Colts’ training camp preview: Special teams
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – An offseason of major change ramps up Saturday when the Indianapolis Colts report to their Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center for the start of training camp.
Today we wrap up our positional look at how general manager Chris Ballard has structured the roster. Is the team equipped to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, or will it miss the postseason in three consecutive seasons for the first time in more than two decades (1988-94)?
Today: Special teams.
Projected starters: K Adam Vinatieri, P Jeff Locke, LS Thomas Hennessy.
Return candidates: WR Chester Rogers, WR Quan Bray, RB Josh Ferguson, WR JoJo Natson.
That would be Vinatieri. He’s 44, which makes him the oldest player ever to lace ‘em up for the Colts and the 10th player in the NFL since 1950 to play at age 44. He’s entering his 22nd season. Only George Blanda (26), Morten Andersen (25), Gary Anderson (23) and John Carney (23) enjoyed longer careers.
And Vinatieri, who’s entering the final year of his contract, is showing no signs of slowing down.
“I still love the game,’’ he said. “I still love running out on the field in front of all the people and putting points on the board and helping our team win.
“I know the light at the end of the tunnel is coming. I’m just fighting it off the best I can. I would like to play a couple more years. Hopefully I get that opportunity. At my age, you never know. Maybe it’s closer than I think, but I’m confident I can get another couple of years in.’’
The NFL is performance-based, plain and simple. Do your job, stick around. Experience a drop-off, clean out your locker.
That in mind, a quick recap of the “aging’’ Vinatieri is warranted. Since turning 39, he’s authored the best four seasons of his career: 117-of-129 on field-goal attempts (90.7 percent), including 18-of-23 (78.3 percent) on attempts of at least 50 yards. Last season, he broke Mike Vanderjagt’s league record by extending his streak of successful kicks to 44 before missing a 42-yarder against Tennessee.
Vinatieri’s continued excellence has him shimmying up the NFL’s all-time statistical charts: 3rd in points (2,378) and made field goals (530), 4th in field-goal attempts (629) and 6th in games played (322).
At some point, someone other than Vinatieri will trot onto the field to clean up for a stalled offense. But we’re not there, yet.
That would be Locke and Hennessy. Locke faces the daunting task of replacing Pat McAfee, arguably the best punter/kickoff guy in franchise history who retired in February. Hennessy, an undrafted rookie out of Duke, steps in for Matt Overton, who had handled long-snapping duties the last five seasons but was released in May.
Brace yourself for change, Vinatieri.
“It’s been pretty seamless for a while,’’ he said.
“We’ll see,’’ Vinatieri said. “It’s going to be a bit of a learning experience. It’ll be a different situation for sure, but we’re going to work our butts off. We should be OK.
“It’s all of our mortgages, we we’ll all make sure we’re hitting on all cylinders.’’
Locke was one of Ballard’s offseason free-agent pickups, and in line for double duty. Like McAfee, he’ll punt and kickoff. Good luck chasing the standard set by McAfee, who retired as the Colts’ all-time record holder in gross (46.4) and net (39.8) punting averages, kickoffs (645) and touchbacks (350).
In four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, Locke was average, no more: 43.2 gross average, 38.8 net average. On 290 punts, he had just 17 touchbacks while having 101 of his attempts downed inside the 20. Locke didn’t handle kickoffs for the Vikings, but led the NCAA in touchbacks as a senior at UCLA.
Hennessy, meanwhile, brings a deep collegiate resume but – obviously – zero pro experience to a critical position. It’s easy to take the long-snapper for granted until he whistles the football past the punter or holder.
“Good length,’’ Chuck Pagano said of Hennessy during offseason work. “Great velocity. Accurate as all get-out. He’s got some really good traits as far as a long-snapper. It’s going to be interesting to see how it works out.’’
In 52 games at Duke, Hennessy handled 529 snaps for punts, field goals and PATs.
“There were no bad snaps,’’ he insisted. “No disasters like bounce field-goal snaps.’’
In the return game, the Colts must replace Jordan Todman on kickoffs, and that’s no small task. He returned a 99-yarder for a touchdown against the Packers and his 29.9 average would have ranked 2nd in the NFL if he had qualified with enough attempts.
Continuity has ruled the Colts’ long-snappers since 1994. In a span on 23 seasons and 368 games, Overton (80 games), Justin Snow (192) and Brad Banta (92) have snapped in all but four games.