INDIANAPOLIS — Frank Reich and the Indianapolis Colts could very well have the luxury of picking their flavor of choice at the tight end position when the team must cut down to its 53-man regular-season roster.
The team’s top three tight ends — Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron and Mo Alie-Cox — are well established, and while the team could conceivably keep five tight ends on its Week 1 roster, four seems to be a more realistic number based off what Reich has had available to him in the past.
So, at this point, it seems as if two players could be battling it out for that one spot over the next nine days: Hale Hentges and Ross Travis. And they each bring much different skillsets to the position.
Hentges, the undrafted rookie out of Alabama, is your more traditional tight end; a solid blocker, he also brings dependable hands as more of an intermediate route runner.
Travis, meanwhile, is the athletic mismatch; too fast to be covered by linebackers, too big to be covered by cornerbacks, and always a threat in the red zone.
Tough choices coming up for Reich and the Colts indeed.
What flavor do you choose?
“You’re exactly right: we look at it as two different positions. Not completely, but pretty much,” Reich said this week. “And obviously with Ross being in the mold of (Eric) Ebron and Hale being in the mold of Jack (Doyle) in the roles that they play, which we use differently in our offense. So that’s a mix that Chris (Ballard) and I talk about a lot when it comes down to roster spots and how that all plays out.”
The word “surprise” has been thrown around by both Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni when it comes to Hentges. It’s not that they didn’t think he’s capable of being a solid professional tight end; his college film just didn’t indicate how well he’d catch the ball at this level this early on.
A dependable blocking tight end at Alabama, where he played 58 games across four seasons, Hentges — who didn’t commit a single penalty — caught just 15 passes for 124 yards and six touchdowns in his college career.
But after being signed as an undrafted free agent, Hentges has never really slowed down in his progression as he learns Reich’s offense, particularly as a receiver. In training camp, Sirianni would joke with the defensive backs that they simply couldn’t cover him one-on-one.
“I would feel comfortable saying he’s surprised me,” Reich said this week of Hentges. “Not that we didn’t think he was a good player — he played tight end at Alabama, so he’s played at a good program — but just his level of consistency and playmaking, he hasn’t just been productive in these preseason games, he’s been productive in practice and (a) very smart player.”
Through two preseason games with the Colts, Hentges has caught five passes for 53 yards, including a four-reception, 34-yard performance last Saturday against the Cleveland Browns; he also caught a two-point conversion from quarterback Chad Kelly early in the fourth quarter.
The Colts have kept an undrafted free agent on their Week 1 roster for 20 straight seasons, the longest active streak in the NFL. Hentges is doing what he can to extend that streak to 21 years — but he’s not thinking that far ahead just yet.
“You know, I think I’ve just gotta work on the little stuff every day. Just get one percent better each day and not be satisfied with the little success that I’ve had so far and just continue to pound on,” he said after the Browns game. “I think there’s a lot of work to be done, and I’m just going to watch a lot of film, talk to my mentors, talk to the coaches and figure out what I could do better, but there’s a long way to go, for sure.”
As for Travis, the journey back from a torn ACL late in the fourth quarter of last year’s preseason finale against the Cincinnati Bengals has been a long one. At the time, he was all but guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster, but instead had to undergo surgery and work through intensive recovery and rehab efforts.
It all paid off Saturday against the Browns, in his first game back since that knee injury last year, when he hauled in a 24-yard touchdown from Kelly at the 13:18 mark of the fourth quarter.
“I know my mom, dad and sister are here, so I’m sure my mom’s a little emotional — even I was a little emotional on the sideline, just because how last year went,” Travis said after the game. “And there’s a select few people that know what you’ve got to go through to get back on that field and all the time you put in.
“But ultimately, man, I’m just happy to celebrate with everybody,” he continued. “I told all the trainers, I told everybody I was working with me, ‘Man, this was all of us,’ you know what I’m saying? They were a big part of it.”
That touchdown pass was a perfect example of what Travis brings to the table. A 6-foot-6, 248-pound former collegiate basketball player at Penn State, he originally lined up in a three-point stance off the right edge of the offensive line. While he said he was supposed to keep bringing his man up the seam, Ross bent his route a little sharper than he originally intended.
But Kelly found the athletic tight end perfectly in-between three members of the Browns’ secondary, and after catching the ball around the six-yard line, Ross took on two hits and still was able to cross the goal line for the score.
The play was the latest reminder for Travis and the Colts that he’s not only back, but he can be a legit weapon for their offense.
“Absolutely, that’s the last part of an injury like that is just getting out on the field and feeling yourself making these cuts and visualizing the plays and all that stuff, man,” Travis said. “Just being on your feet, and it’s just all about gaining confidence out there in your leg again. And then you get out here on gameday and just play.”
Hentges and Travis get their next opportunity to show what they can do Saturday, when the Chicago Bears come to town for Week 3 of the preseason. Reich is excited to see this race go all the way to the finish line, which will be 4 p.m. ET next Saturday, Aug. 31, when the team must cut down to its initial 53-man roster.
“You know, there’s no reason to try to decide that right now,” Reich said. “They both have continued to be consistent, steady, good progress. Some of those decisions get made on health of the roster, health of everybody, what we’re planning on doing offensively and what are we planning on emphasizing. And then Chris has to manage all the stuff of everything else; all the other roster considerations.
“They both look good.”