Heading into the 2012 offseason was extremely difficult for Indianapolis Colts fans. Owner Jim Irsay made hard decisions that marked the end of an era of Colts football. Gone were the team's legendary General Manager Bill Polian and his son Chris, gone was nearly the entire coaching staff, and gone was a large portion of the nucleus of a 2006 NFL Championship team -- of course all starting with Peyton Manning.
The impact on fan confidence was drastic. Younger fans I have spoken to have said, "It just doesn't seem like the Colts anymore." Frankly, they're right, it's not the Colts they knew anymore, which made it extremely important for Jim Irsay to find and hire a new general manager that had the football smarts, talent evaluation skills, and individual fortitude as a leader to quickly create a new identity for fans to connect with.
When the team announced Ryan Grigson as the new general manager he was received with mixed opinions. Fans liked that he played at Purdue and liked his resume but this is the first time he's had to take on the increased responsibilities associated with being an NFL GM. He never was responsible for hiring staff directly and he was never responsible for running a draft room previously.
Talk about a lot of pressure. There were more reasons Grigson had to screw this up, and the likelihood that any man would buckle under the pressure of rebuilding a franchise after an unmatched run of regular season success over a decade, after one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time has left the team, and with a completely new coaching staff was very real.
The good news is that he didn't. He showed why Irsay chose him as the team's new general manager. He showed poise. He showed resolve. He showed a backbone in the face of that pressure. He squarely solidified himself as the leader of this team, put his stamp on it, and has given fans a reason to believe he has what it takes to get this team back to its winning ways in a short period of time.
Consider the moves Grigson and Irsay have made together since he joined the team. He put together a defensive coaching staff that from day one will be widely recognized as one of the league's best. The group is aggressive, creative, and many of the coaches are young enough to grow with the team for years -- and Colts fans know as well as anyone how helpful it is to have some kind of consistency amongst the coaching staff and in the front office.
He grabbed an offensive coach who not only is the same man who welcomed Manning to the NFL but who runs an offense that was able to run the ball well -- Edgerrin James years -- and utilized tight ends in the same kinds of ways Andrew Luck did while he was at Stanford.
He brought in low risk, high reward free agents who make the team better and fill vacancies from day one. The offensive line has gotten attention, the nose tackle position has received some attention, and strong safety has a player who is more experienced and less injury prone than the Colts have had for some time -- the ones who were more experienced were always hurt.
Much has been said about the transition of the team's defense under Head Coach Chuck Pagano. There is a lack of depth at almost every position on the defensive side of the football. The starters are either inexperienced in their new roles or not the kind of stars defenses in San Diego and Baltimore boast(ed).
This is true. Work will need to be done to get the defense "there" in the way I'm sure Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky and Pagano would like it to be.
Fans have been so aware of this from the moment Pagano joined the franchise that entire mock draft boards were significantly influenced with the persistent thought that -- "in order for this defense to do and be what these coaches will want, there will have to be a lot of attention paid to the defensive side of the football in the upcoming draft."
Sure, everyone realized the team had to throw Luck a bone or two. One tight end and one receiver, maybe an offensive linemen, but everyone else HAD to be defense.
The problem is, that was completely wrong. You don't make decisions in the draft with a team rebuilding based upon finding players to fill roles in one way or another when other players are staring you in the face who will have a bigger short-term impact for your team and have a much better long-term outlook as well.
The fact is that early in the 2012 NFL Draft a run occurred with this year's elite defensive talent in the first two rounds. Sure, there were defensive players who the Colts could have reached for, a lot of teams did that, but what makes me feel so good about the direction this team is heading in and the leadership that has accumulated in the front office is that Grigson didn't make the same mistake.
Colts fans, you want a new identity? You want to know where the team is headed and want to know what you're rooting for? You want something to get excited about?
Grigson just put together a haul in the 2012 NFL Draft that I believe will be recognized as one of the Colts best by the 2014 season.
