Colts Mailbag

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Colts Mailbag: Starting The Season Off Right, Edge Rusher Depth, Early Expectations For Michael Pittman Jr.

In this week’s Colts Mailbag, readers inquire about the roster depth, particularly along the defensive line, wide receiver Parris Campbell’s potential role in the offense, how Jacob Eason was able to win the battle for the No. 3 quarterback job, early expectations for rookie Michael Pittman Jr. and much more.

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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:

LilBoomer95 on Colts Reddit: "Will the colts start 1-0? With the Jags likely tanking, are the colts getting their first win in Duval in years? But in all seriousness, my questions stem from the QB position or the defense. If this is really one of the best rosters since the Manning days, how far will that take us (Especially if Rivers is lights out solid)?"

Walker: In all seriousness, the Colts could really do themselves a favor by ending some notable streaks on Sunday. The team hasn't won a season opener since 2013, and hasn't won a season opener on the road since 2006. And, as we all know, the Colts have had troubles in Jacksonville of late; Indy hasn't won a road game against the Jaguars since 2014.

And I would say that defensively this could certainly be considered the best-overall unit since the Peyton Manning era. In my eyes, you've got three All-Pro-caliber players entering the season in DeForest Buckner, Darius Leonard and Kenny Moore II (Moore II is yet to earn this distinction like the other two, but he is regarded as one of the top nickel cornerbacks in the NFL). There's Justin Houston, who has been one of the top pass rushers of his era and is still getting double-digit sack seasons, and then solid underrated starters like Grover Stewart, Denico Autry and Anthony Walker. You also have a few potential up-and-coming stars in Bobby Okereke, Rock Ya-Sin and Khari Willis, and, when healthy, Kemoko Turay. I'm also still very high on Malik Hooker, and if teams want to try to test this secondary more, believe he's prime to get interceptions in bunches. This has been repeated throughout the offseason, and we all need to see it in action, of course, but I think Buckner alone is just such a potential game-changer for this defense. The Colts haven't had a player like him along their defensive line in a long, long time. So I look forward to seeing how big No. 99 affects everybody else around him.

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coltsguy on Colts Reddit: "Hi Andrew thanks for reaching out to us on Reddit for questions. While the Colts have the "Run the damn ball" mantra and a 1-1 punch at RB they have also constantly said they need more plays down the field. I know it will vary by opponent and circumstance but what do you think the mix of run vs pass plays the Colts ideally would want to use?_"

Walker: All the thanks goes to you all in the Colts Reddit space, colts_guy. Tons of great questions on a weekly basis, including this one. Frank Reich has said in the past that ideally he wants to be in the 60-percent range in terms of passing plays on a week-to-week basis. Now, there might be some weeks where you get rolling with the run game and/or you're up big in the second half and simply milking the clock via the run, but for the most part, Reich would prefer to pass the ball a little bit more than run it. When looking at the San Diego Chargers in 2014 and 2015, when Reich was Philip Rivers' offensive coordinator, the team threw the ball 60.56 percent and 64.27 percent of the time, respectively. But those Chargers teams also didn't have the rushing attack, nor did it have the offensive line, that this Colts team has. So that's the best way I can get a decent idea what to expect heading into this season, which leads me to believe that the 60-percent figure will probably end up being about right.

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GBarr11 on Colts Reddit: "Hey Andrew love the work you do with Colts Mailbag! I'm wondering what you think about the defensive line rotation. Specifically with what you think about Autry's potential output playing the end. Overall will this unit continue to be dominant, and also do you anticipate Turay adding to that dominance if he comes back around the time they expect him to? Additionally, will the ripple effect from the effectiveness of the D line better the overall defense? Thanks again!_"

