With the kind of widespread team change that has occurred in Indianapolis following the 2011 NFL season, fans are presented with the dawning of a new era and reason to track the team's progress as it moves into the future with a clean slate. A new general manager, coaching staff, scouting staff, franchise quarterback, and major player turnover all make what Colts fans knew from 1998 to 2010 -- 2011 being the albatross -- no longer relevant.
In order to assess the state of the franchise in the summer, before games have been played in a new offensive scheme, defensive scheme, special teams arrangement, and with a lot of players new to Indianapolis, I will do my best to analyze the 2011 team roster at each position and compare it with those who will fill the roster -- or who may fill the roster -- in 2012. Readers are invited to chime in with their opinions, provide their own insights, and help educate the Colts Authority staff and community with any knowledge or insight about specific players and positions in this series.
2011 - Dallas Clark, Brody Eldridge, Anthony Hill, Jacob Tamme
Unfortunately, veteran tight end Dallas Clark -- former Pro Bowler and one of the key offensive weapons of the Peyton Manning era -- was once again unable to stay healthy and was unable to put up a season as productive as the team needed from one of its veterans. In 2010, Clark competed in only six games and finished with 37 receptions for 347 yards and 3 touchdowns. In 2011, Clark played in 11 contests -- 5 more than a season prior -- but managed to only haul in 34 receptions for 352 yards and 2 touchdowns. His age and health issues, along with a sizable cap hit at the end of his contract led the front office to part ways with the veteran who is now with Tampa Bay.
2010 fifth round pick Brody Eldridge joined the Colts as an experienced blocker, touted the best blocking tight end in his draft class. His abilities as a receiving option never improved much and his ability to stay healthy was a bit of a concern. Eldridge ended his senior season in college with a season ending neck injury and suffered injuries in each of his first two seasons in the NFL. Although a blocking tight end seems like a logical fit in the new Arians offensive scheme the Colts waived Eldridge, who was picked up by the St. Louis Rams. He is now suspended for the first four games of the 2012 season for violating the NFL's performance enhancing substances policy.
Following injuries to both Dallas Clark and Brody Eldridge in 2011, the Colts brought in tight end Anthony Hill, formerly a fourth round pick by the Houston Texans in 2009. Interestingly enough, Hill was poached from Ryan Grigson's practice squad in Philadelphia. Despite this fact, Hill was not brought back in for training camp in 2012 and remains a free agent.
Former Colts fourth round pick Jacob Tamme stunned the NFL in 2010 when he had to replace Dallas Clark -- lost to a season-ending hand injury. That season he gained 631 yards and hauled in 4 touchdowns, including an impressive 67 receptions in just 10 games as the starter. Following the 2010 season there were hopes amongst Colts fans that Tamme could line up across from a healthy Dallas Clark to give Indianapolis a pair of dynamic receivers in the middle of the field -- ala Pollard and Clark. After Peyton Manning was lost for the season, however, hopes of Tamme having another productive season were shattered. The upside of that is that his value on the market dropped significantly, giving the Colts an opportunity to retain him. Disappointingly, in my eyes, the Colts chose to let Tamme walk for a 3-year $9 million contract to Denver.
2012 - Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Kyle Miller, Andre Smith, Dominique Jones
The 2012 NFL Draft saw the Colts waste no time addressing the depleted tight end position, while at the same time giving rookie quarterback Andrew Luck promising young targets. The logical choice in the second round was to reunite Luck with his favorite college target Coby Fleener. Flenner is the kind of athletic receiving tight end that has become a major facet of the modern NFL passing offense. The familiarity between the two should make their transition easier -- leading some to predict a highly productive rookie season for Fleener. There is little doubt that Fleener is the most heralded receiving tight end prospect the Colts have brought in since Dallas Clark in the first round of the 2003 draft.
Joining Luck and Fleener in the third round is the 2012 NFL Draft's highest rated tight end, Dwayne Allen. Allen was a force at Clemson and has the size and athletic abliity to be a productive receiver and solid blocker. He is the more polished of the two tight ends the Colts drafted and should be an immediate starter. Not unlike Fleener, Allen is the most highly touted tight end prospect to join the Colts since Clark -- and Fleener. Allen should prove to be a dynamic offensive player for the Colts and may even see more snaps than Fleener as a rookie.
There are three interesting things about 2012 addition Kyle Miller. The first is that he played collegiately at Mount Union, where former Colts receiver Pierre Garcon played. The second is that he was a long snapper at Mount Union and very well could double as a tight end and long snapper in the NFL -- not unlike veteran Justin Snow. Finally, Miller was highly productive as a receiver at Mount Union -- admittedly inferior competition -- which means he could have some upside with development as a professional tight end, unlike Snow whose tight end label was never really accurate. At 6-foot 5-inches tall and 257 pounds he was worth a look.
Andre Smith, formerly of the Chicago Bears, was an undrafted free agent in 2011. At Virginia Tech Smith was primarily a special teams contributor and blocker. It is unlikely that he will be an active part of the Colts passing plans. If he can prove to be a valuable blocking tight end, however, he could sneak onto the roster for special teams production and help up front -- at 6-foot 5-inches and 267 pounds he certainly has the size to do so.
While there is very little written information about former UFL and Shepherd tight end Dominique Jones, what can be gathered is that he is primarily a pass receiver. At 6-foot 3-inches and 255 pounds that is not very surprising. Jones is getting his first documented shot at an NFL roster with the Colts, making him a long-shot, particularly with two proven division one receiving tight end drafted early this season. If he shows promise on special teams he could earn a spot on the practice squad. Hoping for anything more than that is probably hoping for too much.
The difficulty analyzing the the 2012 Colts right end roster against the 2011 version is that while Dallas Clark had a run as one of the league's most productive receiving tight ends and played a huge role in helping the Colts offense dominant the NFL for the better part of a decade, he was unable to stay healthy and is aging enough that expecting him to return to the glory days is unrealistic. Parting ways with a banged up, aging tight end with a massive salary was the clear choice once the decision was made to let Manning go. Eldridge and Hill were really non-considerations at the end of the day. This leaves only Tamme as a promising receiving tight end who is ready to enter the prime of his career as a potential 2012 Colts tight end.
In terms of experience, the 2012 Colts will absolutely be inferior across the board than the 2011 group. In terms of talent and upside, the starting group of Fleener and Allen will be the most promising group the Colts have had in years. Expect for there to be a learning curve and do not expect Fleener and Allen to simply dominate their competition like they could in college, particularly as rookies, but don't be surprised when the two rookies produce more and play a bigger role in the offense than Colts tight ends have since 2009-2010.