Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were longtime bookends and buddies. (USATSI)
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were longtime bookends and buddies. (USATSI)

ANDERSON, Ind. -- Dwight Freeney is gone from the Indianapolis Colts. So now everyone wants to know if Robert Mathis can be the same player without his pass-rushing sidekick?

"It kind of wears on you a little bit," Mathis said of that talk.

Here's the reality: Mathis has been the better player for at least the past two years. When the Colts made the decision to let Freeney walk -- he signed with San Diego -- it meant Mathis was the primary pass rusher in 2013. And his good buddy was gone.

"It's going to take some getting used to," Mathis said. "It's like your missing your right arm. You know how this game, this business goes. You have to be used to it, and respond and play the hand you're dealt."

The Colts are moving Mathis to the rush-linebacker spot that Freeney had last season. That should help his production. He had eight sacks last year, and might be poised for 15 or so in 2013. He needs 8 1/2 to get to 100.

"I love it [the new role]," Mathis said. "I kind of wish I was in it in the younger days. I am able to move around."

More observations

1: When you say the name Darius Heyward-Bey, the one thing that comes to mind is his hands -- or lack of them.

Since being a top-10 pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2009, Heyward-Bey has had trouble holding onto the ball. Now with the Indianapolis Colts, where he is expected to start opposite Reggie Wayne, Heyward-Bey is ready to put his Oakland years, including the drops, behind him.

"I had one really bad year dropping the ball," Heyward-Bey said. "And it stuck."

His drops have gone down, but he's still not good, by any measure, at catching passes. Having said that, he is big, fast and can be an imposing receiver to cover for defensive backs.

"He has all the talent in the world," veteran Colts receiver Reggie Wayne said. "He's what you want. I wish I had his prototype. Once he's able to go out and play fast and not think a lot, he's going to be special. He's got all the tools. Just be able to put it all together."

The Colts are expecting big things from Heyward-Bey, and he is comfortable with where he is in his career.

Some might say he's been a draft bust. But consider the circumstances he's dealt with: Nine quarterbacks, five head coaches and five offenses.

"It's been tough going through all that," Heyward-Bey said. "People can say what they want about me, I don't pay attention, but there are reasons for why things haven't gone the way I'd hoped."

His best season with the Raiders came in 2011, when he caught when he caught 64 passes for 975 yards and four touchdowns. He slipped to 41 catches last season.

It's hard not to notice him. He has had a few drops with the Colts, and he did run a few wrong routes the days I watched, but that speed will be a nice addition to the roster. In Wayne, Heyward-Bey and T.Y. Hilton, the Colts have a nice three-man group for Andrew Luck.

2: Expect big things from second-year tight end Coby Fleener. He looks like a different player. The Colts coaches and staff say he has much more confidence than a year ago. He should be able to stretch the middle of the field vertically. He will complement fellow second-year tight end Dwayne Allen, who outplayed him as a rookie. The Colts see Allen as a nasty, physical tight end who plays much better than his athletic ability would lead you to believe. The Colts are in good hands with those two.

3: The Colts spent big to fix the offensive line. They signed right tackle Gosder Cherilus from the Lions and Donald Thomas from the Patriots to play left guard. Those two will add some toughness to a line that needed it. New offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton is installing an offense that will feature more run. That means better push up front. The Colts better hope center Samson Satele and right guard Mike McGlynn play better than they did a year ago if they are starting again. There is talk that third-round pick Hugh Thornton will take the right guard spot once he gets healthy from an ankle sprain.

4: When the Colts drafted Bjoern Werner in the first round, they did so with the idea he could be a rotation player at outside linebacker. If he keeps going like he did in the work I watched, he might be a lot more. Werner showed much better pass-rush skills that I expected. He also showed off a power bull-rush working against starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo.

5: The Colts are raving about corner Greg Toler, a player I loved when free agency opened. He comes from Arizona, where he flashed talent at times but injuries slowed him. So far, he's been really good for the Colts. He will team with Vontae Davis to give the Colts a nice 1-2 punch. Darius Butler has the inside track as the nickel corner, but some Colts players were talking up Cassius Vaughn.

6: The Colts paid a lot of money to sign safety LaRon Landry in free agency. Of all their moves, this one is a bit perplexing to me. I know he's fast. And I know he has straight-line speed. But he takes some bad angles and gets caught out of position because of his aggressive play.

There, I said it

1: 2013 will be a bit of step-back year for the Colts. But watch out in 2014. They might be the AFC's best team next season. They still will push for a playoff spot in 2013.

2: Look for the Colts to add another receiver at some point this summer. They will scour the waiver wire looking for one.

3: Pep Hamilton will be a head coach in three years. He's sharp.

4: So happy Chuck Pagano is feeling good again. What a class act.