INDIANAPOLIS — Four Indianapolis Colts assistant coaches discussed the latest at their respective positions Thursday in video conference calls with local reporters.
What's the latest from quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady, running backs coach Tom Rathman, wide receivers coach Mike Groh and defensive line coach Brian Baker? Here are a couple top takeaways from each coach's session:
Quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady
» With about 90 percent of the offensive installed, Philip Rivers has had a seamless transition into the Colts' system: That might not be too surprising, considering Rivers played in a similar system under head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni when they were his coaches with the Chargers a few years back.
With the schemes and the basic approaches mostly the same, the main thing Rivers has had to get caught up on since signing with the team as a free agent in March is the updated lingo the Colts use.
So far, so good, Brady said.
"We've been able to spend a lot of time virtually on Zoom with (Rivers) and with the quarterbacks," Brady said. "The benefit, obviously, that everybody knows, that he's worked in this system with Frank and Nick, and it's really the exact same system, different terminology on some of the concepts, but he's picked it, obviously quickly. I mean, he brings a wealth of knowledge playing this game for so long, not just in this system but just football knowledge, quarterback knowledge and experience.
"So the transition has been very smooth," Brady said. "I mean, he talks our language now as far as our vocabulary in the system, and it hasn't really been a struggle for him in that aspect."
» Jacob Eason has been putting in side work with fellow rookie Colts wide receivers: Eason, the Colts' fourth-round pick in this year's NFL Draft, has been based out of California this offseason, where he has been conducting throwing sessions with fellow Indy draft picks Michael Pittman Jr. (second round) and Dezmon Patmon (sixth round).
Brady said Eason has been sending him videos of those sessions and he'll reply with feedback and other routes to start working on, which has helped lessen the constraints of this year's virtual offseason program to a degree.
Off the field, Brady said Eason has been putting in the work, as well.
"Overall he's been great," Brady said. "You know, I've been on Zoom with him — a lot of calls spending time with him installing the offense with him — and he's done a great job. I mean, he's worked hard, he's asked a lot of questions and he's picking up the offense.
"Just getting him, I mean, it was great for us, to be able to get that type of talent that late in the draft," Brady continued. "Obviously he's still young, got things to work on; he does have a lot of tools with his size and his arm."
Running backs coach Tom Rathman
» Rathman is anticipating the possibility of a "1-2 punch" with Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor, but the rookie has plenty of work to do between now and the start of the season: Both head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni this offseason have expressed excitement about the Colts' run game thanks in large part to returning starter Marlon Mack and the addition of 2020 second-round pick Jonathan Taylor.
Rathman certainly shares in that excitement, but as a position coach, he knows there's still a lot of teaching and drill work to be done before Taylor can earn his spot in the backfield as part of that potentially lethal combination with the veteran Mack.
"We all see it, you know, we all anticipate it, we all expect it, but are you gonna see it right away? I can't say that, you know?" Rathman said of Taylor. "But hopefully he comes out of the gates and, boom, he's playing at the same level as all these other guys, and they all elevate their game."
Taylor, of course, comes to the Colts off the heels of one of the greatest careers by a running back in college football history. The former Wisconsin star ran for 2,000 yards in three seasons, and Rathman is confident that with his skillet, as well as his smarts and his background playing in multiple systems, Taylor can get caught up quickly once the team is allowed to get on the field together.
"It'll hurt him a little bit, I believe, not being in minicamps, being around the facilities in the offseason program, but the thing about Jonathan is he's a very intelligent kid; he understands what it's gonna take," Rathman said.
» How exactly will the playtime be divvied up at the running back position? Rathman's not quite sure yet, but he's looking forward to that challenge: The Colts in 2020 return their starter, Mack, who earned his first 1,000-yard rushing performance last season, as well as Nyheim Hines, who has played more of a role as a third-down, pass-catching specialist out of the backfield, and Jordan Wilkins, who has performed very well in a backup role his first two seasons in Indy.
