Thursday, July 22, 2004

Scouts, Inc.

Training camps start late this year, with the first rookies not due to report until July 27. But Insider will keep the NFL fires burning all month with complete training camp previews of each team. Scouts, Inc., has sized up every roster and checks in with position-by-position breakdowns.

NFL co-MVP Peyton Manning would have been an unrestricted free agent this past offseason, but he got a new $99.2 million deal with a $34.5 million signing bonus. The deal had to be done and both parties budged to make sure it did. After all, Manning achieved his best completion percentage (67) and threw his fewest interceptions in 2003 while leading the Colts to within one game of the Super Bowl.

He also is just 28 years old and has not missed a start in six NFL seasons. However, while it's impossible to fault the Colts for getting the deal done with Manning, it's also impossible to argue the deal's negative affects on the rest of the team.

The strain was apparent this offseason when the Colts were unable to (or did not want to) re-sign OT Adam Meadows, DE Chad Bratzke, OLB Marcus Washington, and DBs Walt Harris and David Macklin. It could be even more apparent -- particularly to Manning himself -- next offseason when the team will have to decide between re-signing WR Marvin Harrison or RB Edgerrin James.

Manning is the best in the NFL right now at what he does in terms of making excellent pre-snap reads, putting his offense in the best play-call possible, distributing the ball to his weapons all while doing perhaps the best job of any quarterback in the NFL of protecting it. However, Manning does not have the ability to carry a team without weapons -- such as Steve McNair has done in the past and Michael Vick has shown glimpses of -- so it will be interesting to see if his effectiveness begins to tail off in '05 when he starts to lose some of those key weapons around him.

As far as '04 is concerned, however, Manning returns with his offensive line almost completely intact and with the same set of skill players to work with, which means another record-breaking season isn't out of the question.

Depth at the position is not often mentioned because of Manning's history of durability, but if something were to happen to the franchise quarterback, the Colts are among the least prepared in the NFL. Cory Sauter is the immediate backup and sixth-round selection Jim Sorgi is battling NFL Europe QB Tom Arth for the No. 3 developmental job.

Sauter entered the league in '98 as a developmental QB with only limited upside. While he deserves credit for hanging around the league this long, it is our opinion that he is a waste of time. He does not have the tools and has not shown the progress to be anything more than a No. 3 in the NFL.

After watching Arth in NFL Europe it seems to us that he's the best of the reserve group, but he has no NFL experience, which is why he'll be the No. 3 at best in '04. Sorgi has a chance to develop into a "caretaker" type of No. 3 quarterback in the NFL, but he has minimal upside. The Colts obviously need to develop a quality backup for Manning in the future, but Arth has more potential than Sorgi.

Running backs
The Colts' offense has always been at its best when it has been able to run the ball effectively -- particularly early in games -- in order to keep defenses honest and to set up the play-action passing series for Manning.

That's why Edgerrin James' health and productivity are even more important than most realize. Another year removed from the torn left ACL injury in '01, James should continue to make strides. He may never be the explosive and versatile back he was prior to the injury, but he was a lot closer to himself late last season than he had been since the injury and that gained confidence should make a big difference in him to begin this season. If James and the Colts running game get untracked, this offense could be the most balanced and explosive in '04.

Backup Dominic Rhodes will also be another year removed from his season-ending '02 knee injury and will have a lot of pressure to perform, as he will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and will be looking to use the '04 season to prove to the Colts -- or the other 31 NFL teams -- that he has completely regained his speed, burst and confidence.

Rhodes, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in '01 when filling in for the injured James, should see a 5-10 carry-per-game load as James' backup in '04, and his ability to keep James fresh and rested late into games and late into the season could prove to be a big key for the Colts down the stretch.

The Colts also have great depth behind James and Rhodes with James Mungro, Brian Allen and Ran Carthon all competing for what could be just one remaining spot on the roster. Mungro has the most experience of the group and is a hard working back with enough quickness, burst, toughness and competitiveness to keep as a No. 3, but he doesn't have the upside of Allen or Carthon, which is why he could be the odd-man-out.

