Battles To Watch In Training Camp And Preseason

By Sam Sinclair |
Battles To Watch In Training Camp And Preseason

The Colts are currently at a 90-man roster, but by the end of August they will have to cut down to 53 men. Real football fans understand the importance of preseason games.   

It is a chance for guys trying to make an NFL roster to make a name for themselves. The 3rd and 4th quarters of the preseason games are the most competitive times in any preseason game because everyone on the field is fighting for a job, and while some will land on a NFL team, some will not. 

Ever since Colts general manager Chris Ballard arrived in Indianapolis, he has preached competition, and getting the best out of all the players on the roster. No player is guaranteed a spot on the roster, so competition brings out the best in every player. Head coach Frank Reich discussed in a press conference recently that this will be one of the most competitive camps he has ever been a part of, and it will be hard to make this roster.

The Colts are deep this year at a lot of positions and when the final cut downs are made in late-August, Ballard and Reich will have some tough decisions to make. Here are some positional and player competitions that fans should watch in training camp, and in the preseason. 

 1. Third Quarterback Spot

Obviously Andrew Luck and Jacoby Brissett have the top two positions locked down on the roster, but what about the third spot? The Colts kept three quarterbacks last year, two on the active roster and one on the practice squad, and it looks like they will do the same this year. That leaves Phillip Walker and Chad Kelly to duel it out for that final roster spot.

Last year, Walker beat out Brad Kaaya for the final quarterback spot. In the preseason, Walker had a 61 percent completion percentage, four passing touchdowns, two interceptions and threw for 446 passing yards. Standing at 5'11" and 216 pounds, Walker isn't the "prototypical" quarterback size in the NFL, but he makes up for it with his athletic ability and mobility.

Recently signed Kelly will be the other player fighting for the third quarterback spot. After being released by the Denver Broncos in 2018, Kelly was brought in during organized team activities (OTAs) and signed with the team on May 20.

Off-the-field issues have been the story of Kelly's football career. In college, he was dismissed from the Clemson football team for conduct detrimental to the team and his problems soon followed him to the NFL. On October 24, 2018, the Denver Broncos released Kelly following his arrest on suspicion of first-degree criminal trespassing. Kelly will serve a suspension the first two games of the 2019 season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

Before being released by the Broncos, Kelly served as the back-up to Case Keenum, beating out 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch. Kelly, though, has only played one down in an NFL regular season game (2018, a kneel-down to end the first half in week six).

Both quarterbacks bring a unique skill set to the Colts: Kelly's ability to stand in the pocket and show off his rocket arm, and Walker's ability to scramble, and use his legs to make plays. The final quarters of all the preseason games will be worth watching with Kelly and Walker battling it out for that final quarterback spot.

2. Fifth Wide Receiver Spot

Last year, the Colts kept five wide receivers on the active roster and it is looking likely that will be the case again this year. There will be a lot of players fighting for the final spot. Guys like Chester Rogers, Zach Pascal, Marcus Johnson, Daurice Fountain, Krishawn Hogan, and Penny Hart. 

The Colts are pretty much set with their top four receivers being T.Y. Hilton, Devin Funchess, Parris Campbell, and Deon Cain, but it is an open competition for that final roster spot. Last year, the Colts also kept a receiver on the practice squad as well, but for the purpose of this article, I am presuming they will keep just five. 

Rogers started 10 games for the Colts last year, totaling 53 catches on 72 targets, 485 receiving yards, and two touchdowns. He was third on the team in catches and yards. He was also 10th in the NFL in catch percentage rate at 73.6 percent, which divides total targets by total catches. What's different about Rogers compared to the other receivers on the bubble is his value on special teams. Rogers served as punt returner for the Colts last season, averaging nine yards per punt return. 

Pascal was also on the Colts' active roster for a majority of last season. He started in four games, and appeared in all 16 for the Colts with 27 catches, 268 receiving yards, and two touchdowns. He also has value on special teams, like Rogers. He was the lead kick returner last year, averaging 21 yards per return, with his longest return being of 29 yards.

