Indianapolis Colts 2014 Season Preview

( - Andrew Luck lost his top receiver last season and still managed to go 11-5.

This year, with that veteran pass-catcher back in the fold alongside some other new and developing talent with which to connect through the air - the sky, literally, may be the limit.

With offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton suggesting a variation of the no- huddle offense might be the way to go, the Indianapolis Colts will turn Luck loose along with Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and offseason acquisition Hakeem Nicks in an effort to take another step forward in the AFC supremacy race.

Indianapolis made the playoffs after the Peyton Manning exodus, then won a game in the postseason last year before succumbing to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The return of Wayne, the progress of Hilton, the addition of Nicks and the presence of two capable tight ends - Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen - not to mention running back Trent Richardson, make progress in 2014 almost expected.

"It's a good problem to have," coach Chuck Pagano said. "There's only one football. When you have great competitors and great players like we have, they all want the rock at the same time. They all certainly know you only have one football. It's a great situation. You have to kind of pick your poison and say, 'OK, who do we want to stop?'"

Of course, a significant lynchpin to all the heady talk is the performance of the offensive line. Injuries took a toll on the Colts' big men in training camp, and it was hardly an All-Pro unit to begin with.

Whether rookie Jack Mewhort or veteran Hugh Thornton can pull their weight will play a tangible role in just how far Luck and his aforementioned aerial circus-mates can get off the ground.

The defense will be without Robert Mathis at the outset thanks to a suspension, but if the fort is sufficiently held down by newcomer D'Qwell Jackson and others until he returns, the postseason prospects come January should at least approach the level of the preseason optimism of August - where "Super Bowl 49" was established as a password to one of the team's in-house wireless networks.

"The way we prepare, the way we go about our day is we're preparing to win our conference. AFC Champions," Jackson said. "Win our division, win the conference, and then ultimately be in Arizona in the Super Bowl. It's not a secret around here."

Pagano agreed, and doesn't apologize for the lofty aspirations.

"We look for themes every single year," he said. "We all know what the expectations are this year. We're chasing that Lombardi, that's our goal."

2013 RECORD: 11-5 (1st, AFC South)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2013, lost to New England Patriots in AFC Divisional Playoff

COACH (RECORD): Chuck Pagano (22-10 in two seasons with Colts)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Pep Hamilton (second season with Colts)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Greg Manusky (third season with Colts)

KEY ADDITIONS: DE Arthur Jones (from Ravens), WR Hakeem Nicks (from Giants), LB D'Qwell Jackson (from Browns)

KEY SUBTRACTIONS: RB Donald Brown (to Chargers), FS Antoine Bethea (to Niners), OT Jeff Linkenbach (to Chiefs), LB Kavell Conner (to Chargers), G Mike McGlynn (to Redskins), WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (to Steelers), CB Cassius Vaughn (to Lions)

QB: Look around the NFL and you'd be hard-pressed to find a team with a quarterbacking duo better than the Colts' tandem of third-year man Andrew Luck and proven starting commodity Matt Hasselbeck.

Luck threw 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions while starting all 16 games for the second straight season, and while his yardage number (3,822) was more than 500 off his rookie season, he halved his interceptions and boosted his QB rating from 76.5 to 87.

That means Hasselbeck won't play much, but the 16-year veteran did manage to get into three games last season to complete seven of 12 passes for 130 yards.

The No. 3 spot is held down by Chandler Harnish, who was a seventh-round pick in the same season that Luck went No. 1 overall.


RB: When the Colts acquired Trent Richardson just two weeks into the 2013, it looked like a serious move toward Super Bowl contention. And while team did indeed win a playoff game, the former Alabama star had precious little to do with it. He managed just 458 yards and averaged less than three yards per carry in 14 games with his new team while being outplayed for the most part by Donald Brown, who's since left for San Diego.

With Brown gone, the presumed secondary role goes to eighth-year man Ahmad Bradshaw, who played in only three games during an injury plagued 2013. He gained 186 yards on 41 carries and scored twice.

The top fullback on the late August depth chart is untested Mario Harvey, who's not registered a carry in 25 games.


WR: Reggie Wayne comes back for a 14th season after No. 13 was wrecked by a torn ACL after just seven games. If he's 100 percent, terrific, but if not, the Colts went out and got some reinforcements in the form of ex-Giant Hakeem Nicks, who had 56 catches for 896 yards in his fifth season in New York.