Carthon comes as an undrafted rookie free agent and obviously has the least experience of the group, but he has the most upside and versatility. The only reason they would keep Mungro over Carthon is Mungro's experience, and the only way they would keep Allen over Carthon is Allen's potential to return kicks.

Because the Colts use so many two-tight end sets offensively, the fullback position is not a key aspect of the scheme. Typically, the team will keep just one on its active roster. His role is almost strictly as a blocker with very little opportunity to touch the football. The leading candidate is returning starter Tom Lopienski, who still needs some technique work as a blocker, but he has the size, power and temperament to handle the job in '04. He also showed some upside as a special teams player as a rookie.

Lopienski will have to fight off undrafted rookie free agent Carey Davis, who is a more versatile athlete but doesn't block nearly as well as Lopienski and doesn't fit what the Colts are looking for very well.

Wide receivers
The Colts own one of the most explosive, productive, complementary and deepest groups of wide receivers in the NFL. Everything obviously begins with Marvin Harrison and his ability to provide Manning not only with a consistent short-to-intermediate go-to-receiver, but also to stretch the field in order to free up some pasture for Reggie Wayne and others to work.

While size, age and durability are long-term concerns, the Colts need to find a way to fit him under their salary cap in a long-term deal when he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of '04 because outside of Manning, Harrison is the biggest piece of the Colts' offensive puzzle.

Wayne is a versatile possession receiver with very good route running skills and some after-the-catch explosiveness if he catches the ball in space. He is coming off his most productive professional career in '03 (68 receptions) and has become the ideal complement to Harrison. Wayne works equally well on the perimeter as he does the outside, which allows the team to be flexible with No. 3 WR Brandon Stokley.

After battling such frustrating injuries early last season that he contemplated retirement, Stokley was a key factor down the stretch with 19 receptions in the final four regular-season games and then another 11 catches for 223 yards and three touchdowns in the playoffs. Stokley works best out of the slot and provides vertical speed that Wayne lacks. When the two are on the same side Stokley usually works the vertical routes and clears things out for Wayne. With Harrison typically drawing double team attention opposite them, the Colts' three-receiver set can be frightening to defend.

Troy Walters is coming off his best season, as well, with 36 receptions. He also provides some versatility because of his ability to return punts when the team needs him to. He is a solid No. 4, but with youngsters such as Aaron Moorehead and Brad Pyatt showing so much potential, Walters is going to have to earn his spot on the roster in '04 training camp.

If we had to handicap it, the Colts are likely to keep six receivers and will make room by keeping just one fullback. Walters will be a holdover for his experience and versatility and Moorehead because of his terrific upside as a receiver due to his size/speed ratio.

While Pyatt has the least experience and upside as a receiver, his real value is in the return game, where he averaged 28.6 yards per kickoff return and 9.2 yards per punt return before suffering a season-ending neck injury on Nov. 7. If Pyatt returns healthy, he should once again handle a good deal of the load in the return game as the Colts' No. 6 receiver.

Tight ends
Dallas Clark suffered a season-ending broken fibula vs. the Patriots on Nov. 30, but prior to the injury he had developed into a focal point of the Colts' offense with 29 receptions in his first 10 games. He has fully recovered from the injury and he should pick up where he left off.

Clark does not have blazing speed as a receiver and is never going to be a great in-line blocker, but he proved early on as a rookie that he is a great fit as an athletic, intelligent and sure-handed short-to-intermediate option in the Colts' two-tight end set. Clark was clearly the focus at the tight end position in the Colts' favorite two-tight end set, and that should be the case with Clark back healthy this season.

Marcus Pollard is still a capable receiver and solid all-around starter, but he's 32 years old and a much better fit now as a complement to Clark than he is as the focal point.

When Clark went down last season, the Colts learned a valuable lesson regarding depth at the position, as they had to ditch a good majority of offensive coordinator Tom Moore's favorite set. The reason it is so successful is because Pollard and Clark both have the versatility to hold up as blockers, but more importantly to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties in the passing game.

