Colts to reload through draft

If the Colts are to successfully defend their title, they will need to be good again at filling vacancies with young players, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Updated: March 28, 2007, 7:54 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- Remember this name: Freddy Keiaho.

As a rookie, the Indianapolis Colts' third-round choice in the 2006 draft earned a Super Bowl ring. For an encore, the former San Diego State star, who appeared in 14 games last season as a backup and special teams performer, will be counted on to earn a starting job at weakside linebacker with the defending Super Bowl champions.

That's just how things are for the Colts, a franchise that, perhaps more than any other in the league, trusts its drafts. And trusts that guys like Keiaho and other young veterans such as cornerbacks Marlin Jackson, Kelvin Hayden and Tim Jennings will be prepared to step into the lineup as seamlessly as possible, and compensate for free-agent defections.

And coach Tony Dungy said that won't change this season.

"Because of the way our team is set up, we're not going to have the luxury of making up for draft mistakes by going out and signing free agents," Dungy said at the NFL owners meetings here Tuesday morning. "We've got players like Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne … guys who are among the highest paid at their positions and who take up a lot of salary cap room. So there is only so much we can do [in free agency].

"We know that we're going to have to draft well. I think part of the reason [owner] Jim Irsay and [general manager] Bill Polian were interested in me as a coach was because of what we had done in Tampa Bay. You know, playing younger guys, getting them on the field, and not being afraid to move them up into starter's roles when we needed them."

Cato June
Sandra Dukes/WireImageThe Colts will need to replace Cato June.
The Colts will need younger players to step up in 2007, and will need some of their recent draft choices to move into prominent roles. But it has been that way, essentially, since Dungy arrived in 2002. And the Colts and Dungy, thanks in part to underrated but savvy choices in the draft, have made it work.

Really, they've had little choice.

Because the roster includes so many high-profile players, a disproportionate share of the Colts' salary cap is distributed among an elite group of stars. That means the Colts have to fill some spots with less expensive players, and in the NFL, that typically means going young. Few teams compensate as well as Indianapolis does.

Consider the turnover Indianapolis has experienced the past five seasons at linebacker. Mike Peterson signed with Jacksonville after the 2002 season. In 2004, Marcus Washington left as an unrestricted free agent for a big deal with the Redskins. In 2006, David Thornton defected to division rival Tennessee. And this spring, Pro Bowl weakside star Cato June left the Colts for Tampa Bay.

"Just about every year," Dungy said, "we've known we had to replace somebody. And we knew we had to do it from within, with one of our own guys, and that's what we did. There was no panic. You trust that you've made good choices and that you've prepared people to play well when they get the chance."

It certainly seems like a simple philosophy, yet in the quick-fix NFL, where some teams figure they can sign a veteran free agent to fill a hole in the lineup, the approach has not been widely adopted. The presence of Polian and Dungy, and a solid if unheralded personnel staff in Indianapolis, allows the Colts to succeed at something most franchises won't even attempt anymore.

But if the Colts are to successfully defend their title, they will need to be good again at filling vacancies with young players. In addition to June's departure, cornerback Nick Harper, the team's best coverage defender, signed with the Titans. That means one of the three high-round, young cornerbacks on the roster -- Jackson (No. 1 in 2005), Hayden (No. 2 in 2005) or Jennings (No. 2 in 2006) -- will have an opportunity to start.

The only question about Jackson, it seems, is whether he is better suited to cornerback or safety, and that debate has yet to be resolved. But he played well as a nickel cornerback, and his last-minute interception against New England in the AFC Championship Game sent the Colts to the Super Bowl. The suspicion is he will get the first shot at Harper's spot. Hayden also played well in the postseason, and the former college wide receiver notched an interception in the Super Bowl. Jennings missed much of his rookie campaign with an ankle injury, but is a feisty defender with terrific coverage potential.

Not surprisingly, Dungy has faith the Colts will locate a solid starter from among the three candidates. Because, as always, he has faith in Indianapolis' ability to identify and select its kind of players: young veterans who won't require an extended gestation period, and will be prepared to answer the call when it comes.

"I think we've got a pretty good track record in that regard," Dungy said. "It's the way we believe in doing things and it's worked."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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