Areas of interest as Colts open camp? There are a few, starting with Andrew Luck

Andrew Luck

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The previous four months have laid the groundwork for what’s to come.

And what’s that? What should be one of the most competitive training camps the Indianapolis Colts have endured in recent memory, that’s what.

Chris Ballard and his personnel staff, in close concert with Frank Reich and his coaching staff, have put together a 90-player roster that features few, if any, glaring holes. The one that stands out to us – OK, maybe we’re nit-picking – is who’s the backup left tackle if Anthony Castonzo goes down? Le’Raven Clark? Joe Haeg? Rookie Jackson Barton?

We’d argue this has the potential to be the best top-to-bottom group when rosters are cut to 53 since the 2009 Colts reached the Super Bowl. Again, no glaring holes.

Questions to be answered? Of course. But Reich heads into his second training camp as head coach and the Colts prepare for their second summer at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield with few Oh-my-gosh! personnel issues.

Listen to Reich.

“We are just trying to create as much competition as we can at each position, we really are,’’ he said during the offseason. “It will play itself out. And sure, there are guys who are established that are leading in those positions and they have earned that right.

“(But) we are always going to play the best guys. Everybody on the team wants that and in this league we all know that. Chris has done an amazing job of continuing to build the roster and make this thing really competitive. Everyone here knows it’s going to be harder to make this team this year than it was last year.

“That’s a good thing for us.’’

That in mind, here are a few areas of interest as the Colts set up camp in Westfield Wednesday.

Luck, of course: For as long as Andrew Luck wears No. 12, everything starts with him. Here’s where we remind you how Indy has fared in the four seasons he hasn’t had to deal with right shoulder issues: 11-5, 11-5, 11-5, 10-6; four playoff appearances, at least one win in three of those appearances and a trip to the 2014 AFC championship game.

He drives everything.

The only issue surrounding Luck is the calf injury that forced him to miss the entirety of the offseason. We’ll take a sore calf over a surgically-repaired right shoulder eight days a week. Luck and Reich insisted the four-time Pro Bowl QB will be ready when training camp opens Wednesday. We’ll take them at their word.

Once practice starts Thursday, it’s imperative for Luck to make up for lost time with his collection of options in the passing game. That starts with free-agent Devin Funchess and second-round draft pick Parris Campbell. As we witnessed last summer when Luck also was an offseason spectator, it doesn’t take him long to reconnect with T.Y. Hilton.

It’s worth noting Luck got his act together after missing the 2018 offseason. After a slow start, he regained his arm strength and confidence and generated one of his most efficient, productive years: 4,593 yards, 39 touchdowns, a 98.7 passer rating and 67.3 completion percentage.

Ready to go?: We received an early medical update Monday when the team placed wideout Reece Fountain on the non-football injury list and defensive end Carroll Phillips on the physically unable to perform list. Each counts against the 90-player roster, but can’t practice until he’s cleared.

Aside from Luck, we’re most interested in the status of tight end Jack Doyle (hip and kidney), Leonard (ankle surgery), Clayton Geathers (knee surgery) and second-year wideout Deon Cain (knee surgery).

Doyle was upbeat when he chatted with the media during the offseason and he was running routes with the rehab staff at the end of the mid-June minicamp. But hip injuries can be troublesome to deal with moving forward; Doyle admitted he’ll be in rehab mode all season. His return to 100 percent – or close to it – would do wonders for Reich’s offense.

We fully expect Leonard to be full-go when practice opens Thursday, but how might the Colts handle Geathers’ workload? It also will be interesting to watch Cain’s return from the torn ACL. He was one of the bright stars last summer.

New faces: Maybe the Colts have finally solved a pair of persistent personnel issues. Maybe Funchess is the answer after the free-agent misses of Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hakeem Nicks, Andre Johnson, Kamar Aiken and Ryan Grant (Donnie Avery was a hit in 2012). Maybe Justin Houston finally is the newcomer who actually injects singular life into the pass rush after so many – Jerry Hughes, Bjoern Werner and Tarell Basham come to mind – were unable to deliver.

Funchess relocated to Indy with hefty incentive: a one-year deal that could be worth as much as $13 million. He hardly was a bust in four seasons in Carolina – 2,233 yards and 21 TDs in 61 games – but neither did he live up to the expectations of being a 2015 second-round pick. Last year, Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni helped tight end Eric Ebron emerge after four lackluster seasons in Detroit. Let’s see if they can do it again.

As for Houston, no one expects him to be the sack savior. He’s 30 and entering his ninth season. But the hope is for him to be a defensive presence, someone opposing offensive coordinators must spent time game-planning for. An ideal season would be for Houston to get his 10-11 sacks and a slew of hurries/pressures/hits, and contribute to the rest of the front-7 getting advantageous pass-rush situations.

The key to a top-10 defense is a relentless pass rush.

New faces, Youth Division: Ballard and his staff earned national praise last season, in large part for their handling of the draft. Two first-team All-Pros (Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard), a likely long-term answer at right tackle (Braden Smith), a multi-dimensional running back (Nyheim Hines), and five others who started at some point (running back Jordan Wilkins, defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis, linebackers Matthew Adams and Zaire Franklin, and defensive end Kemoko Turay).

The Colts led the NFL in percentage of offensive/defensive snaps handled by rookies (22 percent). Baltimore was next, at 13 percent.

It’s hard to imagine the Class of 2019 measuring up, but there’s so much to like.

Reich’s eyes light up when he considers the versatility and big-play potential of Campbell, and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus conceded he was beyond happy when Ballard used seven of his first eight draft picks on defensive talent. Rock Ya-Sin should push Quincy Wilson for playing (starting?) time at corner. Ben Banogu began his offseason work at SAM linebacker but finished it as a pass-rushing end. Bobby Okereke should press one of the incumbent ‘backers (Anthony Walker perhaps?) for playing time and Khari Willis represents a versatile safety.

The entire draft class looked solid during the offseason. But everything is amped up when the pads come on in Westfield.

Continuity prevails: In the nomadic NFL, the Colts are something of an outlier. They return 21 of 22 starters from a team that won 9 of its final 10 regular-season games to earn a wild-card playoff berth and dominated the Texans in Houston in the first round before melting down at Kansas City.

Ballard ensured that continuity by re-signing Adam Vinatieri, Pierre Desir, Clayton Geathers, Mark Glowinski, Margus Hunt and Luke Rhodes.

But again, camp competition will determine who plays where, and how much.

One bit of trivia to keep in mind: the Colts have had at least one undrafted rookie make the opening-day 53-player roster for 20 straight years. That’s the longest streak in the NFL.

This year’s group of wannabes includes wideouts Penny Hart and Ashton Dulin, defensive tackle Sterling Shippy, cornerback Shakial Taylor, tight end Hale Hentges and linebacker Tre Thomas.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

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