ANDERSON – Any judgments made after a week's worth of NFL training camp are inherently premature. But why let that stop us?
The Indianapolis Colts came into camp at Anderson University with a slew of new players, a new offense and a renewed head coach. Anyone who didn't see a more confident team than a year ago wasn't looking close enough.
With another week until their preseason debut against the Buffalo Bills, here are some observations (destined to be fluid) about what the Colts have shown so far:
Andrew Luck is in charge
A year ago, Luck was in a tough situation. He was the No.1 draft pick, a rookie quarterback entering his first camp and charged with a simple task: Replace the legend Peyton Manning. Given all that, he did pretty darn well.
This year, Luck is a different player. He's the leader of the offense – even though he insists Reggie Wayne remains the leader -- in commanding the huddle and helping the other players adjust to new coordinator Pep Hamilton's approach. After practice on Thursday, Luck met with the media and was more relaxed and forthcoming than I'd ever seen him. He feels in his element now. This bodes well for the Colts' continued improvement.
As he was leaving practice in a golf cart one day this week, he yelled over playfully at reporters, “Good work out there today guys!”
It's apparent the weight of that first year has been lifted.
Pagano brings the energy
It's easy to see why players would be motivated to play for Pagano. He's stern and purposeful in his coaching, but treats the players like men, reminding me of Tony Dungy in that sense. He roams practice from offense to defense, from skill players to linemen. He has his pulse on the team.
Pagano doesn't hesitate to point out the team's weaknesses or tell players where they need to improve their play. His fight to battle leukemia was tougher than most could imagine and deprived him of the chance to coach this team fully a year ago. He's all in this year and his energy level is contagious.
Darrius Heyward-Bey can actually catch
The free agent signee from Oakland had a couple rough practices early in the week, dropping a deep ball from Luck when he was wide open. His inconsistency in catching the ball has been the ongoing criticism of his game.
By midweek, however, Heyward-Bey seemed to hit his stride. He has the size and speed to be an impact receiver, and he's essentially in the No.2 spot now. Is he ever going to display the hands of Wayne? Unlikely. But he will be an upgrade from Donnie Avery, and as he generates more rapport with Luck, he could be a dangerous weapon.
Bjoern Werner is a worthy first-round pick
Werner has shown strength, speed, quickness and a willingness to work hard at outside linebacker. He's penciled in as the backup to Robert Mathis, but if he continues to perform with the intensity and drive he's shown in the first week, the Colts need to get both those pass rushers on the field together.
Secondary strong but fragile
The addition of LaRon Landry at safety and Greg Toler at cornerback gives the Colts four quality starters in the secondary. Vontae Davis, incidentally, has been a ball hawk the first week. Antoine Bethea missed time after the birth of his daughter, but he's a vet who can step right back in.
Toler suffered a concussion this week, so he's been out. Darius Butler and Cassius Vaughn are established as backups and additional DBs depending on formation, but the Colts could use at least one more reliable player in the secondary.
Griff making his mark
Second-year receiver Griff Whalen, who didn't play last year largely due to injury, has been phenomenal in the first week. Wearing Austin Collie's old No.17 uniform, he's looked like Collie running routes. Colts coach Chuck Pagano evoked Wes Welker as a comparison and said it will be hard not to keep Whalen on the roster.
With LaVon Brazill suspended for the first four games, another receiver has to step up and join Wayne, Heyward-Bey and T.Y. Hilton in the rotation. Whalen is the most likely candidate, with Nathan Palmer challenging but not as consistent with his hands.
Cory Redding's voice is still heard
Redding is in only his second season with the Colts, but he's an undeniable leader not only on the defense but on the entire squad. When Luck scrambled for a touchdown during controlled scrimmage earlier this week, Redding yelled, “You're not supposed to run!” It was said in jest, but Luck joked that Redding would probably like to hit him given the chance.
There's a palpable camaraderie among the players, even though so many at the end of the roster are fighting for spots.
Week One ended with punter Pat McAfee nailing a 61-yard field goal. It was a good week for the Colts. It's too early for definitive judgments, but they seem to be several steps ahead of where they were a year ago.