Colts Mailbag

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Colts Mailbag: Don't Sleep On Zach Pascal, How To Scout With No College Football, Opening A Spot For Roosevelt Nix

In this week’s Colts Mailbag, readers inquire about wide receiver Zach Pascal and his role in 2020, how general manager Chris Ballard and his staff will scout prospects if there’s no college football, how the team will open up a roster spot for fullback Roosevelt Nix 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:

butmrlahey on Colts Reddit: "How do you think the adjustments to the off-season will impact Jonathon Taylor's and Michael Pittman's transition to the NFL?"

Walker: I don't think there's any doubt the lack of actual on-field offseason work will affect guys like Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman Jr. — but that's the case for every rookie across the league. Now, the Colts were very happy with how their virtual offseason program ended up playing out, so in terms of the classroom work and the basic fundamentals at each position, every player should be in just as good as shape (physically and mentally) as they would be in any other offseason. But if you're talking about the more advanced techniques that every position coach is currently drilling at this current modified training camp, that's the kind of stuff that can only really effectively be taught in person. But this is one of several reasons why Chris Ballard and his scouting staff are so big on targeting prospects with high "football character;" if they clearly love the game of football, if they're intelligent, if they're good teammates, etc., then they'll most likely be able to make up the difference on whatever work they missed this offseason much faster than other prospects. Taylor and Pittman Jr. definitely fit in that mold of "high football character" guys, so, while they're currently having a lot thrown at them, the Colts know they can handle it, digest it, learn it and apply it on the field here real soon.

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sigma4488 on Colts Reddit: "Why is everybody sleeping on Zach Pascal after his near breakthrough season last year? His stats were better than 2019 free agents such as Adam Humphries and Tyrell Williams"

Walker: Yeah, is everybody supposed to just forget about, given the circumstances, how well Zach Pascal filled in for T.Y. Hilton as the Colts' top receiver at various points last year? Here's a refresher: 41 receptions for 607 yards (14.8 yards per catch) with five touchdowns. He had two 100-yard outings (Weeks 6 and 12 against the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans) and once again showed off his reliable hands, as he dropped just three passes the whole year on 72 total targets. I think Pascal's value is crystal clear to this coaching staff; he can line up anywhere for you, he can be one of your top targets heading into any particular game if need be and he loves doing the dirty work as a blocker in the run game. So everybody else can keep sleeping on Zach Pascal if they want, but the Colts know exactly who he is.

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hibloodstevia on Colts Reddit: "Please attempt to explain the offensive line's much weaker pass blocking last year. With the same unit as the year before, much dirtier pockets and more need for the QB to move to continue the play."

Walker: Frank Reich's passing offense is mostly predicated on getting the ball out of the quarterback's hand. In 2018, Reich's first year as head coach and offensive playcaller, Andrew Luck had an average time-to-throw figure — the average amount of time elapsed from the time of the snap to the throw — of 2.63 seconds, which was the fifth-fastest in the NFL; that year, he was sacked on just 2.86 percent of his dropbacks, which was the lowest in the NFL by a pretty considerable margin. Last year, the Colts had an average time-to-throw figure of about 2.93 seconds, which was the second-slowest in the NFL among qualifying passers; yet still, the Colts ranked eighth in the league in lowest sack percentage allowed. Of course, that's not the only way to evaluate pass protection, as not all teams who get rid of the ball quickly are always among the best at protecting the quarterback, but given how important it is in this offense, specifically, to get rid of the ball, I'd say it's a major stretch to consider the Colts' pass blocking as weak last year.

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bodiepartlow on Colts Reddit: "Realistic sack numbers this year? Campbell still the biggest question mark on the roster. With Pittman and TY slated to get a lot of targets, and the way they are likely to use Hines, what role does Campbell play, and what do you prefer as stats?"

Walker: In 2018, the Colts ranked 17th in the NFL in defensive sack percentage (6.65 percent); that year they had tremendous production from their defensive tackles (Denico Autry and Margus Hunt, particularly, had terrific seasons), but couldn't quite find the same pass rushing consistency off the edge. It was the opposite last year; there was better pass rushing off the edge, but the interior wasn't nearly as productive, and the team finished 16th in the league in defensive sack percentage (6.8 percent). One has to imagine DeForest Buckner's addition will help in this area, and perhaps significantly. Not only is he prime to get double-digit sacks himself from inside, but think about the attention he'll be taking away from the edge rushers, and the holes he'll be opening up for guys like Darius Leonard and Kenny Moore II, two of the better pass-rushing players at the off-ball linebacker and cornerback positions, respectively, in the NFL. The X-factor, for me, is Kemoko Turay. If he can stay healthy, and if he can translate his elite ability to generate pressure into more sacks, then I think the Colts can be a top-five pass rushing unit in 2020.

