Colts adjusting to subtle changes
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- Wide receiver Reggie Wayne arrived at Colts camp driving a sporty bright yellow dump truck. He wore a hard hat and tool belt and carried a lunch box. Acknowledging the departures of coach Tony Dungy and WR Marvin Harrison, Wayne hung the "Under Construction'' sign where everyone could see it.
"We've got the blueprint, now we've got to put it work on the field.''
And so they did, starting Sunday. Jim Caldwell has replaced Dungy as head coach, but the so-called construction looks more like a minor fix-up. The changes aren't truly noticeable. Caldwell has kept much of the Dungy system in place, changing only two assistant coaches and keeping the same structure that helped the Colts to six consecutive seasons with 12 or more wins. There might have been a couple of drills in which there was slightly more hitting, but Caldwell has maintained the professional, efficient style of practice that worked so well for the Colts under Dungy.
Here's what I learned from Colts camp:[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Michael ConroyColts QB Peyton Manning is learning to function without his most-trusted weapon.
1. Change in the air: Peyton Manning doesn't like change, and why should he? He's a perfectionist who tries to get better with each snap. Harrison is gone, so Manning has to totally change his thinking process on pass plays. Since 1998, he's been throwing to Harrison on the right side of the field. He successfully did that for 1,102 completions. Now he has to adjust his progressions and throw more to Wayne on the left, knowing Wayne might be bracketed by a cornerback and a safety.
Harrison missed 12 games over the past two seasons, so Manning had a preview of what life would be like without Harrison. He'll make it work. First, he's comforted by the return of senior offensive coordinator Tom Moore and senior offensive line coach Howard Mudd, who temporarily retired because of changes to the league pension plans. Their roles have not changed: Moore is helping Manning call the plays, while Mudd is the lead coach for the offensive line. Manning had no training camp last summer when he was quarantined because of a bacterial infection in his knee. He has plenty of time to work out any problems with the offense now.
2. Filling Harrison's void: So how do the Colts replace the number of catches lost with the release of Harrison? Over the past three seasons, Manning has averaged 356.6 completions. Wayne has averaged 91 catches, Dallas Clark 55 and Joseph Addai 35. As the slot receiver, Anthony Gonzalez watched his catches grow from 37 as a rookie to 57 last season. Naturally, more passes will filter to Clark, who should finally make the Pro Bowl now that Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow Jr. have been traded to the NFC. Only the Chargers' Antonio Gates is ahead of him for productivity among tight ends in the AFC.
The key to the preseason will be making Gonzalez the clear No. 3 target behind Wayne and Clark. He'll have to learn to be more precise with his routes. The Colts are having Wayne work a little out of the slot on the left side to vary his release point off the line of scrimmage. The other key to the summer will be the development of a No. 3 wide receiver. There are plenty of interesting options there.
3. Who will it be? As for the third receiver, Pierre Garcon appears to have the lead from the early reviews, but this looks to be a position by committee. A sixth-round pick in 2008, Garcon has a Anquan Boldin-type body at 6 feet, 210 pounds. That should help him with run blocking. Roy Hall, a fifth-round pick in 2007, is the biggest target at 6-3, 240 pounds, but durability has been his problem during his first two seasons. The two have combined for only five catches since being drafted by the Colts. Austin Collie is an intriguing fourth-round pick who has that Brandon Stokley look to him as a slot receiver. Remember that Manning considered Stokley the best slot receiver in the NFL when he was with the Colts.
Depending on who emerges as the third receiver, Manning will have to do some mixing and matching with Gonzalez. Garcon would be a natural outside receiver on the right side, which would make Gonzalez the slot receiver. Hall might also fit better on the outside, but Collie would work better out of the slot, moving Gonzalez to the outside.
4. Running game resurgence? Under Caldwell, the Colts might try to get a little more physical running the ball. You can see that with some of the running plays being developed for first-round choice Donald Brown. The former Connecticut star is more of a slashing runner than Joseph Addai, and can take one cut and go on inside running plays.
Addai is more of an elusive back who has the speed to work the important stretch plays that set up play-action for Manning. The Colts were horrible running the ball last season, but they should be much better this year. The return of left guard Ryan Lilja, who missed the entire 2008 season with a knee injury that has required three operations, brings stability to the left side of the line. When healthy, center Jeff Saturday and right guard Mike Pollak work well together. Right tackle Ryan Diem is coming off his best season.
5. Reinforcements at defensive tackle: I like what I see from the new additions at defensive tackle. The return of Ed Johnson, who was cut last year because of off-the-field problems, makes the Colts bigger and more forceful against the run. Daniel Muir has fit into the rotation nicely. Second-round choice Fili Moala and fourth-round pick Terrance Taylor are 305-pounders who can move well on their feet. The Colts now have five defensive tackles who weigh at least 296 pounds. Like most Cover 2 teams with light defensive lines, the Colts were pushed around last year in a time when officials weren't calling many holding penalties against guards and centers. The Colts shouldn't be pushed around this year.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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