Add Taylor to the mix, and Indy has one of the deeper, more versatile running back groups in the NFL.
But with only about 60 to 70 total offensive snaps played per ballgame, it'll mostly be on Rathman to figure out the rotation he wants out of those four players each week. And while the offseason program is just about to wrap up, the anticipated arrival of training camp in the coming weeks means we'll likely start to get a hint at just what that rotation might look like — but once the games kick off, anything can happen.
"I've done it both ways. I mean, starter will go two series, give the backup a series, and then you go from there. And then it starts playing itself out," Rathman said. "So, I mean, I can literally seeing it going any way, I mean, where Marlon's in one play, in comes Jonathan. Boom. Alright, here comes Nyheim, where you're rotating these guys in and out of the football game."
As a former NFL fullback, Rathman certainly knows the value of a ballcarrier getting the opportunity to work himself in a groove and build momentum. He's not necessarily saying the Colts will always ride the hot hand at the running back position this year, but overall consistency and performance throughout the game will certainly play a part in who's on the field.
"I know as a football player you don't really get the groove and the feel of the game doing that, but at the same time, those are things that you have to develop into — you have to earn the opportunity to get out on the field — and like I said you play that consistent football, that good football, winning football, you're gonna be out on the field," Rathman said.
Wide receivers coach Mike Groh
» Groh likes the versatility he'll have at every wide receiver spot this season: The Colts, obviously, are going to be looking for favorable matchups in the pass game to get yards in big chunks in 2020, and they feel as if their receiver group has the playmakers and skillsets to get that done.
The No. 1 option, of course, is veteran T.Y. Hilton, who is looking to work his way back from an injury-plagued 2019 season in which he played a career-low 10 games. Hilton has proven he can do it all at the wide receiver position, whether it's shorter, intermediate or longer pass routes.
Behind Hilton are guys like Zach Pascal, a big-bodied receiver who can play inside or outside, Parris Campbell, whose injury-filled rookie season in 2019 never really allowed him to flourish like the Colts hoped he could from the slot receiver position, and 2020 second-round pick Michael Pittman Jr., who appears to be a terrific fit as a big-bodied outside receiver that can beat press coverage off the line.
Outside of those top four receivers, the Colts have many other players at the position — including returners Marcus Johnson and Daurice Fountain — who will be jockeying for the final one or two spots on the 53-man roster come Week 1.
"I think when you're putting together a receiver group, you're looking to put together a group of guys with different skillsets. If you get guys that all do the same thing really well, then you're a little bit easier to defend," Groh said. "So putting our group together, we're looking for guys that have unique skillsets; using an analogy as a basketball team of my past, you want guys that can obviously bring the ball up, you want guys that can score off the dribble, shoot the 3, post up. So when you get that complementary blend of guys — and that doesn't just focus solely on the receiver group, and that would include tight ends and running backs in that equation — I think then you have the opportunity to create one-on-one matchups, and that makes you really hard to defend for a defense."
» Groh sees Campbell developing into an all-around playmaker at receiver: Although Campbell was a star at Ohio State, constantly showing off his 4.31-second 40-yard dash speed, his role in terms of what he was asked to do was a bit limited. When he was selected by the Colts in the second round of last year's NFL Draft, Campbell and the team talked about the work ahead, which would include expanding his knowledge and mastery of a professional route tree.
And then the injuries hit.
Campbell would be hampered by a hamstring injury in training camp that limited him to just one preseason game, and then a few weeks into the regular season he underwent surgery for a sports hernia. Once he returned, Campbell almost immediately suffered a broken hand, requiring another surgery. Campbell returned again, and, like clockwork, almost immediately suffered a broken foot, again requiring surgery, this time officially ending his rookie season in early December.
The hard luck presented Campbell with all kinds of adversity, but the hope now that he's back to 100 percent this offseason is that he can get back on track in his career development in Year 2 in 2020.
Groh said he was a big fan of Campbell's coming out of Ohio State, and sees the type of player that has the potential to play a big role moving forward.
