Depending on the moves that the Colts make at outside linebacker, Jerry Hughes may very well get the first shot to replace Dwight Freeney.
Let me just say right away that most of you won't like what I'm about to say. That's understandable. After all, just the mention of the name "Jerry Hughes" among Colts' fans immediately triggers the response of "bust". And yeah, he pretty much was. There is absolutely no way you could make it seem otherwise for the Colts' first round pick in 2010. He has not lived up to a first round pick, nor has he lived up to a second or third round pick either. But that said, he did improve last year. I mean, he pretty much couldn't get worse, but he actually showed signs of promise and had his best season as a pro (again, not saying much). Perhaps the move to outside linebacker saved his career in Indy, at least for the time being. Pro Football Focus even recently named him the Colts' 5th most undervalued player of 2012 in terms of play vs. salary (Hughes was graded with a +$2.3 million value differential).
In my opinion, Hughes is actually becoming a decent backup/third OLB for the Colts. The problem is, they may ask him to start this year. He will get his chance, at least. Dwight Freeney will become a free agent in just a few weeks and will not be re-signed. No one else on the current roster will earn the starting spot over Hughes. That leaves the question of who the Colts will add. I mean, they have to add someone at the position given Hughes' disappointing history and the position's lack of depth. The question is who. The two big name linebackers whose names have been connected with the Colts are the Cowboys' Anthony Spencer and the Ravens' Paul Kruger. Spencer is coming off of his best season as a pro, notching 95 tackles along with 11 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 3 pass deflections, and earning a pro bowl berth. The six year pro was the Cowboys' first round pick in 2007 out of Purdue University, and he grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana and went to high school at Bishop Luers. The connections to Indiana are there, as well as the connections to the Colts' coaching staff. First year defensive line coach Gary Emanuel was with the Boilermakers from 1997-2004 (as well as a second stint from 2010-2012), and Spencer was there from 2002-2006. It also appears that the Cowboys will not make Spencer a large enough offer to retain him, which would leave him to be a free agent.
Paul Kruger is associated with the Colts due to the obvious connection with Chuck Pagano. Kruger is also coming off of a career year. He posted 42 tackles, 9 sacks, forced a fumble and intercepted a pass. In the playoffs, Kruger added another 4.5 sacks (2.5 of which came against the Colts) and helped the Ravens to a Super Bowl championship. The Ravens have cap issues, however, which means that many of their free agents will not be retained. The Colts will likely target several of them (Kruger, Ed Reed, Cary Williams). While there are doubts about whether Kruger is worth the contract he will receive (I personally don't think he is), there is no doubt that he would be an immediate upgrade at the position for the Colts.
But what happens if neither of them are Colts next year, as I think might very well happen? That means that the Colts will likely address the position in the draft, leaving the door open for Jerry Hughes to enter training camp as the starter. Does that mean I think he deserves the starting spot? Not at all. Like I said earlier, I think he is nothing more than a decent third linebacker who can fill in temporarily if the need arises (the same way I feel about Tom Zbikowski at safety). But if the Colts enter next season with Hughes and a rookie competing for the job, there is a real chance that Hughes could earn it to start the season. After all, it seems like his best play comes in the preseason, doesn't it?
Either way, looking ahead to training camp trying to project the depth chart now is useless. At this point, we just have to look at the options and realize that there is a better chance than many realize that Jerry Hughes will get the first shot to win the starting spot.
Once free agency starts in less than two weeks, we hopefully will get some answers. Stay tuned.