Colts Mailbag

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Colts Mailbag: Nyheim Hines Set For Big Year, Chad Kelly's Future, Rotation At Defensive End, Evaluating The Tight End Position

In this week’s Colts Mailbag, readers inquire about running back Nyheim Hines' role in 2020, quarterback Chad Kelly's future in Indy, how the team will handle the defensive end rotation, where the Colts are at tight end 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:

Justyn C. (Raleigh, N.C.): "With the awesome RB addition in the draft, the depth chart is getting crowded at that position with 3 very productive backs. Nyheim Hines can be very productive as a pass catcher. Do you see any option where the Colts transition Hines to a WR?"

Walker: I don't foresee Nyheim Hines being transitioned into more of a wide receiver role. In fact, Justyn, I think Hines' role on offense will expand even more in 2020. That might be hard to believe given the fact the Colts now have two starting-caliber running backs in Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor, but hear me out: who is Indy's starting quarterback now? Philip Rivers. And who has Hines been compared to throughout his college career and into his first two years in the NFL? Darren Sproles. The same Sproles that logged 146 receptions for 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns (while also running 249 times for 1,154 yards and another six scores on the ground) during his time with the San Diego Chargers from 2005 through 2010 when, yep, Rivers was his quarterback. And since that time, Rivers has built connections with a couple other running backs with similar skillsets to Hines in Danny Woodhead and Austin Ekeler. So the Colts have a quarterback who loves to work with shifty running backs like Hines who can get the job done running routes out of the backfield, which leads me to believe that won't change this season.

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Steve B. (Waukegan, Ill.): "Does Chad Kelly no longer have a future with the Colts?"

Walker: Chad Kelly still has a shot at a future with the Colts, but it all depends on how the rest of this offseason, training camp and the preseason play out, and how the team wants to handle the quarterback position once the regular season arrives. What is clear right now is that Philip Rivers and Jacoby Brissett are the clear No. 1 and 2 guys at the position, while Kelly and fourth-round pick Jacob Eason will battle it out for the No. 3 job. Now, that's not to say it'll be impossible for Kelly to show enough improvement to eventually battle for the backup job behind Rivers, but that's just where we stand at this current moment. Then when the regular season arrives, how many QBs will the Colts keep on their 53-man roster? The norm — two? Or will they go with three again, like they did for the last half of the 2019 season with Brissett, Brian Hoyer and Kelly? And do they want to risk waiving Kelly and/or Eason to try to put them on the practice squad? There are just too many possible factors in play to make a definitive statement one way or another about Kelly at this point in time.

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Colby B. (Plainfield, Ind.): "Will Jacob Eason start the 2021 NFL season"

Walker: As of right now, Eason, once his signs his rookie deal, will be the only Colts quarterback under contract past the 2020 season. I do think, however, that if Philip Rivers has a solid first season in Indy, the two sides could try to work out a deal for him to return in 2021, and general manager Chris Ballard also hasn't ruled out the possibility of Jacoby Brissett even returning to the Colts past this year (and then there's Chad Kelly, who we discussed above). I think Eason will get every chance to sit and learn behind Rivers and Brissett this year, and then if you're Frank Reich, you take a nice, hard look at his development once the 2020 season is over and then make a call from there as to whether or not he'd be ready to compete for the starting job in 2021. If not, he'd still have two more years remaining on his rookie deal to give it a go in 2022 or 2023. So right now it's a big "TBD" on your question, Colby.

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Ben B. (Geneva, Ill.): "How will Isaiah Rodgers be utilized? Will he be a special teamer? I think he is a very underrated cornerback and returner and could play a huge role in the special teams in the future."

