Mocking the Colts: Offensive Players on the Bubble

Entering Colts training camp as an offensive player that does not play on the line is no walk in the park. There are two first round draft picks at running back, joined by a fourth rounder this year. There are two first round draft picks at wide receiver, including a fourth rounder and sixth rounder from previous drafts who were starters last year. There is one first round draft pick tight end, joined by two middle round draft pick tight ends who fill different roles.

Imagine, then, being an undrafted rookie or a free agent coming to a Colts team whose offense is led by none other than Peyton Manning. That kind of pressure must be intimidating. When players are able to push their way onto the Colts offense with the level of talent all around them, they have managed to accomplish something special. That is why it is important for fans to get to take a close look at their final attempt to pull it off.

Running Back

There is very little doubt that the Colts will keep Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, and Delone Carter on the roster to start the regular season. Brown is entering his third year with the team, after getting drafted in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft. He is under intense pressure to show that he is worthy of his draft pedigree or he will be stripped of that luxury in coaches’ eyes moving forward.

This leaves a group of hopeful running backs in a tight competition for what will likely be only one final spot at their position. Javarris James, Chad Spann, and Darren Evans will have to find a way to distinguish themselves in a hurry. If none of them impresses coaches, the team has proven to be entirely comfortable grabbing backs as they hit the waiver wire following cuts.

Each of the three backs is a little bit different style of player with different degrees of upside and uses. James proved to be a serviceable short-yardage and goal line back in 2010, wracking up a team high six rushing touchdowns. No other phase of his game really stood out though, so he has experience in the system and proven ability to break through the line of scrimmage on his side. He has added to his value recently by showing ability on special teams coverage units.

Spann was given a prime opportunity to prove his special teams worth as a returner. If he was capable of getting the job done in that facet of the game, he would have a significant feather in his cap during final roster cuts. Unfortunately, he muffed his chance to do that in the first preseason game, and he did it more than once. As a result, Spann now has only his running, catching, and blocking abilities to fall back on. There is little doubt that he has speed, shiftiness, and can make people miss on the ground. He also can catch the ball relatively well and should continue developing in that area.

The problem is that Addai is already a shifty back who can make people miss with a reputation as a great blocker and pass-catcher. Brown is speedy and a home run threat who has shown improvement as a blocker and has shown an ability to catch the ball as well. So, what does Spann bring to the table that is unique? Right now, it is possible he doesn’t bring anything unique to the table and may have to settle for a spot on the practice squad.

Evans is a very large running back in the Colts system. His bruising running style is also more suited to moving the pile and getting tough yards. His carries and action has generally been limited to late in preseason games when he can exploit a lower level of competition than his teammates have to face. If this is at all reflective of where the team stands in their valuation of the rookie from Virginia Tech, he could have a disappointing week ahead of him.

Wide Receiver

Looks may well be deceiving for a group of young receivers working in Indianapolis. Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez, and Blair White form a astonishingly talented and diverse group of wide receivers when they’re all healthy. If Gonzalez, White, and Collie’s injuries are really minor, and if each of the three will be ready to go when the season begins, this could be the toughest group to crack.

David Gilreath, Chris Brooks, Taj Smith, and Larrone Moore will work out this week with the team and will likely see action against the Bengals. Three of these players have a chance to make special teams statements, while one could suffer dearly from not having the added value team covet with their deep depth roster spots.

Gilreath has done enough to make head coach Jim Caldwell comfortable with him returning punts. Guess who returned punts last year? Blair White. The funny thing is that even though he is often knocked for not being very fast, he did a pretty solid job when he was asked to do so. Has Gilreath so clearly outperformed White as a punt returner that his value in that role completely outweighs the differences in height and experience White gained last year as a starting receiver down the stretch?

Taj Smith made a real statement when he was added to a decimated roster late in the 2010 season in order to help shore up a special teams unit losing any semblance of regularly experience — as all of the special teams aces were being asked to step into starting roles. Instead of returning the kicks or punts, Smith decided the best thing to do was to block them, recover them, and accomplish the same goal. But can the team afford to drop talented players at other positions just for the small chance the Smith could do the same again in 2011? That is what management may have to decide.

