From the outside looking in, it would appear that the Indianapolis Colts are in the midst of a retooling project on the defensive side of the football.
Thanks to a flurry of offseason free agent signings, as well as one or two additions through the 2013 National Football League draft, the Colts could have as many as six new starters when the regular season opens.
Gone are former starters outside linebacker Dwight Freeney (San Diego), strong safety Tom Zbikowski (Chicago), and cornerback Jerraud Powers (Arizona). Outside linebacker Erik Walden (Green Bay), strong safety LaRon Landry (New York Jets) and cornerback Greg Toler (Arizona) are expected to be their replacements.
With defensive tackle Fili Moala recovering from off-season knee surgery, Ricky Jean Francois (San Francisco) takes over. Nose tackle Antonio Johnson was not re-signed after last season, which opens the door for either Josh Chapman (who missed his rookie year with the Colts due to knee surgery) or veteran Aubrayo Franklin (San Diego).
Finally, there could be an opening as well at inside linebacker. Jerrell Freeman, who set a franchise record for tackles in a season in 2012, is safely ensconced at one spot. But with Pat Angerer recovering from offseason foot surgery, Kavell Conner or Kelvin Sheppard (Buffalo) are battling it out for a starting job.
Second-year defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has the unenviable task of trying to put all the pieces together and turning them into a cohesive unit. It’s a job he’s ready to undertake.
“It’s great. Last year it was a process across the board for all of us. But at the end of the season, things started coming around. Looking forward more than ever this year with the players that we’ve got, coaches that we have, and just ready to roll,” Manusky voiced.
The goal prior to last season was to turn players who had been drafted to play in a 4-3 defensive scheme into a group that could make an impact in Indianapolis' new hybrid 3-4 package.
“When you have the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4, you’re trying to plug in the pieces and figure out what they’re trying to do. With last year, coming into the season, we were trying to figure out the players actually, what can they do and what can’t they do. Then all of a sudden this year those pieces are a little bit more in place.”
With Freeney gone, returning outside linebacker Robert Mathis will flip sides of the defensive line to become the Colts' primary outside pass rusher. Walden will take over Mathis' former role.
Franklin and Chapman, a 2012 fifth-round draft pick who earned All-America honors at Alabama, are the top two options at nose tackle. Brandon McKinney missed last year with knee issues and was placed on injured reserve this week, which could open up playing time for rookie defensive lineman Montori Hughes.
Outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, Indianapolis' top selection in this year's NFL draft, is currently listed as the top backup to Mathis as the Colts' rush end. Werner, however, is getting looks at both outside linebacking spots and could end up playing on both sides of the line.
Defensive end Cory Redding, free safety Antoine Bethea, cornerback Vontae Davis, Freeman and Mathis are the five returning starters from a year ago who return this season.
• How is the transition going? — According to Manusky, he likes what he's seen of his defense through the first four days of training camp practices. But there's still much work to do in order to be ready for Indianapolis' Sept. 8 season and home opener against Oakland.
“It’s a process across the board just like it was last year. We got a couple of guys through free agency that have helped us out across the board. It’s a process,” he explained.
“Offensively, usually in training camp, in the beginning, usually the defense wins a majority of the time. Why? Because they’re still installing a lot of stuff offensively. We’re just doing the process, grinding the stone and we’re going to keep on working at it.”
• Goals for the defense — Manusky is not much of a stats man. There is only one number that has much meaning.
“The biggest number one thing is we win games. I tell them I don’t care how we win a game. It’s just that we win games. Defensively, that’s what we’re looking for,” he said.
“Would we like to have the number one defense? Of course. But, stats doesn’t really mean anything to me. We won 11 games last year and that’s what we’re looking to do and expand on that.”
• Chapman, Toler impress — During an 11-on-11 period in Wednesday's afternoon practice, the former Alabama defensive linemen opened a lot of eyes with just one play.
The 6-foot, 340-pound former Alabama standout shoved the double-team blockers assigned to him into two other offensive linemen, effectively taking out four opposing players.
Toler, meanwhile, has been on a roll since the start of organized team activity practices last spring. He has become a play maker at the cornerback position, often facing off against either Reggie Wayne, Darrius
Heyward-Bey or T.Y. Hilton during training camp workouts.
• Luck loose after practice — Quarterback Andrew Luck showed Thursday that he does have a funny side.
Luck, who is usually serious when conducting locker room, post-game or post-practice interviews, showed a different side following Thursday's workout.
He threw a good-natured barb at veteran defensive end Cory Redding, who had jokingly chided the signal caller for running with the football during practice earlier this week. “He’s old,” Luck chuckled. “No wait. Don't print that. He might beat me up.”
• Injury list — Cornerback Greg Toler (concussion) sat out Thursday's practice. He was hurt Wednesday. According to Colts coach Chuck Pagano, Toler was tested Thursday and will be tested again today. He will return to practice when cleared by team medical personnel.
Rookie outside linebacker Daniel Adongo also did not take part in the workout. Adongo aggravated an old biceps injury that he had initially incurred while playing rugby.
Rookie center Khaled Holmes (ankle), rookie offensive guard Hugh Thornton (ankle) and safety Sergio Brown (hamstring) also missed practice.
• Roster moves — The Colts waived offensive guard Robert Griffin and inside linebacker Scott Lutrus Thursday, adding center Thomas Austin (6-4, 310) and offensive guard Danous Estenor (6-3, 307) to the training camp roster.
Lutrus suffered a knee injury during Tuesday and was waived-injured. Should he clear waivers, he would revert to Indianapolis' injured-reserve list.
Austin has previously played with Carolina and Houston. Estenor is a rookie undrafted free agent who had tryouts with several teams, including Indianapolis and Cleveland.