Johnson was traded to the Colts on September 1, 2018, for tight end Darrell Daniels. He didn't see the field a lot early on, but did score a touchdown against the New York Jets in week six. He was then put on injury reserve on October 16 after injuring his ankle. Reich and Ballard like Johnson, and would like to keep him on the roster, but with six players fighting over one spot, it will be tough for a guy like Johnson to make the roster.

Fountain was a fifth-round pick by the Colts in 2018, and spent all of last year on the practice squad. He only appeared in one game for the Colts (the Divisional Round playoff game versus the Kansas City Chiefs). Reports have come out that Fountain has added some weight going into this training camp. Last year, he was playing under 200 pounds, where this year he will be playing at 207. Fountain will be a guy to watch in the final moments of the preseason games. 

A local Indiana product, Hogan played at Marian University in Indianapolis. Hogan played in two games for the Colts in 2017. Then, in 2018 he tried out for the Colts. He was on the 90-man roster and made it to the final preseason game last year before being in the cut-down to 53 players. On September 1, 2018, Hogan was waived/injured by the Colts and was placed on injured reserve. He would then be released on September 8, 2018, and was re-signed to the practice squad on October 19, 2018. He signed a reserve/future contract on January 13, 2019.

Hart is the big name in the undrafted free agent (UDFA) pool that was brought into Indianapolis following the draft. A 5'8" receiver from Georgia State, Hart went undrafted in the 2019 NFL Draft and is looking for a home. Hart's best year came in 2017 when he had 72 catches, 1,121 yards, and eight touchdowns while at Georgia State. A smaller receiver could be interesting to see how Reich uses him in the offense in the preseason. Watch out for Hart this August.

3. Starting SAM Linebacker

A few guys could be up for the starting SAM linebacker position in August for the Colts. In the base 4-3 defense, the SAM linebacker plays on the "strong side" of the ball (typically identified by the side the TE1 lines up on). The Colts did run "sub" packages (around 54 percent of the time) last year, which takes the SAM linebacker off of the field. But the position is a key role in the run game. The Colts drafted Ben Banogu as a linebacker out of TCU earlier this year. He may be in the mix for the starting spot, competing with returning second-year linebackers Matthew Adams and Zaire Franklin.

Banogu is the ultimate wild card for the Colts. At TCU, he played mostly linebacker in the 3-4 defense, so the natural transition would be to defensive end. The Colts see potential for Banogu to play the SAM position. But, promising early signs from Banogu at defensive end may delay his transition to 4-3 outside linebacker.

Adams was a seventh-round draft pick out of Houston by the Colts in the 2018 NFL Draft. He started in four games for the Colts, and played in all 16, but was only on the field for 20.53 percent of the defensive snaps last year. That shows how often the Colts went into a "sub" package. Adams did have 33 total tackles, five tackles for a loss, and two quarterback hits. Adams started last year, yet is a guy who could start this year, or even be cut from the roster completely.

Franklin was also a seventh-round pick of the Colts in 2018, coming out of Syracuse. As the backup, Franklin didn't see a lot of playing time, though he did start in two games last year and appeared in all 16. He saw 16.81 percent of the Colts' total defensive snaps and logged 29 tackles, and a pass defensed last year. 

While the SAM position didn't appear on the field a lot for the Colts last year, it is still an important role in the Colts' base 4-3 defense. Drafting Banogu, while bringing back Franklin and Adams, will create a lot of competition within that position. The difference between this position compared to the others on this list is that this is for a starting position. 

4. Backup Defensive End

Defensive end will look a lot different from last year. First, the Colts added four-time Pro Bowler Justin Houston. Then, they drafted guys like Gerri Green and Banogu. Add in returning players Al-Quadin Muhammad and Kemoko Turay. This year's defensive line will be deep and some players will end up on waivers after August 31. Right now, Muhammad, Turay, and Banogu are in the fold to be the backup defensive ends, with Green, and Turay pushing for playing time. 

As previously mentioned, Banogu was drafted by the Colts out of TCU as a linebacker, but he can play defensive end. If the Colts are in their "sub" packages on defense as much as they were last year, Banogu may get a lot of time at defensive end. The Colts love Banogu's pass rushing moves and believe he can play that "Bruce Irvin" role on their defense, a guy who can get after the quarterback. 

