INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts' "final audition" is officially in the rear-view mirror.
Now comes undoubtedly one of the toughest moments of the year for the Colts' personnel and coaching staffs — final cutdowns.
The Colts wrapped up their preseason Friday night by going on the road to defeat the Detroit Lions, 27-17, at Ford Field. Now, the team faces a 4 p.m. Tuesday (August 31) deadline to cut down to its first 53-man roster of the regular season.
With a 3-0 record this preseason that included several standout individual performances, Colts head coach Frank Reich is impressed with the work put in by the entire roster throughout training camp and the preseason.
That makes his job even harder heading into final cutdowns — which, of course, is a nice problem to have.
"You know, we've got a lot of confidence in those guys," Reich said following the Lions game. "We talk about being in the situation when these games are real. We have to see how goes respond when it's on the line. I think a lot of young players have shown themselves very well. Very poised and made the plays needed to win games."
So where does the roster stand after a full slate of training camp practices and preseason games? Here's a position-by-position breakdown:
No doubt the battle with the most attention throughout training camp and the preseason was at the quarterback position, where Jacob Eason and Sam Ehlinger have been jockeying for the backup job behind new starter Carson Wentz.
But this storyline took on a whole new meaning just a few days into camp, when Wentz underwent surgery to his foot, creating the possibility that the team would need either Eason or Ehlinger to step up into a starting role to open the regular season.
Wentz returned to the practice field this week, however, and while he didn't take any 11-on-11 reps in two days of work, he did get plenty of 7-on-7 snaps — without even a hint of an issue with his surgically-repaired foot.
While the Colts are optimistic about Wentz's outlook to start the season, the Eason-Ehlinger battle is still critically important. However, a knee injury suffered by Ehlinger in Friday night's preseason finale against the Lions could ultimately be the final deciding factor.
We'll await final word from Reich about Ehlinger's injury. Until then, here are the preseason numbers for both Eason and Ehlinger:
Eason: In 102 total snaps, Eason completed 41-of-62 passes (66.1 percent) for 389 yards (6.27 yards per attempt) with no touchdowns or interceptions for a quarterback rating of 83.3. He had two "big-time throws" and two "turnover-worthy plays," according to Pro Football Focus, with three dropped passes and seven passes broken up. His overall PFF grade for the preseason was 81.5.
Ehlinger: In 77 total snaps, Ehlinger completed 21-of-31 passes (67.7 percent) for 288 yards (9.29 yards per attempt) with no touchdowns and three interceptions for a quarterback rating of 57.7. He also added 11 rushing attempts for 55 yards (5.0 avg.). He had three "big-time throws" and two "turnover-worthy plays," according to PFF, with one dropped pass and four passes broken up. His overall PFF grade for the preseason was 73.8.
Colts.com's JJ Stankevitz broke down the Eason-Ehlinger battle in depth here.
Running back seems to be pretty cut-and-dry heading into the regular season, where veterans Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, Marlon Mack and Jordan Wilkins are seemingly the Colts' top four players at the position.
But let's shout out undrafted rookie Deon Jackson, who had a heck of a preseason finale on Friday night, running the ball 10 times for 81 yards (8.1 avg.) and a touchdown, while also hauling in a three-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Brett Hundley early in the fourth quarter.
It was Jackson's impressive 42-yard touchdown run with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter — on 3rd and 4, no less — that extended Indy's lead to 27-17 and helped seal the team's first undefeated preseason since 1994.
Jackson and fellow running back Benny LeMay, who had 28 rushing attempts for 83 yards (3.0 avg.) and a touchdown this preseason, hope to, at the very least, catch on a team's practice squad heading into the start of the regular season.
Like at running back, the Colts' top four spots at wide receiver are about as locked in as can be heading into the start of the regular season. Those spots, one would assume, go to T.Y. Hilton, Michael Pittman Jr., Zach Pascal and Parris Campbell.
Beyond that, through the end of the preseason, it would appear there are three or four players vying for the final one or two spots at receiver.
— Rookie Mike Strachan has impressed in both camp practices and preseason games, using his size (6-foot-5, 224 pounds) to get into position to make big plays. The seventh-round pick out of Division II Charleston this preseason was targeted with 16 passes and had 10 total receptions for 130 yards. Overall, Strachan had a PFF grade of 73.0 this preseason; he had six receiving first downs, no dropped passes, four contested catches, and was part of three explosive pass plays.
— Second-year Washington State product Dezmon Patmon was the Colts' top overall receiver throughout their three preseason games, finishing with 11 receptions for 173 yards, including a 60-yard reception from Ehlinger on a busted play Friday night against the Lions. Patmon, who was targeted with 13 passes in all, finished the preseason with a PFF grade of 76.3; he had six receiving first downs, no dropped passes, one contested catch, and was part of three explosive pass plays.
