INDIANAPOLIS — With so many new faces on the field for the Indianapolis Colts this offseason, there's undoubtedly been a "feeling out" theme as the players and coaches start the process of creating a sense of unity heading into training camp.
But the third and final phase of the offseason workout program — the team's nine OTA practices — certainly was a step in the right direction.
It started out on May 23, when the team had a goal of taking the individual and positional fundamentals honed in Phase 2 and applying those to a full practice setting, and wrapped up nine productive practice sessions later on Thursday.
By then, first-year head coach Frank Reich said his squad reached its goal of learning 75 percent of the new offensive and defensive playbooks and schemes.
"We wanted to get a good look of our team and we were able to do that," Reich told reporters on Thursday. "We wanted to get our base systems in – offense, defense, and special teams. (I) felt like we accomplished that and we put a lot of good things on tape."
The offseason program officially wraps up this week, as the Colts will hold their three-day mandatory minicamp, the annual final step before taking a few weeks off and then really starting the grind with training camp.
But before we set our sights on Tuesday's start of minicamp, let's take a step back and focus on the top takeaways from the Colts' three weeks of OTA practices:
• Energy, energy, energy: The Colts players talked about the new coaching staff bringing a surge of energy with them, and that was definitely evident in the three OTA practice sessions available to be watched in their entirety by the media.
With each practice session lasting just under two hours, Reich and his staff made sure not to waste a single minute, as players were seen hustling from station to station from start to finish. Only during 11-on-11 drills did players really get a chance to stand around and watch at times, and even then coaches were pulling players aside and working on individual drills and going through what went right and what went wrong during a specific play.
Practicing fast and practicing hard — and doing it every day — means the actual game situations won't be as taxing.
"We set out and wanted to establish a tempo with what we are doing," Reich said. "We also wanted to establish an attitude that we were going to have."
That attitude was evident on Days 2, 4 and 9 — the three open practices to the media. Although the defense might've set the tone early in practice, the offense would counter and take over at times, too.
• "Rep chart" in full effect: Whether it was the offense, defense or special teams, there was rarely a sense of a "starting" or "backup" unit — at least one set in stone — during the three weeks of OTA practices.
This was especially true on defense, where players were seen quickly rotating in and out of the lineup, especially up front along the defensive line and at linebacker.
Some of that is, obviously, by design; Reich and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus have expressed a desire to have a strong rotation of defensive linemen that can be fresh throughout the game. While, for the most part, we saw Jabaal Sheard and Tarell Basham at defensive end and Al Woods (one technique) and Denico Autry (three technique) working with the "first-team" defense, we also saw a good dose of others filling in.
John Simon, Chris McCain and Anthony Johnson were in heavy rotation at defensive end, while Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Margus Hunt, Tyquan Lewis, Grover Stewart, Hassan Ridgeway and Caraun Reid were working their way in at defensive tackle.
At linebacker, we originally saw a look of Najee Goode (WILL), Anthony Walker (MIKE) and Antonio Morrison (SAM), but as the days wore on, more players got prime opportunities at those spots, including Tyrell Adams, Skai Moore and Jeremiah George.
So, at this point, it seems as though the overall reps matter much more than when they actually occur during practice. And lots of players certainly got lots of reps during OTAs.
• Lining up all over: Versatility is the name of the game in today's NFL, and we certainly got a good sense of the different looks the Colts could throw at their opponents in 2018 and beyond during these OTA practices:
- First off, as advertised, rookie running back Nyheim Hines was everywhere. He lined up in the backfield, out wide and in the slot, and was getting plenty of opportunities with the ball in his hands in all three spots. The Colts' fourth-round pick out of N.C. State started his college career as a slot receiver before converting full-time to running back, so it makes sense that Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni want to take advantage of those abilities.
- Also, as advertised, the Colts aren't going to be shy about exploiting mismatches with new tight end Eric Ebron. While Ebron has the size and strength to line up in a more traditional sense, he also has the speed and playmaking ability to be lined up wide as more of a receiver, which was definitely put on display several times during the open OTA practices. Look for Reich and Sirianni to try to take advantage of opportunities when defenses are forced to line up slower linebackers and safeties against the fifth-year veteran Ebron.
- Finally, we saw plenty of looks along the offensive line during OTAs. With Anthony Castonzo limited or not participating in all three of the practices available for the media, we originally saw a first-team offensive line consisting of Denzelle Good (left tackle), Quenton Nelson (left guard), Ryan Kelly (center), Matt Slauson (right guard) and Austin Howard (right tackle). By Thursday's ninth and final day of OTAs, however, Good had taken over at right tackle, and the ever-versatile Joe Haeg was in at left tackle. Reich and general manager Chris Ballard have expressed a desire to have nine to 10 starter-quality offensive linemen on the roster, and these moves — coupled with the re-signing of Jack Mewhort and the additions of Braden Smith and Howard, as well as the return of others with starting experience — has been a step in the right direction.
• Luck Watch: Andrew Luck continues to work his way back to the field after missing the entire 2017 season due to shoulder surgery. He was seen participating — stretching and going through quarterback/center exchanges and footwork drills, as well as handing the ball off — early in the second OTA practice, but Reich said the team decided to switch around Luck's workout schedule to better utilize his time by the second week, so he didn't participate in the open practices on Day 4 or Day 9. Luck has expressed an interest in being 100 percent ready to go by the start of training camp at the end of July, and while he's yet to throw a regulation NFL football as part of his workout routine, Reich said there's a chance the quarterback will ramp things up in the five to six weeks between this week's minicamp and the start of training camp to get to that point.
• Key injuries/limited participants: Luck and the aforementioned Castonzo make up just two of a good mix of key Colts players who were either limited during OTAs or did not participate at all in the three open sessions. Keep in mind, however, that the team isn't obligated to release an injury report of any sort during the offseason workout program — not to mention the fact that OTA practices are not mandatory — so more specific updates on the players listed below will likely have to come from Reich during training camp:
- Those who weren't seen participating all three weeks of OTAs included Luck, running back Marlon Mack, safety Clayton Geathers, safety Malik Hooker, linebacker Darius Leonard, guard Jeremy Vujnovich, center Deyshawn Bond and tight end Erik Swoope. We knew Mack (shoulder), Hooker (knee) and Bond (quad) were definitely candidates to miss time this offseason.
- Notable players who were limited or not participating in other practices at some point included Castonzo, Mewhort, McCain, Lewis, cornerbacks Nate Hairston, Quincy Wilson and D.J. White, as well as kicker Adam Vinatieri. According to Reich, McCain was away from the team last week as he deals with a legal issue.