Walker: I think Isaiah Rodgers, with a solid rookie offseason, training camp and preseason, could very well find himself on the Colts' Week 1 roster. If he can keep growing as a cornerback after a solid college career at UMass, then I think ultimately Rodgers' speed — he reportedly ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash in pre-draft workouts — and playmaking ability as a returner could very well put him in the running to potentially take over the kickoff returner job (other candidates right now include Nyheim Hines, Parris Campbell and Ashton Dulin). Also, consider this: we know third-round pick Julian Blackmon will likely get a spot on the 53-man roster once he's fully recovered from a December knee procedure; general manager Chris Ballard estimated it might not be until October until Blackmon is close to 100 percent. So that potentially leaves a spot open at defensive back once the regular season begins — could Rodgers be a candidate to benefit in this scenario? Lots has to happen between now and then, but it's something to think about.

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Chris S. (Indianapolis): "After seeing the draft choices, free agents signings, and current roster salary cap, why not sign Clowney to a 1-2 year deal ($18M/yr) since we have the cap room without the risk for future cap issues???"

Walker: We addressed the Jadeveon Clowney topic last week, but since it's a popular question these days, I'll re-hash the answer: this is a tricky one. Because the Colts do have some cap room left to spend, and a guy like Clowney sure would be a heck of a pickup for the defense. But I think we also need to consider a couple things here: first, Clowney probably needs to undergo some testing by team medical personnel before being signed, wherever he ends up. With the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders in play, it's near impossible for those team doctors to get their hands on Clowney at this time. Secondly, the Colts have a ton of key guys entering the final years of their respective contracts in 2020, including T.Y. Hilton, Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Justin Houston, Denico Autry, Ryan Kelly, Marlon Mack and Anthony Walker. While it's not likely every single one of those players returns to the Colts in 2021, you have to keep enough in the coffers to re-sign at least a few of 'em. So I'm not completely ruling out the possibility of the Colts sneaking into the Clowney sweepstakes at some point, but I'd say at this point it's not likely.

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Javier M. (Jacksonville, Fla.): "Wow!! What a draft!! Who stood out the most was our new RB Jonathan Taylor. Watching his highlights was like watching someone threading needles all day long. This kid slips through the tightest of holes right up to the endzone. He reminds me of Marshall Faulk in his prime, relentless in breaking tackles left and right with the speed of Adrian Peterson. Not much of a question, but man, I needed to express my excitement for this new offense! Reppin' the white and blue, reppin' the horseshoe!! "

Walker: Glad to see you're excited about the Colts' 2020 draft class, and Jonathan Taylor in particular, Javier. While it's hard to see Taylor wearing that No. 28 Colts jersey and not think of Marshall Faulk, I think of Taylor more of a Marshawn Lynch mold; that insane mixture of speed and power. He'll run right through you or around you. Taylor, who had the best 40-yard dash time among running backs in this year's Scouting Combine (4.39 seconds), is what Colts Director of Pro Personnel Kevin Rogers considers to be a "genetic freak." He's a perfect fit for this Indy offense under Frank Reich.

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Neal F. (Fremont, Ind.): "Just re-read your pre-draft article on what you thought were the Colts needs in the draft. It appears to me you are spot on. In fact they picked up a player in everyone of the positions you mentioned except edge rusher. Are we banking on the young guys developing or do you think we use some of that $24 million in cap space to go acquire a free agent rusher like Clowney, Griffen, or Golden?"

Walker: Why thank you, Neal. Big shoutout to Colts.com's Jake Arthur, who once again did a tremendous job with our draft coverage this year. As for the defensive end position, I think right now the team is fine with standing pat with that it's got. The big hole to fill will be at left defensive end, which was filled by Jabaal Sheard the last couple years. But Sheard remains an unrestricted free agent, so for now the team is exploring its options at that spot. Perhaps defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus will consider sliding Justin Houston over to the left side, with Al-Quadin Muhammad as the primary piece of depth there, and then have a mixture of Kemoko Turay and Ben Banogu rushing off the right end, with Denico Autry and Tyquan Lewis mixing in at both spots? The Colts also signed Syracuse product Kendall Coleman as an undrafted free agent, so he'll for sure have every opportunity to win a job at defensive end, as well. So, for now, I believe the Colts will stick with what they've got at defensive end.