— Entering his third NFL season, Ashton Dulin missed a large chunk of training camp with a hamstring injury, but was able to return in time to continue to make his case for a spot on the final 53-man roster. Dulin has proven to be versatile for the Colts' offense the past couple seasons, but he has really excelled as one of the team's top gunners on special teams. Could Dulin's abilities covering kicks be a primary deciding factor in the coming days? Dulin, for what it's worth, was targeted with five passes in the final two preseason games, finishing with two receptions for seven yards.
— After Campbell suffered a season-ending knee injury early last season, it was undrafted rookie DeMichael Harris that was able step in to that role at times for the Colts throughout 2020. Harris played in seven games in his first NFL season, showing off his quickness and versatility to the tune of 10 receptions for 79 yards and six rushing attempts for 46 yards. Harris isn't to be forgotten in the Colts' wide receiver race heading into the start of this season, either. He finished the preseason with two receptions for nine yards.
— Other Colts receivers vying for spots, and their preseason numbers: Tyler Vaughns (six receptions, 58 yards, 71.8 PFF overall grade) and Tarik Black (five receptions, 81 yards, 68.8 PFF overall grade).
Veterans Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox return to lead the Colts' tight end position in 2021. It's a pretty safe bet to write their names in pen at the top of the depth chart.
Written in pencil below Doyle and Alie-Cox is 2021 fourth-round pick Kylen Granson. Granson brings quickness and athleticism to the tight end position for the Colts, and finished his first preseason with 13 total targets and five receptions for 39 yards. He hauled in three first downs and had three contested catches.
If the Colts decide to keep a fourth tight end, they could go with Farrod Green (three receptions for 21 yards this preseason), Jordan Thomas (three receptions for 34 yards this preseason) or Andrew Vollert (one target, no receptions this preseason).
Like at receiver, a final spot at tight end could ultimately come down to that player's value on special teams.
For now, we'll focus primarily on the battle for the job at left tackle entering the regular season. The Colts are about as solid as it gets at left guard, center, right guard and right tackle with Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski and Braden Smith, respectively.
Following the retirement of longtime left tackle Anthony Castonzo, Indy made a big splash this offseason by signing former No. 1-overall pick Eric Fisher. Fisher is a two-time Pro Bowl selection at left tackle, but suffered an Achilles injury in the AFC Championship Game in late-January, so he will likely miss some time to start the regular season.
Those vying for the starting left tackle spot until Fisher can return to game action are Julién Davenport, Will Holden and Sam Tevi.
— Davenport, a fifth-year NFL veteran, started at left tackle in all three of the Colts' preseason games. He had an overall PFF grade of 69.9, including a pass-blocking grade of 74.3 and a run blocking grade of 67.2. After struggling a bit in the preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers, Davenport rebounded nicely to the tune of a 77.7 total pass-blocking grade against the Minnesota Vikings and the Lions.
— Holden, a third-year NFL veteran, played 187 total snaps this preseason, including 74 at left tackle, 73 at right tackle, and 22 at left guard.
— Tevi, also a fifth-year NFL veteran, primarily played right tackle this preseason — 118 of his 121 offensive snaps were on that side. However, the Utah product was carted off the field Friday night against the Lions after suffering a knee injury, so we'll await the final word on his status moving forward.
The Colts also have some key decisions to make when it comes to the depth in the interior of their offensive line. Chris Reed had an outstanding preseason, earning a total offensive grade of 84.0 from PFF, including a run-blocking grade of 90.0. Not far behind was Jake Eldrenkamp, who had a total PFF grade of 79.7 with a pass-blocking grade of 89.5.
Also vying for spots at guard are Carter O'Donnell and rookie Will Fries. Danny Pinter and Joey Hunt appear to be the top candidates for the backup center job.
We know the Colts like to keep eight or nine defensive linemen on their 53-man roster. And with significant turnover off the edge heading into the 2021 regular season — and with some impressive preseason performances by potential backups in the interior — there is any number of scenarios that could present themselves by final cutdown day up front.
2021 first-round pick Kwity Paye shined in limited preseason action. He earned a sterling 94.2 defensive grade from PFF after racking up two sacks, a forced fumble, and three total quarterback pressures in just 32 total snaps. Paye, Tyquan Lewis, Al-Quadin Muhammad and Kemoko Turay appear to be the top four edge players for the Colts entering the regular season.
If the Colts elect to keep a fifth defensive end, it looks like it could come down to Ben Banogu and Isaac Rochell. Banogu, the Colts' second-round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft out of TCU, showed up both in training camp and the preseason, finishing with a team-best seven quarterback pressures and earning a defensive grade of 71.5 from PFF. Rochell finished the preseason strong with a sack against the Lions, and in three games had six total quarterback pressures to go along with an impressive 10 total tackles and a team-best two tackles for loss.
