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 July 24 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: Tight ends
- Starters: Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle
- Backups: Mo Alie-Cox, Ross Travis, Gabe Holmes, Hale Hentges
Encore, encore: The overriding question – challenge, in fact – following Eric Ebron’s breakout 2018 season? Is there more? Can he manufacture a suitable encore?
Chis Ballard and Frank Reich believed Ebron would represent a solid component in Reich’s newly-installed offense, and brought him to Indy last offseason with a two-year, contract worth $15 million. But no one envisioned Ebron being the force he proved to be: 66 receptions, 750 yards and 13 receiving touchdowns and one rushing TD. All were career highs following four lackluster seasons with Detroit. The receiving TDs surpassed his 56-game output with the Lions. They not only set a Colts record for a tight end, but only Hall of Famers Marvin Harrison (15 twice, 14 once) and Raymond Berry (14) generated more in a season.
Ebron earned his first Pro Bowl selection.
“Yeah, it’s crazy how the year Eric had last year, right?’’ Reich said. “I mean it was an epic year. Obviously we hope for big things again from Eric and we’re counting on him in a big way, but what you learn over the years is you just never know.
“Obviously we will continue to feature Eric the way that we did last year, but we do have a lot of weapons. Andrew is going to spread the ball around.’’
So many weapons in a passing attack that ranked No. 6 a year ago: T.Y. Hilton, Devin Funchess, Jack Doyle, Nyheim Hines, rookie Parris Campbell, Chester Rogers.
Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni are among the NFL’s best at maximizing tight ends. They probe for mismatches and strike when they find a favorable one. Often in 2018, that was the 6-4, 253-pound Ebron. That was especially true as Andrew Luck drove the offense inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Ebron had 10 catches for 108 yards and 10 of his TDs in the red zone. The red-zone TDs were tops among tight ends.
Ebron’s motivation moving forward is twofold. One, prove 2018 wasn’t an aberration. Two, prove he’s worth a second contract with the Colts. Ebron will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and understands what’s at stake.
“I know if I duplicate what I did last year, we’re gonna be alright. You know?’’ said Ebron, who underwent offseason groin surgery. “Might send my kids to private school even though I don’t want to. I know we’ll be alright.
“But that’s not necessarily what I think about. I just know if I go out there and produce, everything handles itself. I was in a place where I didn’t even know if I was going to get picked up or anything like that. I thought I had tarnished my image coming out of college. But now it’s a different story for me. I’ve just got to continue to elevate that.’’
Jack’s back: First the good news: Jack Doyle expects to be ready for the start of camp after dealing with hip and kidney injuries last season. Now the really good news: the Colts should benefit from having Doyle and Ebron, a pair of Pro Bowlers, on the field for more than six games.
While Ebron was the unexpected darling of the offense in ’18, Doyle eventually was the forgotten man. He suffered a hip injury in week 2 at Washington that forced him to miss five games, then sustained a kidney injury in week 12 against Miami that sent him to the injured reserve list. Both injuries required surgery.
Doyle revealed he’s completely recovered from the kidney issue. His rehab from hip surgery had progressed to the point he was running routes during the veteran minicamp in mid-June.
“Happy with the progress I’m making,’’ he said. “Just slowly coming along, but it’s going in the right direction.’’
An Ebron-Doyle tandem would represent double trouble for defenses. Ebron not only is a serious red-zone threat, but possesses the speed to get deep. Doyle is the much better blocker and something of a security blanket in the passing game. He has emerged as one of Luck’s go-to options in third-and-medium situations. In 2017, Doyle earned his first Pro Bowl selection on the strength of 80 receptions. That was a career-high and the second-fattest total in team history by a tight end.
“His presence and him leading by example is really where Jack shines,’’ Sirianni said. “That’s good to get that back.’’
As is the case with Ebron, Doyle has ample individual motivation in returning to form. The Cathedral High School product also will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of ’19.
“Me and Jack’s bond is ridiculous, and it’s crazy how our lives are planned out,’’ Ebron said. “I feel like when he’s healthy and you guys finally get to see what we were supposed to do, I think that’s going to change a lot.’’
It’s also going to be interesting to follow the continued development of Mo Alie-Cox. The former standout basketball player at Virginia Commonwealth took another step on his football learning curve last season with 7 catches, 133 yards and two TDs. His one-handed TD grab against Oakland was serious highlight material.
Worth noting: Ebron clearly is a numbers guy. While he took great satisfaction from his 13 receiving TDs last season – a team record for a tight end – he understood they fell short on the grander scale.
“I believe Gronk (Rob Gronkowski) still holds the record for the most touchdowns, with is 17,’’ Ebron said. “So if I want to do anything that is going to be real spectacular or anything that is going to be really good, I’ve got to go get 17.’’
For perspective, Ebron’s 13 touchdowns are tied for the third-most in NFL history by a tight end. Gronk piled up 17 with the Patriots in 2011 and Jimmy Graham had 16 for New Orleans in 2013. He’s in position to become just the fifth tight end in league history to post double-digit TD totals in consecutive seasons, and would join Gronk, Graham, Julius Thomas and Antonio Gates.
Ebron also is position to join an elite Colts club. Only two players have posted at least 10 TDs in back-to-back seasons: Harrison and Berry.
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