Colts Mailbag

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Colts Mailbag: Adding Depth At Tackle, 'Smashmouth' Offensive Style, Who Starts At Running Back?

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INDIANAPOLIS — Each week, Colts.com readers can submit their questions to have a chance of them being answered in our Mailbag series.

Missed out on the party this week? Not a problem — you can submit your question(s) for next time by clicking here.

Let's jump right into this week's questions:

Hugh T. (San Diego): "Being a 20-year Charger fan and then a 16-year Philip Rivers fan, the only thing the Chargers never believed in, or practiced, was drafting big beefy offensive linemen, especially big left tackles, do you think Indy has the offensive line to protect Philip Rivers, remembering that if you give this 8x-all pro enough time to read the defense after the snap, he'll pick you apart like a thief in the night!"

Walker: Nick Sirianni said it himself; when asked what he believed ultimately drew Philip Rivers to sign with the Colts this offseason, he named off the team's five starting offensive linemen: Anthony Castonzo (left tackle), Quenton Nelson (left guard), Ryan Kelly (center), Mark Glowinski (right guard) and Braden Smith (right tackle). There are other factors at play, of course, including Rivers' familiarity and comfort with Frank Reich and Sirianni and their offensive system, and then the offensive weapons all over the field he'll get distribute the ball to (which are even better now that the team selected wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and running back Jonathan Taylor in the second round of this year's draft), but ultimately it was the talented offensive line that really sealed the deal for Rivers coming to Indy.

As for the left tackle situation, Rivers certainly doesn't have to worry there; Castonzo the past couple years has been playing the best football of his career. Last year, he was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate for the first time, and ranked as Pro Football Focus' ninth-best offensive linemen in the NFL; his pass-blocking grade of 81.3 was 13th best among all qualifying offensive linemen, and sixth among tackles, while his 70.2 run-blocking grade ranked 23rd among linemen and eighth among tackles. In total, Castonzo allowed just three sacks and five quarterback pressures all season, according to PFF, which named him to its 2019 All-Pro team as a second-team selection at left tackle. So Rivers should feel very comfortable standing in the pocket with Castonzo and the rest of that bunch up front protecting him.

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Sherry E. (Lafayette, Ind.): "Did they hold Virtual audition tryouts for the Indianapolis colts football team 2020"

Walker: Nah, Sherry, no virtual tryouts for the Colts this year. And, really, the COVID-19 pandemic affected a couple other on-field opportunities beyond just the normal offseason workout program and the start of OTAs (so far), when looking at the team's local pro day and rookie minicamp, both of which were canceled this year. What the local pro day and the rookie minicamp provide are just another chance for the Colts' scouting and coaching staffs to get an up-close-and-personal look at some of the perhaps more overlooked young prospects entering the league, and while you don't usually see a ton of guys from those events making the offseason roster each year (beyond the draft picks and undrafted free agents participating in rookie minicamp), there are usually at least one or two hidden gems that are eventually uncovered, some of which even make enough of a splash to warrant a spot on the practice squad or 53-man roster later in the year. But it's not like any other team was able to have their local pro day or rookie minicamp this year, either, so the Colts will just look to next year to keep taking advantage of those opportunities.

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Ray E. (Beaverton, Ore.): "Love reading the Mailbag with all of the great questions asked. Since the Colts did not draft an outside edge rusher, what is possibility that they bring back Jabaal Sheard for one more year? At this point, I do not see them bringing back any of there other free agents or do you see a possibility of any? Also can you summarize the team size limits for next year - believe there were a couple of changes made. Thanks Ray"

Walker: Thanks for reading, Ray! In regards to Jabaal Sheard, I think we've reached the point of the offseason where you've built your full 90-man roster after getting through the bulk of free agency and the draft, so you're just ready to roll with what you've got. I will never rule out the possibility of Sheard coming back to the Colts at some point, however, just because I do know how much Chris Ballard and the coaching staff love what he brings to the table both as a player and a leader. But the Colts also have a nice group of young edge defenders that deserve a shot at a larger role — guys like Kemoko Turay and Ben Banogu immediately come to mind, and then Al-Quadin Muhammad has also played solid filling in at times for Sheard the last couple years. So right now it's just a roll-with-what-you've-got mentality if you're the Colts.

