1. Let's get to know Matty Ice.
Due to COVID and injuries, Colts fans haven't really been able to get to know their starting quarterback during training camp over the last few years. Two years ago, the Colts brought in a charismatic veteran quarterback who was playing for a new team for the first time since being drafted over a decade ago – but because of COVID, all of Philip Rivers' training camp practices were closed to the public.
"That's going to be one of the cool things that I think is going to be good for our city, to get to know Matt Ryan," general manager Chris Ballard said. "I don't think they got to fully know Philip because of COVID. And that sucked because Philip was fun and led. I think that's what you're going to see with Matt.
"I mean look, the guy has a ton of experience. He's been through it at every level. He's been to a Super Bowl. He's been to the playoffs. There's not much he hasn't done. Then, he leads, and he leads by not only his actions, but his words. That matters. It's easy to get up here and just say something, but to actually live it each and every day, he does. That's contagious."
Ryan's new teammates in Indianapolis have been gushing about the kind of person, leader and quarterback he is for months now. Running back Nyheim Hines said he gets chills listening to Ryan speak – the kind of feeling of, this guy can take us to not only an AFC South title, but a Super Bowl. Head coach Frank Reich lauded Ryan's professionalism. And he can still sling it as a quarterback, too.
"He demands excellence," running back Jonathan Taylor said. "So having that presence, that energy in the building is something that rubs off on you and it allows you to focus up because every time Matt comes in the building, he's going to be laser-focused."
2. Keep an eye on Ryan's accuracy.
The Colts finished 2021 with the lowest yards after catch total in the NFL and were tied for the 10th lowest YAC per reception average (5.0). This is an offense that can build in YAC opportunities – in 2020, the Colts had the fourth-highest total YAC and the second-highest YAC per reception average in the league (6.1), according to Pro Football Focus.
Those numbers are important context for something we've heard from players and coaches about Ryan: He's a highly accurate quarterback. It's something that reminded Hines of his time with Rivers (when the Colts were, again, top five in YAC and YAC/reception).
"(Rivers and Ryan) have thrown to millions of guys before because they've just been around, so even sometimes, with how fast I am, quarterbacks have thrown the ball behind me or underthrow me," Hines said. "Matt hasn't done that. First day out, right on the money, and I'm like sheesh, that doesn't happen often. It's awesome to have a guy like that."
So while you're watching practices from the stands at Grand Park, take note of how often Ryan is not only completing his passes, but completing his passes to his receivers in stride.
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3. Jonathan Taylor's encore.
I'm not sure which of these is my favorite stat from Jonathan Taylor's 2021 season:
- He led the NFL in rushing by the widest margin (552 yards) since 2009.
- Taylor's 1,272 rushing yards after contact were more than any other running back had in total.
But Taylor isn't viewing his 2021 season as being the best he can be.
"That's always the goal is how efficient can I be — can I score every time I touch the ball? I mean, that's what you want," Taylor said. "And then in a sense, just being able to build my offseason workouts to be able to handle any and every kind of load that I could possibly have. But if I'm going into a game and I need to block that Mike linebacker 15 times a game and they're like, hey, we'll win the game if you do that, then I'm all in."
Taylor is meticulous and detailed in everything he does on and off the field. It'll be a treat to watch him work, knowing he's not resting on his 2021 accomplishments – especially because his team didn't accomplish what he and everyone else hoped.
"Numbers don't necessarily drive me," Taylor said, "because you can have all the numbers in the world and still not win a championship."
4. How Nyheim Hines is used.
Head coach Frank Reich might've kept you from sneaking Nyheim Hines on to your fantasy team with a late-round pick when he quipped back during OTAs that, if he played fantasy football, he'd probably consider drafting Hines.
"Shhh," Hines grinned, "Frank, don't tell any secrets."
The point is: The Colts are building out an important role for Hines, whether it's out of the backfield or in the slot. He got plenty of work as a receiver during OTAs and minicamp, and the fifth-year running back sees explosive upside in plays where he's on the field with Taylor at the same time.
But remember in the second thing to watch – Ryan's accuracy – how Hines said his new quarterback has consistently hit him in stride? Hines has been an elite YAC guy in the past – he had the third-highest YAC total among running backs in 2020 (483 yards) and earned PFF's highest receiving grade among running backs that year, too (91.7).
Hines set a career high with four receiving touchdowns in 2020 and tied a career high with 63 receptions.
"I'd like to have a career year for catches," Hines said. "I really don't know exactly what number I would like to have, but I'd like to have more than 63.
"Hopefully numbers come up from last year. And even if they don't, I'd like to have an opportunity to help this team win. I know that Frank will put me in a position to help this team win when my time and number is called."
5. Michael Pittman Jr.'s physicality.
The Colts' wide receiver room has been among the most physical in the NFL for a few years now, with Zach Pascal a tone-setter in that regard since debuting in Indianapolis in 2018. Pascal signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency, but the Colts do not expect that physical standard to be diminished – not with Michael Pittman Jr. leading Reggie Wayne's wide receiver room.
"Zach was an enforcer, but Pitt is the same way," Reich said. "Pitt and Zach were in the same mold, so Pitt's setting the bar there and we need to continue with that."
Pittman's physical, competitive nature makes one-on-one receiver versus cornerback drills a must-watch aspect of practice. And his willingness to mix things up and just hit somebody should bring some competitive fire to joint practices with the Detroit Lions on Aug. 17 and 18.
