NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps over the next few weeks. Albert Breer details his visit with the Indianapolis Colts. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
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Anderson, Ind., a run-down, old manufacturing town 50 miles northeast of Indianapolis that was devastated by the closing of General Motors plants. It's a place that sadly illustrates the toll the American auto industry's decline has taken on the Midwest. The Colts camped here from their 1984 Indy arrival until Peyton's Manning rookie season of 1998, and returned in 2010 after 11 years in Terre Haute, Ind. On the day we pulled into town, it had been exactly one year since Manning agreed to a five-year, $90 million deal that seemingly ensured he'd retire a Colt. So, yeah, a lot has changed around here.
1. Andrew Luck's as good as advertised. I'll have a more in-depth take at a later date on the rookie's rapid assimilation, but it's not breaking news to say Luck is impressive on the practice field. Late in practice, he did force two balls into coverage in the red zone; one was tipped and then picked by Jerry Hughes, the other was batted away. But watching how he controls things at the line is, yup, Peyton-esque. (Or Brady-esque, if you're looking for the less obvious comparison.) It's not just how he commands the huddle or gets his guys positioned pre-snap, either. It's how he calls out the Mike linebacker and coverage, and adjusts everything at the line. What can be tough for a rookie quarterback is the juxtaposition of having to lead because that's the position, but also knowing your place as a neophyte. Luck's coaches say his voluminous knowledge of the game and easy-going nature make things easier. "I watch him take control, take command of the huddle, he's instantly earned the respect of everybody on this team, on both sides," rookie head coach Chuck Pagano told me. "It's because he's right -- he's making the right decisions, he's making the right checks, he's making the right calls. The guys know. This guy knows his stuff. ... From my vantage point, it's like you're watching a guy that's a three- or four-year veteran."
2. These aren't your big brother's Colts. Pagano looked down his roster the other day and counted up the number of players who had either a "1," "2" or "R" in the experience column. The count came to 54. Mind you, the ones with a "2" are guys who have just one accrued NFL season under their belts, and the guys with a "1" aren't quite rookies, but haven't spent enough time on a roster to get credit for a year. So if you wanna compare Luck and Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III -- and those comparisons will be made for years to come -- it'll be important to consider the differences in the players' circumstances. Griffin's walking into a program in its third year, with coach Mike Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen having two draft classes fully broken in. Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson are just getting started in Indy. That means Luck will have more responsibility -- because he has less around him at this point -- but less of an expectation to contend right away.
3. The players are going through some culture shock. The Colts wore T-shirts that read "Build a Monster" in the spring. Grigson's charge in the offseason, in rebuilding, was to get bigger and tougher all over the place -- a vision that springs to life with additions like S Tom Zbikowski, DE Cory Redding and NT Brandon McKinney. And this new approach was especially apparent when the pads started popping on Tuesday. Remember, Colts practices weren't exactly bloodbaths in the Bill Polian years. "I had a lot of long faces after the first practice," Pagano said. "I've gotten a lot of crazy looks now, even in shorts. After one practice, there was that 'Is this every day?' and 'Is this normal, coach?'" Pagano said he'd be smart about it going forward, but he's resolute in his plan to implement a Ravens-type ethos here. "The mindset we wanna develop, how we're gonna play this game, we wanna be a smart, tough, physical, disciplined football team that can run the football and stop the run. And the only way I know how to do that is you gotta hit. You gotta do some banging. That's the only way I know how to develop that. That's not something you flip the switch and say, 'OK, we're gonna be a physical football team.' It's not gonna happen that way."
4. The new look for Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis is taking time. The two edge rushers long typified what the Indy defense was under Tony Dungy and Co.: undersized, aggressive and relentless. Now, they've become players in their 30s working to redefine themselves as 3-4 outside linebackers. Early returns show the transition has been a bit tougher for Freeney, who has played a certain style of defensive end since college, and has remarked how he feels like a rookie again. On the flip side, one reason the team felt comfortable locking up Mathis was that Grigson's staff viewed him simply as a "football player" who could adapt to his surroundings. One thing that's overlooked here, too: As much as things might change on early downs, Mathis and Freeney will likely have their hands on the ground plenty in passing situations.
