Colts training camp preview: Tight ends

Indianapolis Colts

Jack Doyle #84 of the Indianapolis Colts speaks with Zach Pascal #14 before the game against the New York Jets at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 27, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – Frank Reich isn’t one to play favorites, but he likes his tight ends. Likes ‘em a lot.

“We like to think we know what we’re doing when we’re using that position,’’ he said.

Don’t bother arguing the point.

As much as the NFL is about star power and dominant individual talent, it’s about creating favorable matchups on offense that stress defenses. In this instance, it’s about finding that hybrid tight end (6-3 or 6-4, 245-ish) to complement the traditional, stouter tight end (6-5, north of 260 pounds), and letting him loose in coverage against slower linebackers and smaller defensive backs.

During a coaching career that spans 15 years and employment by four franchises – the Indianapolis Colts (twice), Philadelphia, San Diego, Arizona – tight ends have played integral roles, often leading roles, in offenses that Reich has been a part of.

Dallas Clark, Zach Ertz, Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle all were selected to the Pro Bowl. Antonio Gates was an eight-time Pro Bowler with the Chargers before Reich joined Mike McCoy’s staff as quarterbacks coach in 2013, but posted consecutive 800-yard seasons in 2013-14 and led the team with 12 touchdowns in ’14.

Ertz was the Eagles’ leading receiver in 2016-17.

In 2018, Reich’s second tour with the Colts and first as a head coach, his tight ends were a relentless force. The group led the NFL with 21 touchdowns and was 3rd with 108 receptions. Ebron earned his only Pro Bowl spot with a career year – 66 catches, 750 yards, 13 touchdowns, which were a Colts record by a tight end. Five different tight ends caught at least one TD.

The current mix won’t enter the season with as much buzz. Players report July 27 for the start of training camp at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield.

Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox provide the foundation, but are the only returning tight ends who had a reception in 2020. Trey Burton had a one-and-done relationship with the Colts.

Of the other five prospects, only Jordan Thomas, an offseason free-agent acquisition, has caught a pass in the NFL. In three seasons with Houston, Arizona and New England, the 6-5, 277-pounder has 22 receptions, 226 yards and five touchdowns in 27 games.

Here’s a look at the position:

  • Starters: Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox.
  • Depth: Noah Togiai, Farrod Green, Jordan Thomas, Andrew Vollert, Kylen Granson.
  • Jack, of course: There’s no better pillar for the position. Doyle’s value starts in the locker room, moves to the position room and is evident on the playing field. It’s still incredible to remember his unassuming return to his hometown. Waived by the Tennessee Titans in August 2013, the Cathedral High School product was claimed by the Colts.

So many years later, Doyle is a fixture whose importance can’t be measured in raw statistics.

“Jack is just Mr. Reliable,’’ Reich said.

Doyle, 31, is the second-longest tenured Colt behind 2012 third-round draft pick T.Y. Hilton. He’s received a pair of free-agent contracts from general manager Chris Ballard worth more than $40 million and earned every bit of them.

Despite lacking down-the-field receiving skills – he’s averaged 9.1 yards for his career and notched his career long of 28 last season – Doyle ranks among the most prolific tight ends in club history. He’s 3rd in receptions (266, trailing Dallas Clark and John Mackey), 6th in yards (2,427, behind Mackey, Clark, Jim Mutscheller, Marcus Pollard and Ken Dilger) and 5th in touchdowns (21, behind Clark, Mutscheller, Mackey and Pollard).

“Time does fly and you just take it one year at a time,’’ Doyle said during the offseason. “Sometimes some of the younger players will ask, ‘What year is this for you?’ It’s weird to say, ‘Nine.’

“If you would’ve asked Jack Doyle back in 2013 how many years he was going to play in the NFL, I don’t know if I would’ve said nine.’’

Opportunity for Granson

The fourth-round draft pick seems to be that ideal package for the critical role within the position. At 6-3 and 235 pounds, Kylen Granson might be the necessary “F’’ tight end who can do intermediate and down-field damage out of the slot.

“We think he’s a mismatch player,’’ Ballard said. “He’s got all the things you want out of an F. You wish he was longer. You wish he was a bigger target. But he’s a really good route runner.

“He is a real talent.’’

Added Reich: “When you watch the tape, you see he is explosive. He has explosive speed, he has quickness, foot and body quickness. He’s also dynamic with the football in his hands, which can be a great element for our offense.’’

In 41 games at SMU and Rice, Granson had 129 receptions for 1,879 yards – that’s 14.6 yards per catch – and 16 touchdowns. In two seasons at SMU, he piled up 78 catches, 1,257 yards and 14 TDs.

It’s worth noting Granson is the first tight end Ballard drafted in his five years as GM.

More from Mo

Mo Alie-Cox’s development has been steady since he was signed as a power forward out of VCU in April 2017. His fourth season was his most impactful: 31 catches, 394 yards, two touchdowns.

An accomplished blocker at 6-5, 267 pounds, Alie-Cox also possesses the athleticism to stretch the field. He’s averaged 13.5 yards per catch and of his 31 career catches, 11 have gained at least 20 yards.

Alie-Cox’s skills were on full display in week 2 against Minnesota last season. He set career highs with five catches and 111 yards, and was a big-play machine with receptions that covered 33, 21 and 27 yards. The next week against the New York Jets, he set a career best with a 45-yard catch and run.

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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