The Colts Mailbag is back! Colts.com readers can submit their questions to have a chance of them being answered in our Mailbag series.
Let's get after this week's questions:
Sam Bennett, Carmel, Ind.: Which player from the 2021 draft class is going to break out this year?
JJ Stankevitz: I'll go with the guy we talked about on a recent episode of the Official Colts Podcast – Dayo Odeyingbo. He began to make some noticeable strides over the second half of last season, recording multiple pressures in seven of his final eight games. And after taking on a larger role following Tyquan Lewis' season-ending knee injury in Week 7, Odeyingbo's pass rush win rate of 11.7 percent was second on the Colts behind only DeForest Buckner.
Odeyingbo recently said he put on 11 pounds of muscle this offseason and is up to 285 pounds. And two other factors are important here: Odeyingbo, who missed the start of his rookie year as he worked his way back from a pre-draft Achilles injury, is feeling better and better the further he's removed from that injury; he's also more confident as he enters Year 2 in Gus Bradley and Nate Ollie's attack-oriented front.
"It was definitely a work in progress throughout last season," Odeyingbo said. "I feel like obviously throughout the season I got more comfortable both with the injury and then just being in the NFL and playing football again. Even up to this point and through this offseason I felt a lot of growth through the injury and just the entire body gaining strength and gaining balance."
Scott Gilley, Towson, Md.: Are Pittman, Pierce, and Downs the presumptive starters in three-receiver sets?
JJ Stankevitz: Not quite yet. If, in this generic 11 personnel package (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce are your outside guys, Josh Downs will still have to compete with veteran Isaiah McKenzie for the majority of slot snaps.
Downs and McKenzie have different skillsets – McKenzie, for example, has averaged eight rushing attempts per season while Downs had one rushing attempt in three years at North Carolina – so they could be used interchangeably depending on what the Colts hope to accomplish on a given concept. The Colts like Downs' skillset, especially as a complement to Pittman and Pierce, but he'll have to compete to earn his snaps, just like every rookie.
Also, something I'm going to be interested in watching during training camp and into the regular season is how often the Colts are in 11 personnel. Which leads me to the next question:
View photos of the Colts as they continued OTAs on Thursday.
Tim Hoffer, Fort Wayne, Ind.: How is Drew Ogletree progressing? And if well, how does he picture into the offense?
JJ Stankevitz: Ogletree isn't participating in OTAs just yet, which isn't surprising given he's 1) about nine months removed from a torn ACL and 2) it's OTAs. We'll keep tabs on him for the next few weeks during practices at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center but it's not a concern if he doesn't get on-field work until training camp.
Having said that: This is a great question, and one that could lead the Colts down a few paths – especially if Ogletree picks up where he left off in August. Ogletree, a 2022 sixth-round pick, was one of the stories of last year's training camp. His fluidity, football instincts, hands and explosiveness all stood out, and he looked like he was on his way to becoming a key contributor before he sustained a torn ACL during a mid-August joint practice with the Detroit Lions.
The Colts may have some interesting decisions to make in a tight end room that includes Ogletree, Mo Alie-Cox, Pharaoh Brown, Kylen Granson, Will Mallory and Jelani Woods, among others. But looking at the depth of that room, and the ascending talent in it – Woods, for example, flashed plenty of upside as a rookie in 2022 – there's a possibility the Colts could get into some creative 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) looks in 2023.
The ability to be multiple on offense and tailor what personnel packages you lean into – 11, 12, etc. – against specific opponents could be an important schematic card for head coach Shane Steichen to play this season. Ogletree, in particular, could factor in to that.
Spencer Halcomb, Clinton, Ind.: What is the vibe between Anthony Richardson and Jonathan Taylor? If the past few season are anything to go off of there is going to be a lot of interactions between them.
JJ Stankevitz: I'll go back to a couple of conversations I had, one with Steichen and another with Taylor, prior to the Colts drafting Richardson.
Steichen told me something he impressed upon the last rookie quarterback he coached – the Los Angeles Chargers' Justin Herbert – in 2020: Your running back is your best friend.
What Steichen meant by that is, you can always dump a swing pass to a back or throw the check down – both of which will generate completions and keep the offense ahead of the chains. It's less about a back being a quarterback's best friend on handoffs and more on passing plays where he can be a safety valve.
So now let's take that advice and use it as context to what Taylor told me he'd tell a rookie quarterback.
"We're side by side," Taylor said. "Look where we're at, we're side by side. That's how it is. I have your back. I'm right here with you. No matter, hey, I need you go to get this guy in the A-gap, or hey, I need you get out quick so I can dump it off to you. I'm right here by your side and that means something."
Sounds pretty good to me.
JJ Stankevitz: I already touched on the wide receivers a bit, but it's fair to expect some natural growth from Pierce after he did some solid things as a rookie.
And a breakout player on defense (not named Dayo), I wouldn't forget about Nick Cross. The Colts valued him enough to trade back into the third round to draft him in 2022, and while he didn't play much on defense as a rookie, that had a lot to do with the strong play and needed veteran presence of Rodney McLeod Jr. at the strong safety spot in Bradley's defense.
"We just felt like it wasn't so much play, it was the communication that took place too," Bradley said. "I think Rodney was a great communicator and I think it just brought a sense of calm to the guys back there because of that communication. That's the part that held Nick (Cross) back, was that part."
The Colts didn't bring McLeod back in free agency – he signed with the Cleveland Browns a few weeks ago – and will roll forward with Cross, Rodney Thomas II, Julian Blackmon and Daniel Scott, among others, on their safety depth chart heading into training camp. Cross will have to compete to earn back his starting gig, but the Colts' belief in his talent didn't diminish after his rookie year.
"In conversations with him too, that second year, that jump that he can make here – he is extremely talented, he is fast, he's got the ability," Bradley said. "Now it's just playing fast on the field. That part we didn't see in the beginning of the year. We felt like he was thinking a lot. The conversation was more about doing things right rather than just reacting and it slowed him down some. I think as the season went on, conversations towards the end, it was more like 'I felt it. I know what that feels like now.' Where you're thinking too much and not playing as fast as maybe I did in college. So, if he can recognize that, own that and say now in the next year, let's get back to playing fast. That's the conversations we had. So yes, it would be great for him to take the next step for us."
JJ Stankevitz: Great timing on this, Jason. We started rolling out a new podcast series on the Colts Audio Network, The Person Behind the Pads Podcast, which features interviews with players about anything but football. Larra Overton sat down with Michael Pittman Jr. and Matt Taylor chatted with Bernhard Raimann for episodes, and we'll be back with a new one each Thursday in the coming weeks. A few future guests: Alec Pierce, DeForest Buckner and Zaire Franklin. I had a chance to host the Buckner and Franklin episodes and really enjoyed the conversations. Hope you do too.