Walker: Thanks for the kind words! I have high hopes about Denico Autry potentially lining up more at defensive end this season, just because of what he was able to do moving both inside and outside in 2018. According to Pro Football Focus, Autry logged 664 total snaps along the defensive line two seasons ago, with about 55 percent coming off the edge and 45 percent coming from the interior. The result? He logged a career-best nine sacks and 13 tackles for loss. With DeForest Buckner doing his work from inside and Justin Houston being a threat off the other edge, I think that could present some favorable one-on-one matchups for Autry, which is when I think he does his best work. As for Kemoko Turay, of course you're hoping to get his elite skillset back off the edge as soon as possible; he's probably the top speed rusher on this Colts roster. But in the meantime, this is a great opportunity for guys like Al-Quadin Muhammad and Ben Banogu to step up and show what they can do in various roles, too, and then once Turay is ready to go, you hope you can keep rolling from there.

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waynewideopenTD on Colts Reddit: "Do you think Noah Togiai plays at all on Sunday?"

Walker: There could be a chance Noah Togiai dresses for Sunday's opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars; how much he plays, of course, is anybody's guess. The Colts last season had a tight end inactive in just five out of their 16 games, the first four of which were Weeks 1-4, when the team had three healthy tight ends in Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron and Mo Alie-Cox. As things currently stand, the Colts enter tomorrow's game with just three total tight ends on their active roster in Doyle, Alie-Cox and Togiai, so considering the importance of the position within Frank Reich's offense, as well as any potential special teams roles he could play, then, yes, I think there's a chance the undrafted rookie Togiai dresses against the Jaguars.

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Aleph_Alpha_001 on Colts Reddit: "How is Anthony Castonzo's health going into Week 1? What was the mysterious injury that was lightly reported on last week?"

Walker: As I'm sure you've heard by now, Anthony Castonzo should be good to go for Sunday's season opener against the Jaguars after dealing with an oblique injury over the past week or so. Castonzo was a limited participant in practice on Wednesday and Thursday, and then sat out Friday's practice as a rest day. Head coach Frank Reich said on Friday that Castonzo was among several players — including left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton — who had missed practice to some degree this week that were considered good to go for the game, and, accordingly, the only players with any game status for Sunday are safety Julian Blackmon (knee; out) and linebacker Matthew Adams (ankle; questionable).

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sigma4488 on Colts Reddit: "Is there concern for whomever plays opposite of Justin Houston given the Turay injury?"

Walker: I don't think there's much concern at all. Obviously everybody involves wants to see Kemoko Turay play as much as possible, as he has showcased an elite-type skillset off the edge when he has been healthy. But as I mentioned, this is a huge opportunity for some other guys to show what they can do. Obviously it seems as if Denico Autry is going to get the chance to potentially be the starter at that other defensive end spot, and I think you more or less know what to expect out of him. But I'm looking at Al-Quadin Muhammad and Ben Banogu, specifically, as guys who can really become key playmakers in this defense for at least the next six weeks while Turay works his way back. Muhammad, specifically, is someone I'm very interested in watching these first few weeks of the season. I thought he's done a solid job in spurts replacing Jabaal Sheard the past couple seasons when he's been injured or missed some time, and now I think Muhammad is getting an opportunity to show what he can do with a more consistent role once again. He had a very strong training camp, and obviously the hope is that can translate into the regular season. If you can get guys like Muhammad and Banogu rolling, on top of what the starting unit is going to provide, then look out.

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Ozzurip on Colts Reddit: "What are the biggest concerns to watch for over the course of this season?"

Walker: I think if you're the Colts you just want to make sure that some of those deficiencies from last season don't become a consistent issue again this year. On offense, you want to keep a strong rushing attack, but you've got to have more chunk plays through the passing game. Taking more chances can certainly lead to a few more mistakes here and there, but the reward is believed to be worth the risk. Defensively, you're looking for better overall communication out of the back end, which will lead to a decrease in those long pass plays being completed over the top of your cornerbacks and safeties. What should help in this area is better pressure from those up front — especially in the interior of the defensive line. And on special teams, you simply need to clean up on some of those issues in the kicking game, from converting key field goals and extra points, to ensuring the entire operation doesn't allow back-breaking blocked kicks. If you can shore up those areas and keep seeing development out of your younger players, then there's no reason to believe the team can't turn around its 7-9 record from last season.

