INDIANAPOLIS — Whether it's coaching the likes of Vernon Davis, Antonio Gates or Delanie Walker, new Indianapolis Colts tight ends coach Jason Michael is no stranger to working with elite talent at the position. But he's never been a part of a tight end group with this much depth of talent.
Michael is up for the challenge of taking that group — which is arguably the top tight end room in the NFL, featuring Pro Bowlers Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron — to the next level.
"As a tight end, I always say that outside of the quarterback it's the toughest position to play, especially in a system like this," Michael, who most recently served as the Arizona Cardinals' tight ends coach in 2018, told reporters this week. "Because you're playing offensive line, you're playing running back, you're playing receiver, you're doing it in a right-handed stance, in a left-handed stance, you're moving.
"So there's all kinds of things," Michael continued. "And it's about growing upon what they were able to do here last year in terms of defining those roles for those players and then trying to get them to grow in roles that they weren't as comfortable in, or not maybe as good at a certain thing, but trying to push those guys to the next limit."
It's a tall order to improve upon the season the Colts' tight ends had in 2018 after leading the league with 22 touchdowns between them. Ebron led all NFL tight ends in touchdowns (14), adding another in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs and then another in the Pro Bowl. He also set new single-season career highs in receptions (66), targets (110), receiving yards (750) and, of course, touchdowns.
Along with developing the top-end talent that the Colts already have in Doyle and Ebron, Michael acknowledges that those two should not only spark competition among the rest of the group — Mo Alie-Cox, Billy Brown, Ryan Hewitt, Gabe Holmes and Ross Travis — but the crop couldn't be in a better situation than having two high-end talents to learn from.
"You look at that, and that's what excites you. To know there's the caliber of players in that room, not only for them to succeed and continue in their careers, but also what it does for the other guys in the room. Guys in this league feed off their peers," Michael said.
"And being in that room, guys like Mo, guys like Ross Travis, guys that are in that room see what it takes to get to that level, and hopefully it rises their game up," Michael expanded on regarding the competition level. "You create competition on the team within the position, and when you have guys like that, I think it does nothing but help those guys around them."
WHY THE COLTS?
Coaching a high level of tight end play is nothing new to Michael, but he's also very familiar with the men who have been pulling the strings for the Colts in head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni. Michael was with both Reich and Sirianni as members of the San Diego Chargers coaching staff in 2013, so there is already a familiarity built in how the Colts' offense operates.
"Not much, not much at all," Michael responded when asked what Reich's sales pitch to him entailed. "Frank and I were together in 2013 in San Diego and we have stayed in touch. We have had a good relationship and have always stayed in touch. Week-to-week whether it was a text here or there, congratulations, all those things and when I had a chance to talk to him — this is a relationship-based business and you form and develop those relationships along the way.
"Not only with Frank, but with Nick — he and I and Frank were all together there (in San Diego). Tom Rathman and I were together in San Francisco. Kevin Patullo and I were together in Tennessee," Michael expounded on his familiarity and comfortability with members of the Colts' current offensive coaching staff. "To be able to step into an offensive staff where four of the guys you have worked with before, it's unique to be able to do that."
Already knowing the schemes that the coaches around him come from and believe in, it makes it easier for Michael and his colleagues to collaborate. However, he also acknowledges that things change and coaches pick up different notes from each stop they go to.
"It's fun, things grow, offenses change, different things come up and guys add to what they are doing. But for the most part, the structure of the offense is similar to what we did before," Michael said. "With that being said, there are a lot of things if I don't know exactly what it is there are some similarities to where you are able to figure those things out based on maybe what it was called a few years ago.
"But there are obviously additions — Frank being in Philadelphia in between that time and Nick growing on what they did in San Diego and in L.A. (Los Angeles). But it's fun. It's fun to be with a group of guys, not only guys that you know, but guys like Chris (Strausser) and Klayton (Adams) and Howard Mudd to be able to learn," Michael continued about the variety of coaches the Colts possess and the collaborative effort they take. "As a coach, you are always looking for opportunities to learn and grow and that's what this has afforded me to this point."