Colts make progress during offseason work, but lots left to do in training camp
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – They’re done, for now.
After two months of graduated work – strength and condition followed by positional drills followed by actual offense vs. defense practices capped with this week’s three-day minicamp – the Indianapolis Colts are on their own until reporting to Grand Park in Westfield July 25 for the start of training camp.
So much was accomplished, yet there’s so much more to do. Everything changes when full pads and contact are injected into practices. Remember, offseason work frequently reaffirms the pure athletic qualities of a player, but the NFL remains a collision sport.
“We know when we put the pads on, it slightly changes,’’ coach Frank Reich said, “and there are certain players that rise up and certain players just kind of fade away. I really feel good about the group that we have.
“I feel very confident that we have the pieces here to really challenge week-in and week-out and do a lot of good things.’’
Some observations after watching the Colts through their offseason work:
The $140 million man
We’ve been on record that we’re buying what the Colts have been selling since February. That’s when general manager Chris Ballard, when asked about Andrew Luck being ready for the 2018 season, replied: “Do I have any doubt that he’s going to be ready? No, I don’t.’’
But we’ve also been on record that we needed to see Luck actually throwing a football since that’s what he does for a living. That occurred Tuesday, and again Wednesday. It was well short of grip-it and rip-it, but offered visual proof that his throwing regimen is advancing. More than that, Reich indicated Luck has been attacking a more strenuous schedule for at least the past few weeks.
“Yeah, there have been some throws where I would say letting it all out rip,’’ said Reich, who has watched most of Luck’s individual work. “Maybe not relatively speaking (but) I have seen throws.’’
The most significant phase of Luck’s rehab comes in the next six weeks. His goal is to be ready to throw without restrictions when camp opens, and that will require amped-up work between now and then. At some point, Luck is expected to hold throwing sessions with some of his receivers.
“I just believe I’m on the right path,’’ Luck said. “I believe I’m going to be better than I was. I really, really do.
“I believe I’ll be a better quarterback for this team, a better teammate.’’
The offensive line
If not for Luck, this would have been the overriding focus of the offseason. You haven’t forgotten the pass protection a year ago yielded 56 total sacks and allowed backup Jacoby Brissett to go down 52 times, have you? Both were league highs.
Ballard took serious steps toward addressing what has been an eyesore. He signed free agent guard Matt Slauson to a one-year, $3 million contract, then used the sixth-overall pick in the draft on guard Quenton Nelson and a second-rounder on guard Braden Smith. Last month, Ballard added right tackle Austin Howard with a one-year, $3.75 million deal.
Notice the trend?
Things will crystalize when contact is allowed in camp, but the initial signs have been encouraging. There’s no question the Colts have their deepest group since the Peyton Manning years, and some players with starting experience probably won’t survive the final cut to 53.
For that Colts, that’s a good thing.
A projected starting lineup: left tackle Anthony Castonzo, left guard Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Slauson and right tackle Howard. The depth includes Smith, Jack Mewhort, Joe Haeg, Denzelle Good, Jeremy Vujnovich and Le’Raven Clark. That group shares 117 career starts.
It’s been interesting watching Haeg. He’s started 29 games in two seasons at both guard spots and right tackle, but spent much of his offseason working as Kelly’s backup at center.
The defensive line
It’s clear we’ll be wasting our time worrying about who’s starting and how much the starters are playing. Coordinator Matt Eberflus intends on coming at offenses with waves of D-linemen. Everything is predicated on getting up field and doing so with a relentless mindset.
“It’s a lot of running, so I think they want to cycle is as many guys as they can, keep guys fresh so there’s no letdown on third down late in a drive,’’ said John Simon, who’s making the transition from outside linebacker to end in Eberflus’ 4-3 scheme.
Similar to the offensive line, the defensive line features a ton of interesting bodies: Simon, Jabaal Sheard, Al Woods, Tarell Basham, Hassan Ridgeway, Grover Stewart, Denico Autry, Margus Hunt, Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and perhaps Chris McCain, depending upon resolution of his off-field issue.
Until someone separates himself from the pack, Eberflus will rely on a pass-rush-by-committee approach. That’s good and bad. While pressure should come from different areas and different players, there is no reason to believe there’s a Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis in the mix that requires special attention.
The receiving corps
Minor injuries or maintenance kept T.Y. Hilton and Chester Rogers out of the last two minicamp sessions; Rogers missed minicamp in its entirety. That left an incredibly suspect receivers group. Only two – Ryan Grant and Kasen Williams – caught passes in 2017. Four are rookies.
Deon Cain, a sixth-round pick, had a strong offseason.
“I’ve seen play-making ability,’’ Reich said. “I’ve been really good body control, good speed, good route-runner.
“Like with a lot of young guys, and really probably all the young receivers, you just need to kind of fight for the consistency. To do it every play.’’
Rogers’ injury issue has to be a concern. He was poised for a breakout season last year before a hamstring injury altered his trajectory.
Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni are going to spread the ball around, but a couple of the unknown receivers need to make a name for themselves.
Let’s just say the competition for playing time will be wide open at camp.
“I was just talking to the linebackers (Wednesday) and I said, ‘Hey, we have 10 guys in here. One through 10, we have no idea who is one and we have no idea who is 10,’’’ Eberflus said. “So the competition is up in the air and that’s at every position.’’
However, the competition at linebacker involves a ton of question marks. We’re not going to waste our time handicapping the group, but it would be worth monitoring the progress of Leonard, the second-round pick out of South Carolina State, free-agent pickups Najee Good and Tyrell Adams and returnees Anthony Walker and Antonio Morrison.
Also, we’re going to pay attention to undrafted rookie Skai Moore, who generated a zillion tackles during his four-year career at South Carolina.
The rehabbing Colts
It isn’t unusual for a handful of players to be held out of offseason work while they compete their rehab from injury or surgery. However, several Colts who could play prominent roles in ’18 will be playing catch-up when camp opens.
That group includes safety Malik Hooker (knee), running back Marlon Mack (shoulder), safety Clayton Geathers (undisclosed injury), Vujnovich (undisclosed), Leonard (undisclosed) and tight end Erik Swoope (knee).
Reich didn’t address each player individually, but said the team expects Geathers to be ready for camp.
“When you are implementing a new system and a new style, I think that every rep is important,’’ Erberflus said. “So to diminish that would be disrespectful to the game and I think to the players that have been in there. So to miss any rep . . . at this time of year is very critical.
“We’ll get those guys caught up to speed the best we can . . . but they have some catching up to do and they have to show what they are made of in terms of their learning abilities and their play ability. It doesn’t matter if it was a first-round pick or if it’s a free agent.’’