Kameron Cline, who signed with the Colts as an undrafted free agent out of South Dakota last year, also put in a solid preseason off the edge in limited action; Cline suffered a hamstring injury Friday night against the Lions and did not return, however, so we'll see if that has any effect on his status moving forward.
Indy also has quite the battle for spots in the interior of its defensive line. All-Pro DeForest Buckner and the criminally-underrated Grover Stewart are the clear starters, but Andrew Brown, Taylor Stallworth, Chris Williams and Antwaun Woods have all had standout moments in camp and in the preseason to try to earn backup spots at defensive tackle.
Brown had perhaps the most flashes in preseason games; in 90 total snaps, he finished with five tackles (one for a loss) with 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hits, earning a 78.3 pass-rush grade from PFF. Stallworth added three tackles (one for a loss) with a fumble recovery; Williams had an impressive seven tackles (one for a loss); and Woods had two total tackles.
The starting jobs at linebacker are essentially locked up for the Colts, who have All-Pro Darius Leonard at the WILL, third-year stud Bobby Okereke at the MIKE and tough-as-nails Zaire Franklin at the SAM.
There's quite an interesting mix to finish out the depth at linebacker for the Colts, however — and some final decisions could come down to special teams ability. Returning are Matthew Adams, Jordan Glasgow and E.J. Speed, though Speed was unable to play this preseason due to a knee injury.
But Malik Jefferson (72.4 PFF defensive grade this preseason), Isaiah Kaufusi (team-best 14 tackles this preseason with two passes defensed) and Curtis Bolton (seven tackles, an interception and a quarterback hit this preseason) all gave the Colts' coaching staff plenty to think about heading into final cuts.
We all know veterans Xavier Rhodes (outside) and Kenny Moore II (slot) return to their respective starting jobs at cornerback for the Colts heading into the 2021 season.
But what about the ongoing battle for the No. 3 cornerback job between T.J. Carrie and Rock-Ya Sin? Carrie, who had a solid start to training camp, suffered a knee injury in the preseason opener against the Panthers and didn't play in the last two games, so we'll see what his immediate status is heading into the start of the regular season. Ya-Sin, meanwhile, played in all three preseason games, finishing with a 67.7 defensive grade from PFF; he was targeted with five passes and allowed two receptions, one for a touchdown, and broke up one pass.
Second-year speedster Isaiah Rodgers also had some flashes throughout camp practices, and finished his preseason with six tackles and one pass defensed. Fourth-year veteran Holton Hill had the best overall defensive grade for Colts cornerbacks this preseason (72.0), and finished with two tackles and a forced fumble. Anthony Chesley had six tackles this preseason, while Marvell Tell III, who decided to opt out last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, had five tackles and two passes defensed this preseason.
Andre Chachere also split his time between slot corner (52 snaps) and safety (25 snaps) this preseason.
Like at linebacker, the Colts are in good shape with their starters at safety, where Khari Willis (strong safety) and Julian Blackmon (free safety) are returning. George Odum, who earned First-Team All-Pro honors for his special teams prowess last season, also returns at safety (though he suffered a concussion Friday against the Lions, so we'll monitor his status moving forward).
That leaves four players — Ibraheim Campbell, Chachere (who also plays slot cornerback), Sean Davis and Shawn Davis — vying for one, or maybe two, remaining spots at safety heading into final cuts.
Campbell finished his preseason with seven total tackles. Chachere also had seven tackles, one quarterback hit and one pass defensed, and finished the preseason with a solid 87.2 tackling grade from PFF. The sixth-year veteran Sean Davis had three tackles on defense and added two special teams stops. The 2021 fifth-round pick Shawn Davis, meanwhile, added nine total tackles this preseason.
We know by now that incumbent Rodrigo Blankenship was able to win out the job at kicker over Eddy Piniero, who was waived earlier this week (to no fault of Piniero, who did not miss any kicks in two preseason games in Indy, just proving how well Blankenship is striking the ball).
We also know the Colts are returning their punter/kickoff specialist in Rigoberto Sanchez, and their long snapper in Luke Rhodes.
The Colts also, well, return their top returners in Hines (punt) and Rodgers (kickoff).
So, in terms of the core special teams positions, Indianapolis is about as solid as you can be heading into the season.
What about those chasing down returners on special teams? Throughout the preseason, Bolton and Sean Davis each had a team-best two solo special teams tackles, while Kaufusi had two assisted special teams stops. PFF, meanwhile, handed out particularly solid special teams grades this preseason to Luke Rhodes (82.6), Odum (77.8), Sean Davis (74.1), Granson (70.3), Chachere (70.1), Black (69.2), Adams (68.9) and Kaufusi (68.7).
Look back at some of the best images from the Indianapolis Colts 2021 training camp.