24th in the NFL with 30, with Freeney and Mathis accounting for 21 of those 30. That absolutely must change. Last year, the two teams that played in the Super Bowl (Packers and Steelers) were the top two teams in the league in sacks (48 for Steelers, 47 for Packers). The Colts need to have similar numbers in 2011 if they want to win the Super Bowl. Freeney and Mathis will get their 20-25 combined sacks, if they stay healthy. Harris, Nevis, and Hughes must account for the additional 20.
If... Ricardo Mathews (6'3, 300 pounds) or DeMario Pressley (6'3, 301 pounds) can play nose tackle, the team is in good shape in terms of stopping the run. Some are suggesting Ollie Ogbu (6'1, 285) can do it. Again, NTs at 285 are not effective. 320 pound guards and centers are going to demolish that. I'm nervous enough as it is about Mathews and Pressley playing at 300. Antonio Johnson is 310 on a lite day. The Colts don't need a 350 pound NT, but one at or over 310 is important.
If... Joe Lefeged is as good as advertised (the Colts listed him as the reserve safety behind Melvin Bullitt despite Lefeged being an undrafted rookie), then I feel better about the SS position. If Bullitt doesn't get hurt in 2011, it's a miracle. Last season was a disaster at SS with Aaron Francisco. This area cannot become a weakness again. We should expect to see a lot of Lefeged in preseason.
If... Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana start on the o-line, we will run the ball and pass protect better. These kids were not drafted to develop in a year. They must play now, and if they can't the Colts need to reconsider Pete Metzelaars as their o-line coach. The o-line has suffered in recent years because the front office has failed in recent years to provide it with quality talent. They busted on Tony Ugoh. They busted on Mike Pollak. They passed over Rodger Saffold last year. Peyton Manning will get injured again in Houston if he has Jeff Linkebach protecting his blindside and at RG. Pollak is absolute garbage as a guard, and Linkenbach (while a fine reserve) is not even as good as Charlie Johnson. Castonzo and Ijalana must play, and play well.
I still think this team needs to sign a few more low risk, high reward veterans (ahem, Pat Williams). But, with the improved depth on the defense, I am feeling better about this team. The Colts still aren't as good as the Steelers, Patriots, or the Jets. Heck, they still need to prove they can beat the Chargers. But, with new talent injected into the offensive and defensive lines, this team seems much better. As a result, there's a reason for even skeptics like me to be optimistic.