Colts training camp preview: Special teams

Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – Rodrigo Blankenship proved to be the most prolific rookie kicker in team history. You can look it up.

The Indianapolis Colts’ response? They’re demanding Blankenship prove it again when training camp opens next week at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield.

One of general manager Chris Ballard’s steadfast tenets is creating competition at every position. Blankenship’s area of expertise isn’t off limits, despite a 2020 season that saw the undrafted placekicker set rookie records with 139 points, 32 made field goals and 43 PATs.

In May, Ballard signed veteran kicker Eddy Pineiro to a one-year, $780,000 contract.

Blankenship is the unquestioned favorite to remain the Colts’ kicker. It’s his job to lose.

But the addition of Pineiro isn’t one of those transactions aimed at simply easing the workload of the incumbent kicker. This isn’t the Colts bringing in Shane Andrus or Adam Crossett or allowing Pro Bowl punter Pat McAfee to keep Adam Vinatieri fresh.

This is closer to last summer, Indy’s first-post Vinatieri experience since 2005.

Chase McLaughlin entered training camp as the incumbent after taking over for the final two games of ’19 when Vinatieri went on injured reserve with a knee injury. Serious competition was created when Ballard signed Blankenship, an undrafted rookie out of Georgia and the winner of the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker.

Blankenship emerged from a tight competition as Vinatieri’s successor. He finished 5th in the league in scoring, but his accuracy (32-of-37, .865) ranked 15th and he converted just 1-of-3 from beyond the 50. Most damning was a critical 33-yard field goal attempt that ricocheted off the uprights in the third quarter of the 27-24 first-round playoff loss at Buffalo.

In Blankenship’s defense, it wasn’t as if he sprayed his misses during the regular season. Four of the five misses either hit the uprights or the crossbar.

Even so, Pineiro was added to the mix.

Coach Frank Reich noted this isn’t like last summer, but quickly added, “it’s open competition, but Hot Rod, he’s the incumbent. Everything has to be earned.

“Hot Rod had a good season for us last year, so that’s obviously taken into consideration. He’ll have to earn it again this year, but it is open competition.’’

Pineiro, 25, handled the kicking for the Chicago Bears in 2019. He converted 23-of-28 field goal attempts with a long of 53 and was 27-of-29 on PATs.

Pineiro missed last season after suffering a groin injury during the Bears’ training camp.

Here’s a quick look at special teams with training camp looming:

  • Punter: Rigoberto Sanchez.
  • Placekicker: Rodrigo Blankenship.
  • Longsnapper: Luke Rhodes.
  • In the mix: PK Eddy Pineiro.
  • Returners: KR Isaiah Rodgers, PR Nyheim Hines.

Special punter: 

Rigoberto Sanchez’s regard in the locker room never was in doubt. It only increased after he announced in late November, he would miss time to have a cancerous tumor removed.

He missed two games. Sanchez averaged 50.8 yards on five punts in week 12 against Tennessee after the diagnosis, missed the next two games, then returned and averaged 43.3 yards over the final three games.

“He fought back and the fact that he came back so quickly, it just shows that his toughness is on another level,’’ running back Jonathan Taylor said.

Sanchez is perfectly capable of delivering deep punts. He’s averaged 45.3 yards on 242 career attempts, 2nd-best in team history behind McAfee (46.4). But his true value might be in his directional skills. He’s had 92 of his 242 attempts downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. That’s 38% and the best figure among the franchise’s top punters (McAfee 33.6%, Hunter Smith 33.4% and Rohn Stark 22.5%).

Return game

The Colts take a backseat to no one when it comes to the return game. Running back Nyheim Hines has established himself as one of the league’s best punt returners and cornerback Isaiah Rodgers’ kickoff skills were on full display during his rookie season.

Hines has averaged 14.9 yards on 39 punt returns the past two seasons and emerged as a true game-changer in week 16 of 2109 against Carolina when returned punts for 84- and 71-yard touchdowns and set a franchise record with 195 yards.

Rodgers finished 3rd in the league in kick returns, averaging 28.8 yards on 24 attempts. He became the first Colts’ rookie since Dominic Rhodes in 2001 to return a kickoff for a TD when he went the distance against the Cleveland Browns (101 yards).

It’s covered

Kick coverage was solid last season and should be again. The top five coverage players return, led by George Odum. The backup safety earned first-team All-Pro honors after piling up a league-best 20 tackles and once forced fumble. He became seventh player in team history with at least 20 special teams tackles.

Other top returnees include linebackers Zaire Franklin, Matthew Adams, E.J. Speed and wideout Ashton Dulin.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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