Colts finding ways to improve in pandemic-impacted offseason


INDIANAPOLIS – Frank Reich and his staff are making the best of a situation that’s hardly ideal in terms of determining the makeup of an Indianapolis Colts roster seeking a return to relevancy.

They’re holding virtual meetings. They’re devising and issuing individual workout drills for players who are sequestered at their offseason residences. 

“We give them the drill of the day and (say), ‘Tell your girlfriend, your wife or your friend to video you doing the drill, getting a few reps in and send it to your position coach. We will critique it. We will coach you,’’’ Reich said Monday. “We’re doing the little things.’’

When face-to-face and hands-on are the absolute surest methods of critiquing and coaching and forming a roster, the Colts, like everyone else in the NFL, are adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That part is not ideal,’’ Reich conceded.

In a normal offseason, the Colts would be a month into their offseason workout program at the Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center. They already would have had a three-day minicamp for rookies and a few weeks of on-field instruction by coaches. OTAs would start next week, followed by a mandatory minicamp in mid-June that would end the offseason work.

Philip Rivers would actually be throwing passes to T.Y. Hilton, Michael Pittman Jr. and others.

By now, the coaching staff would have a pretty good idea if Player A is who the personnel department insisted he was when they drafted him, or if Player B, who was among the undrafted rookie crop, looks as good on the field as he did on video or during a pre-draft workout.

Is there another Jack Doyle lurking among the fringe players? A Rigoberto Sanchez? A Gary Brackett? A Dominic Rhodes?

More than a few players – most of them signed shortly after the draft – have used the offseason to make a first impression that occasionally turns into a lasting one.

That path has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It likely will wipe out the NFL’s entire offseason workout program at team facilities and could infringe upon training camp. The latter generally is the litmus test for young players desperate to get their foot in the door, fully aware the vast majority of spots on the 53-player roster are reserved for returning veterans and veterans signed during the offseason.

“You’ve got to make your bones on the field,’’ Reich said. “You’ve got to prove it on the field and every time you’re out on the field counts, including OTAs. But always every year I have ever been in coaching the same thing happens. We get through OTAs and we do learn a lot, but we are still not in pads.

“So we tend to get hyped about some guys but then as coaches we all say, ‘Well, we have to wait until we get the pads on because that is when we really find out.’’’

It’s possible state and local restrictions will ease to the point training camps are allowed to open in late July. However, it’s also possible restrictions could remain in a few areas that would impact the entire league. The NFL has insisted no team may get together – now or in late July – until every team is allowed to get together.

There will be some form of training camp leading into preseason games, even if it’s abbreviated. That was the case in the summer of 2011 when owners locked the players out from March 12 through July 25. That meant zero contact with players during that stretch – at least now there is virtual communication and direction – and resulted in a slightly shorter camp regimen.

“When it was a lockout year . . . it wasn’t a whole lot of time beforehand,’’ Reich said of preparing for the four-game preseason. “So I guess in an extreme case it could be a few weeks and we are rolling.

“I think that is an extreme case, but we are hopeful and optimistic that we can get some time in pads to get some evaluation done.’’

Every missed practice is a missed opportunity for young players and players brought in during the offseason to impress, and for coaches to evaluate. The Colts’ 90-player roster consists of 30 players heading into their first year with the team, including 22 rookies.

Historically, no team has offered a better opportunity for undrafted players than the Colts. They’ve had at least one undrafted rookie make the opening-day roster in 21 straight seasons, the NFL’s longest active streak. Ballard signed 10 undrafted rookies last month, including Kendall Coleman, a defensive end out of Cathedral H.S. and Syracuse.

A condensed offseason/preseason represents another hurdle.

Doyle, another Cathedral High School product, was undrafted out of Western Kentucky in 2013, but made his mark as a rookie with the Tennessee Titans. He failed to make the cut when rosters were trimmed to 53, but the Titans intended on re-signing him to their practice squad.

However, the Colts stepped in and claimed Doyle off waivers. In seven seasons, he’s appeared in 100 games, caught 243 passes and 18 touchdowns and been to two Pro Bowls.

Doyle had a recent discussion with position coach Jason Michael about the restrictive offseason.

“I feel bad for some of those undrafted guys that if we don’t have a spring program at all . . .,’’ he said. “I feel like in Tennessee I made a good impression during the spring right off the bat and then kind of carried that into camp.’’

The offseason work, Doyle added, “made me feel like I belonged . . . I was able to carry over a little momentum into preseason games.

“It stinks if we don’t have that spring program for those guys to miss out on that opportunity. I feel a little bad for those guys.’’

With less on-field preparation, the coaching staff likely will focus more on accelerating the transition of free-agent acquisitions – Philip Rivers, DeForest Buckner, Xavier Rhodes, T.J. Carrie, Trey Burton, Rosie Nix – and development of draft picks expected to contribute immediately – Michael Pittman Jr., Jonathan Taylor – than giving undrafted rookies the attention they might otherwise receive.

“It’s going to be a challenge for everybody,’’ Doyle said. “It is going to be a challenge for new teammates coming in . . . we have a new quarterback coming.  That’s the situation. That’s what we’re dealing with.

“Like I said, I feel a little bad for those (young players). But with the opportunity they get, they have to try and make the most of it.’’

Brackett was undrafted out of Rutgers in 2003. He was undersized, but ultra-motivated. He used the offseason and preseason to earn a roster spot – he started the final three preseason games while Rob Morris dealt with an injury – and remains one of the Colts’ best rags-to-riches stories. He played nine seasons, started 86 of 116 games and piled up 712 tackles, including at least 100 in five straight seasons.

In hindsight, Brackett insisted he was prepared for the uphill climb. He hopes other rookies are similarly prepared, even if their opportunities are limited.

“A lot of it has to do with what program they came out of,’’ he said. “I had a huge advantage because coach (Greg) Schiano ran an NFL-style defense at Rutgers. I was very comfortable making the two-check calls and making adjustments. Other players who were from systems that didn’t do that, they were lost. It took them all of training camp to understand, ‘OK, what in the hell is going on?’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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