NFL Team Previews: Indianapolis Colts

The Indianapolis Colts begin a new era this season, as top draft pick Andrew Luck takes over the starting quarterback reins from the departed Peyton Manning and changes abound elsewhere on the team. Chuck Pagano is the new head coach and he faces a tall order in trying to win games in 2012 while the rebuilding takes place. TheSportsNotebook looks at the Colts and their projected win totals based on Over/Under numbers in Las Vegas…

OFFENSE: If drafting a quarterback were only about this season, Indy would have been better off taking Robert Griffin III. Actually, with the porous condition of the offensive line, the true best option for the Colts would have been Usain Bolt, the track star running in the Olympics. Because whoever takes the snaps is going to be running for his life. Longtime center Jeff Saturday has left for Green Bay and based on the scouting reports and grades compiled by ESPN’s Scouts Inc, it’s debatable how many of Indy’s remaining lineman could start anywhere else in the NFL. One thing that would benefit the Colts greatly is if Winston Justice can rejuvenate his career. The former Philadelphia Eagle is still only 27 years old, although he’s slated for right tackle, rather than the opposite spot which would entrust him with Luck’s blind side.

Reggie Wayne showed admirable organizational loyalty in coming back at wideout and is one of the genuinely NFL-caliber players left on the Indianapolis offense. Luck will be doing a lot of quick three-step drops and firing it to Wayne. The tight ends are new, with rookies DeWayne Allen and Coby Fleener, the latter being a teammate of Luck’s at Stanford. Austin Collie was a respectable wideout prior to last year, although I’m in the camp that considers his pre-2011 success to be exclusively the product of playing with Peyton Manning. The running backs are mediocre, with Donald Brown leading the way, although given the condition of the offensive line, it’s unfair to judge any of them. Indy could put Walter Payton and Jim Brown in the backfield and they’d have a problem running the ball behind this line.

DEFENSE: The cornerstone of Indy’s defensive success over the years was having Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney pressure the pocket from the ends in a 4-3 scheme. If that pattern is to continue, the two veterans will have to do it as stand-up linebackers now, as Pagano is switching to a 3-4 alignment. If the goal were winning games in 2012 this would make zero sense, as Freeney and Mathis, along with free safety Antoine Bethea, are the only impact players on the Colt defense, and you don’t want to play them at a strange position. But Indy’s is certainly not about winning this year and given that Freeney and Mathis are both on the far side of age 30, if Pagano wants to implement the 3-4, he might as bite the bullet and go for it. But there’s going to be a lot of bullet-biting on the Colt sidelines.

OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTIONS: Indianapolis went 2-14 last year and completely overhauled the roster, but they still have to win five games if they are to meet the expectations of the betting markets. This is a case that shows the market to be inherently conservative and not wanting to post dramatic numbers at either extreme, as well as the likelihood that there will be people who want to bet on Andrew Luck. I know Cam Newton made a big impact right away last year, but it’s just asking an enormous amount from Luck to get five or six wins with only a few other credible NFL starters on the depth chart. I think Indy goes Under, with 2012’s success being measured by how many component pieces they start getting into the right place.