T.Y Hilton makes it a compelling trio of wide receiver targets after eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in his second season and scoring five times.

Da'Rick Rogers, Donte Moncreif and Griff Whalen are on the roster as depth players.


TE: Dwayne Allen returns after a hip injury limited his second NFL season to a single game. He'd bonded well with Luck in their rookie years, catching 45 passes for 521 yards and scoring three times.

Luck's Stanford classmate, Coby Fleener, inherited the primary job in Allen's absence last season and caught 52 passes for 608 yards and four touchdowns, which should guarantee the Colts a legitimate 2014 contribution regardless of who's on the field.


OL: Tackles Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus return on sides left and right, respectively, after allowing a combined seven sacks as a duo last season. Second-round pick Jack Mewhort arrives from Ohio State as a presumptive starter at left guard, while Donald Thomas' torn quad during training camp means Hugh Thornton maintains the right guard slot that he manned for 12 starts last season. Khaled Holmes, a fourth-round pick last season, is the starter at center.

Ex-Florida Gators Xavier Nixon and Jonotthan Harrison are depth players, as are rookie Marcus Hall, fourth-year man Joe Reitz and five-year veteran Lance Louis.


DL: Tackle Arthur Jones arrives from Baltimore with a five-year, $33 million contract and a resume that includes 100 tackles and 8.5 sacks in the last two seasons. He's alongside nose tackle Josh Chapman, who enters his third season; and veteran Cory Redding, who's in year No. 12 and coming off a 2013 that saw him start 15 games, make 36 tackles, record 4.5 sacks and recover a fumble.

Second-tier players include Ricky Jean Francois, Montori Hughes and Zach Kerr.


LB: The first four games will have a glaring absence thanks to a performance- enhancing drug suspension to veteran outside linebacker Robert Mathis, who led the league with 19.5 sacks in 2013. D'Qwell Jackson arrives from Cleveland as the starter at one inside position, and will be flanked by third-year man Jerrell Freeman. The outside spot opposite Mathis is claimed by Erik Walden.

The presumed fill-in until Mathis returns is 6-foot-3, 257-pounder Bjoern Werner, a first-round pick from Florida State in 2013. Others available include Jonathan Newsome, Kelvin Sheppard and Josh McNary.


DB: Vontae Davis and Greg Toler are the incumbent cornerbacks for the Colts, who also bring back holdover starter LaRon Landry at the free safety position. With the departure of Antoine Bethea to San Francisco, a hole opens up for Delano Howell, who's played 12 games in two seasons since signing as an undrafted free agent with Buffalo in 2012. He made 19 tackles and defended one pass in six games with the Colts last year.

Mike Adams and Sergio Brown will back-up Howell and Landry at the safety spots, while second-tier corners are Josh Gordy and Darius Butler.


SPECIAL TEAMS: Adam Vinatieri is on the far side of 40 years old, but his 18th season in the league included 35-of-40 made field goals, including a long kick (52 yards) that exceeded 50 yards for the third straight season. Punter Pat McAfee had 76 punts for a net 38.5-yard average in 2013, which included a career-best 27 kicks inside the 20-yard line.

Third-year man Dan Herron has the late August hold on the Colts' kick- returning duties, while former Florida Gator Loucheiz Purifoy gets the call to return punts in his first NFL season.


COACHING: Considering where the team was when he arrived (coming off a 2-14 season) and where it is now (seen by many as a legitimate contender for a Super Bowl berth), there's nothing but praise to be heaped upon the sideline work of Chuck Pagano. He was admittedly fortunate that Luck came along just as Peyton Manning left, but the degree to which the franchise has barely skipped a beat is remarkable.

One playoff win surely whetted the appetite for more in Indianapolis, which means Pagano continues to evolve from wonderful human interest story to coach who's expected to produce a title before too long.


THE SKINNY: The Colts will find where they rank among the NFL's elite right away, with a schedule that opens with a trip to see Manning in Denver before a Week 2 home showdown with prospective NFC powerhouse Philadelphia. A split should yield no worse than a 5-3 mark at the season's halfway point.

At least another five wins should come from a softer second side, which will put Pagano and Co. in 10-11 win territory yet again and provide the chance for the postseason improvement that fans in blue and white are no doubt expecting. If Luck can steal an AFC Championship Game spot from either Manning or New England's Tom Brady, consider the season a success.