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bodiepartlow on Colts Reddit: "What are you looking for in week 1 from Campbell? Expectations for Mack catching balls out of the backfield?"

Walker: I just don't see any reason why Parris Campbell won't be a major part of the offense early and often throughout Sunday's opener against the Jaguars. He'll be the key slot receiver, of course, and it'll be fun watching him line up against one of the better nickel cornerbacks in the league in Jacksonville's D.J. Hayden, but I can see the Colts, like they showed last season when he was able to play, getting creative in the ways it puts the ball in Campbell's hands with end-arounds and screen passes. And I think Marlon Mack will be more of a factor in the passing game — just how much is obviously yet to be seen. There are only so many passes to go around, of course, but I wouldn't be surprised if Mack is in the 25 to 30 reception range by the end of the season after catching 21, 17 and 14 passes his first three years, respectively. I think, if nothing else, Mack will add a few catches from Philip Rivers on plays in which most quarterbacks choose to throw the ball away or take their chances by scrambling; Rivers seems to instead prefer just dumping it off to the nearest player, which is usually his running back, and letting him try to work a little magic to get at least a couple yards out of it as a final option.

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Defjamz26 on Colts.com Forums: "What was the ultimate deciding factor in Jacob Eason being able to beat out Chad Kelly for the 3rd QB spot?"

Walker: General manager Chris Ballard said both Jacob Eason and Chad Kelly had strong training camps, but in the end, the team just decided to go with Eason's upside as its No. 3 quarterback, although Kelly was brought back onto the practice squad, which is especially notable this season given all the uncertainty provided by the COVID-19 pandemic. But here's what Ballard had to say about Eason: "Jacob has done a good job. Everything we've asked him to do, he's done. He's very talented. I think you all saw it in the scrimmage, some of the throws he made. He is very talented, but he has to grow. He is a young player and he has to learn. He has to grow and he has to earn his way. At this point, he's doing it."

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twfish on Colts.com Forums: "With Turray being out 6 weeks is there much concern about our Edge rushers? How was Banogu looking during training camp? Do the colts really think he will be able to apply the necessary pressure opposite of Houston? It sounded like Fountain had a really good camp, is having Dulin for special teams worth more than Fountain getting game time reps? Is it possible we see a trade for a tight end seeing how week we are at the position and how much Reich favors TE's?"

Walker: I've gone over the edge rusher position already a couple times previously in this week's Mailbag, so hopefully that all makes sense. But as it pertains to the wide receiver position, really, those last couple spots — the fifth and sixth receiver — pretty much have to be major special teams contributors. Unless you have an in-game injury, those last couple wide receivers aren't going to be utilized in the offense very much on a week-to-week basis (although you fully trust that they can come in and do their job as a receiver if needed). As it pertains to Ashton Dulin, specifically, this guy showed last season he has a special knack as a gunner on special teams. I asked special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone about Dulin, specifically, last season: "I worked Ashton out two years ago when he was coming out of Malone (University); he worked out at Toledo's pro day, and I saw first-hand that this kid was big, strong, fast, athletic, he can run, he plays with good strength at the point of attack to be able to take on blocks. He does a good job for us — he was one of our most productive players overall in coverage because of his ability to play at that gunner position where you're really defeating two blockers or defenders, however you want to call it, at one time. So he showed up a number of times for us downing balls inside the five, making plays." So Daurice Fountain still remains in the mix on the practice squad, and certainly he, too, could play a role on special teams, but the Colts went with the players they felt could best help them in total heading into Week 1.

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CurBeatElite on Colts.com Forums: "Reich mentioned having 6-7 plays a game drawn up for Jacoby when we first signed Rivers. Based on what you saw in camp, do you think there's still a chance of that? Or is Jacoby strictly going to be a backup?"

