Chang­ing di­rec­tion

Colts run new route with younger, faster, cheaper play­ers

Cape Breton Post - - Sports - BY MICHAEL MAROT

In­di­anapo­lis Colts gen­eral man­ager Chris Bal­lard fol­lowed his gut.

Watch­ing game tapes only re­in­forced the no­tion that his team needed to get younger, faster and tougher.

So Bal­lard spent the off­sea­son re­leas­ing ag­ing team lead­ers, al­low­ing other es­tab­lished starters to walk away in free agency and chang­ing di­rec­tions with mostly low-risk, rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive gam­bles. Now ev­ery­one inside the or­ga­ni­za­tion is ea­ger to see if Bal­lard’s bets pay off.

“The hard­est thing this year was stay­ing dis­ci­plined in free agency, be­cause I knew we needed to add, I knew the prob­lems we were hav­ing, and the holes we needed to fill,” he said. “Stay­ing dis­ci­plined to your process that was the hard­est thing this year.”

At the mo­ment, it’s im­pos­si­ble to know ex­actly where the Colts’ tran­si­tion stands.

NFL rules pro­hibit con­tact dur­ing off-sea­son work­outs and re­strict teams from putting on pads for the first three days of train­ing camp. Indy’s wait ends Tues­day when the team could get its first glimpse at a camp Pagano and Bal­lard have promised will be more phys­i­cal.

For now, though, there are more ques­tions than answers.

De­fen­sive line­man Johnathan Hank­ins and linebacker Jabaal Sheard must show they can be locker room lead­ers while re­ceiver Ka­mar Aiken, linebacker John Si­mon and nose tackle Al Woods will be put in more prom­i­nent roles.

As first-round draft pick Ma­lik Hooker and con­verted right guard Jack Me­whort con­tinue to fight back from in­juries, for­mer first-round picks Phillip Dorsett and Barke­vi­ous Mingo will have another chance to demon­strate they can fi­nally live up to their pre-draft hype.

“A lot has changed. We are much younger,” said safety Dar­ius But­ler, Indy’s fourth-old­est player at 31. “But the guys are hun­gry and they’re buy­ing in. Ev­ery rep, ev­ery drill, I think brings the best out of ev­ery­body.”

While the of­fence has made ten­ta­tive po­si­tion changes along the line and tight end Dwayne Allen was traded to New Eng­land, kicker Adam Vi­natieri is work­ing with a new long snap­per, a new holder and a new kick­off spe­cial­ist.

But the pri­mary fo­cus has been on a mas­sive de­fen­sive over­haul.

Robert Mathis, the long­time face of Indy’s de­fence, re­tired at 35. Indy also cut ties with four other starters in their 30s — for­mer Pro Bowlers Mike Adams and D’Qwell Jack­son, de­fen­sive tackle Art Jones and linebacker Erik Walden.

So far, things seem to be work­ing. As Bal­lard added speed and depth in the lineback­ing corps and sec­ondary, the Colts big­gest move might be pair­ing the 325pound Hank­ins, 25, with the 330-pound Woods, 30. It would give Indy its big­gest run-stuff­ing tan­dem in years.

“I can’t wait till to­mor­row and see if they can move us,” Hank­ins said. “I think we can be the best (de­fen­sive line) in our di­vi­sion.”

That’s say­ing some­thing with J.J. Watt and Jade­veon Clowney still an­chor­ing Hous­ton’s front seven.

It’s not the first time Hank­ins has promised big things. In May, he told NFL Network the re­built Colts have “prob­a­bly the best de­fence in the AFC,” a com­ment that has led to play­ful ban­ter be­tween Hank­ins and for­mer col­lege team­mate Bradley Roby, a cor­ner­back with the Den­ver Bron­cos.

Pagano learned to em­brace that sort of swag­ger dur­ing his pre­vi­ous stops at the Univer­sity of Mi­ami and with the Bal­ti­more Ravens. But it’s been a miss­ing in­gre­di­ent in In­di­anapo­lis.

“If you’re go­ing to do it, you’ve got to back it up. You put it out there, you bet­ter show up,” Pagano said in June. “Guys can use what­ever they want to use, bulletin board ma­te­rial. I don’t sit there and pro­mote that. I don’t think any coach at any level pro­motes that. I just know that if you’re go­ing to talk, you bet­ter walk it.”

Add the play­mak­ing skills of Hooker, a safety, with the po­ten­tial pass-rush­ing skills of rookie linebacker Tarell Basham and some ex­pe­ri­enced inside lineback­ers in Sean Spence and Jon Bos­tic, and it looks like the Colts’ de­fence has a whole new iden­tity — one that comes straight out of Bal­lard’s play­book.

“We’re try­ing to be a phys­i­cal, nasty de­fence that can close games out. That was a prob­lem we had last year specif­i­cally,” But­ler said. “If our of­fence puts up 17 to 20 points a game, we should get a win.”

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