Although the weather played a funny trick on me by cooling down on Wednesday and Thursday only to get back up into the nineties on Saturday for my visit to Colts training camp, I was excited to get the chance to see the team play together in a scrimmage after a week of work. I was disappointed when I arrived because I had hoped the team would be in full pads for the first time this off-season, that live-action tackling and running would occur in this “test” for the offense and defense. Instead, it was pads, helmets, and shorts.
Once I got over that disappointment, and broke in my new Colts hat, I settled in to keep an eye on players who stood out. With some significant moves made in free agency for bigger names than Indianapolis is used to, my attention turned to them first.
Tommie Harris – Harris was very active when he was on defense. On one occasion he collapsed the pocket and nearly sacked quarterback Dan Orlovsky. On two other occasions he managed to knock down passes. I have not heard a negative word about the impression Harris has made in his first two practices with the Colts. If he keeps this up, he could make a huge difference for Indy’s defensive line.
Ernie Sims – I absolutely love the intensity Sims plays with. He is extremely active in the Cover-2, quickly attacking would-be receivers when the ball is coming into his zone, and has the speed to move laterally to make plays on the ground. I have no doubt in my mind that Sims is going to rock someone’s world in preseason. It would not surprise me to see a very strong competition between Sims and Conner for the starting spot to open the season.
Two plays in particular stood out on Saturday. The first was a pass from Orlovsky to Devin Moore whose back was to Sims. He hit Moore hard, there was a loud pop and a gasp from the crowd, the ball was popped up into the air by Justin Tryon and returned 80+ yards for a touchdown by Melvin Bullitt. The second play was on a crossing pattern by tight end Tyson DeVree. As soon as the ball hit DeVree’s hands Sims was on him hard, separating him from the ball. DeVree laid on the ground for a few moments shaken up.
Colts Wide Receivers – Although none of the young wide receivers on the roster made a big impression on me, the veterans all played as fans would like to see them play. Garcon caught everything thrown to him, looked fast, and very strong. Gonzalez was able to get open regularly and was a primary target for second team quarterback Dan Orlovsky. Collie looked as dangerous and effective in the scrimmage as he did last year on the field before he suffered his concussions. Reggie Wayne displayed excellent hands, body control, and looked extremely relaxed and comfortable. Although Blair White is on the sidelines nursing an injury, this group of receivers already has the look of a unit that will help Manning be extremely effective through the air in 2011.
Chad Spann/Delone Carter – Although players like Javarris James and Devin Moore are entering their second years with the team, the amount of reps and attention Spann and Carter are getting with the second and first teams, respectively, suggests that the front office wants a very close look at these two players. Carter was easily the most active running back of the morning, with Spann and Moore relatively equal behind him. That James is receiving so few carries gives the impression that he is either nursing minor injuries or that the team is comfortable using Carter in lieu of James in the short-yardage role. Unless reports change next week or James gets a lot of preseason carries in the first half, he is probably on his way out.
Devin Moore – Some fans may have already grown to appreciate how fast Moore is when they watched him play during training camp and preseason in 2010. For others, he is turning heads. I saw him last year but it is easy to forget just how fast Moore moves on the field. Even though Spann and Gilreath will both get looks as kick returners as well (and they could win the job), so far Moore has a leg up on both players for a roster spot with his dual talents.
Defensive Line – Anything a fan takes away from an entire unit during training camp, prior to any preseason action, should be taken with little more than a grain of salt. However, the Colts defensive line depth is starting to look like a rather strong unit. Goal line defensive line of Foster, Nevis, Anderson, Moala, and Johnson. Harris will likely replace one of Foster/Moala/Anderson on the inside in goal line formations if he continues he strong performances. In any case, Anderson, Hughes, Mathis, Foster, and Freeney looks like a very strong defensive end rotation thus far. Johnson, Moala, Nevis, and Harris looks like a pretty strong defensive tackle rotation as well. All players are performing well in their own specific areas to this point in the year.
Preseason action will be very exciting. Could be difficult for Chick, Pressley, Mathews, or the undrafted rookies to stick around. DT Ollie Ogbu, DE David Bedford, LB Adrian Moten seem like defensive front runners for practice squad after week one of camp.
