INDIANAPOLIS – Mo Alie-Cox has been around long enough to grasp one of Chris Ballard’s core tenets.

“We always preach competition around here,’’ one of the longest-tenured Indianapolis Colts explained to the uninformed. “You’ve gotta look forward to it. Can’t get down. Just build each up along the way.’’

It’s applicable at every position. The NFL is and always will be a meritocracy.

That’s going to be especially true in the tight ends room.

“Super competitive,’’ Alie-Cox said.

He joined the Colts as an undrafted rookie out of Virginia Commonwealth in April 2017. Alie-Cox was eager to find out if his skills as a 6-5, 267-pound power forward could transition to an NFL tight end.

So far, so good. He’s heading into his sixth season and did enough in his first five to earn a three-year, $17.55 million extension in March 2022.

Only two players have been around longer: center Ryan Kelly and long-snapper Luke Rhodes, both added in 2016. Defensive tackle Grover Stewart, punter Rigoberto Sanchez and cornerback Kenny Moore II followed Alie-Cox’s arrival in ’17.

Alie-Cox was smart enough when he first stepped into the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center to realize he had a lot to learn. He gleaned as much as possible from Jack Doyle, who retired after 2021.

Now, he’s the proven vet in a crowded room.

Among the Colts offseason free-agent acquisitions were Pharaoh Brown and Kaden Smith. They added Miami product Will Mallory in the fifth round of the April draft.

That trio joins Alie-Cox, 2021 fourth-round pick Kylen Granson and ‘22 draft picks Jelani Woods (round 3) and Drew Ogletree (round 6). Woods made an instant impact and was the most productive tight end with 312 yards and three touchdowns on 25 catches. Ogletree missed his rookie season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in training camp.

That’s seven tight ends competing for three or four spots on the active roster; the 16-player practice squad awaits one or two who fail to make the final cut.

Ballard insisted Mallory was too good to pass up in April. In four years at Miami, the grandson of long-time IU coach Bill Mallory had 115 receptions, 1,544 yards and 14 TDs. He’s 6-4, 239 pounds and should compete with Granson as the hybrid tight end in Shane Steichen’s offense.

“We knew it was a good tight end draft,’’ Ballard said. “All of a sudden you look up and Mallory is there in the fifth round and Shane looked at me and said, ‘Chris, this guy is really good.’

“You never just want to pass up a good player. I mean, the kid’s got length, he can run. He’s been productive in college. He’s a really good fit for what we want. It’s just going to create real competition at the position.

“That’s OK. That’ a good thing. That makes you better.’’

Mallory (foot/ankle), Woods (hamstring) and Ogletree (knee rehab) missed a portion of last week’s organized team activities work. That gave Granson an opportunity for more work with the first-unit offense, and he maximized his reps. On one play, rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson hit him in stride on a crossing route and Granson turned it up field for a nice gain.

“Gosh, he’s got great route-running ability,’’ Steichen said. “I’m really pleased where he’s at. He understands the game of football really well.  He understands leverage, technique . . . how to get himself open.’’

The internal competition will ramp up when training camp opens, and how the tight ends figure in Steichen’s offense will crystalize.

“Don’t really have a sense, yet,’’ Alie-Cox said. “But just watching film and stuff, it looks like the tight ends get the ball a lot in this offense. But also . . . a lot more on the perimeter and we haven’t done that much in the past.’’

Collective work by tight ends has sagged a bit of late. They combined for 75 receptions, 803 yards and six touchdowns last season, and 64 catches, 788 yards and seven TDs in 2021.

Philip Rivers maximized a tight end group of Alie-Cox, Doyle and Trey Burton in 2020: 82 receptions, 895 yards, eight TDs.

And it’s worth noting Steichen has gotten significant contributions from his tight ends during his last four seasons as a coordinator (2021-22 in Philadelphia, ’19-’20 with the Chargers). Dallas Goedert had 111 catches for 1,532 yards and seven TDs with the Eagles the last two seasons and Hunter Henry collected 115, 1,265 and nine with the Chargers.