"Michael Pittman Jr. is a good player," Ballard said. "We kind of wash over this guy. Sometimes I think the league does. I mean, freaking, this dude is good."
6. The left tackle competition.
It's been a while since the Colts had a good, old-fashioned, top-of-the-depth-chart position battle on their offensive line. For years, it was easy to pencil in five guys along the line: Anthony Castonzo, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski and Braden Smith. And when Castonzo retired, Eric Fisher slid in at left tackle.
The Colts did not re-sign Fisher, but brought Matt Pryor back on a contract extension and picked Central Michigan's Bernhard Raimann in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Those two players will compete over the next few weeks to be the Colts' Week 1 starting left tackle.
Pryor, who impressed coaches and teammates after being acquired from the Eagles on cut-down day last year, will get the first crack at winning the job.
"We certainly have a standard in the offensive line room of how we go out, whether it's the warmup or the offensive line position stuff that we do, and then going into teamwork, he's been fantastic in all that," Kelly said. "And I think that to keep the standard for all the young guys starts with me, Q, Braden, and Pryor obviously has been no (different) to that. He has been great coming in, he looks great."
Raimann, though, brings elite athleticism and a strong work ethic to the competition.
"The big question mark is Bernhard, how fast is he going to pick it up?" Reich said. "It'll be competitive. And we'll play it day by day."
The Colts have a plan for how they'll get Pryor and Raimann reps, but eventually – Reich's estimation was around the Colts' second preseason game – the team will need to decide on a group of five starting offensive linemen to work together and build chemistry ahead of the season opener Sept. 11 against the Houston Texans.
"I always go back to the team work because one-on-one drills are great from a technique standpoint but they are going to get beat," Ballard said of what he looks for in evaluating offensive linemen during camp. "You're going to have bad days in one-on-one. That's just normal, but the team work, that's when you want to see all five working together. Who fits the best? Who is working the best in the unit? All that plays in, so the teamwork is going to be big."
7. The attacking pass rush.
Nate Ollie, the Colts' first-year defensive line coach, will bring an attack-focused approach to his position group during training camp.
"We talk about, take that seat belt off," Ollie said after he was hired earlier this year. "That's how we're gonna play, right. You talk about how we're gonna to play, we're gonna take that seat belt off, we're taking the thinking out and we are attacking.
"I am a train on my track and I'm ready to go — like, you get on my track, you get messed up."
Combine that mindset with some proven pass rushers like Yannick Ngakoue and DeForest Buckner, and up-and-comers like Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo, and we could see quite a few plays get wrecked by Ollie's D-line. Even if, of course, they won't be able to hit a quarterback until the Colts' Aug. 13 preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills.
"We feel good about the upgrades we've made there," Ballard said. "We feel good about Yannick and what he's going to bring. I feel good about Dayo. I thought Dayo had a great offseason. It will be fun to watch him continue to develop. We thought Kwity played pretty well last year. He's going to continue to get better so we feel good about it."
8. Playmakers at cornerback.
Both Kenny Moore II (four interceptions, nine pass break-ups) and Brandon Facyson (one interception, 12 pass break-ups) had double-digit passes defended in 2021. Stephon Gilmore and Moore earned spots in the Pro Bowl. Isaiah Rodgers made a strong impression in Year 2, including a well-executed man-match coverage play that ended with an interception of Tom Brady.
The Colts have some things to sort through at cornerback – who's the primary No. 3, which players earn spots on roster and how everyone fits in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley's coverage schemes – but there are some big-time playmakers with impressive credentials in that group. And few cornerbacks in the league have the gravitas of Gilmore, the 2018 AP Defensive Player of the Year and a Super Bowl champion who made a lasting impression on Moore during the brief time they were together with the New England Patriots in 2017.
"I still use a lot of things in my game that he's taught me in the four months I was with him my rookie year," Moore said.
9. An interesting safety group.
First things first – Julian Blackmon, about 10 months removed from tearing his Achilles', will be practicing. Ballard said the Colts will "take care of him," but the third-year safety looked ready to go during minicamp in June, and will bring his energy and playmaking skills to the practice fields at Grand Park over the next month.
But the Colts added two intriguing players to their safety group – an experienced veteran in Rodney McLeod and a talented rookie in Nick Cross (who, for a bit of trivia, are both alums of DeMatha Catholic High School in Maryland). Ballard said the Colts wanted to address depth at safety before Khari Willis retired; how competition between those two DeMatha Catholic grads shapes up will be interesting to watch.
The Colts, remember, traded back into the third round to draft Cross with the No. 96 overall pick and value his speed, athleticism and instincts.
"Nick Cross stuck out like a sore thumb on draft day," Ballard said. "I mean, we had him in the second round, and then all of a sudden you look up in the back end of the third and there is one card up on the board."
10. The kicking competition.
Rodrigo Blankenship enters training camp with an edge over Jake Verity, but – like plenty of NFL teams – the Colts will have a kicking competition play out in the coming weeks.
Blankenship is 43/51 (84 percent) on field goal attempts and 50/53 (94 percent) on PATs in his two seasons with the Colts. Verity spent most of the 2021 season on the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad.
"Rod was our kicker last year so in my mind, it's Rod's to – but it's an open competition," Reich said. "We're going in like at every position, really. There are guys who are on the depth chart – I would say Rod would be on the depth chart as the 'No. 1 kicker' right now, but is it a competition? Yes. Is it a competition at every position? Yes. We all understand what that means and what it doesn't mean, but it will be a competition. We certainly respect what Rod has done since he's been here."