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In Year 3 after rebuilding, Colts among favorites to win AFC crown

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For the first time in the rebuilding era, the Indianapolis Colts will begin training camp with a firm foundation.

For example, the offense isn’t starting from scratch. Experience is a fledgling strength. The main cast hasn’t changed. And Chuck Pagano finally has the benefit of having coached a full season.

Little wonder confidence and expectations are soaring as the Colts gear for what will be their third camp under Pagano.

“Year three, (we’re) heading in the right direction,” said Pagano, who has led Indianapolis to the playoffs the past two seasons. “We’ve got everybody singing out of the same hymnal. Everybody’s on the same page. Everybody understands what our environment and our culture is.

“They understand the process.”

Continuity, an unknown commodity since the well-documented housecleaning of 2011, is finally an ally for a team that, despite the massive overhaul, has still prospered.

Three years ago, coming off a 2-14 season, the Colts finished 11-5 and made the playoffs. They did it with a roster replete with first- and second-year players, most notably quarterback Andrew Luck, and under the direction of a first-time head coach, Pagano.

Pagano contracted leukemia early in the season, missed nine games fighting for his life, then returned in time for the regular-season finale and the playoffs — a run overseen, if not spearheaded, by then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who served as interim coach.

Enter Year 2.

With Arians having accepted the Arizona Cardinals head coaching position, the Colts — still largely inexperienced — had to master an entirely different offense under new coordinator Pep Hamilton. Moreover, Pagano still hadn’t coached a full NFL season.

But it didn’t matter.

Despite a parade of injuries that decimated the offense (Vick Ballard, Dwayne Allen, Ahmad Bradshaw and Reggie Wayne, among others, suffered season-ending injuries), the Colts still finished 11-5 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs, where they lost to New England.

Enter Year 3.

Training camp opens July 23 at Anderson University. When the Colts arrive, they are expected to do so with all of their central players back, in good health, with the luxury of refining instead of retooling and relearning.

Widely regarded as Super Bowl contenders, the Colts don’t downplay the projection. Because in addition to health and familiarity, they added — on both sides of the ball — a host of free-agent acquisitions who are expected to strengthen an already sturdy foundation.

Defensive end Arthur Jones, linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and wide receiver Hakeem Nicks are the most noteworthy acquisitions.

“The sky’s the limit. I really feel like we’ve got a great, great bunch,” said Wayne, who suffered a ACL tear in his right knee last season but expects to be healthy for camp. “A young bunch, an eager bunch to go out there and prove themselves, make themselves household names. Just watching them every day, just growing and growing and growing, it’s outstanding. I really like where we are.

“I think we’ve got a pretty good team. Chuck always tells us the sky is the limit for this team and what we can do.”

In the wake of recently completed OTAs and minicamp, Pagano’s outlook is sunnier than ever with training camp on the near horizon.

“We’ve got a great locker room. We’ve got a great squad, young and old,” Pagano said. “We’ve got great veteran leadership, so as a coach and as a coaching staff, and as an organization, owner, GM, whatever, (you) couldn’t ask for anything more. So (we’re) eager to get back to work.

“I feel good going into year three. We took a step last year, we need to take another one this year,” he said.

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