Muhammad came on strong at the end of last season, playing meaningful snaps in both of the Colts' playoff games. Before the regular season, Muhammad was claimed off of waivers by the Colts. He was then waived by the Colts on October 4, 2018, and was re-signed to the practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster on October 13, 2018. Muhammad played in 15 games, featuring four starts, where he got 28 tackles, five for a loss and two quarterback hits. 

Green was a sixth-round pick by the Colts in the 2019 NFL Draft. Green spent five seasons as a member of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, redshirting his freshman season. Over the course of his collegiate career, Green made 161 career tackles (20.5 for loss) with 8.5 sacks. Green will be pushing for snaps, but it will be a tough task as he's behind some already proven talent.

The final of the bunch, Turay, is expected to break out for the Colts' defense. He showed flashes last year, and has been working with Colts legend Robert Mathis to hone his pass rushing moves. We will see first-hand if the teaching has paid off this preseason. Last year. Turay played in 14 games, started three, and racked up 15 tackles, four sacks and 13 quarterback hits. Out of this group, Turay is expected to get the majority share of second-team reps to start training camp and preseason. 

5. Last Cornerback Spot

Last year. the Colts kept five cornerbacks on their active roster to start the season, and they could keep up to six this year. With the Colts re-signing Pierre Desir and Christopher Milton, extending Kenny Moore, and Quincy Wilson still under contract (three of which played a lot of defensive snaps in 2019), those four will take up some roster spots. Then in the 2019 NFL Draft, after the Colts traded back from the No. 26 overall pick, they took cornerback Rock Ya-Sin early in the second round, so he should take another roster spot.

This leaves Milton, Nate Hairston, Marvell Tell III, Jalen Collins, and Shak Taylor to compete for one, or possibly two, roster spots.

Along with Milton, Hairston has been with the Colts for more than one full season. Drafted in 2017, Hairston has played in 27 games, starting 13 in total, with one interception, two sacks, six passes defensed, and 65 total tackles. He played arguably his best football during his rookie year when he primarily played in the slot. But after being beat out by Moore last year, Hairston rarely saw the field last year defensively. What Hairston has going for him is his "experience" compared to the rest of the group in playing in the Colts' scheme.

A recent draft pick of the Colts, Tell is a long, athletic cornerback. At USC, Tell played safety and now the Colts are converting him to cornerback to be a better fit in their scheme. It's hard to compare stats because he did play a much different position in college, but his best year (2017) he had 85 tackles, a half-sack, three interceptions and a forced fumble. If Tell doesn't work out at cornerback for the Colts, they could put him on the practice squad and move him back to safety. 

Arguably the most talented of this group, Collins is also the most troubled. On November 15, 2018, Collins, after being reinstated from his suspension, was signed to the Colts practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster on December 29, 2018, but was waived two days later and re-signed to the practice squad. He signed a future/reserve contract on January 13, 2019. He never saw the field for the Colts, so to see him this training camp and preseason should have Colts fans excited to see what he can do.

The unknown is UDFA Shak Taylor, who was brought in for a tryout during the Colts' rookie mini-camp. He impressed the coaching staff so much that the Colts would go onto sign Taylor on May 5 and he is expected to bring nice competition to the cornerback group. Taylor played at the University of Kansas, a school known for producing good cornerbacks to the likes of Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. While he is only 5'11" and 175 pounds, Taylor has excellent ball skills and great hands. He could make some plays for the Colts late in preseason games and steal a roster spot, like he did in rookie mini-camp. 

Conclusion

As previously mentioned, this Colts team is very deep at a lot of positions. Ballard said he wants it to be tough to cut guys once they get down to 60 players, then finally down to 53. He wants the roster to be so deep that players who get cut end up on another NFL roster, and he's slowly reaching that point now. 

This will be one of the toughest Colts teams to make and for some players who were key contributors, or even starters, they might see themselves without a job in early September. This training camp and preseason will be highly competitive and worth the watch as we see the final roster spots be decided by players fighting for their careers late in the preseason games, and training camp drills.


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