When a team uses the number one pick in the NFL Draft to select a quarterback, and not just any quarterback but one that is the most lauded in over a decade, you cannot pass up on offensive talent that is vastly superior to the defensive talent available on the board just to fill holes. You have to take advantage of what the board gives you if it is staring you in the face.
The first four picks were Luck, Fleener, Allen, and Hilton. Every one of those players will be an impact player on offense in 2012. Expect that there will be a learning curve for the rookies, but these guys were brought to build with and around Andrew Luck. Grigson and Arians will be sure that these guys work together a lot and establish a rapport.
Grabbing Josh Chapman in the fifth round was getting a steal. Not only was the pick a steal because Chapman is worthy of a higher selection but because the difference between Chapman's skill and NFL outlook and that of players selected much earlier like Alameda Ta'amu is minimal. In fact, I think Chapman -- if his ACL fully recovers and he stays healthy -- projects as a better NFL nose tackle than Ta'amu.
The later selections of players like running back Vick Ballard, wide receiver LaVon Brazill, and offensive tackle Justin Anderson were very high value picks for their spots. Ballard is a tough runner between the tackles who provides some competition for Delone Carter and Darren Evans, increasing the likelihood that the team will field a group of young rushers who can make an impact in different facets of football games. He is an excellent blocker -- think Addai -- and should be very useful working with Luck even as a rookie.
Brazill may be a late round draft gem in a year or two. He didn't play football until his senior year of high school, went to Ohio and broke their all-time receptions record, and displays the kind of hands that are extremely rare. Check out this and this if you want an idea of how crazy Brazill's natural hands are with only five years of football under his belt. HUGE upside here. Oh, and the kid can return punts as well.
Offensive tackle Justin Anderson is a very clever selection. Anderson is 6-foot 4-inches tall and weighs 342 pounds. He has experience playing on both sides of the football and at multiple positions along the offensive line. Some injuries have kept him from developing even more in college but he was voted one of Georgia's most improved offensive players in his final season. With some work a man his size could be used at guard or tackle. Grabbing a prospect for the offensive line like Anderson in the seventh is a cheap way to improve offensive line depth in 2012 or 2013.
When Grigson snagged up outside linebacker Tim Fugger in the seventh he got another very high value player at the spot that offers some depth at linebacker -- one of the defensive need positions -- and who should be an immediate special teams contributor. At 6-foot 3-inches tall, 248 pounds, Fugger runs a 4.55 40-yard dash, and can put up 29 bench reps. He flew under the radar but has incredible upside and potential -- not to mention pass rushing experience against SEC competition. He loves to force fumbles.
The only head-scratcher for me is the selection of quarterback Chandler Harnish with the team's final pick. I understand that he was actually getting attention from other NFL teams who might have kept the Colts from snagging him as an undrafted player but justifying this pick -- though justifying the final pick in the draft seems somewhat meh -- is tough. I get that Harnish could potentially unseat Drew Stanton as the team's primary backup, or the team could carry three quarterbacks, or Harnish could be a practice squad project to take over for Stanton in the future. But, with the final pick in the draft it makes complete sense in my mind that you use it for the best defensive player on your board -- and cornerback would have been a good place to go. Going with another quarterback and losing out on even one of the team's other priority free agents, in my mind, just isn't worth it.
Either way, Grigson pulled off something pretty incredible in his first draft. I'm not projecting all of the picks to be Pro Bowlers, and right now I don't know if all of them will even pan out. All I know is that the picks were smart from my perspective.
The Indianapolis Colts have a new identity. While the defensive parts might not be there yet the defensive scheme, attitude, and outlook will be something completely new. The offense just added some players who will be staples in the minds of fans within the next few seasons barring unforeseeable injuries or setbacks. The Indianapolis offense will be exciting to watch and over the next couple of years the dividends from this draft will become very clear.
Welcome to the new era.
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