Positional look at the Colts: Tight ends

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 11: Eric Ebron #85 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates his third touchdown of day in the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 11, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The first step has been taken, but leading where? That’s what the next few months will determine.

Before Frank Reich addresses the latest edition of his Indianapolis Colts in April, Chris Ballard and his personnel staff must make the necessary additions and adjustments to a franchise that reached the playoffs following a three-year absence. That means utilizing every option at their disposal: re-signing their own pending free agents, procuring talent on the free agent market, the NFL draft and the post-draft signing frenzy.

Before we get to that, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts. More to the point, we’ll take a look at how they got to where they are – coming off a 10-6 record and a first-round playoff win – and what needs to be done to take them further in 2019.

TODAY: Tight ends

Starters: Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle

Backups: Mo Alie-Cox, Ryan Hewitt, Ross Travis

Looking back:

No one could have seen this coming. Not even the ultra-confident Eric Ebron, and certainly not given his checkered four-year stint with the Detroit Lions.

The Colts were looking for a suitable sidekick to Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle, and invested a two-year, $15 million contract in Ebron. The 10th overall pick in the 2014 draft was looking for a fresh start, and the opportunity to play with a top-level quarterback. Make of that what you will, Matthew Stafford.

“The reason why I came here is because of Andrew Luck, to keep it honest,” Ebron said last April. “It doesn’t really matter where I played or where I went. I just wanted a quarterback and someone that I knew could get me the ball and pretty much work with me the way that I knew that I needed to be worked with.

“Andrew was the perfect fit. Doing my research and my time upon him, I just felt like the perfect move for me was to come to Indianapolis and be a weapon for him.”

But again, no one could have envisioned what was to come. In his first year in Indy and in Reich’s tight ends-friendly offense, Ebron set career bests with 66 receptions, 750 yards and 13 touchdown catches. He added another rushing TD. That’s 14 TDs in 16 games after 12 in 56 games with the Lions. His 13 receiving TDs were a team record by a tight end and tied for the third-most by any Colt. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl.

Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni were adept at maximizing Ebron’s mismatch possibilities, especially in the red zone. He had 10 red-zone receptions, all for TDs.

Ebron was the vociferous, play-making focal point in the tight ends room, and the importance of his presence increased as Doyle’s post-Pro Bowl season was sabotaged by hip and kidney injuries.

With Ebron leading the way, Colts’ tight ends were among the NFL’s most productive groups. They combined for 21 touchdowns, most in the league, and 108 receptions, third-most. Five tight ends had at least one TD catch: Ebron (13), Erik Swoope (three), Mo Alie-Cox and Doyle (two each) and Ryan Hewitt (one). Hewitt’s 1-yard TD in the season finale at Tennessee was the 13th different receiver Luck hit with a TD this season, tying the NFL record shared by Drew Brees (2018) and Matt Ryan (2016).

“They all have different traits that they really excel at,” Sirianni said of his versatile tight ends room. “One of the things that really helps them is T.Y. (Hilton) gets the top corner. As you have other receivers in the game, teams tend to put their defensive backs on those receivers. So that leaves safeties and linebackers covering your tight ends.

“They’ve just done a phenomenal job of taking advantage of those mismatches.”

Looking ahead:

There are two overriding questions moving forward. Is Ebron capable of doing it again? Can Doyle return to form?

Doyle’s status will remain a concern until he’s able to participate in the team’s offseason program that begins in April. He suffered a hip injury in week 2 at Washington that kept him out of five games then saw his season end when he sustained a kidney injury in week 12 against Miami. The latter resulted in a two-night stay at Methodist Hospital and a procedure to address the injury.

Last month, Doyle insisted he was “feeling pretty good,” but admitted he still was “taking it slow at this point.” He indicated the hip still was an issue, adding offseason surgery was “a possibility.”

“Still getting that assessed and we’ll see where that’s at,” he said.

Doyle declined to put a timetable on a possible return to the playing field.

No one should dismiss his value to the offense. He has greatly improved as a blocker and remains one of Luck’s most reliable targets, especially when it comes to converting third downs.

As a reminder of Doyle’s importance, here’s his 2017 bottom line, which resulted in his first Pro Bowl selection: 80 receptions, 690 yards, four TDs. The 80 catches were the second-most in team history by a tight end.

Sirianni was quick to reinforce Doyle’s value when he suffered his season-ending kidney injury.

“It’s going to be hard to replace what Jack Doyle brings to a football team as far as a player and just in the locker room,” he said.

Offseason concern:

High. That’s a reflection of Doyle’s uncertain status and the role tight ends always will play in Reich’s offense.

The only free agent of note is Ross Travis, who’ll be restricted. It will take a one-year tender of approximately $2 million to retain him. And the coaching staff likes what he brings to the offense even though he missed all of last season with a knee injury.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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