When Clark went down, Moore was fortunate that Stokley got healthy and emerged as a weapon at the No. 3 slot position. However, the organization wasn't going to take that risk again, which is why they used a third-round selection on Ben Hartsock in this year's draft. Hartsock doesn't have great speed, but much like Clark and Pollard, he has terrific hands, finds ways to get the job done as a blocker, and is an intelligent player who won't make many mental mistakes.

The Colts could entertain keeping a fourth tight end, but it's not likely. They did sign undrafted rookie free agent Ben Utecht, but they did so with the knowledge that Utecht would have to spend his first season on the physically unable to perform list as a result of a lingering groin injury.

Utecht has the upside as a pass-catching specialist to win the No. 4 job in '05 if he rehabs the groin, but if the Colts keep a fourth tight end in '04 it will either be Chad Bartoszek or Bryan Fletcher. Fletcher is a better receiver, but Bartoszek has more all-around potential. However, in all honesty, neither is much to get excited about, which is why the team will likely stick with three tight ends on its regular-season roster to begin the season.

Offensive line
The Colts' offensive line is one of the most underrated and overachieving units in the NFL, and much of the credit needs to go to line coach Howard Mudd. The only player with anywhere near elite physical tools is LOT Tarik Glenn.

The rest of the unit is a virtual bunch of no-name individuals who have spent the majority of the last two seasons together as starters and have bonded into a very efficient and athletic whole. The anchor of the unit is OC Jeff Saturday, who has been a starter the last four seasons.

Saturday will get overpowered at times and is clearly at his best when he is uncovered against a traditional 4-3 defensive front, but he knows how to make the most of his ability and the Colts know when they need to give him help. He has a wonderful understanding of the offense and has developed into the quarterback of the offensive line, which isn't an easy job with Manning making all the pre-snap audibles that he does.

LOG Rick DeMulling and ROT Ryan Diem are young and were sources of concern heading into the last two seasons, but now they have combined for 67 starts and have established themselves as very solid starters who continue to improve with more experience.

The same questions are now being asked about the right guard position, where Tupe Peko and Steve Sciullo are going to battle it out in training camp for the starting job. Sciullo has more upside because of his size and strength, but he just wasn't ready as a rookie and had trouble staying healthy, which led to Peko's playing time.

Peko did an admirable job as a fill-in starter last season. He gives a great effort, is technically sound and won't make many mental mistakes. However, he is just a marginal starter at this point and doesn't have much room to improve. The Colts can live with him as a starter this season if he is able to beat out Sciullo, but Peko is a much better fit as a backup, which is why this would become a weak spot on their offensive line that would need to be upgraded in '05 if Sciullo proves incapable of handling the task.

Depth is decent but not great. For starters, the loser of the camp competition between Peko and Sciullo for the starting right guard position will become a good backup at both guard spots. Rex Richards is unproven but is worth keeping around as a developmental No. 4 guard. Saturday will be backed up by second-year pro Joe Iorio, who essentially is a poor-man's and inexperienced Saturday. Iorio was cut last preseason and did not spend a game on the active roster, so it will be important that he proves up to the task in the upcoming training camp.

As far as depth at tackle is concerned, the Colts should feel a lot better after Makoa Freitas (a sixth-round pick in '03) was thrown into the fire for the injured Glenn and held up well as a rookie. Freitas has an outside chance of developing into a starter somewhere down the line -- either at OT or OG -- but for now he has proved to be a capable backup to Glenn.

The Colts also used a fifth-round pick in this year's draft on Jake Scott, who is simply a versatile developmental offensive lineman who fits the Colts mold and could eventually develop into a starter at either tackle or guard if he progresses as expected.

Defensive line
Much like it was when coach Tony Dungy was in Tampa Bay, the Colts' defensive line is predicated on speed, athleticism and penetration. While the organization has done a good job of finding the right fits, there just aren't enough playmakers in the group.

