INDIANAPOLIS – Let’s not forget what got us to this point.
And by that, we mean to the Indianapolis Colts’ 90-player roster that has been molded and driven by two intertwined objectives:
- Erase the memory of an unsatisfactory 2019.
- Return the franchise to prominence.
Remember Chris Ballard’s scathing recap of last season?
“This season’s going to be remembered for being a 7-9 season, and that’s a stain that does not easily wash away,’’ he said. “We’re disappointed organizationally where we’re at. And all of that . . . starts with me. When we don’t succeed and we don’t meet expectations, that directly falls on my shoulders.
“It’s our job to fix it . . . you’ve got to find answers to the problems.’’
Ballard, Frank Reich and their support staff have spent the last five months doing precisely that. They were aware ownership and the fan base weren’t happy with missing the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, or posting a losing record in two of the last three years.
Initially, the coaching staff assessed every player, every game. They considered the strengths and weaknesses. They came up with a list of offseason priorities.
“As you look at what we were prioritizing, we accomplished a lot of what we wanted to accomplish,’’ Reich said during a Tuesday Zoom conference call.
The Colts used every tool at their disposal: re-signing their own (Anthony Castonzo), free agency (Philip Rivers, Xavier Rhodes, etc.), a trade (DeForest Buckner), the draft (most notably Michael Pittman Jr. and Jonathan Taylor) and signing rookies after the draft (a collection of 10).
Over the weekend, Reich texted Ballard, commending him for his “very measured, very calculated’’ approach.
“Didn’t reach, let the game come to us,’’ Reich said. “I think he just pulled it off really well.’’
Has it worked? Is the franchise in position to contend for its first AFC South championship since 2014, and perhaps more?
Reich is having trouble keeping his optimism in check.
“I think Colts fans should be really excited right now,’’ he said. “I know you don’t want to get over-hyped. You’d rather under-promise and over-deliver, but I’m excited. I think Colts Nation should be excited.
“This roster is a good roster; good players, good talent.’’
Here’s a breakdown of the roster that consists of 30 players with the team for the first time, including 19 rookies. Listed are the number of players at each position and the number that might be kept when rosters are trimmed to 53 (* denotes a rookie):
Quarterback (4/3): Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, Chad Kelly, Jacob Eason*
Comment: We hate to harp on this, but so much of the offseason roster renovation hinges on whether the Colts are getting the 2018 version of Rivers (32 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, a 105.5 passer rating) or the ’19 version (23, 20, 88.5). He won’t be asked to carry the load, but he’s got to do his part with a calculated aggression. If all goes as planned, we expect Rivers to return for 2021. Eason’s rookie season needs to be an invaluable learning process.
The more interaction Reich has had with Rivers, the more convinced he is that Rivers will prove worthy of the one-year, $25 million contract.
“I know we’ve still got to play games and that stuff and that’s the exciting part,’’ Reich said. “But the further we get into this process with Philip, the more I’m convinced that was the right move for us. This guy is an elite quarterback. I just think the roster was right, the time was right and the opportunity was there.’’
Running back (6/3): Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins, Jonathan Taylor*, Bruce Anderson III, Darius Jackson.
Comment: The NFL’s No. 7-ranked rushing attack clearly got better. It’s going to be interesting to see how Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni divvy up the carries. Mack is young (24) and ascending. Taylor is younger (21) and brings big-play skills.
Fullback (1/1): Rosie Nix.
Comment: The team might break its own mold and carry a true fullback, but Nix’s true worth might emerge on special teams.
Wide receiver: (13/6): T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, Zach Pascal, Michael Pittman Jr.*, Dezmon Patmon*, Marcus Johnson, Reece Fountain, Ashton Duhlin, Chad Williams, Artvais Scott, Rodney Adams, DeMichael Harris*, Malik Henry.
Comment: Hilton and Campbell are motivated to rebound from a season marred by injuries. Did we mention Hilton is heading into the final year of his contract? If he doesn’t get an extension during the offseason, he’ll do everything within his power to prove he deserves one during the season. The Colts routinely move their receivers around, but the arrival of Pittman as a legitimate outside threat might result in Campbell seeing more action out of the slot. Everyone is eager to see what a healthy Campbell brings to the offense.
Tight end (7/3): Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox, Trey Burton, Farrod Green*, Ian Bunting, Xavier Grimble, Matt Lendel.
