Colts expatriates help key Titan turnaround

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

INDIANAPOLIS -- They keep their own here, the indispensible ones.

Peyton Manning was never going to get away, Marvin Harrison was a lock, Reggie Wayne would be a fixture.

Dwight Freeney had to be on the field, Bob Sanders was a vital ingredient, Robert Mathis' energy was a must.

Since 2004 the Indianapolis Colts have spent over $205 million in guaranteed money on Manning, Harrison, Brandon Stokley, Ryan Diem, Wayne, Raheem Brock, Gary Brackett, Adam Vinatieri, Mathis, Freeney, Sanders and Ryan Lilja.

That's a great core that all started out as Colts, except for Vinatieri, and is all still Colts, except for Stokley.

The players Bill Polian chose not to re-sign have hardly haunted Indianapolis -- they probably parted with Edgerrin James at the right time; Rick DeMulling, Jason David, Cato June and Ben Utecht haven't done a lot to help Detroit, New Orleans, Tampa Bay or Cincinnati, respectively. Plenty of NFL insiders regard them and other ex-Colts as system players who were good in the Colts framework, did well to cash in as free agents, and will never play as well as they did in Indianapolis.

The Colts had draft picks or young players ready to step in as replacements in their unique system.

Only a handful of former Colts have gone on to advance their careers with their second team, among them linebacker Mike Peterson (Jacksonville) and Marcus Washington (Washington).

Three others went south to Nashville. David Thornton, Nick Harper and Jake Scott have jumped to the Titans in the last three years. They are now key ingredients for 6-0 Tennessee, the lone undefeated team in the league and the hosts to the Colts Monday night at LP Field.

While other system guys have faded in their second acts, the Titans feel they hit three home runs -- raiding and weakening the team they've been chasing in the AFC South while strengthening their nucleus.

"They are great performers for us and it's definitely a credit to our scouting department," said Titans Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. "Indy is a system-type team, but those guys came in and fit in with what we do really well."

"They've got so much invested in their elite, core guys, they kind of roll the other guys over," said Tennessee GM Mike Reinfeldt, who assumed his post in 2007. "The key is to find in those guys they roll over, which ones are the guys that are really keepers? I think we found three that were."

Thornton is a rangy linebacker who is completely comfortable in coverage and able to rush the passer when asked. Harper was typecast as a Cover 2 corner, but he's shown himself to be capable in man-to-man and has added a lot to the Titans run defense as a willing and reliable tackler. Scott has helped make a brawny line that's allowed only two sacks even more physical.

In 2007, the Colts were ready to let Harper and David move on as they had young risers Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden ready to take over. Harper got a three-year contract for between $9 and 10 million. David was a restricted free agent, but Indy didn't match a four-year, $16.5 million offer sheet.

The Colts haven't missed him the way they have missed Thornton and, because of injuries in the early part of this season, Scott.

Polian said after a Titans-Colts game last season that his team's best linebacker was wearing No. 50 for the other team. Indy might have been able to re-sign him, but accounting issues with the NFL Management Council over signing bonuses for Manning and Harrison under the new CBA in 2006 clogged up Polian's salary cap and the linebacker was gone by the time things were sorted out.

"That's probably the free agent loss that I took hardest," Polian said. "Because I had such high regard for him as a person, as a player and as a leader."

And while the Colts seemingly chose between Lilja and Scott, they certainly could have used Scott to this point, as injuries have thinned their options along the line and Lilja remains on the physically unable to perform list.

Harper has been solid this season, though breakout youngsters Cortland Finnegan and Michael Griffin have stolen the secondary spotlight. In his second season, Harper is more comfortable.

He said while a lot of Titans defenses start as zones, they wind up working man-to-man concepts with which he is now completely comfortable. Harper is always quick to note that he was a man corner when he joined the Colts after a year with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL.

"Definitely, I am not a product of what the Colts did," he said.

His old teammates will watch him work Sunday, and take note of Thornton and Scott too. They understand why they are where they are, even if they don't like it.

"I'm very happy for all those guys, all good guys, they've done well down there so far," center J
eff Saturday
said. "But you knew leaving here, they were the good guys. You knew what you had as players. They showed up here each and every week and performed and played to an outstanding level. They're just doing it for another team.

"They have great leadership qualities, each and every one of them do, and they just took it to the Titans. That's the way the league is now. When teams play you twice a year they can get a good sense of how good you're going to be for them. And I think the Titans made a good move there."