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Colts training camp preview: Special teams

Adam Vinatieri (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A season of great expectations awaits, as does a second summer at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield.

They go hand in hand.

After three months of offseason work and a five-week lull, the Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park Wednesday for the start of training camp. They’re on the practice field for the first time the following day.

Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team coming off a 10-6 season and wild-card playoff appearance, and considered by many observers to be one of the trendy picks to make serious noise in the postseason.

 Today: Special teams

  • Kicker: Adam Vinatieri, Cole Hedlund.
  • Punter: Rigoberto Sanchez.
  • Long-snapper: Luke Rhodes.
  • Returners: Chester Rogers, Zach Pascal, Parris Campbell.

24 and counting: He’s back. Adam Vinatieri returns for his 24th NFL season and 14th in Indy. Need perspective? His 14 seasons with the Colts is tied for the second-most in team history, matching Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis and trailing only John Unitas (17). And Vinatieri’s stint in Indy comes after 10 seasons with the Patriots. He’s just the fourth player in NFL history to play at age 46.

Vinatieri signed his sixth – sixth, for cryin’ out loud – contract with the Colts in March, a one-year deal worth $3.8 million. He’s already the NFL’s career record-holder in points (2,600) and made field goals (582). His 215 regular-season wins are an all-time league best (Tom Brady sits at 207). No kicker has more postseason appearances (32 games), points (238) or field goals (56).

Vinatieri briefly considered whether 2018 would be his final season, but quickly re-upped.

“I’m super, super pumped to come back for another year and continue the journey with this team for another year,’’ he said. “It’s pretty awesome.’’

Chris Ballard never really questioned the merits of retaining Vinatieri.

“You keep waiting for the shoe to fall, and it doesn’t because he works,’’ he said. “He’s such a pro. He’s such an impact. His presence on the team is valuable.’’

As much as Vinatieri has accomplished, he must rebound from what was an awful ending to 2018. In the Colts’ 31-13 second-round playoff loss at Kansas City, he clanked a 23-yard field goal off the left upright at the end of the first half and pushed a PAT wide right late in the fourth quarter. The 23-yarder was the shortest miss of his career while the errant PAT was the first miss after 70 hits in the postseason.

“It was a tough day,’’ Vinatieri said. “The field was in pretty tough shape. I have to do better. I can’t miss a kick and give them momentum back. Points are a premium, especially in the playoffs.

“Just didn’t get it done.’’

The Colts clearly believe Vinatieri still can get it done.

Over the last five seasons, he’s converted 134-of-150 attempts (89.3 percent), including 23-of-29 (79.3 percent) on attempts of at least 50 yards. However, his percentage has been on a slow decline since his career-best and NFL-leading 96.8 in 2014: 92.6, 87.1, 85.3, 85.2.

The individual numbers aside, Vinatieri primarily is driven by adding a fifth world championship to his resume.

“I just want to see how far we can go this year,’’ he said. “It’s the whole reason I wanted to come back this year, to kind of start off where we left off last year and see how far we can go.

“I don’t think I have ever really been selfish about my own records and goals. They just kind of happen if you are around long enough and if you do your job.’’

More from Rigo: It hasn’t been that long ago we all were wondering how the Colts would fill the enormous shoes of Pat McAfee. The two-time Pro Bowl punter abruptly retired after the 2016 season, at age 29 and after eight stellar seasons.

The initial plan was for free-agent Jeff Locke to succeed McAfee, but his two-year, $3.45 million contract wasn’t worth the paper it was written on (other than the $1.25 million in guarantees). He was cut, and the punting responsibilities were handed to an undrafted rookie out of Hawaii.

Rigoberto Sanchez.

“It’s been a crazy journey, man,’’ he said. “It’s just been a big blessing to come in here an undrafted guy, work your tail off and then get rewarded.’’

The reward was a four-year extension in June worth $11.6 million that included $5 million in guarantees. The Colts have their punter locked up through 2023.

“It shows a lot of character from the Colts organization,’’ Sanchez said. “They take care of their guys when you take care of them on the field and off the field.’’

Sanchez hasn’t wilted while facing the pressure of replacing the iconic McAfee. Although it’s a small sample size, Sanchez’s 45.3 career average would rank second in team history to McAfee’s 46.4. His 46.1 averaged ranked 8th in the league a year ago, but his 42.7 net ranked 3rd. He dropped 24 of his 57 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, and suffered only five touchbacks.

In large part because of Sanchez’s expertise, the Colts’ punt coverage allowed a league-low 4.4 yards per return and 93 yards overall, third-fewest.

Who’s returning?: We’re not going to spend much time on this because it’s so up in the air. Chester Rogers and Zach Pascal were the main men last season, but Rogers’ role as punt returner should be challenged by rookie Parris Campbell. The coaching staff will be creative in getting “touches’’ for Campbell, and that includes punt returns if the second-round pick shows promise.

Worth noting: This is a stat that probably only impresses us. Since 1984, the Colts have had five primary kickers and five primary punters. Teams seem to have little patience with either position, which leads to a revolving-door approach. No so in Indy.

The short list of kickers: Vinatieri (2006-present), Mike Vanderjagt (1998-2005), Cary Blanchard (1995-97), Dean Biasucci (1984, 1986-94) and Raul Allegre. The punters: Sanchez (2017-present), McAfee (2009-16), Hunter Smith (1999-2008), Chris Gardocki (1995-98) and Rohn Stark (1984-94).

The Colts also have had continuity at long-snapper. Their primary snappers since 1994: Brad Banta (1994-99), Justin Snow (2000-11), Matt Overton (2012-16) and Rhodes.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

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