Recapping the 2019 Colts: Tight ends

Mo Alie-Cox #81 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates with Jack Doyle #84 after his touchdown against the Oakland Raiders in the first quarter of their NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on October 28, 2018 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – All’s quiet, or so it seems. Players have scattered and practice fields at the Farm Bureau Football Center are vacant.

But don’t kid yourself. There’s no such thing as an offseason with the Indianapolis Colts or the NFL.

“We are building a foundation of players that can have sustainable success,’’ Frank Reich said. “We just need to continue to fight to get better. Everything will be evaluated and everything is held accountable.’’

Chris Ballard described the 7-9 record “a stain that does not easily wash away.’’

He quickly added, “We’ve got to get better.’’

No one’s asked for our input, but we’ll offer it anyway. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts, including what went right, what went wrong and what might occur.

Today: Tight ends.

  • Starters: Jack Doyle, Mo-Alie Cox.
  • Backups: Ross Travis.
  • Injured reserve: Eric Ebron.

The good:

Jack Doyle was back to being Jack Doyle. That means the Cathedral H.S. product was Mr. Reliable. His bounce-back from an injury-shortened 2018 – the hip and kidney issues, remember? – included 43 receptions, 448 yards and four TDs, each third-best on the team. He was targeted 72 times, tied for the most on the team, and caught 60 percent of them.

Monday, he was named to his second Pro Bowl in three seasons as a replacement for Super Bowl-bound Travis Kelce of Kansas City.

Again, he was Jack Doyle. He once again checked all of the necessary boxes: toughness, intelligence, consistency.

“Then you get into the talent of the football player,’’ offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “Obviously talent is huge and those first three things he is off the charts with. He is a great teammate, good leader.’’

Added Reich: “He is such an instinctive route runner. He understands everything about the game. He works hard. He is a great teammate, great player and has great production.’’

Ballard agreed. In early December, he signed Doyle to a three-year, $21.3 million extension that allows him to earn an additional $7.8 million through incentives.

The bad:

The bar was set so high in 2018 – individually and collectively – that there was little chance for an adequate encore. But no one saw things disintegrating to this extent.

Not with Eric Ebron. Not with the position.

Ebron followed up the best of his five NFL seasons – 66 receptions, 750 yards, 13 TDs, first Pro Bowl selection – with arguably the most disappointing. He appeared in the first 11 games and was moderately productive with 31 catches, 375 yards and three TDs.

However, and it’s a monster however.

In the days leading up to the Nov. 10 meeting with then-one-win Miami, Ebron “kicked down’’ Reich’s office door. He wanted a bigger role in the offense. He was convinced he could make a more significant contribution.

“I preach it, ‘Put your boy in the game, good things are gonna happen, you know?’’’ he said. “I’m the least selfish person in this locker room. I just want to help. I want to be there. I just want to make plays.’’

Ebron’s big talk was followed by a big letdown. He dropped three passes – one in the end zone when a defender pried the football out of his hands, turning an early TD into a crippling interception – which contributed to the 16-12 loss to the Dolphins.

Ebron managed four receptions in each of the next two games, then stunned the organization following the 20-17 loss at Houston by announcing he was opting for season-ended ankle surgery. Reich said an ankle issue that had bothered Ebron since training camp “flared up,’’ but it was clear by Reich’s reaction he wasn’t pleased by the sudden decision.

“This is what was thought to be the best decision (by Ebron),’’ he said.

Ebron is in the final year of the two-year, $15 million free-agent contract he signed, and this was viewed by many as purely a business decision.

The overall production followed Ebron’s lead.

In 2018, the tight ends combined for 108 receptions, third-most in the league, 1,216 yards and an NFL-high 21 TDs. The receptions were the fifth-most by tight ends in Colts history. Five different tight ends caught at least one TD.

The 2019 output by the position: 86 receptions, 967 yards, seven TDs. Alie-Cox battled injuries throughout the season, including a broken thumb, which further weakened the position.

The offseason:

This much we know: Ebron isn’t returning.

“We’ll probably move on,’’ Ballard said.

Doyle has his extension and Mo Alie-Cox is back with a one-year deal. After that, well, there’s work to do.

Even though there was a noticeable drop-off in production at the position, Reich and Sirianni run a tight ends-friendly offense. They frequently use multiple-TE formations, probing for advantageous matchups.

We should anticipate the Colts being active in the offseason at restocking the position. Perhaps its by once again dipping in the veteran free-agent market which  might feature the Chargers’ Hunter Henry, Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert and Atlanta’s Austin Hooper.

Might Ballard once again invest in a proven commodity?

The April NFL Draft might represent a more likely avenue. Possibilities include Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins, Washington’s Hunter Bryant, Vanderbilt’s Jared Pinkney and Missouri’s Albert Okwuegbunam.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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