INDIANAPOLIS – The uniqueness of the situation was evident from the first time they shared a meeting room.
Jack Doyle took a seat. So did Mo Alie-Cox and Trey Burton. There was no pecking order based on which possessed the better draft credentials.
“It was in training camp,’’ Doyle said. “Probably one of the first meetings that we all had in person. I remember it getting brought up.’’
Coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni operate a tight-end friendly offense, and the Indianapolis Colts’ tight ends room would feature exactly zero tight ends taken in the draft. Not a one.
That was the case in late July and still is.
The Colts and Arizona Cardinals are the only teams without a tight end on the active roster that was drafted at some point, but Indy is taking it to the extreme. It has four tight ends on the active roster and two more on the practice squad. All entered the NFL as undrafted rookies.
Doyle: signed as UDFA with Tennessee in 2013. Was waived by the Titans and claimed by the Colts. The rest is history for the Cathedral H.S. product (two Pro Bowls, two free-agent contracts worth roughly $40 million, 80 receptions in ’17, etc.).
Alie-Cox: signed with the Colts as an UDFA in ‘17. The 6-5, 267-pounder was a standout with the VCU basketball team but hadn’t played football since his freshman year in high school. His potential to develop into a legitimate NFL tight end was impossible to miss.
Burton: signed with Philadelphia as an UDFA in ’14. Arrived in Indy April 22 after two seasons with the Chicago Bears, signing a one-year, $910,000 contract.
Noah Togiai: signed with Philadelphia as an UDFA in April. Waived by the Eagles on Sept. 5 and claimed by the Colts.
Farrod Green: signed with the Colts as an UDFA in April. Has been active for one game and a part of the practice squad most of the season.
Hale Hentges: signed with the Colts as an UDFA in ’19. He’s back for a second tour with Indy after being signed to the practice squad in mid-September.
Each entered the NFL as something of an afterthought, and that has served as continuing motivation to prove he belongs.
“Yeah, the old saying, it’s a chip on your shoulder,’’ Doyle said. “The thing I love about our group – we’re undrafted and all that – is that we all do it together, and we all have close relationships, and we have a ton of fun out there.
“I use the cliché saying ‘chip.’ The chip on my shoulder, honestly, comes from being undrafted. That’s part of my story, but it’s not letting my teammates down. You want to be held accountable, and you want to do right by them.
“I think the undrafted thing is just another element to making up our room.’’
According to ESPN, the Colts have had a league-high five undrafted tight ends appear in a game this season: Doyle, Burton, Alie-Cox, Togiai and Green. The Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are next with three each, but it’s worth noting the Chiefs (Travis Kelce) and Bucs (Rob Gronkowski) feature a pair of tight ends with more noted NFL entry points. Kelce was a third-round pick in ’13 and Gronk a second-rounder by New England in ’10.
No Colts’ tight end is in the midst of a standout season in part because each has missed time while dealing with injury. Burton missed the first three games after straining a calf muscle in training camp, a knee issue sidelined Doyle for one game and Alie-Cox missed the Cincinnati game with a knee injury.
Even so, the group’s collective yield has been solid: 29 receptions, 391 yards, four touchdowns. The Colts have had just two 100-yard receiving games through six games, and Alie-Cox contributed one with his five-catch, 111-yard outing against Minnesota.
The Colts are a working example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. They don’t possess one of those unique do-everything tight ends – Kelce, San Francisco’s George Kittle, a younger Gronk – but get something different from all of theirs.
“It’s not to say they can’t do something,’’ Sirianni said Tuesday on a Zoom conference call. “It’s just that one guy might do something a little better than the other guy. I think we do that with every position. Who does this best? OK, we want to get him in that position to do so without giving anything away to the defense.’’
For instance, there was a time the presence of Alie-Cox on the field was a tipoff the Colts were in definite run-mode. No longer. He remains an accomplished blocker but has evolved as a receiver. His receptions this season include four of at least 20 yards, including a career-long 45-yarder against the New York Jets.
Burton is the hybrid – a wide receiver in a tight end’s body – while Doyle is, well, Doyle.
“They all are really talented, but they all have different skillsets,’’ Reich said. “Jack is just Mr. Reliable. He can do it all. He can block, he can run great short, intermediate routes. Jack is an excellent route runner. Not a good route runner, he’s an excellent route-runner.
“Mo is a big, long guy, so more Gronk-like. He runs the more power routes. You get a crossing route to Mo, and people are afraid to tackle him. You get him more vertical down the field because of his length and his size. He can make those big plays down the field.’’
Burton was one of general manager Chris Ballard’s key low-cost free-agent acquisitions. The 6-2, 238-pounder was seen as a viable replacement for the departed Eric Ebron.
“Trey is one of the best route runners on the team, period,’’ Reich said. “I’ve been with Trey for a long time, and he just has incredible skills and ball skills . . . and is very instinctive.
“Those, as you can see in describing those three gift-sets, are different, and that’s how they complement each other.’’
Burton was the outsider of the group, but insisted his relocation and transition to another team was eased by the presence of Doyle.
“I can truly said this: he is one of the best guys in this league,’’ Burton said. “Not just on the team or not just in this organization, he is one of the better guys. They don’t make them like him very often.
“I’m just really thankful for him welcoming my family and I here. It easily could have been the opposite way, and we could have had a bad relationship. But . . . we hit it off from day 1. Like I said, you don’t get a better guy than him, and this organization is really fortunate to have him the last eight years.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.
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