Colts’ camp preview: Special teams

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 02: Adam Vinatieri #4 of the Indianapolis Colts during their game at Bank of America Stadium on November 2, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The wait is nearly over. Months of speculation – how much progress did general manager Chris Ballard actually make in his offseason upgrade of the Indianapolis Colts’ roster? – will give way to some type of reality.

Players report Wednesday for the start of training camp at Grand Park in Westfield, and then we’ll get some answers. Rookies reported Sunday.

“Let’s just wait until training camp, get everybody out there, be at full strength,’’ coach Frank Reich said.

With the approach of the Colts’ first training camp in Westfield, we’ve been taking a position-by-position look at the roster. We’ve reached the end of the road.

Today: Special teams.

Kickers: Adam Vinatieri, Michael Badgley.
Punter: Rigoberto Sanchez.
Long-snapper: Luke Rhodes.
Return candidates: Marlon Mack, Chester Rogers, Josh Ferguson, Nyheim Hines.

Yes, he’s back:

The oldest Colt and the NFL’s oldest active player also is the longest-tenured Colt. That would be Adam Vinatieri. Since 1950, he’s just the 6th player in NFL history to play at age 45. Vinatieri is entering his 23rd year overall, and 13th in Indy. Only four players have played with the Colts for at least 14 seasons: John Unitas (17), Peyton Manning (14), Reggie Wayne (14) and Robert Mathis (14). He’s the fifth player in league history with 23 seasons on his resume, joining George Blanda (26), Morten Andersen (25), Gary Anderson (23) and John Carney (23).

For his stint with the Colts to continue, Vinatieri had to re-up in the offseason. Again. In a sport/business that seldom results in long-term relationships, he signed his fifth contract with the team: a one-year deal worth $3.625 million with another $250,000 possible via incentives.

“I was hoping to be back,’’ Vinatieri said. “I wanted to play again and wanted to make sure it was here if I could.

“It’s a beautiful situation to be able to continue to play amongst your friends in a great organization. Love to finish my career here if it’s this year, next year, five years, whatever it is. This is home for me.’’

At some point, Father Time will catch up with Vinatieri. It happens with every player, eventually. Until then, the Colts can take comfort in employing a kicker who’s showing no signs of losing his stuff.

Over the past five seasons, Vinatieri has converted 146-of-163 field-goal attempts (89.6 percent), including 23-of-29 (79.3 percent) on attempts of at least 50 yards. Last season, he finished 29-of-34, but the misses included 33- and 43-yarders in the Buffalo blizzard, a 38-yard attempt that was blocked and a 60-yarder.

The beat goes on.

Countdown continues:

Vinatieri’s longevity and spending his career with the Colts and Patriots has him on the verge of setting virtually every significant NFL career record for kickers. He needs 58 points to become the league’s all-time scoring leader, surpassing Hall of Famer Morten Andersen (2,544), and seven made field goals to eclipse Andersen’s mark (565). If Vinatieri appears in all 16 games this year – he’s done that in 19 of 22 seasons – he’ll tie Gary Anderson for the second-most games played (353) in NFL history.

As much as Vinatieri yearns for another Super Bowl ring – he has four – there’s no question he’s also motivated by the individual milestones that loom.

“At the end of the day we all want to win games and win Super Bowls,’’ he said. “After that, it comes down to what you can do individually to help make that happen.

“Does (individual records) drive me? Sure. Absolutely. I would be lying to you if I told you I didn’t want to break records. Everybody wants to break records. You start chipping away and chipping away and chipping away, and here we are.’’

At his career pace, Vinatieri should surpass Andersen’s points mark in the seventh or eighth game.

Solid trio:

Vinatieri gets most of the attention, but no one should dismiss his supporting cast. It’s one of the NFL’s best.

The Colts revamped two-thirds of their kicking/punting/snapping/holding unit last offseason, and didn’t miss a beat. Rigoberto Sanchez faced the challenge of replacing retired punter Pat McAfee and responded by averaging a 44.8 gross and 42.6 net. The latter was an NFL record by a rookie punter. Converted linebacker Luke Rhodes succeeded Matt Overton as the long-snapper, and did anyone notice? That’s a compliment to Rhodes.

As is usually the case, training camp will sort out the return game. During offseason work, wideouts Chester Rogers and Deon Cain and running backs Marlon Mack, Josh Ferguson and Nyheim Hines got extensive work.

Hines was an all-purpose threat at N.C. State, and that included returning 88 kickoffs for a 24.7 average and two touchdowns and returning 11 punts for 135 yards and one TD. His 2,171 yards on kick returns rank second in school history.

Worth noting:

It hasn’t been that long ago – 2015, following their appearance in the ’14 AFC title game – the Colts were in “all-in’’ mode and loaded up on 30-something players. In ’15, there were 16 players under contract who were 30 or older.

Now? Ballard’s youth movement has sliced the 30-something crowd to five: Vinatieri, Austin Howard (31), Margus Hunt (31), Matt Slauson (32) and Al Woods (31).

The 90-player roster heading into camp features 33 players who are 23 or younger.