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dgiszewski on Colts Reddit: "What will be the effects of no preseason on our team's performance? Will we notice any thing in our team or will it just effect teams with new coaching staffs and players?"

Walker: To the average fan, I don't think you'll see much change from team to team in terms of early-season performance this year vs. other years. I say that because pretty much every team's starters run extremely simplified plays and schemes during the preseason anyway — they don't want to potentially give anything away that could be beneficial during the regular season. And a lot of teams the past couple years were already trending towards either less preseason playing time for their starters or even none at all for some guys, instead placing a bigger emphasis on more controlled training camp practices. So, in that essence, I don't think you'll notice much of a difference. But I will say: if and when established starters begin going down with injuries, or if they are placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, then that's when things can start to get interesting. The depth guys on every NFL offseason roster treat each preseason opportunity like their career depends upon it, and if they can't win a spot on their current team, then they hope they've put enough out on tape to catch another team's eye. They don't have those opportunities this year. So while depth is always a major factor year to year, having capable guys ready to go who don't require coaches to make major changes to their systems will be an even bigger deal this year; those teams that don't have that luxury will more than likely struggle to a certain degree.

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Mel Kiper's Hair on Colts Forums: "How will the Big Ten, Pac-12, and other conferences decision to postpone or cancel their 2020 football seasons affect Chris Ballard and the front office as they continue to build the Colts for the future?"

Walker: What's going to be critical for Chris Ballard and his staff this fall and going into draft season next year is the relationships they have built across the country with various college coaches. If they have to evaluate college talent based off the 2019 season tape, then they need to be able go to a respective prospect's head coach, coordinator or position coach and know that they're going to be getting an honest assessment of that player's abilities, as well as how they rate in terms of football character and who that player is off the field. I also think having solid evaluators who can seek out traits, and not necessarily on-field production, is going to be huge. Fortunately, the Colts are in good shape on both sides of the coin. It's not ideal — not one bit — but if most college football programs do not play this fall, then Ballard is confident in the guys he has around them to figure it out and get the job done. "We'll be careful. We'll be smart about it," Ballard told reporters July 29. "Knowing the draft is still a ways away, we'll tackle that problem and when the league finally gives us protocols about what we need to do, we'll take a look at them and figure out how we want to handle it."

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Chris W. (Newburgh, Ind.): "If we keep a fullback on the roster this year, which position group will lose a spot? Would we lose a tight end, running back or wide recceiver or even an O lineman? It really would be easier to keep a fullback if there were an extra 3-4 roster spots per team. ( I would also like a roster spot to make it easier to carry 3 QB's every year too)."

Walker: The spot I keep going to when considering whether or not to keep fullback Roosevelt Nix on the 53-man roster is at tight end. Now, health, of course, plays into this, but if you can get away with keeping just your three main tight ends in Jack Doyle, Trey Burton and Mo Alie-Cox, then, to me, you can still have six wide receivers, four running backs and one fullback. But it's not like Nix would be potentially taking up a roster spot as a guy logging just five to seven snaps a game on offense; this guy is an established NFL special teams playmaker. If he makes this Colts roster, he's more than likely going to play a major role on special teams, as well, so Frank Reich and his staff are taking all of that into consideration.

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Nathan P. (Walton, Ky.): "How excited is Michael Pittman Jr to work with Phillip Rivers?"

Walker: If you go back to April 24, the night the Colts selected Michael Pittman Jr. with the 34th-overall pick in this year's NFL Draft, he told reporters: "I think that's why it's such a great pick because I think they brought me in to impact like right now. They also have Philip Rivers, who I think is a Hall of Famer, and I couldn't be more happy that I get to start with a Hall-of-Fame quarterback. So, that's great." Not every rookie wide receiver gets the opportunity to get that kind of introduction into the NFL; Rivers has bolstered the careers of so many different wide receivers over the last 16 years, and there's no doubt he'll do the same for Pittman Jr. and the Colts this year and possibly beyond.

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James M. (San Francisco): "What is the difference between "waiving" and "releasing" a player?"

Walker: The simplest answer I can give you is a player with less than four years of NFL service goes through waivers; that means any other team can claim him within 24 hours after he's waived, or else he becomes a free agent. There's a specific waiver wire order teams follow in order to determine who gets the first crack at a player who has been waived.

A player with more than four years of NFL service is released, and immediately becomes a free agent. Now, if one of those guys with four or more years of NFL experience is cut after the trade deadline and before the end of the calendar year during the regular season, then he, too, is subject to waivers.

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