Since the salary cap was instituted by the NFL in 1994, it has been difficult for franchises to maintain a highly competitive team over the long term. After years of learning the do's and do not's, and the in's and out's of the cap rules, teams like the Colts and Patriots have been more successful than most. Often teams are one sided in that more cap money is spent on one side of the ball. New England relied on it's defense for years and Indy on it's offense with Peyton Manning leading the way. Both teams, however, may have found the balance that all teams desire and with the kind of talent everyone covets. Since I'm an avid and long time Colts fan, I'll keep my analysis to Indy.
Indianapolis is a powerhouse club that has stars on both sides of the ball. The salary cap numbers for both the offense and the defense will be within $5.0m of being equally divided by both sides (minus about $4.0m for special team players). Of the top ten Colts salaries, five of them are defensive players (Dwight Freeney $11.2m, Bob Sanders $7.2m, Robert Mathis $6.9m, Kelvin Hayden $6.7m and Raheem Brock $5.3m) and five are offensive players (Peyton Manning $21.2m, Reggie Wayne $7.4m, Dallas Clark $6.8m, Ryan Diem $6.1m and Jeff Saturday $4.0m).
On defense, after resigning Freddie Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler, the Colts will lose nobody of significance from last season. All eleven starters return, primary back-ups like Daniel Muir, Antonio Johnson, Melvin Bullitt, Tim Jennings and Clint Session return with extended playing time due to injuries and roster shuffling, and second year players like Philip Wheeler, Dante Hughes, Marcus Howard and Curtis Johnson have had time to acclimate to the Colts system. With the additions of DT's Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor the team has addressed it's need for bigger bodies on the interior of the defensive line. With CB Jerraud Powers on board, they have another ferocious hitter albeit in another smallish body. The biggest offseason acquisition for the defense, however, is DC Larry Coyer. Hopefully, he'll bring with him the same results he had in Denver when the Broncos were consistently ranked in the top ten or better. Along with Coach Caldwell, perhaps Coyer with the additional beef on the roster can tweak the system and give the defensive stars an opportunity to play their games. In doing so, the defense will give the high scoring offense more reps on the field. Something that they didn't do last season and was epitomized in the season ending overtime game in San Diego.
The offense, on the other hand, lost a significant part of their history when Marvin Harrison was released. Although it was a move well anticipated, it did leave a rather large hole to fill. Harrison demanded double coverage last year if only by reputation. Peyton Manning missed the entire pre-season and looked out of sync for nearly a quarter of the games. He missed needed reps which led to his timing being off with his receivers. His surgically repaired knee had him noticably hobbled early on as well. Peyton comes into 2009 fully recovered and ready to take the team to the next level again. The offensive line was decimated for nearly the entire year. Rookies, second year players and practice squad guys were plugged in all season long to protect Manning and open holes for Joseph Addai, Dominic Rhodes and the rest of the running backs. Often, they failed miserably. With the return of a healthy LT Tony Ugoh, LG Ryan Lilja and C Jeff Saturday to compliment RT Ryan Diem and second year RG Mike Pollak, the Colts offensive line should again be a strength. The stretch play and the inside power game should return. And within that running game comes a new weapon in RB Donald Brown. Brown has the explosiveness that the Colts ground attack has been lacking. With the return of a run game, play action becomes more relevant as well. Reggie Wayne returns as the primary wideout and Anthony Gonzalez gets a full time gig on the other side. Talented receiver Dallas Clark will man one TE spot in the line-up, while the other spot gives the Colts options. A second TE like Jacob Tamme could be utilized or a third wide receiver could be inserted. The addition of Austin Collie gives them a quality slot man, but in the red zone the Colts could go to the 6'5" oft injured Roy Hall.
In my opinion, the 2009 version of the Indianapolis Colts may be the best Colts version ever by virtue of it's balance and star quality. The offense is healthy and should again be able to run and throw at will. The offensive line is deep and experienced, and Manning will get to participate during the off season. The absence of Marvin Harrison will enable Manning to use all of his receivers in different scenarios. With Clark, Wayne and Gonzalez the receivers return well armed. If Tamme, Tom Santi, Collie, Pierre Garcon and Hall lift their games, this will be an outstanding receiver corp. Defensively, the Colts will be able to stop the pass as efficiently as they have over the past few seasons. The pass rush is still elite. The ability to stop the run has been the most glaring inability, but it was addressed. If Larry Coyer can mix it up some and become less predictable, the defense has a chance to be special. The Tennessee Titans run as the division champions will stop at one. The Colts will reclaim that title and probably win another 12 games this year based on it's second place schedule (and playing the AFC East and NFC West). Another superbowl appearance for Indy (again in Miami) is certainly a real possibility. It's not a matter of being a homer, it's a matter of fact.