Managing or coaching an NFL team has to be extremely difficult at this time of year. Nearly half of the players, sometimes more, that have been working with NFL teams will not be on the regular season roster. These players put tremendous effort into getting and staying fit, molding themselves into World Class athletes, and learning a playbook for a team only to be forced to wait for a call that may never come — for another chance to live their dream.
There is no better way to breakdown who played well in the final preseason game than to attempt to break down the final roster prediction. In order to do so, I thought it best to consider that there are 22 positions on a football field and to start with having at least two players at each of those positions — the starter and a back-up. The exceptions to that rule are for the kicker, punter, and sometimes a special teams player like the long snapper. Accordingly, 47 positions on the roster will be made on that basis.
This leaves only six spots on the roster that will be filled by players who show enough talent to keep around for continued development, show exceptional special teams abilities, or act as a buffer for a position where there is some level of concern.
The following will be laid out as a depth chart with comments regarding player performances after each position.
Quarterback (3): Peyton Manning, Kerry Collins (Curtis Painter – temporary)
While I believe that Manning will be ready to go for the Week 1 match-up again the Houston Texans, there is little doubt that the team has its reservations. Collins will be on the roster and will stay for the entire season, save for a catastrophic injury. To use one of six spots on a third quarterback is very difficult, because it is unlikely that quarterback will ever see the field. However, if the team is at all concerned about Manning’s short-term health, it is pretty likely they keep one around.
The only player that makes sense for that spot is Curtis Painter. When Manning’s health is no longer a concern, I believe the team will let Painter go and pick up a player at another position to take his place.
In terms of pure performance against the Bengals, Painter did not play but Collins did. While Collins did show arm strength with a long down-field throw to start the Colts first offensive drive, he also showed that he is not nearly as aware in the pocket as Manning. Anthony Castonzo could have done more to stonewall the edge rusher, sure, but both times Collins had the ball batted down on attempted throws (one ruled a fumble) he had space in the pocket in front of him to move away from the pressure.
He did not feel that pressure, or simply did not think to move up into the pocket. If he does have to spend time on the field, he will need to improve that. Given he has been around in the league as long as he has, there is little reason to believe he will develop that skill. Keep that in mind if Collins does have to play early in the season.
Running Back (4): Joseph Addai, Delone Carter, Donald Brown, Chad Spann
The competition for the fourth running back spot is extremely difficult to figure out. Arguably, each of the potential “fourths” have a great deal of similarity to another back that will make the roster. In the end, one of the undrafted rookie running backs will likely be on the practice squad.
With that in mind, and with Carter and Darren Evans having such similar running styles and skill sets, I stick with the faster, shiftier Spann. Evans goes to the practice squad and James is let go for a second season. Like in 2010, however, I would not be surprised at all to see James get a phone call if injuries affect the Colts rushers.
Both Evans and Spann flashed their skills late in the Bengals game. Evans was a hard-nosed pile mover. Spann was quick to the second level and has the look of a guy who could break a big play at any moment.
Wide Receiver (5): Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez, David Gilreath (Blair White PUP)
The issue with wide receivers is that I still have not seen enough from any player who is trying to take a spot from one of the 2010 receivers to convince me that they are better catching the football. David Gilreath could be a dynamic punt returner, so he will stay around, but he still has work to do if he hopes to develop into a player that will see regular time with the offense. His fumble in the second half, in particular, shows that he needs to work on protecting the ball.
After watching Taj Smith play his heart out for two or three years, it is difficult to not love this guy. He works as hard as anyone, wants it as bad as anyone, and has excellent speed. The problem is that he is inconsistent on offense, particularly catching the football. This limits his immediate value to special teams, where he displayed a penchant for making plays last season. No matter what happens with Smith, I will be a big fan and I hope he lands somewhere.
He may make the team, but it’s hard to justify the roster spot at this point.
Tight End (3): Dallas Clark, Jacob Tamme, Brody Eldridge
While the preseason offense has not been a marquee period for the use of tight ends in the Colts offense, there is little doubt that these three are the only ones who legitimately demand roster spots to start the season. Sometimes the team keeps around a fourth tight end to play the H-Back role, but Gijon Robinson is no longer with the team, and as long as two of these three players can stay healthy there should be relatively little need for another.
Offensive Tackle (3): Anthony Castonzo, Jeff Linkenbach, Benjamin Ijalana
For better or worse, these are the three offensive tackles on the roster who are ready to play in the NFL right now. Castonzo is a promising rookie who continues to learn and develop. Linkenbach has enough experience in the Colts system and against NFL competition that he should be able to fair relatively well at right tackle. Ijalana is a mountain of a man who already looks like a force in the running game but who may still need a little time to develop as a pass blocker.
Linkenbach got bull rushed on a couple of occasions against the Bengals, which hurt running plays primarily. He is likely not a long-term starter in the NFL but he is also a serviceable backup. Expect to see Castonzo and Ijalana starting together by mid-season.
Guard (4): Ryan Diem, Joe Reitz, Jacques McClendon, Kyle DeVan
Although Reitz struggled on occasion against the Bengals pass rushers, he will likely hold down the starting spot at left guard. If he struggles at all, McClendon may get the first look — after he worked there all training camp and preseason. Diem has moved inside and all signs suggest that the move will make the right side of the line bigger, stronger, and better.
Kyle DeVan is a player who deserves to stay on the team because he has shown over the last two years that he is extremely reliable. In terms of backup NFL guards, specifically those who are solid pass blockers, he belongs in the upper tier of backups. In fact, it would be no surprise at all if DeVan ended up starting again, for the third season in a row, if either of the guards struggles.
Center (2): Jeff Saturday, Mike Pollak
Following the Colts throughout the preseason there has been a steady move away from former second round pick Mike Pollak at guard, to primary backup center for Saturday. If he stays on the roster, this is the best spot for him at this time.
Saturday seemed to struggle a couple of times against the Bengals, getting overpowered and pushed back into the pocket. One has to wonder if a little more time working with the new guards will remedy that situation as the team heads into the regular season.
This brings the total offensive player count to 24. Counting three special teams players who will be locks — kicker Adam Vinatieri, punter Pat McAfee, and long snapper Justin Snow — there are 26 defensive roster spots up for grabs, including four spots for high value, high upside players who can contribute on special teams and develop at their respective positions.
A general offensive appraisal of the Bengals game is that the offensive line struggled more than it did against the Packers. The running game did not get going in any meaningful way until late when the third and fourth string players were on the field. Wide receiver Taj Smith will show up as a big winner in the box score but his dropped passes could cost him a roster spot. Darren Evans is a very strong, hard-nosed runner with a great deal of potential who it will be difficult to see let go — assuming the team holds on to Spann instead.
Dan Orlovsky really did a heck of a job trying to pick up and operate the Colts complex offense with an abbreviated off-season. I will not be surprised at all if he is picked up by another team as their backup.
Come back later today for a breakdown on the defensive side of the ball, and for the completion of my final roster prediction.