Just a year removed from one of the worst seasons in franchise history, no one expected much from the Indianapolis Colts in 2012. As a team that was rebuilding from the ground up, just a few wins would have been considered a success. Instead, one of the league's youngest rosters ended up with an 11-5 record, and was without of doubt one of the year's best stories.
That success comes with a cost however, and now the expectations are significantly higher as the Colts open training camp this weekend. Instead of just looking for a few wins, fans in Indy are looking for a playoff berth. Can the young, up and coming Colts provide that?
It's nearly impossible to talk about the Colts' youth without starting with the newest face of the franchise Andrew Luck. Were it not for Robert Griffin III exploding onto the scene, it would have been Luck that would have been heralded as perhaps the best rookie of 2012. Expectations will certainly be high for Luck in 2013 as he's now been reunited with his college offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton. With Hamilton's guidance, along with Matt Hasselbeck providing valuable insight, there's no reason to think Luck will take a step backwards this season.
For Luck to take significant steps forward, he'll need the youth around him to elevate their game to the next level as well. Reggie Wayne will still figure to be Luck's primary target, but he's slowing down and certainly isn't the threat he used to be. Colts fans will certainly be looking to the dynamic T.Y. Hilton to add more big play potential to the offense. He's got the potential to be one of the most exciting players in the league, and flashed tons of ability not only in the slot but playing from the outside as well. Can he continue that in year two?
Indianapolis will also need to get more out of their two second year tight ends. Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener both had solid rookie seasons, and now that Hamilton is calling the shots it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which a two tight end offense could flourish any more than it will in Indy. These two, as well as Justice Cunningham, have the potential to make up one of the best tight end groups in the league.
The key to the offenses success may very well be with rookies Khaled Holmes and Hugh Thornton. If these two young linemen are able to win starting jobs in training camp, it'd go a long way towards improving an offensive line that was simply not good in 2012. Without improved protection for Luck, it may not matter how good the rest of the talent is on the offensive side of the ball.
The surprisingly good Colts' offensive attack in 2012 helped overcome what was a defense that struggled far too often. Indianapolis isn't likely to get that lucky again in 2013. Nearly everywhere you look on the defensive roster you'll find new, young additions that the coaching staff hopes will turn the defense around.
It all starts on the defensive line, and perhaps the most important player in the ongoing transition to a 3-4 defense will be tackle Josh Chapman. It's essentially his rookie year as he missed all of last season due to injury, and his presence will go a long way towards solidifying the interior of the defense. Rookie Montori Hughes has some off the field red flags but he's got enough talent that he could fight his way onto the field early on in his career.
All eyes on defense, however, will be a linebacker where rookie Bjoern Werner will be looking to get after the quarterback from a different position after playing defensive end at Florida State. The progress he makes in camp will be crucial. If he transitions well, he shouldn't have any trouble getting on the field. If he's unable to pick up the intricacies of playing outside linebacker however, the Colts' first round selection may not be able to get onto the field.
Perhaps more than any other team, the Colts' have the ultimate success or failure of their season riding on players that have very little experience playing in the NFL. It's likely to lead to some bumps in the road this season – it's unlikely every young player will develop on the pace that's needed. However, those learning experiences are very likely to eventually turn this version of the Indianapolis Colts into a serious contender in the AFC for years to come.