And if I'm being honest, I don't know the exact new rules that are being put into place regarding increased active roster spots; this is something I definitely want to brush up on as the season draws closer. After the players officially ratified the new collective bargaining agreement in March, I summarized some of the bigger takeaways and changes fans would see in this article, so here's what I took away in terms of roster expansion:

— The active gameday roster will increase from 46 players to 48, including eight offensive linemen.

— Practice squads will be expanded from 10 to 12 players in 2020-21 and then to 14 players in 2022. There is also now no limitation on the number of years a player can be on the practice squad.

— According to the NFLPA, "Practice Squad Players elevated to the Active list may be returned to the Practice Squad without having to go through waivers 2 times. Two Practice Squad players each week may be elevated to the Active/Inactive list (increasing the Active/Inactive roster to 54 or 55)."

— An additional player may be designated-to-return from Injured Reserve; previously a team could attempt to return two players from IR, and now that number is three.

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Rick W. (Knoxville, Tenn.): "I can't remember the last time I was so excited for the Colts as I am this year, and how ironic after losing the starting QB thinking all is lost. With the uncanny opportunity to land Rivers in Indy, plus the great off season acquisitions has got to spell success. Especially, with the great draft the Colts had this year. I know the staff is excited, and here's my question. Just how excited are the coaches and staff? Are they trying to play it down, or contain their expectations? What is their expectations? What are the Colt's chances of making a run at the Lombardy trophy? Go Colts!!!!"

Walker: Oh, trust me, Rick: the Colts coaches are all fired up about the upcoming season. Of course, that's always the case — new seasons bring about tons of optimism for all 32 teams — but I think the mixture of players returning plus the additions made this offseason put a little more pep in the Colts staff's step each day as it prepares for the season. I'll say this, though: I think one trait that sets Frank Reich apart — and it's one he learned from Tony Dungy and other coaching influences he's had along the way — is to not get too ahead of himself, and he passes that on down through the rest of his staff. There's a clear understanding that this season could be very special for the Colts after a disappointing result last year, but instead of talking about it they just want to get the work done. I can also imagine the coaches are champing at the bit to start working on the field with the players, but for now, they've been tasked with doing the very best they can do given the circumstances, which means taking this virtual offseason program as far as it can possibly go.

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Steven G. (Tipton, Ind.): "hi"

Walker: What's up, Steve?

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Justin M. (Fort Wayne, Ind.): "Will you be adding another Offensive Tackle before the start of the season to give a little more depth to the roster in case either of our starters get hurt?"

Walker: That's something I've wondered myself, Justin: could the Colts utilize free agency to bring in a veteran tackle to add depth on either the left or the right side? The team brought back Le'Raven Clark to compete for that role after losing Joe Haeg in free agency to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then you also have six-year veteran Andrew Donnal and second-year vet Cedrick Lang on your offseason roster, among a couple other young guns, to show what they can do. But I also wonder if there's a J'Marcus Webb-type guy out there that the team could bring in over the next couple months — a veteran plug-and-play type that could be used in a pinch if needed. Right now those available at tackle on the open market include guys like Kelvin Beachum (31 years old), Demar Dotson (34), Jason Peters (38), Jared Veldheer (33), Jordan Mills (29), Marshall Newhouse (31) and Donald Penn (37), so there are some options if you want to go that route; Peters, for example, was a Pro Bowler for the Philadelphia Eagles playing under then-offensive coordinator Frank Reich in 2016 and 2017. So you could certainly explore the market, but then you could also roll with what you've got. I think it's one of those things that you won't really know until the start of training camp.