Walker: On Sept. 2, Frank Reich had told reporters that the primary reason the Colts elected to release fullback Roosevelt Nix prior to the start of the regular season was that a lack of a true offseason program and a shortened training camp didn't allow for enough time to fully implement the two-back offense. Reich was asked if those same factors will have any effect on any sort of packages the team could develop for quarterback Jacoby Brissett: "There is a little bit in that, but since Jacoby was our starter last year, the confidence we have in him and he knows our offense and him knowing our personnel, I wouldn't think that would play in as much with Jacoby." Now, I don't know if Brissett will be used every week, but I think there's still a chance he's utilized from time to time in certain situations.

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BlueCollarColts on Colts.com Forums: "What do you expect Pittman's role to be through the first few weeks of the season? Where do you think he sits relative to Pascal/Campbell/Hilton?"

Walker: Here's one of my famous "I hope this isn't a cop-out answer, but it sure sounds like one" answers, but … let's just wait this one out a few weeks. I don't have any doubts that Michael Pittman Jr., who was a second-round draft pick this year and obviously brought in for a reason, will play a role in this offense. And he was also the target of a lot of Philip Rivers passes throughout training camp. But because the Colts have so many potential targets in the pass game — the aforementioned T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell and Zach Pascal among them — it's hard to tell right now just exactly where Pittman Jr. fits, so it might take a few weeks to get a good beat on that. The Colts loved his film at USC, where he showed strong hands all over the field and was a quality outside target in one-on-one coverage, and you definitely saw flashes of that throughout camp, especially in the red zone. So let's give the rookie a little time to figure it out.

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Dogg63 on Colts.com Forums: "Are the Colts planning to 'protect' any players on the practice squad prior to Week 1 kickoff?"

Walker: I don't know specifically if there have been players on the Colts' practice squad that have been protected heading into Sunday's opener against the Jaguars, but Frank Reich was asked this week about that very practice. "Chris (Ballard) and I have talked about that," Reich said. "That is going to be a week-to-week decision. We're not going to talk about who that is or why we're doing it or not doing it. But that is something that we've talked about and have a plan for. We feel like we have good 'whys' behind what we're thinking." Not a very informative answer, I know, but just not a ton to go off of.

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EastStreet on Colts.com Forums: "1. Can you take a shot at labeling our 6 WRs as X, Z, or slot. The depth chart looks a bit confusing in that aspect. 2. Any comments on the shake up at LB depth. Speed from WILL to SAM, Adams from SAM to WILL, Franklin from SAM to MIKE. I know these guys are tasked with learning multiple positions, just surprised a bit at the realignment."

Walker: I'll say this, and I think I have this caveat at the start of every season: what you're seeing is the Colts' unofficial depth chart. Every NFL team is required to put together an unofficial depth chart the week leading up to each game. I always take it as a good general idea of who's lining up where, but I never consider it to be a cut-and-dry representation of the exact depth at each position. So I realize it's worth good fodder, especially early in the season, but it's probably not worth getting too deep into the position-by-position analysis, to be honest.

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holeymoley99 on Colts.com Forums: "Why has Safety depth not been addressed on Practice Squad ? Why two new TE's to active roster and P.S. while Grimble and Vollert not retained ?"

Walker: Since you've sent in this question, the team signed veteran safety Ibraheim Campbell to their practice squad. But I will say this: I guess I don't get why safety depth is a concern of yours at this point. The team has five safeties on its active roster, and, yes, rookie Julian Blackmon is inactive for Sunday's season opener against the Jaguars, but even four safeties is more than enough. And now Campbell adds another veteran presence at the position on the practice squad. As for the tight ends, the Colts obviously weighed their options — which included guys like Xavier Grimble or Andrew Vollert, or even former Indy tight ends like Hale Hentges and Ross Travis, each of whom were released during final cuts last weekend — but obviously the college and pro scouting staffs have had their eyes on rookie Noah Togiai and jumped at the opportunity to claim him when he was waived by the Philadelphia Eagles, who were apparently planning on re-signing Toaiai back after waiving him during final cuts.

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