INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield July 26 for the start of training camp.
Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team that must rebound from its crushing loss in Jacksonville and return to a serious playoff contender.
Today: tight ends.
Starters: Mo Alie-Cox, Kylen Granson.
Depth: Jelani Woods, Drew Ogletree, Michael Jacobson, Nikola Kalinic.
You’ve got to be impressed with Mo Alie-Cox’s development. From power forward at Virginia Commonwealth to wannabe tight end with the Colts in April of 2017 to intriguing prospect to legitimate complementary piece to the guy in the tight ends room. His evolution crystalized this offseason with the retirement of Jack Doyle and the team signing him to a three-year, $18 million contract that included $8.2 million in guarantees.
“Yeah, it is crazy,’’ Alie-Cox said.
He was talking to a teammate one day during offseason work, and the reality finally hit him.
“I said, ‘Dang, I’ve really been here for six years. It feels like I just got here yesterday,’’’ Alie-Cox said with a smile. “Had a lot of great guys to learn from and show me the way to lead a tight end room.
“So, just grasping this opportunity with open arms and just hit the ground running.’’
The Colts have been patient with Alie-Cox. His raw athleticism always was there – 6-5, 267 pounds, quick, agile, powerful – but the coaching staff realized the clay had to be molded. The team envisioned a tight end who could excel as a blocker in the run game, but also be a down-field factor in the pass game.
In the latter, Alie-Cox only managed 15 catches for 226 yards and two touchdowns in 25 games his first two seasons, but then became more of a contributor. He posted career highs with 31 catches and 394 yards in 2020 with Philip Rivers leaning on his tight ends, then saw his numbers dip to 24 catches and 316 yards last season, although he came up with a career-best four TDs.
Alie-Cox has taken something from each of the tight ends he’s played alongside, including Doyle, Eric Ebron, Erik Swoope, Darrell Daniels, Brandon Williams and Trey Burton. He paid special attention to Doyle, who earned a pair of Pro Bowl selections and was one of the Colts’ core players before retiring in March.
It will be interesting to see how Alie-Cox’s role changes with the departure of Doyle. Over the past two seasons, they were on the field for virtually the same amount of snaps: 1,184 for Doyle and 1,111 for Alie-Cox.
“Just being asked to do a little more,’’ Alie-Cox said. “I still have my regular blocking stuff I did in the passing game, but taking on some of the routes that (Doyle) also had and different things like that.
“Also being the leader in the room, going first in every drill, setting an example and just showing all the new guys what it is. It’s me. I’m going into year 6. The next one is Kylen (Granson). He’s going into year 2. It’s just like being a mentor to all the young guys in the room . . . showing them how to be a pro.’’
That’s been evident outside the tight ends room.
“Mo Alie-Cox is kind of the veteran in that room now,’’ Matt Ryan said. “He’s done a great job of leading that group.’’
Shot for Granson
Alie-Cox grabbed attention with his new deal, and the April NFL Draft delivered another pair of tight ends to the roster with Jelani Woods and Drew Ogletree.
But let’s not overlook Kylen Granson. The 2021 4th-round pick should be given every opportunity to contribute to the Ryan-led passing game. Granson doesn’t possess the physical prowess of his colleagues, but at 6-3 and 242 pounds he figures to be the primary “F’’ tight end, who moves around and is used more as a receiver in formations.
As a rookie, Granson had 11 receptions and 106 yards on just 15 targets. He appeared in all 17 games and was on the field for 228 offensive snaps (21%).
Granson had several good moments during offseason work, but also suffered a few drops. One occurred in the end zone on a perfectly thrown pass from Ryan.
The New Kids
Reich always has operated a tight ends-friendly offense, but his options were disappearing. Doyle’s retirement was expected but exacerbated the situation.
Ballard initially addressed that by using a 2021 4th-round pick on Granson, then double-upped in April. He selected Woods in the 3rd round (73rd overall) and followed up with Ogletree in the 6th round (192nd overall).
It was the first time since 2012 the Colts selected two tight ends in the same draft (Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen).
“As you know, the offense really wants to be tight end-centric in some way,’’ Reich said after the draft. “A lot of playmaking goes on in the middle of the field. You can get unique matchups, there’s a lot you can do formationally, there’s a lot of things you can do when you put multiple tight ends on the field at the same time.’’
That will all depend on how quickly Woods and Ogletree settle in. Each stood out during offseason work, physically and in performance. Remember, Woods is 6-7, 254. Ogletree is 6-5, 260.
Woods made an immediate impact in 2021 after transferring from Oklahoma State to Virginia. He was named first-team all-ACC with 44 receptions, 598 yards and eight touchdowns.
“Jelanie is unique,’’ said Ballard, who was worried Woods wouldn’t last until the 73rd spot. “I’m not going to lie to you, I sweated it out because I think he’s got really big upside both as a receiving tight end and as a blocker.’’
Ogletree managed 40 receptions and 291 yards in 17 games at Youngstown State.
Reich was impressed with each during the Colts’ offseason work. Woods and Ogletree could be significant red-zone targets.
“Yeah, you can feel it,’’ Reich said. “Jelani is a big man. I mean, my goodness. You can just feel him when he’s out there on the field. I thought Drew looked good, too.’’
By the numbers, Part I
The stats are startling – 11 catches and 106 yards. That’s the combined output of tight ends not named Mo Alie-Cox, and they all belong to Granson. The only way Reich’s offense remains tight ends-friendly is if someone – Granson? Woods? – emerges in the passing game.
Four of the six have never appeared in a game: rookies Woods, Ogletree and Nikola Kalinic, and Michael Jacobson, who spent time on the Colts’ and Seattle’s practice squad last season.
By the numbers, Part II
From 2017-20, Colts’ tight ends averaged 96 receptions, 1,065 yards and 10 touchdowns. Last season, they finished with 64, 724 and seven.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.