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David B. (Clearwater, Fla.): "Been Colt fan since 1969 love this draft and FA Large RB,large FB ,Large WRS Blocking TE from Chicago great OL Stationary GB Please tell me smash mouth football!!!!!!!! What do u think,that the idea? Thanks great job.Go Blue"

Walker: Thanks for sticking with us, David! And, yeah, I definitely think "smashmouth" is the approach Chris Ballard and Frank Reich are going for with this offensive attack; the addition of Jonathan Taylor to the backfield, I think, only adds to that thought process. However, when Ballard and Reich took a step back and really dug in to the 2019 season earlier this year, the realization was that the offense had to find ways to add in more explosive plays, particularly through the passing game. So I think that's where a guy like Philip Rivers can really help you at quarterback; last year, according to Sharp Football Stats, the Colts had 38 "explosive" pass plays of 15 yards or more, while Rivers' Los Angeles Chargers had 57 such plays. For more perspective, the Colts last year ranked 28th in the NFL in explosive pass rate, while the Chargers ranked 14th. So even a moderate jump in this area could be significant. Now, the "smashmouth" style really could come in handy late in the season and, if you get there, in the playoffs. The Colts want to wear down their opponents with their physicality up front and in the run game, and they're certainly built to do it. They're just hoping to get a little bit more help through the air with a few more big plays here and there to keep the defense honest.

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Jim A. (Statesboro, Ga.): "Been Bleedin' Blue since '58, when Dad forced me inside, from play, to watch "THE GREATEST GAME EVER".! I just wanna say that thru- out the years, I've never been AS IMPRESSED with a coaching staff/ front office-combo, as I am now..GREAT JOB..!!!

Fantastic Draft... ! Thank you.... Question...Why not TRY to move Brissett ? I think you're gonna find Rivers to be everything we need & expect for a SB run..it may take 2yrs, but "It's gonna happen".. HE DESERVES IT.....He NOW has a COMPLETE TEAM around him.......Kelly & Eason, BOTH, adequate at backup..& I'm bettin' "a dollar to a dime" that Eason steps us as our #1 for the future..after Rivers..."

Walker: I'm sure you are very glad your dad made you come inside and witness history! I grew up a huge Cincinnati Reds fan (still am, of course), and will always appreciate my dad in 1998 taking me to as many games as he could, repeatedly making that two-plus-hour drive from Muncie to Cincinnati and back, to see Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa whenever they came to town. Even as a third grader I can remember grasping the historical significance of what was going on that summer.

And to your point about Jacoby Brissett, I can understand where you're coming from, but you mention Philip Rivers now having a "complete team around him," so shouldn't that also include the best backup quarterback around? I don't think there's any doubt that guys like Chad Kelly and Jacob Eason have the ability to develop into the Colts' No. 2 quarterback, or even as starters, down the road, but the Colts feel very comfortable with Brissett being in that spot and not only developing a close relationship with Rivers to be a trusted, valuable resource each and every week, but to be a guy that could come in and effectively run the offense if needed. So, yes, you take a guy like Eason in the fourth round because of his potential to be "the guy" in the future, but you can't forget about the here and now, and for the Colts, they feel as if Brissett is their best backup option for the 2020 season.

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Corey T. (Sunnyvale, Calif.): "What do you see the colts record being before they get to there bye week. I really think they need to clean up on those games considering the Vikings are probably the only potential playoff team among the group. Also give a percentage of the chances you think TY resigns."

Walker: So those first six weeks before the bye week, the Colts are at the Jacksonville Jaguars, at home against the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets, at the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns and at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. I'm not really big on predicting results myself, but I do keep an eye on various projections elsewhere, and EA Sports' Madden 20, for one point of reference, has the Colts at 5-1 and tied atop the AFC South Division standings with the Houston Texans at that point in its current 2020 season simulation it is running with The Checkdown, with Indy's lone loss coming in Week 5 on the road against the Browns. So take that for what it's worth. (Also, Colts single game tickets are on sale here if you're wanting to go to any of those matchups.)