In fact, RDE Dwight Freeney is the only consistent impact player on the defensive line. Freeney remains too much of a one-dimensional player. He needs to continue to improve his strength, array of pass rush moves and technique/diagnose vs. the run. However, while there are a lot of technical flaws to point out in Freeney's game, few if any have his upfield explosiveness as a pass rusher. If teams don't account for him with double-team attention on passing downs, he will either get to the quarterback or absolutely disrupt his timing.

Opposite Freeney at left defensive end, the Colts will use a combination of Raheem Brock and Brad Scioli. Brock has exceeded expectations throughout the course of his first two NFL seasons as a former undrafted rookie free agent. He is an athletic player with good speed and a great work ethic. He is active versus the run and gets occasional pressure on the quarterback. However, it is still our opinion that Brock is a below-average starter who would be more effective and is a better fit as a "wave" DE.

If Scioli can spell starting Brock at end on some obvious running downs and then move inside to spell DTs Larry Tripplett and/or Montae Reagor on obvious passing downs, then this unit should be upgraded from a year ago. The concern, however, is that after Scioli re-signed a long-term deal with the team prior to the '03 season, his production dipped terribly in the beginning of the season, which resulted in his playing time getting cut. For a unit that desperately needs depth in order to stay fresh and active, the Colts are putting an awful lot of their eggs in what proved to be an unreliable basket last season. The only other end on the roster of consequence is Robert Mathis, who is nothing more than a potential pass rush specialist.

The biggest problem on the interior of this defensive line, in our opinion, is that it lacks difference makers. DTs Larry Tripplett, Montae Reagor and Josh Williams are all active players who can be effective when fresh, but none of the three are good full-time starters. Furthermore, the three combined for 32 starts last season but combined for just 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

In order for this unit to make strides from last season, Scioli, David Pugh and Keith Wright need to provide enough production to keep the other fresh, and the talented but inconsistent Williams needs to take over as a starter and become the impact player the unit is missing right now.

In the last two seasons, the Colts have had to watch two very good starting linebackers (WLB Mike Peterson, '03 and SLB Marcus Washington, '04) walk out the door with no compensation in return as a result of the organization's constricted salary-cap situation.

As a result, the team is left with a middle linebacker in Rob Morris who doesn't fit the mold in terms of the athletic and versatile playmaker it is looking for, LOLB David Thornton, who isn't up to Peterson's par but is a similarly athletic player who stepped in as a first-year starter last season and led the team in tackles, and rookie third-round pick Gilbert Gardner at the ROLB position.

Gardner struggled through an injury-plagued career at Purdue, but he is a good athlete with loads of upside if he can stay healthy and adjust quickly. If not, the team has a logjam of options that it doesn't want to tap into with sixth-year veteran Jim Nelson, '03 sixth-round pick Cato June or '03 fifth-round pick Keyon Whiteside.

Nelson is a versatile backup who can play ILB or OLB in a pinch, and he also is a solid contributor on special teams, but he's not a good enough athlete or a big enough impact player to give the Colts what they need as a starter at ROLB. June was a college safety who spent his rookie season adjusting to life in the NFL as well as a new position and is not big enough or seasoned enough to handle the role.

Whiteside is tough, aggressive and has adequate speed and quickness, but he just doesn't have any special qualities. He had a disappointing rookie season and really needs to show more progress in '04 training camp in order to make the Colts' roster. The only other outside linebacker who should make the roster is rookie fourth-round pick Kendyll Pope, who also is a good fit in terms of his athleticism but needs time to develop and likely will provide nothing more than special teams' contributions as a rookie.

As far as the middle linebacker situation is concerned, if Morris played in a scheme that would allow him to be more of a two-down, search-and-flow MLB behind a defensive line that protected him, he could be a solid starter. The problem, however, is that Morris is not what the Colts are looking for from their MLB. He has to come out on passing downs because he's a liability in coverage, and he doesn't have the type of range that Dungy's scheme demands from the position.