5. Keep an eye on the rookie skill players. The addition of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians garnered plenty of attention, since he worked with Manning as a rookie and will now help shepherd along Luck. But it's worth noting he also has experience coaching receivers. His swift development of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders the last few years in Pittsburgh should bode well for Indy's quartet of skill-position draftees: tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and receivers T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill. Fleener, Allen and Brazill are already gobbling up first-team reps here.
THE NEW GUYS
Allen: Fleener's ticketed for a role as a "matchup" guy in Indianapolis' offense, and likely will play more as the in-line tight end. Allen, on the other hand, will be the jack of all trades. The Clemson product has been a quick study, learning a number of positions on the fly and displaying an ability to contribute in a variety of ways. The Colts had New England's Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez combo in mind when they took tight ends in back-to-back rounds in April. The early signs are encouraging.
Redding: Coaches often bring players with them when they switch teams to climb the occupational ladder. Thus far, Redding has been a perfect example of why that practice is worthwhile. He brings the size needed to play the 5-technique in the 3-4, and even more so, he provides leadership and knowledge of the scheme. Redding has served as a mentor -- not just to young guys, but also to players like Mathis and Freeney who are trying to get up to speed with the new system and culture.
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Donnie Avery: The fifth-year receiver has had a long road back from a torn ACL suffered in the 2010 preseason, but he finally seems to be returning to the form that led to a promising two-year start to his career with the St. Louis Rams. Avery's still just 28 and will get the first crack at the "Mike Wallace" role in Arians' offense. On a very young unit, he and Reggie Wayne will be counted on early as the rookies figure things out.
As mentioned above, Freeney and Mathis are tasked with learning to play a different game in the new 3-4 defense being installed by Pagano and Greg Manusky. But they aren't alone. The change in style brings a significant shift at corner, as well. The well-worn Tampa-2 used to demand that Indy's guys could tackle and press, but they were rarely asked to go man-to-man with receivers. The new defense will, indeed, force the corners to do more. And early word is Jerraud Powers, who has battled injuries but started all 34 of the games he's participated in during his first three years, is taking to it -- and quickly. A big year could mean a big payday for the impending free-agent.
- This is a big camp for Hughes, the 2010 first-rounder who's been a massive disappointment and now is playing under a group that isn't tied to him. Freeney's in a contract year, so expect the Colts to get a good long look at Hughes in the preseason to try and evaluate where he is.
- Zbikowski's another Raven import who seems to symbolize what Pagano wants in his players. The safety told me prior to Tuesday's practice that it was important to set the tone during the first session in pads because it'd help show how each player fits in the new vision.
- This is also a big camp for running back Donald Brown, who has a real chance to shed the "soft" tag that some scouts have affixed to him. Pagano and Arians want badly to run the ball effectively, so we'll find out if the 2009 first-rounder is capable of being a bell cow in a physical offense.
The Colts won't be measured by wins and losses this year -- they'll be judged by progress. How does it look in Week 1 vs. Week 10? How about Week 6 vs. Week 14? And as much as the added hitting in practice has to do with Pagano's approach, he also sees it as another chance to test inexperienced players.
"The thing I told them is, and you gotta understand, we're a young football team, we've got a new staff, new systems on both sides of the football and special teams, so we've gotta put the time in," Pagano said. "It's not like stepping in and you've got a veteran team with a bunch of starters back on both sides of the ball, and schemes that have been in place for years, and you might've added some things in the offseason. It's nothing like that."
What is it like? A team that looked hopeless without Manning last year -- one that has been torn down and completely rebuilt -- going to battle with rookies all over the place. Lumps are coming. Pagano knows it. Grigson knows it. So assessing how the new regime is doing in 2012 will likely require a deeper look, beyond the scoreboard.