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Last updated: Sat. Aug. 09, 2014 - 01:05 am EDT

COLUMN

Ranking the Colts' most indispensable players

Injuries have struck already and preseason has only begun

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For more on the Colts, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

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For whatever reason – training methods, fragile players, bad luck – the Indianapolis Colts always seem to be dealing with some sort of injury to a key player or two.

That trend continued when center Khaled Holmes, offensive lineman Ulrick John, defensive tackle Jeris Pendleton and outside linebacker Daniel Adongo all suffered injuries in the 13-10 preseason loss to the New York Jets on Thursday night. Holmes is a big one considering his importance as the starting center.

Holmes ankle injury might not be season-ending, but it will force the team to regroup on an already fragile offensive line.

So, with Colts fans keeping their fingers crossed, who are the players the Colts could least afford to lose to injury?

Here are my indispensable Top 10:


1. Andrew Luck

The franchise quarterback is the most important player, whether non-quarterbacks want to admit it or not. Luck has taken on even more responsibility at the line of scrimmage as he enters his third season. The simple fact he has generated so many comeback wins in two seasons reflects his value. The Colts cannot expect to achieve their ultimate goal, winning a Super Bowl, without their quarterback.

Could backup Matt Hasselbeck lead the team if Luck went down? He has skills. He has been a big winner. But he's older, less mobile and doesn't appear to have the same arm strength he once possessed on deep balls. He's smart enough. But whether his body would listen to his mind is another question.


2. Anthony Castonzo

Would you rank the left tackle this high? Perhaps not, knowing that offensive linemen generally have an ability to play various spots on the line. But I would put Castonzo No.2 because if he's out, Luck's protection drops and we already know where Luck ranks on the indispensable list. Castonzo is charged with protecting the franchise. He's made steady improvement. If he's out, Luck spends more time scrambling and looking over his shoulder.


3. Robert Mathis

We'll find out just how much Mathis is missed at outside linebacker during the first four regular-season games when he sits out with a suspension for testing positive for a banned substance. Mathis had 19.5 sacks last season and provides the dangerous quarterback-hunting presence that keeps opposing offenses worried. Maybe second-year player Bjoern Werner can step into that role seamlessly the first four games. That's questionable. He has neither the experience or the savvy to have the same effect on the game. Someday, maybe. Not this season.


4. Reggie Wayne

I debated ranking Wayne this high given his age, the fact he's coming off knee surgery and the emergence of T.Y. Hilton as a viable No.1 wide receiver. The additional presence of Hakeem Nicks and rookie Donte Moncrief and dependable third-year player Griff Whalen also helps.

However, we saw what happened to the Colts offense when Wayne went down last season. Losing him again would be a shot in the psyche of the team, not to mention a tough leadership role to fill. It can't be overstated how much Wayne put Luck at ease two years ago and continues to be a teammate he leans upon for advice.


5. Jerrell Freeman

Freeman simply keeps getting better at inside linebacker and generates the kind of non-stop energy that can drive a defense even when it doesn't necessarily have the best lineup in the league. He's a tackling machine. He may not even have scratched the surface of his talent. Veteran linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said he was impressed by Freeman from a distance as a fan of the game, but even more so by joining him on the field.

Inside linebacker is a thin position for the Colts overall and while Jackson could theoretically cover things if Freeman were to go down, it would be a major gap in the run and pass defense.


6. T.Y. Hilton

Hilton seems on the verge of moving from great young player to superstar. He has speed, great hands and a knack for finding a way to get open. He's a small guy. He shouldn't be able to generate the space he does in the secondary, but he has savvy beyond his years. He's a big-play threat. In fact, I'd go so far as to say he's the Colts' best big-play threat. Not only can he go deep for a pass, he can take a short pass and turn it into a major gain with his tremendous open-field skills.

Losing Hilton would lose that threat of a one-play score.


7. Cory Redding

Redding brings the intangibles. He's loud. He's confident. He's a motivator. He can tackle, too, and chase a quarterback down every now and then from his defensive end position. His biggest contribution, though, might be in attitude. Redding knows what the Colts are trying to do with their defense, which is turn it into a legitimate force of its own, a version of the Baltimore Ravens defense Redding played with a couple years ago. There may be guys who can step in and play in Redding's spot, but they wouldn't bring the presence.


8. Vontae Davis

Davis' indispensable status doesn't quite rank with the players listed above, but he's needed for his ability to make game-changing plays. He's going to get burned from time to time. All cornerbacks do. But the Colts have put the kind of trust (i.e. money) in Davis that signals how important they think he is to defensive success. When Davis plays at his best, he's one of the top corners in the league. They need that more this season, and they can't afford not to have him on the field.


9. Trent Richardson

You might be thinking Richardson has yet to prove he's a significant contributor, and his so-so debut season after arriving in a trade was underwhelming. Richardson at his best gives the Colts the type of running threat that can only open up the passing game for Luck. Richardson is decent in pass protection and more than capable of being a receiver out of the backfield. With Vick Ballard already out for the season, the Colts could not easily afford to have Richardson go down. Ahmad Bradshaw is a health risk and Boom Herron is a relief pitcher more than a starter.


10. Pat McAfee

The punter? Really? McAfee is a master at punting, certainly, but he also contributes in kickoffs, coverage (we've seen his tackles) and as a holder. If he were to be injured, the Colts would lose the loose vibe he brings to the locker room as well as the undervalued contributions he makes on the field. You don't know how much you need your punter until you don't have him around anymore.

rhayes@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.


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