Counting the regular season and playoffs, Indianapolis has played 174 games since selecting quarterback Peyton Manning with the first overall pick in the 1998 draft. Manning has started every one of those games, obliterating most of Johnny Unitas’ Colts career passing records and winning a Super Bowl along the way. However, that streak may end on Sept. 7, because the certain Hall of Famer is still on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list after undergoing surgery in July to remove an infected bursa sac in his left knee.
The Colts might have enough talent to make the playoffs even if Manning isn’t at full strength to begin the season. They have loftier goals, though – including a visit to Raymond James Stadium for Super Bowl XLIII – and they’re not likely to make it to Tampa without No. 18 under center.
OFFENSE (#5 total yardage, #18 rushing, #6 passing, #3 scoring):
While Manning continues his rehabilitation, backup Jim Sorgi is running the first-team offense. If necessary, could he keep the Colts on track for a few weeks? Perhaps ... but nobody knows for sure, because he hasn’t had any meaningful playing time since he was throwing passes to Lee Evans at Wisconsin. Head coach Tony Dungy has to be concerned that Sorgi and the first-stringers haven’t yet managed a single touchdown drive this preseason. Quinn Gray and Jared Lorenzen are the other quarterbacks on the roster; both were signed after Manning’s surgery, and neither presents a threat to Sorgi’s status.
Of course, whoever starts at quarterback will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. All-Everything wide receiver Marvin Harrison finally looks healthy after a knee injury cost him most of last season, but even if the eight-time Pro Bowler has lost a step in his mid-thirties, running mate Reggie Wayne (who led the team with 104 catches for 1,510 yards and 10 TDs in 2007) has proven he’s ready to take over as the No. 1 option. With fellow first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez in the slot and tight end Dallas Clark (58-616, 11 TDs) also drawing attention, there aren’t enough defensive backs on most teams’ rosters to cover everyone.
Like Wayne, third-year running back Joseph Addai made his first trip to the Pro Bowl after last season. He’s a perfect match for the Colts offense, whose single-back, three-receiver set looks suspiciously like the one Jim Kelly used to run. After a year in Oakland, Dominic Rhodes returns as his backup. Sixth-round pick and former Syracuse-area prep star Mike Hart (Michigan) has played well during the preseason, and has a decent chance to shove holdover Kenton Keith off the roster.
All-Pro center Jeff Saturday, now in his tenth season, anchors the middle of the line. The situation at guard isn’t nearly as clear: Jake Scott signed with Tennessee, and Dylan Gandy was released. With Ryan Lilja still on the PUP list, the current depth chart lists Dan Federkeil and Charlie Johnson as the starters. (Maybe it’s a good thing Peyton is taking the preseason off.) Second-round pick Mike Pollak (Arizona State) is pushing Johnson, and may well take over at right guard soon. Left tackle Tony Ugoh, pressed into service as a rookie following Tarik Glenn’s surprising retirement, played well; on the right side, steady Ryan Diem returns for his eighth season.
DEFENSE (#3 total yardage, #15 rushing, #2 passing, #1 scoring):
Yes, those rankings are correct. Remarkable what a healthy Bob Sanders can do for the Colts defense, isn’t it? Unfortunately for Indy, though, that hasn’t happened often enough during Sanders’ four years in Naptown. He’s on the mend yet again following offseason shoulder surgery, and just returned to practice earlier this week.
Like the playmaking strong safety, franchise sack leader Dwight Freeney (Lisfranc surgery) is slowly working his way back into the lineup. The Colts will most likely use him as a designated pass rusher early on; for now, Raheem Brock has shifted outside to left end, with Robert Mathis moving to Freeney’s spot. Tackles Ed Johnson and Keyunta Dawson are young and unproven, and there’s not much depth behind them. The line could look drastically different this weekend, as several players are dealing with minor injuries. Looks like Freeney’s coming back just in time, because they may need to move Brock back inside.
Middle linebacker Gary Brackett doesn’t get a lot of publicity. Instead, he just calls the defensive signals, makes tackles, and intercepts passes (four last season, tying him with safety Antoine Bethea for the team lead). He might never make it to the Pro Bowl, but he’s an important part of Dungy’s Tampa-2 defense. Freddie Keiaho took over as the weakside ‘backer when Cato June left as a free agent, without a major dropoff in production. Tyjuan Hagler, the projected starter at SLB, tore a pectoral muscle while lifting weights during the offseason. He’s on the PUP list – but the way Clint Session has looked while filling in for him, Hagler might not get the job back.
Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson will never be mistaken for a stereotypical “shutdown” cornerback, but they’re more than adequate for the roles they fill in the Tampa-2. Jackson, especially, is a bove average in run support. Tim Jennings is the nickel, with former Bengal Keiwan Ratliff trying to make the club. Sanders, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, combines with Bethea to form one of the top safety tandems in the league. Matt Giordano has been filling in for Sanders, but rookie Brannon Condren may well take that No. 3 spot away from him before long.
In New England, Adam Vinatieri’s nickname was “Automatic Adam.” He’s still one of the better kickers in the league, but that moniker no longer applies. He missed three field goals of less than 40 yards last season, and for the first time in his nine-year career, didn’t connect on a single one of his longer attempts.
Hunter Smith is an average punter, but dreadful coverage – the worst in the league in 2007 – didn’t do him any favors. The kickoff coverage team is equally bad, allowing three touchdowns last season. Bobby April might not need any exotic gameplanning to hit a big return against them this week.
Defensive back T.J. Rushing handled both return jobs last season; he was adequate, but there’s room for improvement. Former Titan Courtney Roby and sixth-round pick Pierre Garcon (D-III Mount Union) are in the rotation, with Garcon looking like he might be a keeper.
With cutdowns next week – 75 on Tuesday, 53 on Saturday – the competition for the last few roster spots should continue to increase. (I’ve listed players with practice squad eligibility in italics, but I didn’t include players like Leodis McKelvin and James Hardy, who will obviously make the team. And if I missed anyone, my apologies.)
QB: It figures. Against the Steelers, Trent Edwards puts together two drives showcasing all the promise and potential the coaches foresaw when they decided to make him the starter ... and then promptly gets dinged in practice. Yup, these are our Buffalo Bills.
He should be all right for the season opener, though. And while it’s surely disappointing to see him miss any time, getting J.P. Losman some reps with the starters might not be a bad thing. Based on past history, the Bills will need him at some point this season.
PS eligible – Matt Baker (UDFA 08)
RB: Has sixth-round pick Xavier Omon done enough to unseat Dwayne Wright? Dick Jauron can’t like Wright’s newly acquired fumbleitis. And with fullback Darian Barnes on the roster, there’s almost no chance the Bills will keep both of them.
PS eligible – Xavier Omon (D6-08), Bruce Hall (UDFA 08)
WR: Five or six receivers in the top 53? Obviously, we won’t know what the coaches are thinking until the final cuts are announced ... but if anyone other than Steve Johnson or Justin Jenkins joins the top four (Evans, Hardy, Reed, Parrish), it’ll be an upset.
PS eligible – Steve Johnson (D7-08), Felton Huggins (UDFA-06), Scott Mayle (UDFA 07), C.J. Hawthorne (UDFA 08)
TE: So much for the Royal-Schouman showdown. New questions: How many tight ends will the Bills keep until Schouman gets back on the field, and will Courtney Anderson be one of them? Has Fine done enough to stick, or is he headed to the practice squad?
PS eligible – Derek Schouman (D4-07), Derek Fine (D4-08)
OL: As discussed on the Stadium Wall message board, Demetrius Bell may have already shown too much potential for the Bills to try to sneak him onto the practice squad. Will they have to make room for him on the active roster to keep him? Will they be making a huge mistake if they don’t?
PS eligible – Christian Gaddis (UDFA 07), Nevin McCaskill (UDFA 07), Demetrius Bell (D7-08), Robert Felton (UDFA 08)
DL: No McCargo talk from me this week. Spencer Johnson may be better than Kyle Williams, but I’m thinking that instead of making him the starter, Johnson’s ability to shift outside might just make him more valuable to the team as a “swing” man at both positions. Third-round pick Chris Ellis continues to impress, making it more likely that the DEs from the bottom of last year’s depth chart won’t be here after next weekend. My best guess: nobody will notice their absence.
PS eligible – Corey Mace (UDFA 07), Teraz McCray (UDFA 08), Derrick Jones (FA 08)
LB: Veteran Donnie Spragan isn’t the typical free agent signing by the Bills front office, which might lead one to think they don’t quite trust the younger players currently filling the backup roles. Does Spragan stick around, or will they keep someone like Costanzo (who can also play some special teams) instead?
PS eligible – Marcus Buggs (UDFA 08), Blake Costanzo, Jon Corto (UDFA 07), Jon Banks (UDFA 08)
DB: Can Buffalo possibly find room for 11 defensive backs on the roster? Seems like way too many ... but remember, that’s how many different players started at least one game in the Bills secondary last season. If they do keep only five cornerbacks, the last man out will be able to step in and contribute for another team this season. That’s a nice – and rare, especially for this team – problem to have.
PS eligible – Reggie Corner (D4-08), Kennard Cox (D7-08)
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