INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – An offseason of major change ramps up July 29 when the Indianapolis Colts report to their Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center for the start of training camp.
Over the next several days, we’ll take a positional look at how general manager Chris Ballard has structured the roster. Is the team equipped to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 or will it miss the postseason in three consecutive seasons for the first time in more than two decades (1988-94)?
Today: Tight ends.
Starters: Jack Doyle, Erik Swoope.
Others: Brandon Williams, Darrell Daniels, Mo Alie-Cox, Colin Jeter.
What’s next for Swoope?:
The transformation is complete. Let’s quit hyping Swoope as that one-time power forward for the University of Miami basketball team who’s trying his hand at another sport. He’s an NFL tight end. Period.
“He’s going to be huge for us,’’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. “You always look to, when you’re expecting big things out of guys, is ‘What are they made of? Who are they?’ With Erik, I’ve seen him every step along the way go from not even knowing what the positions were called on defense to where he’s been able to get playing and succeeding in NFL games.
“He’s going to find a way and figure out a way to be successful. He’s got the ability to do it. Obviously, there are still a lot of things he’s never encountered on the field when they happen to him so it’s still a little bit of some on-the-job training, but I have all the faith in the world in Erik.’’
The transition has been gradual: undrafted rookie on the practice squad in 2014, practice squad for 15 games and active for the season finale against Tennessee in ’15 (six total snaps against the Titans), 16-game contributor last season.
Now, in year 4, Swoope should anticipate a role that’s significantly expanded. That was virtually assured in March when Ballard traded veteran Dwayne Allen and the remainder of his $29.4 million contract to New England.
At the risk of placing too much pressure on Swoope’s 6-5, 258-pound frame, how he handles that role will impact the diversity of Chudzinski’s offense. It makes liberal use of two tight ends, if there are two viable tight ends.
Doyle is the known. He’s consistent, reliable. He has emerged as one of Andrew Luck’s security blankets.
Swoope? We don’t really know how high his ceiling might be. We’ve always compared him to Marcus Pollard, who made the transition from power forward at Bradley to one of the most productive tight ends in Colts’ history.
It remains to be seen if Swoope can establish himself as a legitimate blocker in pass protection and the run game, but no one should question his ability to contribute in the passing game. He finished with 15 catches for 297 yards and one touchdown last season, and gave every indication he represents an intriguing down-the-field threat. Four of his catches gained at least 30 yards and his 19.8 per-catch average ranked third in the league among players with at least 15 catches.
“Every day, every route, every catch, every rep of anything gives me more confidence because I can see the development and it builds trust in my own mind,’’ Swoope said. “At the end of the day you’ve got to be able to believe in yourself to make plays and prove it to your teammates as well.
“I’m just expecting they’re going to want to see a lot from me and I’m just going to make sure I’m prepared.’’
More from Doyle?:
Speaking of expanded roles, we give you Jack Doyle. He was the unassuming No. 3 tight end behind Allen and Coby Fleener from 2013-15 before moving up to No. 2 last season when Fleener rode free agency to New Orleans. The day before Allen was shipped to New England, his status within the organization was crystalized with a three-year, $19 million contract.
Doyle insisted nothing has changed, other than the size of his bank account.
“I was thankful (the Colts) wanted me back,’’ he said. “It’s definitely cool.’’
There’s no chance the big contract goes to Doyle’s head. He’s as grounded as it gets.
But it’s fair to wonder how he’ll handle the promotion and increased responsibilities as the No. 1 tight end. No longer is he the blue-collar complementary guy. Now, he’s the guy.
Doyle earned his big payday with a stellar 2016 and by becoming one of Luck’s most trusted receiving options. Luck had a 110.2 passer rating and completed 78.6 percent of his attempts when targeting Doyle, and found Doyle with go-ahead touchdown passes in the closing seconds against Tennessee and Jacksonville. A third potential game-winner against Detroit in the season opener was wiped out when the defense failed to protect the 2-point lead in the final 37 seconds.
If Doyle is able to settle in at No. 1 and Swoope continues his career progression, depth must emerge from a handful of first-time Colts. Williams has just six receptions while appearing in 45 games in four seasons with Seattle, Miami and Carolina. Daniels, Alie-Cox and Jeter are rookies, and Alie-Cox is the latest to trade in his basketball garb for a football helmet. He was a four-year hoops standout at Virginia Commonwealth.
Timing is everything and Doyle picked the perfect time to produce the best season of his four-year career. With unrestricted free agency looming, he posted 59 receptions, 584 yards and five touchdowns last season. Those stats exceeded his totals from his first three seasons: 35 catches, 209 yards, three TDs.