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Deeper wideout group prepping for competitive training camp

Parris Campbell

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — It’s early, so very early in the evaluation process of Who’s gonna make it?

But this much is clear: there’s going to be serious competition in the Indianapolis Colts’ wide receivers room when things amp up exponentially in training camp.

“Last year at this time,’’ Frank Reich conceded, “it wasn’t as deep.’’

Last summer, it was T.Y. Hilton, Chester Rogers, free-agent pickup Ryan Grant and a bunch of unknowns, including draft picks Deon Cain and Reece Fountain. A knee injury in the preseason opener at Seattle removed Cain, who was in the midst of a solid rookie camp, from the mix.

Now, the room is a nice mixture of experience – welcome back, T.Y., Chester and Zach Pascal; welcome to Indy, Devin Funchess – and youth. Eight prospects have yet to catch an NFL pass. Marcus Johnson has 11 receptions, 147 yards and one TD in 15 career games.

The Colts are in the homestretch of their offseason work. They’ve wrapped up the third week of OTAs (organized team activities) and next week’s three-day mandatory minicamp signals the end until players reconvene at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield in late July for the start of training camp.

Even though that’s when positional competition dials up several notches, it would be wrong to assume players haven’t been jostling for depth chart status over the past several weeks.

And that’s been especially true among receivers.

“Those battles were starting to in some ways declare themselves a little bit even now even though you know deep down you’ve got to wait until training camp,’’ Reich said. “But this year definitely there is more depth there, more guys that we have a lot of confidence in.

“So literally we’ll let it all play out and guys are going to get a lot of reps. It’s a question of who can stay healthy, who can be consistent and who can contribute on special teams for that fourth and fifth spot.’’

That might have been an indication of Reich’s thinking when it comes to shaping the offensive side of the 53-man roster. Perhaps the Colts opt to carry no more than five wideouts. The presence of hybrid running back Nyheim Hines (63 receptions last season, third-most by a rookie in team history) and Reich’s affinity for using his tight ends work against going extreme and carrying six pure receivers.

With it boiling down to a number’s game and with five being the maximum number, things are going to be tight.

We’re taking the stance that four of the spots are virtually locked up: Hilton, Funchess, rookie Parris Campbell and Cain. We include Cain based on the potential he flashed last summer before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against the Seahawks.

General manager Chris Ballard hasn’t disguised his optimism regarding last year’s sixth-round draft pick. He insisted Cain “might have been the best wideout’’ from a talent perspective had he been included in last April’s draft.

Ballard expects Cain to be ready for the start of training camp, but admitted it might be early November before he’s able to fully regain his play-making form.

With Cain yet to be cleared to practice, the offseason focus has been keenest on Campbell, the versatile second-round draft pick, Rogers and Fountain.

Campbell has been as advertised, although he was held out of Tuesday’s practice, which was open to the media, due to a minor injury. He’s shown his top-end speed and sure hands whether he’s worked out of the slot or been split outside.

The interesting aspect of Campbell’s first offseason with the Colts – and one that could impact personnel decisions when rosters are cut to 53 – is the fact he’s sharing punt-return reps with Rogers. That was one of Rogers’ responsibilities last season.

If the Colts head into the season with Campbell as their top slot receiver and punt returner, Rogers might have a tough time sticking.

Reich said Rogers’ spring “has been really good. I mean, really good.’’

He also stressed Fountain has made strong strides following a quiet rookie season. The fifth-round draft pick spent the first 13 weeks on the practice squad and appeared in just one regular-season game. In the playoff loss at Kansas City, he dropped a touchdown in mop-up time.

Fountain’s growth heading into year 2, Reich said, has been obvious.

“Reece is more explosive,’’ he said. “He’s physically playing with more explosiveness. He’s just confident. He’s made more big plays. His route running has gotten a lot better.

“A lot of the tapes that we cut up and show to the team and show to the offense have been Reece making big plays. So really pleased with the progress he’s made from last year to this year.

“Now like we said, in that spot he has to continue to make that same growth as far as his special teams contributions.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

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