INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts on Saturday held their final training camp practice of the year. With final roster cuts looming on Saturday, and the regular season set to begin in just two weeks, what were some of the top takeaways from this year's training camp action?
» The COVID-19 protocols put into place worked: It took weeks of careful planning, both in conjunction with the league and internally, but by the time the players started reporting to the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center in late-July, the focus, like every other training camp, was on football and getting ready for the regular season. Led by longtime head athletic trainer Dave Hammer, who was appointed the team's infection control officer, the entire Colts organization bought into all the precautions and protocols put into place to significantly decrease the chances of the highly-contagious COVID-19 virus making its way into the facility and potentially wreaking havoc on the roster and the coaching staff.
Perhaps the most notable COVID-19-related development for the Colts happened at the start of camp, when three players — safety Rolan Milligan, linebacker Skai Moore and cornerback Marvell Tell III — elected to opt-out of the 2020 season for varying reasons.
But beyond those three opt-outs, as well as some new protocols put into place around the facility — not to mention some added expectations for players, coaches and staff when they'e away from the building — it was all football, all the time over the past month or so, which is all you can ask for from a preparation standpoint.
These efforts are far from over with the regular season set to begin two weeks from today, but this success in the midst of a global pandemic is probably the most important takeaway from the Colts' training camp this year.
» Philip Rivers, Colts' offense, get "in sync:" Back in mid-March, when the Colts officially announced the signing of veteran free agent quarterback Philip Rivers, the main selling point was his familiarity with head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, with whom he worked a few years back in some of his more productive seasons with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers.
As it turned out, that familiarity would end up paying huge dividends in ways Reich, Sirianni or general manager Chris Ballard couldn't have even imagined when free agency began.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused the NFL to institute a virtual offseason workout program; instead of a usual offseason program, in which players return to their respective team facilities for strength and conditioning work, OTAs and minicamp, the players and coaches — who were spread out at their respective homes throughout the country — would instead utilize video conferencing to meet throughout the week. And with fitness centers and gyms mostly closed across the U.S., players had to get creative to find ways to stay in shape.
With any other new starting quarterback, those lack of on-field reps in the spring could've been a disaster. After all, it takes time for any quarterback to not only get a feel for the players he's throwing the ball to, but also to get on the same page with his offensive linemen.
But once training camp began, and the players were finally able to begin practicing together, it was clear that Rivers' comfort within Reich's system was going to allow for the offense to accelerate through that breaking-in phase. In practices, Rivers and his teammates worked as if they had been operating together for months.
There are still tweaks to be made here and there, but with everything in place, from one of the league's best offensive line units, to a top-flight rushing attack, a healthy receiving corps full of playmakers and the fiery future Hall of Famer throwing them the ball, the Colts like where they are offensively heading into Week 1.
""I feel like we are in sync," Reich said Saturday. "I feel like we are where we should be considering we are two weeks away from the season."
» Colts "very encouraged" as rookies get first taste of NFL action: The implementation of a virtual offseason workout program affected Rivers and the Colts' offense, for sure, but it also was a huge hurdle to clear for the team's rookies. The on-field work first-year players usually get in the spring with their teammates and position coaches is invaluable, but it simply wasn't going to be an option this year.
Instead, the rookies had to do the best they could to stay afloat throughout the virtual meetings and then work out the kinks on the field once training camp began. This was on top of the fact the league canceled all preseason games as a COVID-19 precaution, giving the young players even fewer opportunities to show what they can do.
But there's a reason Ballard and his scouting staff have extremely stringent standards for the college prospects they target each year in the NFL Draft. Simply put, the Colts want smart, resilient players who love the game of football; if a young player has those qualities — and, of course, some elite traits and production on the field — then this team believes they have what it takes to overcome any sort of adversity thrown their way.
So that's why guys like wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and running back Jonathan Taylor were thrown right into the fire with Rivers and the offense from the very start of camp. That's why quarterback Jacob Eason was able to go toe-to-toe with veteran Chad Kelly to compete for the No. 3 quarterback job. That's why Danny Pinter was not only able to make a move from college tackle to guard with the Colts, but eventually add meaningful center reps to his plate. That's why guys like defensive tackle Rob Windsor, cornerback/return man Isaiah Rodgers, wide receiver Dezmon Patmon and linebacker/special teams standout Jordan Glasgow were all able to step in and show plenty of flashes of their respective talents over the past few weeks.
The fact remains: these guys are rookies. Not everything is going to immediately click, and there are going to be some bumps in the road. But what's clear is many of these players are going to be expected to play major roles, beginning as soon as the season-opener in two weeks against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Colts are clearly excited about what their 2020 rookie class can provide in the here and now, as well as in the future.
"We're very encouraged by the young men that we brought in," Ballard said recently in an interview with SiriusXM NFL.
» DeForest Buckner is as-advertised for a rising defensive unit: From linebacker Darius Leonard, to cornerback Kenny Moore II to defensive end Justin Houston, the Colts have plenty of elite playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. But after evaluating the entire 2019 season, Ballard came to the conclusion that something else — something critical, in fact — was missing: a dominating presence in the interior of the defensive line.
The three-tech spot within coordinator Matt Eberflus' 4-3 scheme is known as the "engine that drives the whole defense," so in March, Ballard went out and got one of the best young players at that position in the NFL, trading the Colts' first-round (13th-overall) pick to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who was immediately signed to a long-term contract extension.
