State of the Colts Franchise: Preseason Offense

The Indianapolis Colts have run just over 80 players through an absolute gamut over the last three weeks of training camp and the early preseason.  During this process the front office and coaching staff have assessed and developed players who will eventually fill the Colts regular season roster and practice squad.  All of the hard work, sweat, long days, and intense studying will come to a head on August 31 and September 4, when the NFL mandates that teams cut their rosters down to 75 and 53, respectively.

I had the amazing opportunity to watch eight of the Colts training camp sessions in-person, along with two preseason games on television — which I have broken down more than once.  With this backdrop, the following story will discuss which players Colts fans can expect to make some noise in the remaining preseason games, and which players may surprise by making the final roster, or by failing to make it.

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At the quarterback position, the only players to spend a great deal of time working in the offense were Peyton Manning and Curtis Painter.  In fact, Tom Brandstater seemed like an afterthought during most Colts training camp practices.  It is worth noting that he had a lot more to learn than Tim Hiller, who had already gone through rookie camp, minicamp, and organized team activities in the Colts system.  The preseason seems to suggest that Hiller has no real chance to push Painter for a roster spot and is relegated to competition with Brandstater for a potential practice squad position.  The safe bet is that Painter remains Manning’s primary backup and that Brandstater either wins a third spot on the roster or is put on the practice squad to push Painter throughout the season.

Absent injuries, the Colts are set with their running back trio.  Joseph Addai continues to look impressive, after his fantastic 2009 performance.  Donald Brown is still learning and Mike Hart is pushing him hard for a crack at the primary backup spot.  It is highly unlikely that Hart will win that battle, as the Colts have invested a lot in Brown and will ride him hard until it sinks in, but the competition is healthy and means that the Colts quietly have one of the more well-rounded backfields in the NFL.

The surprise amongst the backs in training camp and preseason has been Devin Moore.  The young man absolutely works his tail off every time he touches the ball, runs hard, does not shy away from contact, and has the jets to cause “Major Payne” if he gets in the open.  He deserves a spot on this roster in a flex running back/returner position.  Moore’s performance has been so impressive that Javarris James can only hope to earn a position on the practice squad and wait for injuries or turnover to get an opportunity.

The wide receiver position received the most hype heading into training camp.  The front four receivers were obvious — though order was argued — but what made camp exciting is the depth and breadth of talent from the young players pushing for one or two final roster spots at the position.  Samuel Giguère headed into the off-season with a great deal of confidence, in a prime position to build on his late-season roster spot at wide receiver and as a kick returner.  Players like Taj Smith and Blair White have made it extremely difficult for him to stand out at receiver, while Brandon James and Devin Moore give him fits in the return battle.

Brandon James and Dudley Guice seem like the odd men out in the receiver competition.  This hurts Guice a lot as he will need to be an outstanding punt and kick coverage player to warrant a roster spot.  James seems like the player the Colts have focused the most attention on in training camp — he has worked with the receivers, the running backs, and in all phases on special teams.  It will be surprising if the Colts do not give James a spot on the roster after they have spent all of this time developing him.

If Giguère plans to prove that he warrants a roster spot, he will need to do so in the return game.  To this point, he has been thoroughly outplayed by his competition.  If he does not show something to the coaching staff in practice or in the final preseason games, Giguère may be sent back to the practice squad, while players like Taj Smith or Blair White earn the final wide receiver spot(s) on the depth chart.

The tight end position will change this year.  Brody Eldridge will be the starter for the Colts very early in his rookie season.  There is no doubt the Eldridge is the best blocking tight end on the roster.  What makes him versatile and dangerous is that he has soft enough hands to be a threat when he releases.  With a big, strong upper body, Eldridge can muscle in catches others may not and should be a terror at the goal line this year.

The only question at tight end is if the Colts choose to return four functional tight ends, as they have in the past, or choose to let both Gijon Robinson and Colin Cloherty walk.  Robinson is the more experienced player and should be more comfortable in an offensive role.  Cloherty seems like a better special teams player.  It is possible that the Colts start the season with Robinson on the roster and bring up Cloherty once they have established confidence in Eldridge.  It is also possible that they stick with Eldridge as their H-Back, go with Jacob Tamme as Dallas Clark’s backup, and utilize the free roster spot for another position.

At this point, it seems clear the Colts will head into the regular season with Jeff Saturday and Jamey Richard filling out the center position.  Richard may be listed as a guard, but he will be the primary backup to Saturday if he needs to miss time during the regular season.  Some still refer to Jacques McClendon as a center but at no point during training camp did I notice McClendon snapping the football.  He did play center in the last half of the fourth quarter against Buffalo, but unless he receives much more time in the final two preseason games, he will be a guard in 2010.

The safe bets for guard are Kyle DeVan, Mike Pollak, and probably Jacques McClendon.  What is difficult to figure out is that Jaime Thomas received a great deal of snaps with the first team offense at left guard until he suffered a foot injury.  If he returns to health in time, it is possible he could push McClendon to the practice squad.

The other player who seems to have a front row position in the battle for spots along the interior of the offensive line is Jeff Linkenbach, undrafted free agent rookie out of Cincinnati.  The Colts have been working Linkenbach primarily at left guard and left tackle.  He played an outstanding game against the Bills last Thursday.  Colts President Bill Polian loves flexibility and utility in his offensive linemen, so Linkenbach should remain on the radar and make it even harder for McClendon and Thomas to secure their spots on the roster.

Ideally, the Colts tackle roster would be as simple as saying Charlie Johnson, Tony Ugoh, and Ryan Diem.  Johnson’s foot is also not cooperating so a player like Adam Terry could be retained to the start the season.  There is a very high likelihood that some players who are pushed down to the practice squad will shock fans, and that there will be some shuffling on the Colts offensive line depth chart as the season progresses.

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