Third-year head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson both believe that the Indianapolis Colts are ready to take another big step in 2014.
After two straight 11-win seasons, Pagano and Grigson both understand that big things are expected from the Colts this year.
"Just felt like as a staff we've had such great participation, great work, made great strides (during OTAs and minicamp). Everybody got better. We got better on all three phases," Pagano admitted.
"Pleased with the offseason program, pleased with the minicamp and the direction we're headed and the guys are excited to get away. We talked about being smart, doing the right thing, making great choices and staying in the playbook, working at their craft day-in and day-out. So with that, we're happy where we're at."
So how much improvement did he see during the spring and early-summer workouts?
"We're better, but we've still got a long way to go not only on offense, but defense and special teams. Again, we made progress but we've still got a long way to go. We need to take the next step, and the next step is the next 34 days (after minicamp).
"It's 34 days before we return to Anderson (University) and training camp starts. It's vacation, but it isn't vacation, not if you're chasing that (championship). We made progress, but we've got a long way to go still."
Grigson would tend to agree.
"We're nowhere close to where we want to be truthfully. We're nowhere close. The arrow is up and with each position group we feel like some guys have to emerge and have to answer the bell, so to speak, because really at the end of the day it all comes down to everyone has to play at a championship level. Guys that aren't there yet have to at least be playing on a winning level. We have to all converge at some point and be playing at a championship level to win this whole thing," he pointed out.
"This whole league, we just talked about it the other day with Chuck, everybody works long hours, there's a lot of smart guys on 32 teams in this league and it's a fraction of a difference between who wins and who loses in this league. So we have to do everything we can to keep moving in a positive direction and I think we are."
From a player personnel standpoint, the Colts' head coach likes the roster that he has to work with.
"I mean you look at this team today compared to when we started (in 2012), like I told the team (during minicamp) it's going to be really, really difficult, and I told our staff, really difficult to get to 53 this year," Pagano said. "When we get to final cutdown, it is going to be difficult."
Grigson is always concerned about staying healthy as a team.
"The key is the injury stuff. I think we have enough horses to win a lot of games. We've got a hell of a coaching staff. I think we're in a good position to win. We just need to stay healthy and we need to at those critical position groups where we're having some new faces, guys have to go out there and be ready and be ready early," he admitted.
One thing different this year, though, is that the Colts have progressed from contender to one of the favorites to win the AFC. Grigson liked being the underdog.
"I think when you have a team of competitors, I think you'd be kidding yourself or you'd be being dishonest if when naysayers say something, we don't have guys where it gets under their skin. It's going to get under guys' skin if you're a competitor because you feel like you're always out here trying to prove yourself," he said.
"Secondly, you want to prove to everyone else that you're a winner and that you're going to win and win a Super Bowl. I feel like our guys thrive on that. I like when our backs are to the wall because our guys have always responded."
Players report: July 23
First practice: July 24
Camp ends: Aug. 13
--Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was asked what advice he gave his team prior to the conclusion of mandatory minicamp practices.
"We talk about the 'lion in the field,' which is total focus. The hunt, right? And anything that doesn't have to do with the hunt, don't do it," Pagano said referring to the time off between minicamp and the start of training camp.
--Pagano talked about the team's health heading into training camp on July 23. Several players, including wide receiver Reggie Wayne, running back Vick Ballard and guard Donald Thomas, -- sat out OTAs and minicamp.
"Yeah, I think the guys that missed a few days here and there were just minor, minor things, so I'm not concerned about those guys being ready come July," the Indianapolis head coach said.
--Pagano talked about the makeup of the Colts now as compared to when he first took over as head coach prior to the 2012 season.
"Year three, heading in the right direction. We've got everybody singing out of the same hymnal. Everybody's on the same page. Everybody understands what our environment and our culture is. They understand process. They understand what 'BTM' (Build The Monster) means," he said.