At just 26, the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Buckner can do it all: he's a game-wrecker up front who can wreak havoc on the quarterback and make big plays against the run, but he also consistently takes on multiple blockers, which frees up the defensive teammates around him.
It's a little more difficult to fully evaluate the impact of a defensive lineman during training camp when there's no actual tackling happening in practice, but Reich made it clear on Saturday just how impressed he's been with Buckner so far.
"Literally, every day he has practiced you just feel his presence out there," Reich said. "I think he is going to be a game-wrecker. He is a leader. He is just so long, he's strong, he's smart, he's unselfish, he knows his assignment. If he's not wrecking a game, he's eating up blockers to get somebody else free. I'm really looking forward to seeing what he does on our defense.
"He looks dominant out on the practice field every day," Reich continued. "So I am really excited about what he is going to bring to the table."
Other defensive newcomers that had solid camps included cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Tavon Wilson, while perhaps the biggest defensive storyline throughout training camp was the emergence of third-year defensive tackle/end Tyquan Lewis, who is hoping to put it all together after two injury-plagued, up-and-down seasons in Indy.
» Kicking battle coming down to the wire: For the first time since the 2005 season, the Colts are heading into the regular season with a new kicker — just who that kicker will be is yet to be known.
Chase McLaughlin, who kicked for the Colts the final four games last season, and undrafted free agent Rodrigo Blankenship, the All-American out of Georgia, have been battling it out since the start of camp.
And if you expected one of these guys to have established a clear lead over the other by the end of training camp, you'd be mistaken; just as soon as one kicker would have a strong day, the other would come back with a strong performance of their own.
Case in point: the Colts' two scrimmages this past week at Lucas Oil Stadium. Reich said he was weighing the performance of the kickers a little more in those game-like settings at the team's home stadium, but each player had alternating strong days; on Monday, it was McLaughlin, and on Saturday, it was Blankenship. Combined in the two Lucas Oil Stadium practices, McLaughlin hit 12-of-15 kicks, while Blankenship connected on 11-of-15.
So who's it going to be? Reich and the Colts have until 4 p.m. ET Saturday, when they must cut down to their 53-man regular season roster, to figure it out.
"It's exciting. It's good for the team. It's good for those guys," Reich said of the kicking competition. "Two good kickers — these are two NFL kickers right here. These guys both need to be playing in the league. They are doing a great job. We are just going to continue to evaluate everything, but they are handling it very well. So I'll look forward to seeing the film from (Saturday), seeing the times, kick charts and all that stuff. But they are handling it very well."
» Some injuries to monitor: The Colts had a very smooth camp in terms of injuries, as just a couple players over the past month were seen being helped off the field by trainers: defensive end Ben Banogu, who suffered an ankle injury at Monday's scrimmage, and tight end Trey Burton, who suffered a calf injury on Saturday, also at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Banogu has since been able to work himself back onto the field, but what are some other Colts injuries to keep an eye on with camp now wrapped up?
— Reich said Burton was undergoing further testing after suffering his calf injury on Saturday, but added: "My anticipation just from talking to him is it is going to be a little bit" before he can return. Burton had clearly become a favorite early target of Rivers' throughout training camp, so now it's up to Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox and potentially a guy like Xavier Grimble, Farrod Green, Andrew Vollert and/or Dominique Dafney to step it up while Burton works his way back.
— Defensive end Kemoko Turay, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury Week 5 last year against the Kansas City Chiefs, was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list at the start of training camp, and is yet to return to the practice field. Reich said a couple weeks back the team was "hopeful" that Turay could get back in the mix sometime soon. "He's making good progress, and he's obviously an integral part of what we want to do and really committed to rehabbing and getting back. We'll just take it day by day," Reich said.
— Rookie safety Julian Blackmon remains on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list, but there's a chance he could be making his on-field debut for the Colts at some point soon. Blackmon underwent knee surgery in December during his final season at Utah, and Indy selected him in the third round of this year's NFL Draft knowing it'd be a while before he could get back on the field. Reich said it's been important to exercise patience with Blackmon's situation, because as excited as everyone is about his potential as a versatile piece within the Colts' defense, that could all be for naught if he's rushed back too soon and has a setback.
— Top nickel cornerback Kenny Moore II suffered a groin injury early in camp, but has been seen working with trainers off to the side in recent days. Reich said Saturday he was hopeful that Moore II would be able to return to practice this week.
— Wide receiver Parris Campbell continues working his way back after a minor car accident on Tuesday landed him in the league's concussion protocol. Campbell was back on the sidelines on Friday watching practice, and Reich is optimistic about his prospects moving forward. Another top wide receiver, Zach Pascal, missed the last couple camp practices with a hamstring injury, but Reich didn't believe it to be too serious.
— There are a couple key pieces of depth on both sides of the ball whose statuses are a little more up in the air: wide receiver Marcus Johnson (unknown) and defensive tackle Sheldon Day (knee). Johnson has been seen working with trainers in recent days, but his status has not been addressed. Reich did not have an update on Day on Aug. 19, meanwhile: "The knee injury is going to take a little bit. It's going to take a little bit, but he is progressing nicely. But it is probably going to be a little bit," Reich added.