WESTFIELD, Ind. – This isn’t part of rookie hazing which routinely insists the newbies at training camp be at the beck and call of the veterans. It’s not making sure certain donuts are available for positional meetings or carrying helmets and pads after practice.
Let’s call it what it is: A rookie initiation for Alec Pierce and Bernhard Raimann. Or a baptism under fire.
Watch most team sessions at Grand Park Sports Campus, and Pierce is being shadowed – OK, pressured, harassed, hounded – by cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
It’s the Indianapolis Colts’ first pick in the April draft – round 2, 53rd overall – versus the NFL’s 2019 Defensive Player of the Year.
And take time to wander down to pass-rush drills – offensive line versus d-line – and you’ll notice Raimann often lined up opposite Yannick Ngakoue.
That would be one of the Colts’ three 3rd-round picks – 77th overall – dealing with a veteran edge rusher who’s one of three players in the league with at least 8 sacks in each of their last six seasons. The other two: Aaron Donald and Von Miller.
“It’s been a lot of fun,’’ Raimann said following a 90-minute Wednesday practice that unfolded under bright skies and searing temperatures. “Every single day, every single rep is a challenge. You either rise to the challenge or you crumble.
“Every day’s a learning experience.’’
Through the first two weeks of camp, Raimann has been allowed to focus on left tackle – behind projected starter Matt Pryor – while also being given reps at guard in case his versatility is required at some point during the season.
One of the most telling drills is when the tackles are paired against the edge pass rushers. That’s when Raimann frequently has had to deal with Ngakoue.
“It’s a huge honor to go against one of the elite pass rushers in the league, and getting to compete against him every single day is incredible,’’ Raimann said. “Sometimes he gets the best of us, but that just makes us better as pass protectors and gets us ready for the season.’’
Ngakoue’s speed has been on display every day, and he brings a deep reservoir of pass-rush moves to Gus Bradley’s defense. It’s a package that has generated 55.5 sacks in 95 regular-season games.
“He’s very versatile,’’ Raimann said. “Like from an outside speed rush into a spin or a speed-to-power move. He has everything in his pocket, so it’s really a huge honor to go against him.’’
A few days ago, Frank Reich was talking with Pryor, who’s also getting extensive work against Ngakoue. He stressed the importance of high-level competition, whether it’s a veteran such as Pryor or a rookie.
“That’s what it’s all about,’’ Reich said. “That’s what we want. That’s what we’re trying to develop in this camp, to really challenge each other in our one-on-one matchups.
“That’s critical to the development, not only of the player but of the team. It develops a mentality when you get that going across the board. That’s the atmosphere we’re trying to create.’’
And that’s the situation Pierce faces every day.
For the Matt Ryan-led passing game to operate at a high level, Pierce must experience an accelerated learning curve over the next several weeks. Going against Gilmore on a regular basis is part of that process.
“They’ve lined up across a lot from each other, which is what you want, right?’’ Reich said. “That’s a great way for (Pierce) to develop, to go up against a guy who’s been the Defensive Player of the Year.’’
Pierce is no stranger to running routes versus an elite cornerback. At Cincinnati, he routinely dealt with Sauce Gardner, selected 4th overall by the New York Jets.
“Now he goes up against one of the best NFL players,’’ Reich said. “So, that’s really good for Alec.’’
Pierce has spent ample time with the Ryan-led starting unit and looks the part of starting wideout. He’s shown solid hands, even though he did drop one deep pass from Nick Foles early in camp, and crisp route running.
Dealing with Gilmore has been invaluable.
“It’s been great,’’ Pierce said. “A lot of times he knows the route I’m running before I’ve even run the route just like off the splits and how I’m stemming and stuff like that. That’s why I try to pick his brain, see what he’s seeing.
“Yeah, it’s wild. It’s crazy how smart he is as a player.’’
Who has won most of the head-to-head battles?
“I haven’t been keeping track,’’ Pierce said. “Hopefully I win some more. I think he’s gotten me in a couple of one-on-ones.
“Stephon is super smart and super skilled and super savvy.’’
Pierce also still is working on his chemistry with Ryan. On one play Wednesday, Pierce ran a crossing route and Ryan’s pass sailed well behind him.
“We’ve got to go check on the film and see if I didn’t get the right depth or whatever,’’ Pierce said. “He threw it in a different spot than where I was.
“Definitely got to work on that, but that’s what training camp is for, to get out here and work on your timing. We’re all new on that, not just me.’’
Mixing it up
Maybe it was the heat or maybe it was just Michael Pittman Jr. being Michael Pittman Jr.
The Colts experienced their first dust-up of camp when Pittman and safety Rodney McLeod had to be separated. Several fists flew before order was restored.
Pittman is the Colts’ unquestioned top receiver, and part of his game is predicated on being physical and aggressive, and playing with an edge.
“We definitely encourage playing with an edge,’’ Reich said. “That’s part of what makes Pitt, Pitt.
“But we don’t want to cross that line, especially with our own teammates. We don’t want to hurt our team. So, those are things that we just deal with as they come up, and our guys are pretty mature and know how to handle that stuff.’’
Pittman was ejected from the Colts’ week 15 win over New England following an altercation with Patriots’ safety Kyle Dugger, who also was ejected. However, things escalated when linebacker Kyle Van Noy pushed Pittman from behind.
Reich has singled out wideout Ashton Dulin on more than one occasion since training camp opened.
Wednesday, Dulin gave his coach something else to talk about. On one play, he streaked down the right side against cornerback Isaiah Rodgers. Dulin adjusted to Nick Foles’ pass, elevated and took it away from Rodgers. Rodgers was engulfed by other receivers after the acrobatic catch.
“He’s a dynamic player,’’ Reich said. “He is strong. He can do it all.’’
Shaquille Leonard remains on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) following back surgery in June. He’s on hand for every practice and has repeatedly offered encouragement to his teammates.
But there’s no target date for his return.
“He is doing great,’’ Reich said. “He has really been into it out on the field, staying locked into what we are doing schematically.
“I know he is continuing good rehab, having progress. I don’t think (his return) is imminent, but I think he is making progress.’’
Second-year tight end Kylen Granson is in the midst of a quiet camp, but offered a highlight Wednesday when he lined up in the backfield.
“Did you see we put him at fullback one time, and he busted that one up the middle?’’ Reich said with a laugh. “He’s going to be out of control now.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not putting you at tailback.’ That was just kind of a whim. We did that just for fun.’’
Reich insisted Granson is having a good camp, and Wednesday might have been his best day. He caught at least three passes in 11-on-11 drills.
Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.