Comment: This is probably the one area that concerns us the most, especially considering how Reich and Sirianni utilize tight ends. Doyle is the given. The only thing missing from his game is the ability to stretch the field (a 9-yard average on 243 career receptions). Burton, one of Ballard’s “lesser’’ free-agent acquisitions, brings more of that to the offense. He averaged 10.8 yards with five TDs with Philadelphia – and Reich – in 2017 during the Eagles’ Super Bowl season. Burton is on the mend from offseason hip surgery.
Offensive line (15/9): T Anthony Castonzo, G Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, G Mark Glowinski, T Braden Smith, OT Le’Raven Clark, G Jake Eldrenkamp, G Danny Pinter*, T Carter O’Donnell*, G Javon Patterson, T Travis Vornkahl, T Cedric Lang, T Chaz Green, T Brandon Hitner, T Andrew Donnal.
Comment: This group’s pedigree was on full display last season. The same five started all 16 games for the first time since 2000, and performed at a high level. Kelly joined Nelson at the Pro Bowl and Castonzo probably should have made it a threesome. His consolation was a two-year, $33 million extension when he opted to return rather than retire. The overriding issue is proven depth. Fifth-round pick Danny Pinter is expected to shore up the interior depth along with returnee Jake Eldrenkamp. Le’Raven Clark should be the backup swing tackle.
Line (14/9): E Justin Houston, T DeForest Buckner, T Denico Autry, E Kemoko Turay, T Grover Stewart, T Sheldon Day, T/E Tyquan Lewis, E Al-Quadin Muhammad, E Ben Banogu, T Robert Windsor*, E Kendall Coleman*, T Iseoluwapo Jegede, T Kameron Cline*, T Chris Williams*.
Comment: This might be the deepest position on the roster, and everyone should benefit from the arrival of Buckner. He’s the type of player who elevates the performance of those around him. When the possibility of acquiring him in a trade with San Francisco arose, the Colts didn’t hesitate. Ballard then signed Buckner to a four-year extension worth $21 million per season.
“It was the key need for our defense, the pivotal position, that 3-technique,’’ Reich said. “He’s got Colts character on and off the field.’’
Linebacker (10/6): Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, Bobby Okereke, Gerri Green, Matthew Adams, Zaire Franklin, Skai Moore, E.J Speed, Brandon Wellington*, Jordan Glasgow*.
Comment: Another deep position. The prevailing question is whether there’s another level to Leonard’s game. He’s already established himself as one of the NFL’s rising defensive stars. He’s driven to be the best. Also, Walker is emerging as a solid Mike and heading into a contract year, and Okereke is poised to build on what was a solid rookie season.
Cornerback (10/6): Kenny Moore II, Xavier Rhodes, Rock Ya-Sin, Marvell Tell III, T.J. Carrie, Isaiah Rodgers*, Jackson Porter, Picasso Nelson Jr., Lafayette Pitts, Travis Reed*.
Comment: The most significant move was to release Pierre Desir and fill his void with Rhodes. The latter admittedly is coming off a couple of subpar seasons, but the coaching staff believes the physical, aggressive Rhodes will recapture his Pro Bowl form. We’re eager to see if Ya-Sin takes that big leap from year 1 to year 2, and whether coordinator Matt Eberflus once again is able to maximize Moore’s versatile skills at nickel.
Safety (6/4): Malik Hooker, Khari Willis, George Odom, Julian Blackmon*, Rolan Milligan, Donald Rutledge*.
Comment: If Hooker needed additional motivation heading into his fourth season he got it when the team declined to pick up his fifth-year option. He’ll be a free agent at the end of the season. Talent has never been an issue with the 2017 first-round draft pick. It’s all been about his ability to stay on the field.
Kicker (2/1): Chase McLaughlin, Rodrigo Blankenship*.
McLaughlin should be the front-runner after converting 5-of-6 field-goal attempts and all 11 PATs after Adam Vinatieri went on IR in December, but let’s not discount Blankenship. He converted 80-of-97 field-goal attempts (82.5 percent) and all 200 PATs at Georgia. He was recipient of the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top placekicker. His rookie contract also includes $20,000 in guarantees, which shows some level of confidence from the team.
Might the Colts go with a Rodrigo/Rigo kicking tandem?
Punter (1/1): Rigoberto Sanchez
Long-snapper (1/1): Luke Rhodes
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.