This article is part of our Team Previews series.
By Peter Schoenke
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Colts may be flying a bit under the radar in 2008 after their disappointing playoff exit last season. However, they may be the best team in football, with arguably the league's best defense and a return of all the key players on offense that led them to the Super Bowl just two seasons ago.
The Colts started last season 7-0 for the third consecutive year, but lost a heartbreaker at home to the Patriots in Week 9 after leading most of the game. The Indy offense was without Marvin Harrison, who suffered a knee injury in Week 4, and he wouldn't return until the playoffs. In Week 10, Dwight Freeney was lost for the season to a foot injury.
The Colts still went 6-1 down the stretch led by their defense (first overall in points allowed) and with continued excellence on offense. The team earned the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, but lost at home to a Chargers team that lost Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson during the game.
The Colts should bounce back in 2008 with nearly every starter returning. The big question mark for the offense is the status of Harrison's knees, both of which required offseason surgery. Even without Harrison for much of the season, the offense scored the third most points per game and gained the fifth most yards per game in the league. Reggie Wayne (an NFL-leading 1,510 receiving yards) and tight end Dallas Clark (a franchise record 11 touchdowns for a tight end) picked up the slack. The running game was in good hands, as Joseph Addai had 1,072 yards rushing and 15 total touchdowns. As long as Peyton Manning stays healthy (he has 160 consecutive starts), Colts should continue to frequent the first few rounds of fantasy drafts.
Indy's defense has gone from an average group, which was dead last in rushing yards allowed during the 2006 regular season, to an elite unit. The transition started to take place in the 2006 playoffs, once Bob Sanders returned from a knee injury. The hard-hitting safety anchors a secondary that smothers opposing passing games. Indy's cover-2 scheme limits deep passes and relies on DBs, particularly cornerbacks that can make tackles against the running game. Marlin Jackson (88 tackles) and Kelvin Hayden (83 tackles) excelled in the defense and were better than the players whom they replaced. Still, the Colts' defense is anchored by opposing offenses needing to game plan around Freeney, so his return from his Lisfranc injury is key. Undrafted defensive tackle Ed Johnson helped fill a big need as a run-stuffer and the unit improved to 15th against the rush. Still, stopping the run remains a concern with Indy's speedy, but undersized, defense.
Round, Overall, Player
3. (93) Philip Wheeler, LB, Georgia Tech
Blitzing linebacker could earn immediate playing time as backup.
5. (161) Marcus Howard, LB, Georgia
Speed-rusher will be converted to defensive end.
6. (196) Tom Santi, TE, Virginia
Blocking tight end could secure playing time right away.
6. (201) Steve Justice, C, Wake Forest
Adds depth behind Saturday.
6. (205) Pierre Garcon, WR, Mount Union
Small school star could win return job.
7. (236) Jamey Richard, C, Buffalo
Team took three centers to add depth to offensive line.
Dominic Rhodes, RB (Raiders)
Will try to reclaim his backup role to Joseph Addai.
Jake Scott, T (Titans)
Charlie Johnson should take over at right guard.
Ben Utecht, TE (Bengals)
Rookie Jacob Tamme may fill second pass-catching TE role.
Rocky Boiman, LB (Eagles)
Draft picks need to overcome loss of linebacker depth.
WILL Marvin Harrison BE HEALTHY?
Marvin Harrison had missed just six games in his career before suffering a sprained left knee that ruptured his bursa sac last season. When he returned for the playoffs, he looked rusty. He is rehabbing the aforementioned knee this offseason and also had an arthroscopic procedure to clean out a joint in his right knee, which kept him out of the team's May minicamp.
The Colts have not been forthright in giving out information on Harrison's injuries, so there's still a cloud of uncertainty on the long-term damage to both knees. If he becomes less of a focal point in the offense, Anthony Gonzalez could move into a more prominent role. While manning both the slot and outside as a rookie, Gonzalez had 576 receiving yards, including two 100-plus yard games, despite missing three games with hand and foot injuries.
WHO WILL BE Joseph Addai'S BACKUP AND WHAT ROLE WILL HE PLAY?
After the tandem of Addai and Dominic Rhodes led the Colts to Super Bowl XLI, there was talk last summer that Indy would maintain a committee approach in spite of Rhodes' departure. A rotation didn't materialize, as Addai received 68 percent of the carries after recording just 54 percent in 2006.
Kenton Keith won the backup role and had a 121-yard, two-touchdown effort in the one game Addai missed. He was strong around the goal line but dropped a key pass that led to an interception in the playoffs. Beyond that, he was arrested in an offseason scuffle with police at a nightclub. His troubles led to the signing of Rhodes, who returns after a disappointing season with the Raiders.
The Colts also drafted Mike Hart, who was a star in college in a top conference, but fell to the sixth round over concerns about his lack of speed. Addai's fantasy value could be impacted if the winner of the backup job plays a large role similar to 2006.
WILL Dwight Freeney BECOME A FORCE AGAIN?
Freeney is coming back from surgery to repair a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot that ended his 2007 season after nine games. Although he was held out of a minicamp in May and will be eased into work this summer, he expects to be ready for the start of the regular season. Freeney keys the Colts' defense, as opposing offenses need to game plan around him and match multiple players against him. He has just nine sacks over his last 25 games (compared to 49 sacks in 63 games his first four years), but the Colts insist he was still a force and tied up blockers, which allowed others on the defense to make plays. Any drop-off in production on his part could have a cascading effect on the defense.
Declining: Marvin Harrison is coming off two knee surgeries, will turn 36 years old in August, and the offense proved it can survive without him.
Sleeper: Freddy Keiaho showed flashes of brilliance last season but couldn't stay healthy. The weak-side linebacker always puts up big numbers in a Tony Dungy defense.
Dwight Freeney, DE
His health may be Indy's most important offseason issue.
Bob Sanders, S
Defensive Player of the Year had 96 tackles, two interceptions and 3.5 sacks.
RotoWire Rank: 16
Article first appeared 6/1/08