INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield Tuesday for the start of training camp.
This is the final position-by-position look at a team that must rebound from its crushing loss in Jacksonville and return to a serious playoff contender.
Today: special teams.
Kickers: Rodrigo Blankenship, Jake Verity.
Punter: Rigoberto Sanchez.
Long-snapper: Luke Rhodes.
Kick returner: Isaiah Rodgers.
Punt returner: Nyheim Hines.
Prove it. Again
This will be familiar territory for Rodrigo Blankenship, and we’re not talking about Grand Park Sports Campus. We’re talking about having to earn a roster spot. That’s the situation facing Hot Rod for a third consecutive summer.
“There’s competition at every position on every team, every year, absolutely,” he said. “My mindset is I’ve got to earn the right to be here. It doesn’t matter what happened the year before or the game before. Every opportunity I have, I feel like I have to earn it.
“It’s going to feel like that every single year, regardless the situation . . . high school, college or the NFL. Regardless what year it is or what I did the year before, there is competition.”
After Adam Vinatieri’s erratic final season in 2019, the Colts staged a training camp competition between Blankenship, an undrafted rookie out of Georgia, and Chase McLaughlin, who finished up ’19 after Vinatieri went on injured reserve. Blankenship won a tight kicking derby, then set franchise rookie records with 139 points, 32 made field goals and 43 PATs.
Year 2 was a testament to Chris Ballard always seeking positional competition. He signed Eddy Pineiro, who kicked for the Chicago Bears in 2019, to push his incumbent kicker. Blankenship again prevailed, but his encore season ended when he suffered a hip injury during pregame warm-ups in week 5 at Baltimore. He was healthy enough to return four or five weeks later, but the team stuck with Michael Badgley.
Blankenship admitted it was difficult watching as Badgley kicked the rest of the season.
“I am a competitor and I want to be the guy that’s out there,” he said. “I want to be helping this team and doing whatever I can to contribute to our success on the field, but it just wasn’t the plan at the time and I just had to trust in the plan.”
Year 3? Earn it again, Hot Rod. In February, the team signed Jake Verity, who spent his rookie season working behind and learning from Justin Tucker in Baltimore.
The Colts’ reluctance to fully embrace Blankenship is understandable, even taking his rookie success into account.
At a time when kickers are routinely converting 88-95% of their attempts and knocking down 50-plus yarders with regularity, Blankenship has fallen short. He’s just 44-of-53 (83%) for his career, including the postseason. More damning, he’s 3-of-8 (37.5%) on attempts of 46 yards or longer, including 1-of-4 on 50-plus yard attempts.
“Personally I don’t think it’s a valid criticism but I understand why people criticize,” Blankenship said.
His career long is 53 yards against Houston as a rookie, but he hit the crossbar on a 50-yarder against Green Bay and left a 56-yarder against Jacksonville short. Last season, he pulled a 51-yard attempt wide left at Tennessee.
“I personally don’t think it’s an adequate criticism,’’ Blankenship said, “but I understand it to this point. I haven’t proven I’m capable of doing that. It’s something I’m going to be able . . . to change going forward.”
The attempt that might be most concerning was the 33-yarder Blankenship pulled wide left in the third quarter of the Colts’ 27-24 playoff loss at Buffalo in 2020. The hip injury at Baltimore impacted a 47-yarder at the end of regulation (he also had a 37-yard attempt blocked). He was wide left, and the Colts lost in overtime.
So, yes, prove it.
“Rod was our kicker last year, so in my mind, it’s Rod’s to (lose),” Frank Reich said. “But it’s an open competition. We’re going in like at every position, really.”
This much we know about Jake Verity. He’s East Carolina’s career scoring leader (352 points) after converting 74-of-98 field goals (75.5%) and missing only three of 133 PATs. One of his highlights at Bremen (Ga.) High School was nailing a 63-yard attempt. Verity signed with Baltimore as an undrafted rookie and spent the first 12 weeks of 2021 on the practice squad before going on IR with a hip injury.
His only NFL competition came during the 2021 preseason. Verity converted 4-of-5 field goal attempts, with a long of 53, and 6-of-7 PATs.
It should be noted the team is impressed with Verity’s leg strength.
Camp will sort things out, but the Colts possess two proven returners. Nyheim Hines has averaged 12.1 yards with a pair of TDs – who can forget his club record 195 yards and two TDs against Carolina in 2019? – on 62 career punt returns. Isaiah Rodgers has averaged 27.2 yards on 43 kickoff returns. He returned one for 101 yards and a TD against Cleveland as a rookie in 2020 and another for 72 yards against Tampa Bay last season.
By the numbers, Part I
Whether it’s Blankenship or Verity, the Colts absolutely, positively must get better efficiency and length from their kicking game. Including Vinatieri’s final season in 2019, their kickers have converted 80.6% (83-of-103) of their attempts. That’s the 6th-worse rate in the league over the past three seasons.
During that stretch, Colts’ kickers have converted just 3-of-10 attempts at 50-plus yards. For perspective, consider 15 kickers knocked down at least four 50-yard attempts last season. Cincinnati rookie Evan McPherson was 9-of-11 and Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell was 8-of-9.
By the numbers, Part II
Coordinator Bubba Ventrone’s influence is undeniable. Last season, coverage standout Ashton Dulin was named second-team All-Pro while long-snapper Luke Rhodes was first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowl selection. In 2020, Rhodes was second-team All-Pro and cover star George Odum first-team All-Pro.
As is usually the case on special teams, Ventrone must fill in some holes. Rhodes and Dulin return, but core special teamers Odum, Matthew Adams and Jordan Glasgow are gone.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.