Chris Brooks ran a perfect fade route to help give Curtis Painter his second passing touchdown against the Packers. It is the type of play the team expects roster hopefuls to make. Yet, the likelihood that Brooks will see the field, particularly running that same route — only this time for Peyton Manning — is not very good. That makes it even harder for Brooks who has not stood out in a special teams role.

Larrone Moore will reportedly get the opportunity to return some kicks in the final preseason contest. That is good for him in that it will allow him to showcase his abilities to the rest of the NFL, but making the roster at this point is a long shot. It is easy to get the feeling that he’s only getting the chance to return kicks in Cincinnati because Indianapolis is already comfortable with Lefeged playing that role in the regular season and do not wish to risk his health on returns in the second half of the last preseason game.

Tight End

Pro Bowler Dallas Clark has returned from a wrist injury that kept him from competing in much of the 2010 season. Jacob Tamme is entering his first camp as a proven veteran who is completely capable of picking up a great deal of Clark’s slack if he should have to miss any time this year. While Brody Eldridge struggled as a receiver in 2010, he did do some nice things as a blocker and is entering only his second year in the NFL. It’s a pretty safe bet that these three players will join long snapping tight end extraordinaire Justin Snow line up outside of the tackles.

The team has a distinguished history of keeping tight ends around on the practice squad though, which leaves Tyson DeVree and Mike McNeill in a grunge match in the final week of practice. Both players have had the opportunity to produce in the passing game during preseason action, but a third pass-catching specialist tight end simply does not make good roster management sense.

Offensive Tackle

The fact that the team is making Ryan Diem’s move inside to guard permanent gives Indianapolis the luxury of keeping only three tackles on the roster. Anthony Castonzo, Jeff Linkenbach, and Benjamin Ijalana will almost certainly be the players on the Colts regular season depth chart. Diem and Reitz will play the hybrid guard/tackle role recently vacated by Charlie Johnson, who is now with the Minnesota Vikings.

Guard

The offensive position where players would have had the greatest chance to steal a spot on the Colts roster would have been offensive guard. That is until former tackle Ryan Diem moved inside. Diem will be joined by Joe Reitz, Jacques McClendon, and Kyle DeVan. How Jamey Richard will hold on this season with Pollak and the young Jake Kirkpatrick lining up to take over for Jeff Saturday is hard to imagine.

Center

When Bill Polian used the 2008 NFL Draft to select three former collegiate center, it was relatively clear to everyone that he was planning for a future without Jeff Saturday. Lucky for the Colts, Saturday signed a contract that will likely see him retire in Indianapolis and bought Peyton Manning time to continue playing with his familiar counterpart. When Steve Justice was unable to stick on the roster, second round pick Mike Pollak struggled to perform at right guard, and Jamey Richard only played in spot duty while Pollak took his time to get familiar with playing guard in the NFL, things did not look so good.

Now, with 2011 rolling around, the team is taking a new approach with the offensive line, has drafted two high draft picks to make it possible to find a solid starting group, and for the first time Polian and Company have had a legitimate opportunity to have Pollak focus more at center. He has been the second-string center in preseason competition to this point, making it quite likely that Indianapolis will keep in there on the depth chart. If this is the team’s plan, Kirkpatrick will have to move to the practice squad, learn the system, and be fully prepared to oust Pollak from the Colts roster in 2012.

Quarterback

It is difficult to get excited about the backup quarterback debacle that is going on with the Colts. There is very little or no way the team will enter the season with someone other than Kerry Collins second on the depth chart. The team has already suggested it will carry three quarterbacks, at least until any lingering issues from Manning’s off-season surgery are no longer a concern.

There is very little chance that Dan Orlovsky has done enough with his opportunity to oust the younger Curtis Painter from his perch. Painter has had more time in the system, has as much or more upside due to his younger age, and apparently has the support of the players around him like Manning and Wayne.

 

Ultimately, the offensive side of the ball is far less exciting than the defensive side of the ball in terms of competition. The only part of the offense that really could have used a boost over the 2010 unit was the offensive line and even it is so busy with talented and/or experienced players that little meaningful change will likely occur. Barring injuries, and fans in Indianapolis know well enough at this point to hold their breath even with an offensive roster full of weapons and reasons to be optimistic, the only place a lot of players who have worked really hard over the last month will have a chance to turn is to the practice squad.

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