Joe Lefeged – Although Lefeged did not get very many opportunities to make plays on defense because neither quarterback pushed the ball down the field with long inside passes (partially because pressure from the defensive line was pretty consistent), he did look very natural as a punt returner. Remember that WR Blair White was the team’s primary punt returner at the conclusion of 2010. If Lefeged can continue to shine in that role, he has a good shot to be the third or fourth safety on the roster.
David (Call me DaC) Caldwell – Like Lefeged, Caldwell did not have a lot of opportunities to make big defensive plays due to the nature of the practice. However, he did make the last play of the game, hitting receiver Kole Heckendorf in the back of the end zone very hard to break up a pass from Dan Orlovsky that would have resulted in a tie score. The shot resulted in a loud pop and got a response from the crowd — it also left Heckendorf laying on the field for a few minutes after time expired. DaC has always wanted to tailor his game after Bob Sanders, and if he keeps up hits like that to break up passes he could get the coaches’ attention.
Backup Quarterbacks – Although some fans are excited to hear about how Nate Davis is getting acclimated in Indianapolis, he did not participate in any of the offensive drives during Saturday’s scrimmage as he had a death in his family to attend to. Davis is coming from the 49ers who run a completely different offensive scheme and has only had a week or so to really dig into the playbook.
In either case, the competition between Painter and Orlovsky may go back and forth in camp and the preseason. Although Painter did not seem to make any glaring mistakes — at least none he had to pay for — he also did not look very comfortable moving around in the pocket to avoid pressure. Orlovsky, on the other hand, moved fluidly in the pocket, avoided pressure, and still threw straight line passes to his receivers. Where Orlovsky struggled a was with batted passes, as his release is low.
Offensive Line – If fans were hoping for word after the first week of training camp that the offensive line is a well oiled machine that is ready to take on first team defenses in NFL regular season competition, they were hoping for too much. With Johnson gone, two rookie draft picks in, a second year undrafted free agent, an undrafted free agent center, two former draft picks without regular season experience (of any importance), and an early season 2010 waiver wire addition competing for four spots on the line, it will take some time to take shape. I predict that the starting five will not be determined until after the third preseason game AT THE EARLIEST and would not be surprised to see a lot of offensive linemen who may start Week 1 still getting a half or so of work in the final preseason game.
I also would not be surprised AT ALL if Indianapolis does open the year with a line of: Linkenbach, DeVan, Saturday, Pollak, Diem. I know some people fret at the thought of Castonzo and Ijalana not starting right away, while others are more concerned about Linkenbach starting at left tackle (I’m not), but the reality is that this abbreviated summer will make it very difficult on all new players to get comfortable in their roles. If Castonzo and Ijalana are not ready to contribute by Week 4, I will be concerned. Until then, do not be surprised if the line takes a few games for the line to come along and take a final form.
Cornerbacks – Although the starting cornerbacks on the Colts depth chart would read Jerraud Powers/Jacob Lacey right now, expect Justin Tryon to supplant Lacey for the starting job. I can’t help but feel like Tryon is a Powers clone. Both players are quick and play close to their assignments, both players hit hard, and both players have a knack for being in a position to make plays on the ball. Of all players in the secondary in 2011, I expect the biggest jump in performance and production will be from Tryon.
With Kevin Thomas sitting out significant time in training camp again this year, I would also be surprised if the front office did not make a move for a veteran cornerback of some kind. Behind Thomas and Lacey is Cornelius Brown, Brandon King, Terrence Johnson, and Chris Rucker. Johnson made a couple of nice plays during Saturday’s scrimmage and King looked pretty good during the 2010 training camp. Brown was a solid run down cornerback for the Colts late last year. Rucker has missed much/all of camp in a walking boot.
None of those players are of the pedigree that one would like to have step into a full time nickel or starting role if injury requires it. Look out for how the team develops at the position next week in training camp and during preseason. Otherwise, look for the Colts to make a move in free agency after initial cuts.
Thank you to all who followed my tweets throughout the morning. Feel free to share your own observations from camp if you went Saturday or earlier in the week.