Tonight’s game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts will have the look and feel of what preseason games represent for most fans — glorified scrimmages. Few first string players will take the field, the second team will become the first team, and all players who are competing for a final roster spot or a home on the practice squad will have their last opportunity to distinguish themselves.
These players will fit in two different categories, and should be scrutinized accordingly. Some of the players, many of them playing with the first groups to take the field tonight, are competing for a chance to not only make the roster, but to prove that they are capable of contributing to the Colts immediately. They will seek to inspire confidence in coaches — and by association fans — that they are capable of filling the “next man up” role without significantly hampering the team’s ability to succeed.
The other players will be playing for an opportunity to contribute on special teams, will unlikely see the field in another capacity, or hope to prove they are worthy of continued development on the practice squad. The obvious job hanging in the balance tonight is who will fill the punt and kick returning roles this season.
Pat Angerer should get another opportunity to lead the defense. To this point in the preseason, Angerer has been the most statistically productive defender, and shown the potential to be a starter for the Colts. Do not be surprised if Angerer plays another solid football game, and uses his performance and continued development as a segue, which will lead to him taking over for a player like Philip Wheeler in the starting rotation some time later this year.
Other linebackers competing for two remaining roster spots at the position are Cody Glenn, Ramon Humber, and Kavell Conner. Despite having the most regular season experience and production, Ramon Humber has been quiet this preseason and may need to really shine in this contest to make a legitimate argument for taking a roster spot over Glenn or rookie Conner. Glenn offers versatility, is more physical, and has been very productive on special teams coverage units. Similarly, Conner has shown a knack for getting downfield to make plays on returns, and has received a lot of time on the field in preseason to stake his claim.
Along the defensive line, players like veteran Keyunta Dawson could be fighting for his NFL future against John Chick, Ervin Baldwin, and Ricardo Mathews. Dawson has been hurt throughout much of training camp and preseason, allowing Chick and Baldwin to distinguish themselves as active defensive ends with both pass rushing prowess and the speed to track down rushers. Mathews has yet to get a solid look at defensive end and may need to prove himself in that capacity tonight if he has any hopes of beating out the more productive Baldwin and Chick, or to justify a spot on the practice squad.
Along the interior, Mitch King seems to be primarily competing with Marlon Favorite. To this point King has received more snaps and appears to have the upper-hand. The problem with this competition is that behind Antonio Johnson, the Colts do not have a player whose size and skill-set lends itself to playing the nose tackle position. If King is ineffective tonight, while Favorite shows the ability to be a solid insurance policy for the injured Johnson, he could sway the Colts decision-makers to move King to the practice squad.
The secondary has been riddled with injuries that have led to Terrail Lambert and Deshea Townsend separating themselves as front-runners. Still, with new players Glenn Sharpe and Danny Gorrer, and undrafted free agent rookie Brandon King still hoping for their chance, neither Lamber nor Townsend can afford a setback. The other obvious contender for a final roster spot is Ray Fisher, who has added value in the return game. His fate may rely on proving that he is not a liability in coverage and has enough value as a returner to justify a spot over players like King, Lambert, Sharpe, and Gorrer.
Similarly, the competition for backup safety is wide open. Mike Newton has the benefit of more time and familiarity in the Colts system but has not done anything in the first three preseason games to lock the spot down. Terrell Skinner has continued to develop and make tackles when he is on the field. Ashton Hall will be looking forward to having his chance as well. One of the players may distinguish himself tonight. Who will it be?
The offensive line has been a position garnering a great deal of concern from the Colts fanbase this preseason. Rookie Jeff Linkenbach has received a lot of time on the field in more than one position. Adam Terry has dealt with injuries that have slowed him down, not unlike they did in previous seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. Jamey Richard, Mike Pollak, Jaques McClendon, and Jamie Thomas are all in a tight competition for the guard and center positions. One of the players may prove tonight that he is more deserving than another to make the final roster, and could bring Colts fans a little more security.
Wide receivers Taj Smith, Sam Giguère, and Blair White are all competing for what is probably one spot on the regular season roster. Smith leads the way, partially due to having more opportunities, although he has not been consistent. Giguère has been a disappointment thus far and will likely receive a lot of reps and be one of Curtis Painter and Tom Brandstater’s primary targets throughout the entire game. Blair White has looked solid and consistent but will need to rely on this game if he hopes to justify a roster spot over the more experienced Giguère and Smith. Which player will succeed tonight?
Tight ends Gijon Robinson and Colin Cloherty are locked in a battle for what might be a fourth roster spot at their position. Robinson has not been productive in a receiving capacity and lost his starting H-Back role to rookie Brody Eldridge. Cloherty is certainly inferior to Robinson as a blocker, but has proved to be far superior in a special teams capacity and as a receiver. Will this trend continue?
Finally, the return game has been a focus for the Colts since the final whistle in Super Bowl XLIV. The team brought in Devin Moore, Ray Fisher, Brandon James, and hoped Sam Giguère could give the return game a boost. Only Fisher, James, and Moore have shown flashes of truly bringing something new to the team. James has the most return experience and received the greatest deal of attention over the summer. Can he turn his mistake in Green Bay around and warrant a spot on the roster? Devin Moore was brilliant returning both kicks and punts in Toronto. Will he repeat his performance? Ray Fisher was a star return man for the Indiana Hoosiers but has received relatively few opportunities in the preseason. Will he receive more tonight and jump ahead in the return race? Will Giguère show something?
No matter how fans approach this game, it will be meaningful for the Colts franchise. The competition for final roster spots and the practice squad is absolutely not over. The coaches will be watching close to see which players handle the pressure of what could be the last time they suit up for an NFL team. While it may make for boring football with the wrong set of expectations, it will be wise to key in on a favorite player and see what he does to stake a claim in a future with the Indianapolis Colts.