By Bill Barnwell
Discussion regarding the Indianapolis Colts during the Peyton Manning era has rightly revolved around an offense combining clinical effectiveness with historical staying power. When the Colts won the Super Bowl, people talked about the Colts defense as if it had suddenly taken some leap forward, but it was a case of the media applying the simplest narrative possible to the story. While the Colts defense had taken a step forward in 2005, it had struggled mightily in 2006; it was only once the playoffs started that it returned to its 2005 form. In 2007, the Colts defense has been the best of the Dungy era, which would turn the Colts into a scary dynasty…most years.
What makes the Colts defense fascinating, though, is how it’s constructed. The Patriots got the reputation as the team that would let its stars go and replace them with draftees, but the Colts are a much better example. It’s not just that players like Cato June, Mike Peterson and Jason David have been allowed to leave in free agency; it’s that the Colts have successfully replaced them with middle-round draft picks and players that would normally be classified as roster filler. They don’t make a lot of money, and once they’re about to, they’re let go.
Obviously, the effects of being able to plug in these defenders allow the Colts to employ what’s commonly referred to in fantasy auctions as the “stars and scrubs” approach: Spending loads of money on a group of star players, and then spending the minimum or close to it on a large portion of your players. It’s diametrically opposed to the Patriots strategy of depth and not overpaying your star players, and while an article comparing the two approaches would require more research than is available in mid-week, I wanted to look at the Colts defense and see how it developed over Dungy’s tenure with the club.
I apologize in advance if any of the starters are incorrect, whether they’ve been placed in the wrong position or listed ahead of the real starter. Also, remember that the salary cap has risen dramatically in the last five seasons; the Colts’ salary expenditure in 2002 was a shade under $65 million; in 2006, that was over double, at $131 million. We’ll be looking at players’ salaries (not their cap value) as taken from the USA Today Salary Database; for 2007 data, we’ll be drawing information from coltscap.net.
We ironically start with the position the Colts identify as the most important in their Tampa-2 defense, defensive end. A majority of the Colts’ pressure comes from the defensive line, particularly Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Freeney and Mathis both play most downs and their primary purpose is to rush the passer; while that sometimes ends with them being pushed upfield while a running back runs into the hole they’ve vacated, they are a threat to get to the quarterback against any offensive line.
The Colts also value their defensive tackles as worth spending significant sums of money — not appearing on this chart is DT Booger McFarland, out for the year with a knee injury, who the Colts traded a second-round pick for and are paying $5,000,000 in salary to this season. The Colts found a gem in Raheem Brock, who the Eagles cut when they ran out of rookie cap space — Brock was good enough to be one of the few guys the Colts re-signed following their rookie deal. In addition, the Colts gave Corey Simon a big deal as a free agent, but Simon’s deal went so disasterously that Jim Irsay called it a “bad mistake”. Oops.
Here’s the first position where we really see how the Colts defense operates. Every single one of the Colts’ starters was let go following the expiration of his rookie contract except for Robert Morris, who was a failed middle linebacker and signed a cheap deal. The Colts have a plan on how to spend the cap space they’ve allocated to their defense, and know that there are some places they have to cut back at. When that means letting talented players like Mike Peterson or Marcus Washington go, the Colts bite the bullet, plug in the best guy they have, and let him rack up tackles. The latest example is Freddy Keiaho, who had a breakout game against the Saints in Week 1.
Morris became a free agent after his rookie contract ended, had no interest, and ended up shuffling back to Indy as a backup. His former backup, the undrafted Gary Brackett, had an excellent year in 2005, and then before he could become a restricted free agent in 2006, the Colts locked him up with a four-year, $10 million deal that included a $3.2 million dollar signing bonus, which is now all paid. In 2008 and 2009, Brackett will make an average of $2.25 million, but his contract will inflict no harm on the Colts’ cap if he’s cut to save costs.
The other position where the Colts have no problem getting rid of players is at corner — this is a strategy diametrically opposed to that of the Bears, who also play the Cover-2, but locked up both Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher to long-term deals.
The Colts have seemingly changed their strategy some recently, though, as while they used overaged undrafted Nick Harper and second-day pick Jason David at corner, they also spent first- and second-round picks on cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden, respectively, to replace them once their contracts came up in 2006. While Harper’s been successful in the stifling Tennessee pass defense, he’s 33 and his career is about finished; David, meanwhile, has struggled mightily in New Orleans.
Don’t expect the Colts to hold onto Hayden and Jackson once their contracts expire, though.
The one place where the Colts have been remarkably stable is at safety. Mike Doss and Idrees Bashir have transitioned nicely into Bob Sanders and Antoine Bethea.
Sanders is the most fascinating case on this defense. A second-round pick in 2004, Sanders held out and ended up receiving a six-year contract that allows him to void the deal after this season. As Sanders makes a relative pittance for his talents, he’s a lock to do so. Troy Polamalu received a four-year, $30 million contract with $15 million in incentives. Sanders would have every reason to expect and demand a similar contract. As you can see, the Colts have not, under Tony Dungy, valued the safety position at the level. It will be very interesting to see how the Colts handle the situation; it’s worth noting that, in a safety-rich draft, the Colts didn’t use one of their 2007 picks on a safety.
What’s more important than deciding whether the stars and scrubs or super-depth strategies are superior or inferior is understanding that the Colts have a plan and stick to it. So many teams in the NFL (everyone stare at Detroit and Oakland) struggle with taking a plan, sticking with it, and trusting it. They’re the dieters who starve themselves for a week and then binge.
The Colts, on the other hand, just eat well. They have a plan: Splurge on defensive linemen, particularly at end, and elsewhere, insert players on their rookie contracts and once they’ve played those contracts out, let ’em hit the market. The result is a team with loads of money to spend on the places they deem valuable — and an offense that might even match the Patriots come Sunday.