Gonzalez fills key role for Colts
The Colts believe rookie WR Anthony Gonzalez has the speed and smarts to make immediate contributions in the slot receiver role, writes Mike Sando.
First he'll have to get off the line of scrimmage.
That's the thing about rookie receivers. Even the quick learners can encounter growing pains against the NFL's more physical defenses. Gonzalez is feeling that now. But he couldn't be in a better situation.
Face it, the Colts' first-round pick from Ohio State could join the Peace Corps tomorrow and Indy still might lead the NFL in scoring. If that makes Gonzalez a luxury, he is one the Colts value dearly. The team expects him to play roughly half of the snaps as a rookie, or about 500.
The adaptable Colts won a Super Bowl using two tight ends about 95 percent of the time. Dallas Clark's receiving skills made the arrangement sleeker than it sounds, but Gonzalez has the potential to restore another dimension. The Colts see him as a faster version of Brandon Stokley, the slot receiver whose best season helped Manning set the touchdown record in 2004.
"That position has to win when you get working on a linebacker," receivers coach Clyde Christensen said. "That position has to make big plays up the middle of two-deep [zones] off play-action. When Reggie [Wayne] and Marvin [Harrison] are doubled, that position has to convert third downs and make some big plays for us to be what we want to be."
Stokley caught 10 of Manning's 49 touchdown passes in 2004. That type of production seems unrealistic for Gonzalez as a rookie unless teams blitz Manning the way some did in 2004. Manning threw 19 of those 49 scoring passes against NFC North teams, including five to Stokley against Detroit and Green Bay. NFC North teams came after Manning more than most others.
Colts opponents subsequently have funneled more resources to defending the slot position. New England attacked it with a linebacker one time and a nickel back another time. Teams have generally been willing to give the Colts more favorable matchups in the ground game to prevent the slot position from producing the way Stokley did at his best.
The Colts aren't sure how opponents will play Gonzalez early in the season. They do know Gonzalez will prepare himself well.
"Conscientious" is the word Christensen keeps using to describe the newest addition to the Colts' receiving corps. Manning wouldn't tolerate anything else.
"In that sense, there is a little bit more pressure on you, but it's good pressure and something I welcome and am grateful to have," Gonzalez said after a recent practice. "If you are the type of person that values what you are doing and takes pride in what you are doing, then it helps a lot."
Gonzalez has broken down his homework into three categories: formations, plays and audibles.
There are only so many ways to line up, and the Colts ignore most of them, so the formations are the easy part. Gonzalez said he learned them in about an hour.
Absorbing the playbook is trickier. Gonzalez estimated he needed to know roughly 200 plays at Ohio State, and the Buckeyes pared the list considerably for each opponent. He'll need to know closer to 1,000 plays with the Colts once he takes formations and route combinations into account. And he'll need to know all of them every week, a significant change from college.
"There was a play last year that they ran, they put it in however many years ago and they hadn't run it until right then at that moment and it ended up being a touchdown," Gonzalez said.
Mastering the Colts' long list of audibles is by far the hardest part for a rookie receiver. The Buckeyes generally called one or two audibles per game. Each audible carried one option, Gonzalez said. Manning has the entire playbook at his disposal when changing plays at the line.
"That is the biggest difference," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez is proof, again, that the Colts don't take Manning and their offense for granted. Despite obvious needs on defense, the organization has used eight of 11 first-round picks for offense since Bill Polian arrived as president.
Polian knew the offense would miss Stokley after the organization released him for salary-cap reasons. He was confident Gonzalez had the smarts to learn the offense quickly. He felt the transition would be easier because Gonzalez played the slot extensively in college.
"And then he resembles Stokley so much that physically you couldn't help but see him play and say, 'Well, that is exactly the same physical qualities that Stokley has,'" Polian said. "They are almost clones of one another physically. It was a pretty obvious match there."
The Colts won't face a top-tier secondary until the fourth game, against Denver. Gonzalez opens his NFL career against New Orleans, Tennessee and Houston. He should have opportunities.
"We have to be careful not to judge him too much early where you have to think so much," Christensen said. "The faster the brain is working, the slower the legs are churning. That is the case with most receivers. Let's go through the process and then determine what we have."
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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