INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The storyline can flip, dramatically.
Sunday, Deon Cain heads into his second NFL game and might experience his first NFL start against the Tennessee Titans. The loss of wideout Devin Funchess for at least eight weeks with a broken left clavicle likely pushes him up the Indianapolis Colts’ depth chart.
Twelve months ago, Cain was on crutches. The 2018 sixth-round draft pick saw an electric rookie preseason end Aug. 9 in Seattle when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Rehab was long, grueling.
But ultimately successful.
“Big, better, faster,’’ Cain said Friday. “It’s a blessing to be in this position – healthy and ready to get out there and play with my teammates.’’
The first step in Cain’s comeback occurred in the season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. In a rarity, the Colts kept all six receivers active for the game, and each contributed to varying degrees.
T.Y. Hilton was the busiest, participating in 56 of 63 offensive snaps. Cain was the least used (11 reps). The others: Funchess (36), Chester Rogers (25), Zach Pascal (22) and Parris Campbell (11).
That should change, perhaps dramatically, in the aftermath of Funchess’ injury.
“I think I did pretty decent,’’ Cain said of his NFL debut.
He was targeted twice by Jacoby Brissett and finished with two catches and 35 yards. A 10-yarder in the first quarter and 25-yarder in the second quarter resulted in first downs.
“Now, my role’s getting bigger,’’ Cain said.
Frank Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni require their receivers to know all of the positions, and are adept at moving Hilton around in the formation to maximize his skills and big-play ability.
However, Funchess primarily was pegged as an outside bookend to Hilton. That role now rests with Cain. Rogers and Campbell generally work out of the slot.
Funchess brought a physical presence to the passing game. He’s 6-4, 225 pounds, and that size was instrumental in one of the key plays against the Chargers in the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-3 on what was the game-tying drive, Funchess used his size to shield off rookie corner Brandon Facyson (6-2, 197) for a chains-moving 8-yard reception.
Cain can’t match Funchess’ size, but neither is he a Smurf at 6-2, 202.
“We like Deon for a lot of the same reasons that we like Funch,’’ Reich said. “Yeah, they are different types of receivers, but Deon we feel like is a big-play receiver.
“He has that in his game and I just think this is a great opportunity for him. But you know how we roll on offense. We will mix it up with some of the other guys as well.’’
Cain flashed those big-play traits at training camp last summer before suffering the season-ending knee injury. He had surgery at the end of August and got around on crutches through most of September.
During the offseason, general manager Chris Ballard tempered expectations with Cain. He thought it might be October or November before Cain was in a position to really cut loose.
“He had experience with guys who had ACLs, so he just gave me a projectory,’’ Cain said. “I knew the work I was putting in with my trainers during the offseason.
“It was more just a confidence and mental thing for me. With me having the preseason and a few games under my belt, I feel confident now.’’
Cain’s preseason consisted of 12 catches for a team-high 169 yards (14.1) and one touchdown. He averaged 17.5 yards on his two catches against the Chargers.
The scar is a constant reminder of his knee surgery, but Cain insisted he doesn’t dwell on the injury.
“I know I had knee surgery,’’ he said, “but it doesn’t feel like it. I’m a year past it. I still have the maintenance I have to do with my rehab – I do keep up with that – but other than that, it’s nothing too big on my mind.’’
His focus is on Sunday, and the Titans.
“I’m looking to embrace this role and show my teammates and gain the respect of my teammates and the coaches, that I can be that next man up and hold my side of the field,’’ he said.
Defensive end Jabaal Sheard (knee) and running back Jonathan Williams (rib) have been ruled out of the Titans game. Defensive end Kemoko Turay (neck) missed his third practice this week and is doubtful.
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