"We had a trivia, little trivia deal in a team meeting (during minicamp), had some of the rookies come down and asked them some questions. So we enlightened them all on what 'BTM' stood for. I feel good going into year three. We took a step last year, we need to take another one this year."
--Wide receiver Reggie Wayne says that he is ready to go for the start of training camp. Wayne missed the second half of the 2013 season with a torn ACL. He did not practice during OTAs or minicamp, even though he admittedly thought about sneaking into a drill or two.
"It was kind of tough to deal with a little bit, just looking at the guys and especially the receivers out there making plays and coming together trying to have the same common goal," Wayne said.
"I just want to go out there and contribute and give my part like I've always wanted to do. So it was kind of bittersweet but I know my time's coming."
So how ready is Wayne to show people that he can return from injury at 35 years of age? Pagano has said that he plans to ease the Pro-Bowl receiver into the training camp routine.
"I am, like you said, champing at the bit to get out there. Like I told our receiver coach, I said, 'I'm that Chevy that's in the garage. As soon as you open the garage, I'm out. I'm gone,' " he related.
"So I'm just waiting until they tell me I can go on and suit up and be a normal football player. Up until then, I'll kind of help teach a little bit and do as much as I possibly can."
--That being said, Wayne is expected to show up for training camp with more than a few chips on his shoulder. He has a point to prove.
"I feel great. I can't wait until camp. This is going to be a long 34 days (from the end of minicamp to the start of training camp) for me. I'm excited where I am. I'm excited where this team is right now," he said.
"At the same time, it's been humbling. But for some strange reason, I seem to be a little hungrier now than I was (when he was in college). I'm to the point where, like I said, back then I had some time. Now, I don't have that time. I know what my age is, I know what's up against me. I'm geeked about showing everybody what I can do at 35."
--Second-round draft pick Jack Mewhort is fighting for a starting position on the offensive line. Mewhort has seen work at left guard during OTAs and minicamp, but also will be tested at center and offensive tackle.
"(My head is) not spinning as much as it was when I first got here. It's definitely slowing down a little bit. Every day you're learning new things and becoming more and more comfortable with the system, the calls out there and who you're playing next to. I wouldn't say my head's still spinning, but there's definitely a lot I still need to learn," he admitted.
"I make mistakes every day, things I can learn from. I feel like I made good strides through OTAs and minicamp and I'm going to continue on this break to get better and just try to improve myself so when camp comes I can contribute in every way possible to the organization."
--Team strength: Quarterback Andrew Luck.
The Colts will only go as far as the team's third-year signal caller will take them. Luck has guided Indy to consecutive post-season appearances and a memorable come-from-behind win over Kansas City in a wild-card game last year.
--Breakout player: Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks.
After a down year with the New York Giants in 2013, Nicks signed a one-year deal with the Colts in the offseason. With Andrew Luck throwing him passes, he has a chance to have a huge year for Indianapolis.
--Fantasy football reality check: Tight end Dwayne Allen.
Allen missed most of the 2012 season with a hip injury. As a rookie in 2012, he proved to be a huge piece of the Colts offense -- especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Andrew Luck. Backups -- Matt Hasselbeck, Chandler Harnish.
Luck will be starting his third season with the Colts. He's made the Pro Bowl in each of his first two years, albeit as a late addition. Still, he has become one of the best young quarterbacks in the league in a relatively short amount of time. Hasselbeck is the primary backup and will provide a veteran presence in the role. Harnish is a capable short-term fix if needed.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Trent Richardson. Backups -- Vick Ballard, Ahmad Bradshaw, FB Mario Harvey, FB Stanley Havili, Dan Herron, Chris Rainey, Zurlon Tipton, FB Cameron White.
Richardson got off to a rough beginning as a starter after joining the Colts in an early-season trade from Cleveland. The Browns' former first-round draft pick has had a full offseason to hone his skills in the Colts' offense. Now it's time for him to show what he can do. Bradshaw (neck) and Ballard (knee) are both returning from injuries. The Colts are expected to use all three in a regular rotation. Rainey and Herron can be used as receivers out of the backfield. Harvey made the move from defensive line to fullback during OTAs. Havili, though, should be the No. 1 fullback if he can return from an ankle injury ready to go.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Coby Fleener. Backups -- Dwayne Allen, Jack Doyle, Weslye Saunders, Erik Swoope.
