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 - Peyton Manning, Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky
Peyton Manning is arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play professional football. He has won four regular season MVP awards and was the Super Bowl MVP following the 2006 regular season. Under his leadership the Colts went on a historic decade-long string of regular season success, owned the AFC South, were perennial playoff contenders, and always hovered amongst the league's strongest teams.
Unfortunately for Manning, he has undergone four neck surgeries over the last two years and had an infected bursa sac in his knee that nearly caused him to miss his first NFL start at the beginning of the 2008 season. While it is possible those injuries and wear on his body will be fully healed and total non-issues as he continues his career in Denver, there was certainly some level of risk involved with choosing to move forward with an aging quarterback who may be moving closer to the end of his career more quickly than he or fans would like to think.
Without doubt though, had Manning started in 2011 and not required season-ending neck surgery, he would have been amongst the league's top quarterbacks yet again.
Kerry Collins was a mid-training camp addition who was pulled out of retirement to fill in for the injured Manning. He had very little time to get comfortable in Indy's offensive system, did not have the legs or pocket awareness for the offensive line in front of him, took regular abuse, made poor decisions, and looked like a player who should have stayed retired. Losing Collins is a net plus because his play was poor and his arrow was down.
Curtis Painter was drafted in the sixth round of the 2009 draft. He entered the league after a disappointing senior season -- had he entered the 2008 draft following his junior year he would have likely been drafted much earlier (2nd-3rd round). Not unlike the cheap late round or undrafted backups to Manning before him, Painter was given very little opportunity to work with the first team in practices and during the off-season. Throw in a propensity to panic and make bad decisions in game situations and there is a recipe for disaster.
There is very little likelihood that Painter has a great deal of upside in the NFL. Moving on from him requires very little value to net a positive result.
Dan Orlovsky is an average NFL backup quarterback who will likely not improve beyond that level throughout his career. There certainly is nothing wrong with having him around in emergencies -- and he was probably the best option behind Manning in 2011 -- but he is really nothing special and his NFL record isn't anything to get overly excited about. It would take an average NFL backup to adequately replace him -- a solid NFL backup would constitute an upgrade.
2012 - Andrew Luck, Drew Stanton, Chandler Harnish
Andrew Luck is the most highly touted quarterback prospect to enter the NFL since at least 1998, when his predecessor entered the league. He has been a front runner for Heisman Trophy consideration two years in a row, has played a huge role in turning Stanford's football program around, has the benefit of coming from a football family -- his father was a quarterback for the Houston Oilers, along with general manager and leadership roles with the World League of American Football -- and studied underneath former Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh.
There is very little doubt that Luck's experience and pedigree set him up for NFL success. However, almost all rookie quarterbacks experience some struggles as they go through the learning curve of NFL speed and talent. Long-term Luck's upside to lead the Colts to another string of success is extremely high. In his first two seasons 6 wins and 9-10 wins would be positive showings.
There is no doubt that Luck today is not Manning today (assuming Manning is healthy). The immediate impact is a net loss for the Colts at starting quarterback. The long-term impact is a net benefit in each subsequent year as Manning's talents fade and Luck's grow.
Drew Stanton has experienced a rather colorful NFL career to this point. In Detroit he once backed up Dan Orlovsky, dealt with the Daunte Culpepper experiment, got buried behind Matthew Stafford, and missed on early opportunities to make a name for himself. Then in 2010, Stanton had three strong games in a row, defeating the Packers and winning Detroit's first road game in over 3 years against the Buccaneers.
The New York Jets signed him March 16, 2012 but the Colts clearly wanted him so made a minor trade to bring him to Indianapolis. Stanton's success in the NFL and position in his career is very similar to Orlovsky. He is an adequate player to serve as his replacement.
Chandler Harnish is an offensive weapon unlike any player I can remember the Colts bringing onto the team -- at the quarterback position. Although he competed in the MAC conference, which is rather weak, his ability to create offensive yards was outstanding and he improved markedly each year at Northern Illinois. He has the potential to develop nicely in the kind of offensive system Indianapolis is putting together and has many of the same kinds of characteristics to his game as Andrew Luck does.
All in all his upside is fantastic. In the short-term he has an outside shot of making the regular season roster -- depends on if General Manager Ryan Grigson chooses to keep three quarterbacks on the roster. In the next couple of years though, depending on how Grigson and the coaching staff choose to develop him, he could become an offensive weapon used from time to time, adding a wrinkle to the Colts offense. His development will be interesting to follow and he is hands down a better prospect than Painter at this point in his career or Collins for obvious reasons.
There is no denying that the starting quarterback position is stronger in 2012 than it was in 2011 but not as strong as it could have been if Peyton Manning was retained. The difference in experience and molded skills at this point in Luck and Manning's career means the on-field production and success will and should be noticeably different. Do not expect Luck to put up the kind of numbers Cameron Newton did a season ago -- not because he's not capable but because that is historically extremely unlikely. Expect him to be a top 15 NFL quarterback by season's end and to put together some wins that the 2011 Colts were unable to close out.
In terms of depth, the 2012 Colts quarterbacks are better than the options in 2011 overall. Orlovsky and Stanton may be a wash but Painter and Collins together offer no meaningful upside and Mr. Irrelevant Chandler Harnish offers a great deal of it. The backups on the roster in 2012 make more sense and offer more promise than the ones of 2011 or 2010 for that matter.
In short, the 2012 quarterback depth chart is vastly superior to the 2011 version -- considering Manning was placed on IR. The 2012 starting quarterback is superior to 2011 but inferior to 2010 or to having Manning around -- but that is only a short term proposition. The outlook for the position is positive.