As for T.Y. Hilton, if he can stay healthy this season, then I don't see why there wouldn't be a good chance that everything could work out in terms of keeping him in Indy beyond 2020. Hilton is not only one of the best receivers in franchise history — and there are a lot of great names on that list — but he's been absolute warrior for you the last couple seasons as he's battled through a rash of injuries for the first time in his career. In 2018, he initially suffered a chest injury Week 4 against the Houston Texans, came back in the game, had four receptions for 115 yards, and then ultimately had to leave with a hamstring injury. Later in the year he played through a low and and high ankle sprain to the same ankle and still was the league's most productive receiver over the second half of the season, helping lead the Colts to the playoffs. Last year, Hilton had a groin injury early on that made him miss a game and a half, and then suffered a non-contact calf injury in practice that hampered him the rest of the season, and he played in a career-low 10 games; yet still, even late in the year, Hilton tried his best to suit up for the team on Sundays, if for nothing else to play more of a role as a decoy. Now that he's feeling fully healthy again, I think we'll see a rejuvenated Hilton with a gunslinger like Philip Rivers throwing the ball around the yard. Even hampered by injuries last year, Hilton was on pace over the course of a 16-game season to log 72 receptions for about 800 yards and eight touchdowns — low numbers for his standards, especially the receptions and yards, but still productive nonetheless. I'd like to think that with health, Hilton will be back to his old tricks in 2020.

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Terry F. (Hopkinsville, Ky.): "I have a high expectations that the Colts will sweep the AFC South Conference. How come all the National sports media skip over the Colts. It's just not fair. We got the second best Quarter Back in free agency. Yet Tampa bay gets 5 prime time games."

Walker: To be fair, Terry, most of the projections from the national media that I've seen to this point have the Colts winning the AFC South Division (or at least being right there). USA TODAY has the Colts at 11-5 and AFC South champs; CBS SportsLine has the Colts at 8.5 wins, tied for the most in the division with the Tennessee Titans; ESPN.com has the Colts at 10-6 and tied atop the division with the Titans; and I've seen the Colts getting plenty of love on the NFL Network of late.

Now the lack of primetime games, especially at Lucas Oil Stadium, that's a completely different issue altogether. We chronicled here recently the disparity in home primetime games for the Colts since 2012 compared to the rest of the league; in short, the Colts have or will have played 20 of their 27 primetime games on the road during that span, which represents a 74-percent clip that is tops in the NFL by a wide margin, relatively speaking. I don't really know the answer or solution to that particular issue, and all Frank Reich can and will do is tell his team to force the league's hand by playing so well that it has to put them under the lights much more often each year. I do know the Colts' fans deserve at least a couple chances each season to show why Lucas Oil Stadium is one of the top home field advantages in the league on a national scale; hopefully this trend can start to reverse course soon.

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Adam K. (Chicago): "With the Running Backs Marlon Mack and Johnathon Taylor, who will get the starting roll this season?"

Walker: I honestly think with the way the Colts' offense will be set up, especially at the running back position, it really doesn't matter who "starts" the game, which literally is a statistic to show who was one of the 11 players on the field for the very first play from scrimmage. The chatter from head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni as of now is that Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor are going to be a "1-2 punch," so they're going to be sharing carries. Now, if after halfway through the season you want to take a look at who's logged more snaps and had more carries to that point, I think it'd be fair to start forming some assumptions and projections for the rest of the year, but at this point, you have a returning 1,000-yard rusher in Mack and, in my mind, the top college running back available in this year's draft in Taylor, who finished his Wisconsin career sixth all-time in FBS history in rushing yards. I agree with Sirianni that it's a good problem to have that the Colts are going to have to figure out a solid plan for utilizing both of these guys throughout a given contest.

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