Fleener had a good season last year as he got the bulk of the work. Allen, who had a strong rookie year in 2012, missed most of last season with a hip injury. He should be good to go this year. The one-two punch of Fleener and Allen could give the Colts one of the best tight-end combos in the NFL. Saunders is more of an H-back while Doyle is a good run and pass blocker. Swoope is a former college basketball player making the transition to football.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks. Backups -- Ryan Lankford, Josh Lenz, Donte Moncrief, Greg Moore, Da'Rick Rogers, Eric Thomas, Tony Washington, Griff Whalen.
Wayne should be good to go when training camp starts after missing most of last year with a knee injury. Hilton continues to get better and is one of the most impressive young receivers in the league. Nicks is looking for redemption after a down year with the Giants in 2013. Moncrief looked good in offseason work and is expected to be in the rotation. The question now is who will ultimately emerge from a group that consists of Rogers and Whalen to be the final receiver on the roster. Rogers has outstanding skills and size but consistency remains an issue. Whalen knows the offense inside and out. LaVon Brazill was expected to compete, but he will miss the entire season because of a league suspension for substance abuse.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Donald Thomas, C Khaled Holmes, RG Hugh Thornton, RT Gosder Cherilus. Backups - T Jack Bruckner, C Jonotthan Harrison, T Ulrick John, G Lance Louis, C FN Lutz, G/T Jack Mewhort, T Xavier Nixon, G Joe Reitz, G Josh Walker, G Chad Anderson.
There are still some kinks to work out among the first unit. Castonzo, Holmes and Cherilus are probably the only sure things in terms of a starting group. Thomas is due back from injury issues that cost him all of last season. Thornton had an up-and-down rookie season. Holmes remains a bit of a question mark as he will be in his first year as a starter at center. Mewhort and/or Louis are strong contenders to win starting roles at guard.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE Cory Redding, NT Josh Chapman, DT Ricky Jean Francois. Backups - E Tyler Hover, T Montori Hughes, E Arthur Jones, NT Zach Kerr, NT Brandon McKinney, E Nnamdi Obukwelu, T Jeris Pendleton.
Depth along the defensive line should be a little bit better this year. Chapman will be a full time starter at nose tackle after sharing the duty last year. Jean Francois will be pushed by Jones, who signed with the Colts as a free agent after playing in Baltimore the last several seasons. Hughes and Pendleton are expected to pick up their games this year. McKinney missed the last two seasons recovering from a serious knee injury.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - SLB Erik Walden, SILB D'Qwell Jackson, WILB Jerrell Freeman, WLB Robert Mathis. Backups -- OLB Daniel Adongo, ILB Andrew Jackson, OLB Cam Johnson, ILB Josh McNary, Aaron Morgan, ILB Henoc Muamba, OLB Jonathan Newsome, ILB Kelvin Sheppard, OLB Andy Studebaker, OLB Bjoern Werner.
Mathis will miss the first four games of the 2014 season as he serves a league-mandated suspension for violating the NFL's PED policy. Who takes over for the league's 2013 sack leader remains to be decided. Werner, the Colts' 2013 first-round draft pick, had a learning season as a rookie. Now it's time for him to show that the coaching staff's faith in his abilities has been well-placed. Freeman and former Browns starter D'Qwell Jackson are expected to start inside with Walden returning for his second year on the strong side. Big things are expected from Adongo, McNary, Newsome and former CFL player Muamba in backup roles. Sheppard might be the odd-man out when final roster cuts are made.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Greg Toler, S Delano Howell, S LaRon Landry, RCB Vontae Davis. Backups - CB Johnny Adams, S Mike Adams, S Colt Anderson, S Sergio Brown, CB Marcus Burley, CB Brandon Burton, CB Darius Butler, CB Qua Cox, CB Josh Gordy, CB Kameron Jackson, S Dewey McDonald, CB Sheldon Price, CB Louchiez Purifoy, S David Sims.
