Indianapolis Colts coaches and team officials, keenly aware of the importance of Bob Sanders to their defensive efforts, will err on the side of caution in the offseason recovery of their standout free safety -- even if that means lightening his load in training camp.
"It could be that way in camp, where we only use him for one practice a day, to make sure he's ready to go when it counts," said coach Tony Dungy. "The more important thing for all of us is that he's ready when the season begins."
Sanders, 26, is still rehabilitating from surgery performed on his left shoulder just after the 2006 season concluded. He has worked out infrequently in the Colts' minicamps and the organized team activities (OTAs) sessions. It is doubtful, in fact, that Sanders will be pushed during the offseason, given his significance to the defending Super Bowl XLI champions.
That means he will probably be a spectator again for much of this week, when the Colts have another round of OTA practices.
The shoulder surgery is the latest medical fix for Sanders, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee early last season, limiting him to just four regular-season appearances. Without the hard-hitting Sanders on the field and playing close to the line of scrimmage, Indianapolis ranked last in the NFL in defense against the run.
Sanders returned for the playoffs, however, and the transformation of the Colts' defense was remarkable. The unit improved dramatically in its performance against the run, and Sanders had two interceptions in the team's four postseason wins, including one in the Super Bowl victory over the Chicago Bears. His two interceptions and four passes defensed were twice what he managed during the regular season. And he had nearly as many tackles in the postseason (22) and he did during the regular season (27).
"He's the leader back there," said defensive coordinator Ron Meeks. "A young leader, but a leader nonetheless, and we've got to have him ready for games."
Sanders, a second-round choice in the 2004 draft, realizes it.
"The goal is still to play in all 16 games," Sanders said. "So what I do now in terms of getting myself ready for the long haul, rehabilitating the right way and as completely as possible, is a huge thing."
Sanders, at 5 feet 8, 206 pounds, has never played a full season. He has made only 24 appearances in three years due to a variety of injuries. But he is essential to a defense that features only one other true star (defensive end Dwight Freeney), which is why the Colts are prepared to allow Sanders plenty of time to heal.
Said two-year veteran Marlin Jackson, who is projected to take over at one of the starting cornerback spots: "We take our lead from Bob. He's a playmaker and a difference maker."
The 2007 season is critical for Sanders, who will be in his contract year. Despite his injury absences, he was still able to amass enough playing time to reach thresholds that void the final two years of his original rookie contract, and make Sanders a Pro Bowl performer in 2005, eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring.
Still, he isn't going to do anything that will jeopardize his availability for the season opener against the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 6.
"The injuries are frustrating, definitely, but I can't let them affect the way I play," Sanders said. "If I'm on the field, I know what I can do. So I've got to do everything I can now to assure I'm 100 percent when it counts."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com