"(I) really liked him coming out of Ohio State; thought he was dynamic with the ball in his hand. I thought he had elite speed, so he's able to stretch the defense, and stretch the defense vertically, really, on all levels, get the ball to him quickly," Groh said. "I saw the potential to be a very good route runner; wasn't asked to do a whole lot of that at Ohio State, but I really think his best football, in terms of becoming a complete receiver, is out in front of him.
"He's extremely bright, he's tough, he's willing to do anything that is required of him in whatever role we need him to play, and he's somebody that the defense has to be aware of, 'cause he can get behind you and score in one play."
Defensive line coach Brian Baker
» Baker felt like a kid on Christmas morning when he learned the team was acquiring All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner in March: Baker was just a few weeks into his job as the Colts' new defensive line coach when the team made the move to send its 2020 first-round pick (13th-overall) to the San Francisco 49ers for Buckner, who at just 26 is already considered one of the top interior defenders in the NFL.
The 6-foot-7, 295-pound Buckner has played in 63 games since being selected by the 49ers with the No. 7-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, collecting 262 career tackles (38 for a loss) with 28.5 sacks, 11 passes defensed, seven fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles. He also has one fumble recovery for a touchdown and six career multiple-sack games. He was named a Pro Bowler in 2018 and Second-Team All-Pro in 2019.
But Baker admitted he didn't know much about Buckner when he started studying the film of prospective free agents and trade targets early this offseason. Baker had spent the previous five seasons out of the NFL — he was out of football for a year and then spent the next four years as a coach at the college level with Mississippi State (2016-18) and Alabama (2019) — so his knowledge of pro defensive linemen across the league was limited at best.
But when Baker turned on the 49ers film from last year to study the likes of future free agent signing Sheldon Day, one player just kept standing out to him.
"I've been away from it for a while, and I didn't really know who DeForest was. My energy was focusing on college players and recruiting. So I didn't know who he was, and I'm like, 'Who's the big 'ol 99? This dude can play,'" Baker recalled. "And I'm like, 'Man, it'd be great…' and you end up looking, 'OK, DeForest Buckner,' like, 'Man, it'd be good to get this guy.'"
Fortunately, Colts general manager Chris Ballard had similar thoughts, and would execute the big trade a few weeks later.
"When Chris pulled the trigger on DeForest, man, holy cow, I couldn't believe it," Baker said. "It was like Christmas."
» Buckner and Justin Houston project as starters now, but the other two starting jobs are very much up for grabs, Baker said: Buckner will be the starting three-tech in the middle, while the veteran Houston, who is coming off an 11-sack season, will start at defensive end. But that leaves another open spot each at defensive tackle end defensive end that should lead to plenty of quality competition during training camp and heading into the regular season.
With Jabaal Sheard, the Colts' starter at defensive end the last two seasons, not being re-signed in free agency, there are plenty of options at that spot, including fast-riser Kemoko Turay, Ben Banogu and Al-Quadin Muhammad. But Denico Autry, the team's primary three-tech in 2018 and 2019, and third-year lineman Tyquan Lewis also have the flexibility to play off the edge, as well as inside.
At defensive tackle, look for Autry, Lewis, Day, Grover Stewart and 2020 sixth-round pick Rob Windsor to be battling it out for snaps.
Others fighting for spots include Kendall Coleman, Gerri Green, Jegs Jegede, Kameron Cline and Chris Williams.
"Yeah, it's going to be a very competitive camp," Baker said. "Of the guys right now that I'd probably say, 'OK, their spot is, as much as you can think, pretty much in stone, it would be Justin and DeForest. And, really, everybody else it's gonna be a pretty competitive thing.
"We've got a lot of good football players who are going to be competing," Baker continued. "Like I said: this a group I'm really excited about — really excited about. I can't wait for camp to start, for our feet to hit the grass, see those guys run around competing. The one thing I'll guarantee you is that we're going to have the best defensive line out there; you know, the guys who are out there playing for the blue are going to be the guys who earn that opportunity because of their play and nothing else."