Toler is back from an ankle injury that cost him valuable playing time last season. Davis also returns after having an up-and-down 2013 campaign. Consistency remains an issue for the talented cornerback. Landry missed OTAs and did not participate in mini-camp due to a "soft-tissue" injury. He also had an inconsistent 2013 season. With Antoine Bethea now in San Francisco, Howell will get the first chance to take over as a starter. Mike Adams, Brown and McDonald are also candidates to replace Bethea. The Colts added some interesting young prospects at cornerback in the offseason, including Cox, Burley and Purifoy.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Adam Vinateri, P Pat McAfee, LS Matt Overton, PR Griff Whalen, KOR Donte Moncrief, K Cody Parkey.
Vinatieri and McAfee form one of the best one-two kicker combinations in the league. Both were re-signed during the offseason. McAfee also handles kickoff chores as well as being Vinatieri's primary holder. He may also get an opportunity to be the Colts' long-range kicker should the situation arise. Overton earned a Pro-Bowl berth as the team's long snapper. The jury is still out as to who will wind up being the punt and kickoff returners, although Whalen should return punts and Moncrief may return kickoffs.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--ILB Pat Angerer (not tendered as UFA).
--WR Deion Branch (not tendered as UFA).
--NT Aubrayo Franklin (not tendered as UFA).
--ILB Scott Lutrus (Not tendered as ERFA).
--LB Lawrence Sidbury (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--DT Jeris Pendleton (tendered at $495,000) did a nice job in a backup role last season. He played in the final regular-season game and then in both playoff contests. Pendleton showed good quickness for a big man. Might return in 2014.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED
--G Jack Mewhort (2/59): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--WR Donte Moncrief (3/90): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Jonathan Newsome (5/166): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Andrew Jackson (6/203): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--T Ulrick John (7/232): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--RB Ahmad Bradshaw: UFA; $855,000/1 yr.
--S Sergio Brown: UFA; terms unknown.
--CB Vontae Davis: UFA; $39M/4 yrs, $20M guaranteed.
--CB Josh Gordy: RFA tendered at $1.431M with no compensation; $1.431M/1 yr.
--P Pat McAfee: Potential UFA; $14.5M/5 yrs, $1M SB.
--LB Cam Johnson: Potential ERFA; $495,000/1 yr.
--G/T Joe Reitz: RFA tendered at $1.431M with no compensation; $1.431M/1 yr.
--K Adam Vinatieri: Potential UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--S Mike Adams: Not tendered as UFA by Broncos; terms unknown.
--S Colt Anderson: UFA Eagles; terms unknown.
--LB D'Qwell Jackson: FA Browns; $22/4 yrs, $11M guaranteed.
--DE Arthur Jones: UFA Ravens; $33M/5 yrs, $5.5M SB/$16M guaranteed.
--G Lance Louis: FA; $1.475M/2 yrs, $25,000 SB.
--NT Brandon McKinney: FA; terms unknown.
--LB Aaron Morgan: FA; $1.23M/2 yrs.
--WR Hakeem Nicks: UFA Giants; $3.975M/1 yr, $2M SB/$375,000 RB.
--G Justin Anderson (released).
--S Antoine Bethea: UFA 49ers; $26M/4 yrs.
--RB Tashard Choice (released).
--ILB Kavell Conner: UFA Chargers; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--WR Darrius Heyward-Bey: UFA Steelers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--G/T Jeff Linkenbach: UFA Chiefs; terms unknown.
--DL Ricardo Mathews: UFA Texans; terms unknown.
--G Mike McGlynn: UFA Redskins; terms unknown.
--C Samson Satele (released).
--CB Cassius Vaughn: UFA Lions; terms unknown.
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