For players with hopes to make it onto an NFL roster, this week means everything. Failing to have a good showing in practice, failing to head into the final preseason game healthy, or failing to perform when their opportunity does come will leave a lot of talented football players without a team.
This is the toughest time of the year for fans who have followed young players in college, at training camp, or in preseason competition. It is even tougher for the players who have worked so hard to get to this point only to be forced to wait for the next opportunity, if it ever comes.
For the Indianapolis Colts, there are a handful of spots that may still be up for grabs and a couple of players at each of those positions who have everything to gain and to lose before final cuts on September 3rd.
David Caldwell, Al Afalava, and Joe Lefeged all appear to be competing for what may be only two safety roster spots behind starters Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt.
Caldwell has had the opportunity to see the field a lot since Bethea suffered a hamstring pull in the second preseason game and has done some things that look good, but he has not stood out so much that fans are clamoring for him to stay. If he can put an exclamation point on his bid for the roster in practice or by making outstanding plays against the Bengals, he could realize his dream of playing in the NFL.
Joe Lefeged is probably the safest of the three hopefuls as he is getting a very close look as a kick returner. Any time a player offers value in more than one role, his chances to sticking around grow significantly. In this way, Lefeged cannot afford to blow his chances to return the football, or go on a bone-headed penalty spree like Chip Vaughn and he is likely in.
Al Afalava is the only veteran on the list, as he spent his rookie season starting in Chicago. What hurts Afalava’s chances is that he has not been able to get onto the field due to a groin pull. Unless he did enough in early preseason or practice to stake his claim with the coaching staff, he is losing ground to his primary competition in David Caldwell. He needs to get back onto the practice field and to play against the Bengals or he could be outside looking in.
Indianapolis could choose to retain up to six corners on the roster to start the season. The only players who should be really confident at this point are Jerraud Powers, Justin Tryon, Jacob Lacey, and Kevin Thomas. This leaves players like Cornelius Brown, Terrance Johnson, Brandon King, and Chris Rucker on the bubble.
Both King and Rucker have been targeted or used as hybrid defensive backs. King was listed on the roster as a safety in 2010 even though he practiced and played primarily at cornerback in training camp and preseason. Rucker has only played at cornerback this year but when he was drafted the coaching staff predicted that he could get looks at safety as well. This could give them an advantage against Brown and Johnson.
Brown has an advantage in that he has played most in the Colts system during regular season games. His experience may push him over the top in the minds of coaches who are familiar enough with his skill set to know what they get by keeping him around. Last season he was used a lot in goal line and running situations. Maybe the emphasis on improving against the run also swings in his favor.
Johnson used his time on the field against the Packers to get noticed. While his defended pass is well short of a guarantee for a spot on the roster it could make coaches pay closer attention in this final week. If nothing else, a solid week of practice and sound performance against the Bengals would make him a front-runner for a practice squad spot.
Every year there are roster surprises and one of the positions that always pops up is linebacker. Gary Brackett, Pat Angerer, Kavell Conner, Ernie Sims, and Philip Wheeler are the safe bets. Adrian Moten, Kerry Neal, and Chris Colasanti are competing for whatever spots are left.
Moten is the front-runner if only six linebackers start the season on the roster as he has shown the ability to excel in pass coverage and that is a rare skill among Colts linebackers. The problem is that Sims is already an undersized linebacker who is known as someone who can help in that capacity. If the team prefers to go special teams focus, he could need to prove something in kick coverage to be completely safe.
Neal and Colasanti have not done as much as Moten to stand out on defense but if either player can convince the font office that they are special teams assets they could force their way onto the team. They mean be long shots but fans should not be overly surprised if an extra linebacker is on the roster and these two are the ones who may be able to do it.
The Colts will likely keep five or six defensive tackles on the team, with at least one of those spots going to a hybrid player who can play inside and outside on the line. The safest players are Antonio Johnson, Fili Moala, Drake Nevis, and probably Tommie Harris. This leaves the team facing a decision between Eric Foster, Ricardo Mathews, and Ollie Ogbu.
Foster has the most going for him as he is able to play inside and outside. There is a relatively strong likelihood that he will make the team, although it is not entirely certain whether he’ll be used much at defensive tackle with an emphasis on getting bigger inside.
Ricardo Mathews is a former seventh round selection from 2010 and has played well when he has been given opportunities. The problem is that he finds himself on a team with two additions at defensive tackle who will push him down the depth chart. Still, it can be argued that the only player projected as a roster shoe-in with the size and skill set to play nose tackle is Antonio Johnson. Mathews will have to hope for repetitions at the nose and play convincing football to stay with the team.
Ollie Ogbu is in the same situation as Mathews. He is an undrafted free agent rookie who has shown flashes in preseason but the only real need for the team is at nose tackle. If he can outperform Mathews in practice this week, and make a statement against the Bengals, he could sneak his way onto the roster.
Only Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can be considered locks in this group.
Jerry Hughes has a huge advantage against his competition because he was a 2010 first round draft selection. Where the advantage is lost is that John Chick has been the more impressive player in preseason.
On the flip side, Chick has to fight for his spot against a second-year first round pick. There is always a chance the Colts choose to keep both of the pass rushers on the roster, but neither can afford to let up at all as the coaches enter their final deliberations.
Tyler Brayton and Jamaal Anderson are both run defending specialists. There is little reason to believe that either would be highly productive getting to the quarterback so their respective bids for a roster spot will come down to some things in their control and some not.
If the Colts are serious about focusing on run defense this season, and are willing to carry more players who specialize in that ability, both could stay with the team. If the team prefers to retain a deeper group of pass rushers, only one of the two will likely be on the final roster. In that case, Brayton has an experience and production advantage while Anderson is younger.