It's obviously easier said than done, but this is one of those scenarios where both parties would benefit from a split. For now, however, the Colts are stuck with Morris as their best option at the position.

Morris' only backup is Gary Brackett, who played well as an undrafted rookie a season ago and should see time as a nickel replacement in his second season. However, while Brackett is a better fit in terms of athleticism, he is not fit to be a full-time starter in the NFL. The Colts are better off with a solid starter who doesn't fit the scheme well than they are with a marginal starter who fits better. If they play their cards right, the Colts can get the best out of both of them by using Morris on running downs and Brackett on obvious passing downs.

Much like the linebacker corps, the Colts' secondary is a unit in flux. Both starting cornerbacks from a season ago (Walt Harris and David Macklin) are gone. While we agree with the move to get younger than Harris and to part ways with Macklin, who lacks upside and was a marginal starter for the team, the problem is that the Colts haven't necessarily upgraded their cornerback situation from a year ago.

In all reality, they could enter the season with two starting cornerbacks -- Joseph Jefferson and Donald Strickland -- who have no starting experience.

Jefferson has the most upside of the group with a very good combination of size and speed. He also seems to be a good fit in the Colts' zone coverage scheme. Jefferson was not ready as a rookie coming from the small school collegiate level, and it certainly didn't help things that he missed his second season with a hernia, but he is loaded with talent and is healthy entering '04 camp.

The Colts would rather Strickland win the starting left corner job opposite Jefferson because Strickland is younger and flashes more upside in terms of toughness and playmaking skills, but the two will have to battle it out in camp. The Colts also have two rookies in fourth-round pick Jason David and sixth-round pick Von Hutchins who will compete for playing time in the dime package.

Hutchins is faster, but David is tough and probably a lot closer to being ready to contribute. The winner of that battle will probably play a limited role in the dime, while the loser is likely to spend most of his rookie season on special teams as the No. 5 cornerback.

Overall, when breaking down the Colts' cornerback situation, it seems to us that they have potentially a solid No. 2 in Jefferson, two solid No. 3 corners in Harper and Strickland, and two developmental No. 5 corners in rookies David and Hutchins, but their lack of a solid No. 1 starter is glaring and it could be even worse if Jefferson fails to rise to the challenge. The unit is obviously protected by the cover-2 zone scheme, but its lack of experience and proven playmakers is a big concern.

The safety position is also young and has gone through its share of turnover the past couple of seasons, but the situation is a lot brighter. Mike Doss will start at strong safety. He still needs to improve his diagnostic skills and overall consistency. He also will always be better versus the run than he is the pass, and better in zone than he is in man-to-man coverage. However, Doss was an adequate starter as a rookie who showed the potential to develop into an upper-echelon starter with more experience.

Doss likely will be paired up with rookie FS Bob Sanders. 2001 second-round pick Idrees Bashir might begin the season as a starter, but once Sanders is ready he will take over the job. While Bashir got off to a fast start as a full-time starter as a rookie, he has not progressed as expected and durability has also become a major concern. Bashir has not gotten any bigger or stronger.

He is still below average in run support and, while he has good range in coverage, he has never been a big-play type of centerfielder. Sanders will be one of the shortest safeties in the NFL when he takes over for Bashir, but he should provide an immediate upgrade in terms of toughness and playmaking skills.

Cory Bird and Anthony Floyd will compete for the fourth and final safety position behind Doss, Sanders and Bashir. Bird was once a promising young safety who now is entering a crossroads phase of his career after missing 16 games because of injury over the course of the last three seasons. Bird is a physical player with the power, speed and range to develop into a starting SS in this league, but his lack of progress and inability to stay healthy have really robbed him of his potential.

Floyd, on the other hand, was an absolute playmaker at the college level but did not get drafted because of his poor NFL measurables. He is on the shorter side, has just decent speed and was only adequate when he played on special teams as a rookie. He does have some upside as a reserve centerfielder-type free safety because of his ball skills, but in all reality, Bird is a better all-around talent who will offer a lot more production on special teams if he stays healthy during camp and earns the job.