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John C. (Hewitt, Texas): "Leading up to the draft, tight end was a position of need for the Colts after losing Ebron. Why do you think they chose not to address that need in the draft or with any undrafted free agents? Do you think the Colts' brass believes signing Burton is enough to make the tight end position a strength?"

Walker: Tight end is an extremely hard position to come in and master as a rookie in today's NFL. Not only do you need to be an effective pass catcher and legit offensive weapon, but most tight ends also need to be proficient as blockers, whether in-line in the run game or holding back blitzers as extra protectors in the pass game. I'm sure the Colts had tight ends on their board throughout Day 2 and 3 of this year's NFL Draft, but either they got picked before they could get a chance to select one, or the team simply coveted players at other positions more. We've said this before, and I have a feeling we're about to say it again with the next question: the position a prospect plays is only one of many factors the Colts consider when putting together their board. While we all can point to the roster and come up with "needs," the Colts are going to utilize the draft to get the best players they can find, and that's usually regardless of their position. And then, as you alluded to, the Colts signed free agent tight end Trey Burton just before the draft, who is not only very familiar with head coach Frank Reich's playcalling — Reich was Burton's offensive coordinator when they were with the Philadelphia Eagles a few seasons back — but is also one of the top blocking tight ends in the league. So for now, the Colts have three primary tight ends — Jack Doyle, Burton and Mo Alie-Cox — while a few others, including Ian Buntin, Farrod Green, Xavier Grimble and Matt Lengel, will battle it out for possibly one or two other spots at the position come Week 1 of the regular season.

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Al J. (Indianapolis): "A RB? Don't we have 4 good ones on the roster already?"

Walker: Let me reiterate: the Colts went with the best player available on their board when they moved up three spots to take Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor with the 41st-overall pick in this year's NFL Draft. They obviously know what their situation was at running back heading into the draft — many teams would love to have guys like Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins — but Chris Ballard, Frank Reich & Co. simply could not pass up the chance to add Taylor to the mix. As of now, Taylor will split the load with Mack, while Hines (third-down) and Wilkins (key fill-in) will continue to play their roles. Taylor also gives the Colts a little more stability at the position moving forward; Mack is set to become a free agent after the 2020 season, and there's no indication of any contract extension discussions as of yet.

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Robert B. (Danville, Ind.): "Enjoy the mailbag, have missed a couple so apologize of this is repeat question. Have you heard any updates or speculation concerning Adam Viniteri? Have found it strange to not hear anything on his plans. Thanks"

Walker: Thanks Robert, and if you happened to catch last week's Colts Mailbag, we answered a question about Adam Vinatieri and his potential future with the Colts. But because this is a popular question, and has been for a while, I'll re-hash that answer: as it pertains to Adam Vinatieri, no news right now is … well, just that: no news. Vinatieri went on injured reserve on Dec. 9 last year, and he subsequently underwent knee surgery. Last we knew, Vinatieri was still working hard to recover from that procedure and rehab his knee, and until he had a good grasp on where he was in that process, he wasn't going to make a decision one way or another on his potential future in the NFL. So as soon as he makes any sort of decision, we'll let you know.

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Brent E. (Martinsville, Ind.): "Will the Colts try and make a trade for TE OJ Howard? Seems like that is the final missing piece to make this a championship caliber team."

Walker: I don't think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would part ways with O.J. Howard unless they got a significant haul in return — and that's even considering the fact the Bucs just acquired the formerly-retired Rob Gronkowski from the New England Patriots. Howard, at 6-foot-6, 251 pounds, certainly has the ideal size at the tight end position; his offensive production, meanwhile, has been fair: he's averaged about 31 receptions for 485 yards and four touchdowns in his three NFL seasons so far. The Buccaneers also decided to exercise Howard's fifth-year option for the 2021 season, so that's always a factor. Considering nobody really knows what to expect out of Gronkowski in his comeback season, one might assume the Buccaneers would prefer to keep Howard around just in case. So, in short, I'm not so sure Howard would ever be in play for Indy, unless he happens to hit the open market as a free agent

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