WESTFIELD, Ind. — What's the national conversation surrounding the Indianapolis Colts this training camp? Colts.com's Jake Arthur recently caught up with the NFL Network's Tom Pelissero to get his perspective on the team heading into 2019:
The Colts started last season 1-5 and then made it to 10-6 and into the second round of the playoffs. You're a guy that's always got his ear to the ground across the league; what's the buzz about them right now?
Pelissero: "They certainly exceeded expectations, at minimum in the media and I think within the league as well, in terms of the way that they developed some of their young players, the fact that Andrew Luck came back and by the end of the season certainly looked like Andrew Luck again. This is a team that's going to be tough, the way that Frank Reich is building the culture here. They certainly upgraded the talent at the skill positions, namely wide receiver, through the course of the offseason. Chris Ballard is never gonna be a guy who's gonna go out and spend big in free agency just to spend big in free agency. They weren't gonna be going after a Le'Veon Bell, they weren't gonna be going after some of those other guys in the first wave of free agency when the price tags are big, but they were committed to going out and getting a guy like Devin Funchess, a guy the coaching staff really wanted. They've built through the draft, we've seen them in the past build through waivers. They're gonna continue building this thing, and you would certainly think based on how they finished and based on how many young guys were contributing to that finish. That, plus Luck being another year removed from the shoulder injury, there's no reason to think that they're not going to be as tough if not tougher in 2019."
The 2019 schedule is going to be a tough road, especially considering some of the quarterbacks the Colts will be facing. Record aside, what does improvement look like for this team?
Pelissero: "Well, in terms of results, you'd have to say they go at least another step in the playoffs. That would be the natural baseline for that. But it's also about Andrew Luck having another year in the offense. Last year when we were in training camp, not only was he coming back from a major injury that cost him a season, it was all new. They had to figure out not just the plays, but the rhythm and the timing and build all of that through the course of training camp. Certainly when you look at, for instance a Marlon Mack, who last offseason was dinged up, didn't really do anything through OTAs, well this year he had a healthy offseason. That makes a difference. He's looked really good from everything that I've heard. You've got other guys, a Deon Cain, who missed last season, they're really excited about, who was lighting it up in training camp before he had the unfortunate knee injury last year. The offensive line -- I mean Quenton Nelson, he was a rookie and he played like that. The whole offensive line is back. How much better can Darius Leonard be? Malik Hooker, if he stays healthy, how much better can he be? That's really it to me. It's not as if this is a team with a bunch of 30-year-old guys who you wonder, "Okay, how soon are they gonna fall off?" Yes, they went out and brought in a veteran in Justin Houston, and they've gotta hope that he's able to stay healthy and produce like he has in the past. But you've got a lot of young, up-and-coming players, and you want to grow your own. When you're a draft-and-develop program, not a spend-in-free-agency program, that's how you want to do it."
You were here last year; obviously the big storyline was Andrew's shoulder. With that out of the way, what's got your attention today?
Pelissero: "I think just seeing how the skill position weapons, just how they're going to be used between Devin Funchess, Parris Campbell, Deon Cain, T.Y. Hilton of course, Eric Ebron -- I mean, that's a pretty good list of guys. Just kinda, how are they gonna integrate all those pieces together? How much of an impact can Funchess make, and where they think he can in terms of red zone, being that big body for them and also in some of those third-down situations where's he's gonna see one-on-one coverage, man-to-man. He's a guy they think is gonna be a man beater-type of a weapon. Defensively, I just love watching Darius Leonard play. So, just seeing what more he can unlock in his career. Matt Eberflus does a really good job on the defensive side of the ball, a really bright coach who got some head-coaching consideration last offseason. I think he will as well (next offseason). I think Nick Sirianni might get head-coaching consideration this next offseason. Just continuing to see how they kind of build this nucleus, build the culture. They've got guys like Brian Decker on staff who are a big part of identifying guys who fit what they want this team to be. I'll just be interested to see how it continues to grow, the way that they've built that nucleus. And then of course, Andrew Luck when he's healthy is still one of the best quarterbacks in football. So, what more can we see from him now that they're probably a little more confident about just completely turning him loose."
Is there anyone on this roster who you don't think gets talked about enough but people should look out for?
Pelissero: "Bobby Okereke. I think he's gonna be squarely in the mix to be the starting middle linebacker. I think that he's a really interesting player to watch. Some of their other late-round draft picks -- I mean Marvell Tell was a safety but they're gonna play him at corner. E.J. Speed, who I became familiar with when all of a sudden I realized he was having all these workouts and was a linebacker from Tarleton State that I had never heard of. He was a guy they really identified that they thought could fit in. I'm interested in some of those kind of down-the-line draft picks because one thing that we know about the team is they're not overly concerned with where you were drafted or how much money you got paid; they're gonna play the best guys. So if you're a late-round draft pick, or whether you are Rock Ya-Sin or you are Marvell Tell, you're competing just the same for playing time. We'll see how that meritocracy kind of bears out on the field."
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