It's been kind of weird this off-season. For the first time in God knows how long, there are more questions about the Colts offense than about the defense. In fact, of three main areas of the team, the defense is the one that has the fewest questions. Now obviously, this is relative to us Colts fans. The "questions" we have about our team focus on depth and versatility. Let's be honest: We're lucky these are our "problems." Elite teams like New England have serious questions about who will start in their secondary, and San Diego doesn't know if their starting QB or their best playmaker in the passing game (Antonio Gates) are healthy.
With the Colts, in particular their defense, there are no current questions about who will start where. Really, if you think about it, there aren't even any big position battles. The only one on defense I can think of is SAM linebacker Tyjuan Hagler fighting off rookie Philip Wheeler, but since Wheeler is a rookie learning an entirely new system, I doubt Hagler will lose his job to him. Gary Brackett is a lock at MLB, and Freddie Keiaho would have to royally screw up to lose his starting WILL spot to the very solid Clint Session.
This means that, essentially, the entire starting defense from the 2007 season will return. This includes Dwight Freeney, who is ahead of schedule on his lis franc rehab. In fact, the Colts seem to think Freeney could play in pre-season, but are holding him back just to be safe. I realize that the Colts injury report is often a load of crap, but seeing Freeney himself say it reinforces it for me. Also expected back at 100% are Robert Mathis and Raheem Brock. Added to their arsenal of DEs are rookies Marcus Howard and Curtis Johnson; both with demon-like speed off the edge.
The key area that will warrant a close look is the secondary. Marlin Jackson, Kelvin Hayden, Bob Sanders, and Antoine Bethea are all locked in as starters. This group in one of the best secondaries in football; top 5, easily. The depth is the area that warrants attention, and not in a bad way. Third year CB Tim Jennings took over the nickel corner spot last season after then-rookie Dante Hughes went down with an injury. Hughes is now back and recovered, and both he and Jennings will battle it out in camps for the nickel back spot. Also lingering are TJ Rushing, Michael Coe, and Texas free agent rookie Brandon Foster. I don't think Keiwan Ratliff (currently listed on the roster) will last on the team.
Rushing really stepped up his coverage game in 2007. Drafted primarily as a return specialist, he has grown into a solid nickel or dime coverage DB. Because Rushing can return kicks and cover, he has likely locked down a roster spot. If Hughes is healthy, he could win back his starting nickel spot, leaving Jennings as a potential odd man out. Still, even with Jennings potentially getting lost in the shuffle, this is a very deep secondary. I mean, I haven't even touched on players like reserve safety Matt Giordano, or rookie Jamie Silva. This is a touch, hard-hitting, big play group that will flourish in 2008 if the Colts pass rush can stay healthy.
All this talk about defense, and not one mention about the DTs and the run. What difference a year makes. Last year, we were practically down on our knees, begging God Almighty not to get Booger McFarland hurt. Then, Booger went down in the first week of Training Camp. He was replaced by a group of tough, smart rookies like Ed Johnson, Quinn Pitcock, and Keyunta Dawson. Each played magnificently in 2007, and the Colts run defense improved dramatically. Teams like Jacksonville didn't run all over Indy, and even great backs like LT had a hard time gaining yards. This group is now a year older, a year wiser. With Raheem Brock returning to DT, this is a solid group.
I expect big things from this defense in 2008. They have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Bob Sanders and a (hopefully) healthy Dwight Freeney. This group should dominate.