ANDERSON, IN --- Playing wide receiver for the Colts is like being a queen on a chessboard, with Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton freely moving those pieces almost anywhere he wants. That's the challenge Andre Johnson has accepted, coming to Indianapolis after 12 years in Houston.
He's learned Hamilton's offense rapidly enough for his offensive coordinator to feel comfortable enough to place him anywhere in the formation during training camp, most notably in the slot sometimes, where his size should create natural mismatches against smaller coverage guys.
"Andre is a pro. He is a guy that understands you can't play in this league for as long as he has and not fully understand how important it is that you can line up in multiple spots," Hamilton said Monday, before explaining why being able to put Johnson in the slot (or anywhere else) could serious exploit some defenses with his 6'3" 230 pound frame.
"As a bigger guy that's quick and has a bigger catching radius, it's ideal for him to match up against safeties, nickel backs, guys that aren't traditional cover guys that are probably going to be focused on some of our speed guys that are on the perimeter," Hamilton explained. "We are going to move him around. He is not just going to play in the slot, he is going to play in all four spots."
"I was mostly outside (in Houston), in the slot from time to time," said Johnson last week of his usage with the Texans. "I like it. It's a little different for me, but at the same time, it's still football, just working to get open for Andrew (Luck)."
Hamilton able to do that with a receiver entering his first season with a new team because he says Johnson took "copious notes" during the offseason program, like he was a rookie, and was always focused and engaged in meetings asking questions. Hamilton has also taken notice to Johnson immediately trying to build a relationship with Luck and the rest of his new teammates.
Johnson's raw talent doesn't hurt either. After all, he is 9th all-time in receptions and 12th all-time in receiving yards in NFL history, with time to still climb way up those lists.
"His catching radius is off the chart as well as the fact that Andre is a big, physical, strong man that understands how to leverage and use his body to give him an opportunity to make those plays," said Hamilton.
In other words, sometimes when he's covered, he's not covered. Case and point: Monday's practice when Johnson was in single coverage down the middle of the field with rookie cornerback D'Joun Smith. Luck threw up a jump ball. Johnson won, leaping and hitting the ground with possession of the ball.
"That's just something you get over time, practicing with the quarterback, just getting reps," said Johnson. "When he sees you make those plays, just knowing how to use your body and stuff like that, boxing guys out for the ball, it just gives him confidence that when people think you're covered, you're not really covered."
Luck agrees saying developing trust in Johnson to win one-on-one matchups is one aspect of this time of the year that can't be duplicated during OTAs.
"Yes, absolutely. That, I think, is a big part of camp, is one-on-one drills and tight man coverage," said Luck last week. "You understand that what may not look like a wide-open route. With Andre it really is because he's so big. He's so physical and does such a great job contorting his body to shield the defender away or to put that ball in a safe place. So it's been fun to see how his body moves in that sense and see him go up and make some plays."
It's yet another option for Luck to consider each snap, to go along with his other top pass catchers T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Donte Moncrief, and perhaps rookies Phillip Dorsett and Duron Carter.
"I think with the guys we have along here, there's a lot of guys to key on," said Johnson. "I think we all can help each other get match-ups. I think that's the great thing about this team."
It's also the scary thing about this Colts offense for the defenses on their schedule.