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COLUMN

Colts preview: Risks must pay off for Colts to soar in 2013

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Reggie on the radio

News-Sentinel columnist and Colts beat reporter Reggie Hayes will talk about the Colts at 5:15 p.m. every Monday on the BS Sports Show (1380-AM, 106.7-FM).

For more on the Colts, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Players like Heyward-Bey, Landry and Walden must perform

Friday, September 6, 2013 - 4:16 am

The 2013 Indianapolis Colts are made of sure things and risks. If the risks pay off, they're Super Bowl contenders. If not, look for Andrew Luck to take a pounding.

The sure things are easy to spot. They were here a year ago, the first of the “ColtsStrong” or “ChuckStrong” era.

Start with Luck. He's a sure thing. His knowledge of the game, his character, his analytical approach and his flat-out skills make him a can't-miss quarterback for the next decade. Now he's had a year to digest the NFL, study film of himself in NFL situations and learn on the job.

Other sure things include Reggie Wayne, the ageless wide receiver with the underrated and perhaps unparalleled hands; Robert Mathis, relentless quarterback harasser; Antoine Bethea, Grade A safety; and the kicking combo of Mr. Clutch Adam Vinatieri and Mr. Punt Pat McAfee. I'd throw second-year tight end Dwayne Allen, second-year wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and defensive end Cory Redding into the sure thing category. Allen and Hilton bring game-breaking talents and Redding on- and off-field motivational skills.

But if the Colts are going to equal or even improve upon their 11-5 playoff team of a year ago, they need massive support from the risks.

General manager Ryan Grigson has been a busy man since last year, saying hello to scores of new players and goodbye to some old ones, including the great Dwight Freeney.

He pursued players who have been around a while, many with some sort of baggage, such as underachieving or injuries.

If he hits on all of them, 12 wins isn't out of the question. Too many misses and this season will feel like a regression.

Pro sports can be a gamble, and Grigson rolled the dice.

The biggest risks, with the potential for the biggest payoffs, include:

* Darrius Heyward-Bey, wide receiver. Luck needs a third receiver other than Wayne and Hilton to break games open. Heyward-Bey – or DHB as he's known – has the size and speed to be that man. He had tons of quarterback turnover in Oakland. Now he's with a stable force. If he thrives, the passing game soars.

* LaRon Landry, safety. He can be a force with his chiseled frame and intense demeanor. He had a couple injury-plagued seasons, but those might have been the exception rather than the rule. His health is crucial because there's a significant drop off in the secondary if he doesn't play.

* Erik Walden, outside linebacker. He was signed by the Colts from Green Bay, where he didn't put up any sort of notable statistics. He took Freeney's old No.93 jersey – forget retiring it, was there even time to wash it? – and his job opposite Mathis. Walden has to produce.

* Gosder Cherilus, offensive line. He has to beef up the protection of Luck as well as the running game. He's an expensive, expensive addition. That's largely irrelevant to fans, who aren't affected by a player's paycheck as much as they sometimes think. But it does impact money the Colts have to spend in the future. If he solidifies the line, he's worth every penny.

* Greg Toler, cornerback. Toler played in the preseason like he was more of a sure thing than a risk, logging an interception and forcing a fumble. But the question will be whether his style of play, which is to go for big plays and gamble, helps more than it hurts.

The Colts will not have the emotional edge – or, quite frankly, the stress – of coach Chuck Pagano's illness as a factor this time around. Some say that rallying call, along with a fairly weak schedule, played a huge role in turning last season into a surprise playoff berth.

There's one other risk, too, and it affects Luck directly. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton comes to the Colts from Stanford, where he spent the last three years coaching. He has NFL experience, most recently with the Chicago Bears, so he's not entirely new to the game. But will his offensive style translate to the pro game?

Hamilton spent much of training camp touting the run game, and it could be better with Ahmad Bradshaw in the backfield along with Vick Ballard. But the NFL is a passing game. Will Hamilton's offense utilize Luck's strengths as well as former coordinator Bruce Arians' scheme did? Will it improve Luck's game?

Luck is a sure thing. The offense remains unproven, if not a risk.

On paper, it looks like the Colts will have a better team the season. They'll need it with the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos on the schedule, along with two games against the Texans. In back-to-back games, the Colts will face Freeney and Manning. Think those two would love to spoil a party?

I look at the Colts' schedule and see 10-6 as the most likely record, 11-5 a possibility with a couple strong road performances.

Anything better than that means the risks have produced extreme rewards and Grigson will be the executive of the year.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.