Little more can be said to express how much I appreciate the effort of hopeful football players to make it onto an NFL regular season roster. When fans ask how I can make it a point to watch each preseason game because they are “boring,” this is why.
I feel like a lot can be learned in preseason games from these players and that I owe them respect as a fan and writer to pay attention to their efforts. A massive group of football fans will never even know who some of the best players are who do not make the regular season roster, and for me that is a disservice.
If they don’t make it, I at least owe them the knowledge that I noticed them and wish them the best moving forward.
Nose Tackle (2) – Antonio Johnson, Drake Nevis
No player on the defensive line did more in camp or preseason to make a statement than rookie Drake Nevis. While his skill set is better suited to the under tackle position, I have not been convinced by players like Ricardo Mathews or Ollie Ogbu that they are ready to be considered among the best defensive tackles on the Colts roster. As a general rule, you keep the best players.
Indianapolis is notorious for being thin with “true nose tackle” defensive linemen. I have no reason to believe that will not continue.
Johnson looked really good against the Bengals. He looks healthy and ready to help solidify the defensive interior against the run. As we discussed in the podcast, disruption from players like Nevis and Harris, along with Freeney and Mathis on the outside also make him a threat to quarterbacks in one-on-one match-ups.
Under Tackle (3) – Fili Moala, Tommie Harris, Eric Foster
None of these players saw significant time against the Bengals but each has made a claim for a roster spot. Moala continues to show improvement against the run and has been more physical and aggressive shooting the gaps. Harris is a veteran presence who returned from a hamstring injury to convince viewers that he can still play at a high level, particularly on a limited snap count.
Foster is a bubble player who could be replaced by Mathews or Ollie Ogbu, but his experience in the Colts system and ability to contribute inside and outside on the line make him a utility player. No team values players who can play multiple positions and roles more than the Colts.
Defensive End (5) – Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Jamaal Anderson, Tyler Brayton, Jerry Hughes
Anyone who does not appreciate the amount of effort Hughes put in against the Cincinnati Bengals must be looking for something out of the second-year player that I am not. I did not expect Hughes to go from a rookie season of being completely lost and uncomfortable against his competition to a second-year effort of absolute dominance. I expected to see progress. Hughes, at minimum, showed that to me in Cincinnati.
John Chick was given an opportunity to make a final statement Thursday night but was unable to capitalize. He has worked very hard and is one of those players I have absolute respect for, but I don’t see him making the roster unless the team parts ways with Hughes.
His age is not a helpful factor in this decision either — he will be 29 in November. Players who are showing potential to be contributors for the first time when they’re approaching 30 years old have a relatively short shelf-life.
Both Brayton and Anderson looked like solid run defending defensive ends with the potential to get pressure on the quarterback. Neither will lead the league in sacks or pressures, but both have the experience to be first-year contributors to an improved defensive line.
Linebacker (6) – Gary Brackett, Pat Angerer, Ernie Sims, Philip Wheeler, Kavell Conner, Adrian Moten
This may be the most talented group of linebackers the Colts have carried in years. Wheeler continued to play like a man whose light-bulb has reached optimum luminosity. He could terrorize as a situational edge rusher in the joker role and has been a solid tackler as well.
Sims is fast, solid in coverage, nasty, and has the experience in the Tampa-2 scheme to be a real contributor. He seems to like dropping into coverage, something that has been lacking for some time in Indianapolis. Moten is the only other linebacker who has shown enough ability to really make a claim for a spot on the roster and is also talented in coverage.
Cornerback (5) – Jerraud Powers, Justin Tryon, Jacob Lacey, Kevin Thomas, Chris Rucker
Kevin Thomas and Chris Rucker have made the most of their preseason opportunities. They have things they need to work on but they also have the raw talent, skills, and athletic ability to be regular season contributors. With a little more time behind Powers, Tryon, and Lacey they could get there.
The only worry about the starting rotation is that Lacey continues to invite punishment on the right side of the field. As we discussed on the podcast, it is disconcerting that players who have the athletic ability to stick closer to receivers are obviously asked to play off of them three to five yards. With a speedy, opportunistic defensive line that is all about playing the pass and run toward the quarterback, it just doesn’t make sense.
Tryon deserves an opportunity to start opposite Powers.
Safety (5) – Antoine Bethea, Melvin Bullitt, Joe Lefeged, David Caldwell, Al Afalava
Joe Lefeged, David Caldwell, and Al Afalava absolutely killed themselves to win the competition at safety. All three were very effective at times this preseason and showed enough upside to warrant spots on the roster. If this group sticks, three of the Colts safeties will be undrafted players.
Lefeged flashed signs of taking over the game on defense in the first half. He made numerous stops against the run with convincing blows to ball carriers and was all over the field. Add his value as a kick returner and he was an absolute steal for Indianapolis.
Similarly, Caldwell stalked the second-level throughout the game and made big hits on unsuspecting ball carriers. On one play he stoned Peerman as he came around the edge out of no where. In an interview with Coltzilla last season he said that he tried to emulate the play of Bob Sanders. That play reminded me of the Eraser.
Al Afalava has the benefit of more experience than either of his rookie competitors and used that benefit to his advantage. He knows where he needs to be and when he needs to be there. He is probably not as good of a tackler than his competitors, but he finds a way to be effective.
The biggest cuts on defense have to be John Chick, Ricardo Mathews, and Ollie Ogbu. All three players are high effort guys who have enough skill to compete on a professional level. Ogbu needs more time to develop. Mathews is very close but has completely molded himself for another position. Chick is deserving but a space victim.
Remember that there are bubble players at a few positions on both sides of the football who are prime targets to potentially be replaced by waiver wire additions. The Colts typically have their eyes intently on released talent as they process cuts. If you think it is hard for the players who get cut outright, even when they’re deserving of an opportunity, imagine what it is like for those who don’t get cut outright, only to lose their spot on the roster after a waiver wire claim is processed.
In all, the Colts will have a talent-filled roster. There are no immediate Pro Bowl threats as depth at any position, but if the team had to play with this roster I feel like it could play with anyone, and beat anyone. Now take your, “stay healthy” pills and buckle up for the regular season.