Indianapolis Colts: What We've Learned Through Week 2 of Training Camp
Through two weeks (well, one-and-a-half) of training camp, we've already been treated to enough news to temporarily quench the football thirst. Unfortunately, much of the news regarding the Indianapolis Colts has been negative, revolving around catastrophic injuries.
But as the Colts approach their first preseason game against the New York Jets on Thursday, there is positive feedback to reflect upon and look forward to as well. While the accuracy of training-camp analysis can be questionable, and actual preseason games will be more informative, my attendance of training camp last week provided a unique perspective toward the team as it heads to the Big Apple.
Whether it's fantasy, injury or roster-related news, here are the top storylines from the Colts' first work on the 2014 season.
All observations from training camp were observed first-hand by the reporter, unless otherwise noted.
Injuries: Annual Show-Stoppers
It's an unfortunate—even horrifying, at times—reality, but the biggest news from Colts training camp thus far has been injuries.
There are the season-ending injuries: Vick Ballard (Achilles) and Donald Thomas (Quad) joining Fili Moala on the injured reserve (IR) list. It's the second consecutive season that the two have missed due to serious injuries, and it's heart-wrenching. Both players have unquestionably worked hard to return to the field, only to see their work undone by one false step. It also brings each player's career into question. Not only does the new injury rob each player from fully rehabbing back from the previous injury, but it means that both players will be absent from football for two entire seasons—an eternity in the NFL.
But smaller injuries have been a problem as well. Trent Richardson has missed time while Vontae Davis and LaRon Landry have just partially practiced. Players like Reggie Wayne, Ahmad Bradshaw and Dwayne Allen have been monitored carefully as they come back from being on IR last season, limiting their work with the first-team offense.
Hopefully, the integration with the team will be seamless once the season starts, but some valuable practice time has been lost due to the rehabilitation. Young players have been hurt as well: Josh McNary, Xavier Nixon, Qua Cox and Loucheiz Purifoy have all missed critical time due to injuries.
Dwayne Allen May Be the Most Important Returning Player
Given the Colts' extensive injury issues last season, there were a number of key players slated to return in 2014. It's a list that includes Reggie Wayne, Ahmad Bradshaw and Donald Thomas (now on IR)—all slated to be massive upgrades from their 2014 replacements.
But third-year tight end Dwayne Allen may be the most important one, even over Wayne.
According to Stephen Holder of The Indy Star, Allen's return has offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton salivating:
One of the biggest differences you'll notice in the Colts' offense with Allen onboard is the increased use of two-tight end formations. Whereas the Colts used the fullback extensively last season in power-running situations, look for that to be curtailed.
Using two tight ends brings greater flexibility. You can run just as effectively with two tight ends and a single back, even without a fullback. But, as an added bonus, the defense has to account for two tight ends, especially a two-way player like Allen, who is a matchup nightmare.
I've written about Allen extensively this offseason, and it's clear that the two-TE sets were a primary part of Hamilton's plans when you look at how he was used in the Week 1 win over the Oakland Raiders.
Allen brings a flexibility, and level of talent, that few tight ends in the league possess. This, of course, is dependent on his play from his rookie season returning, and improving, but either way, Allen's return opens up a slew of options for Hamilton.
The Depth at the Defenisve Line Is Real
One of the most important moves of the offseason was the Colts' signing of defensive lineman Arthur Jones to a 5-year, $33-million contract. Jones is a very consistent end who can contribute in both run and passing situations.
But while Jones is a nice get alone, the even bigger effect, potentially, is how it allows Ricky Jean Francois to move back into a rotational role off of the bench. Jean Francois was very effective for San Francisco in this role early in his career, but was underwhelming as a starter in Indianapolis last season.
With Jean Francois coming off the bench, the Colts' rotation of Cory Redding, Jones and Jean Francois has talent and depth to match. Add in the development of tackle Montori Hughes, who has Phil Savage of SiriusXM NFL Radio excited, and the reliability of Jeris Pendleton as a depth end, and you get the deepest position of the Colts defense.
It's the most talented interior line the Colts have had in years, and they will be counted upon to create more havoc in 2014 to make up for an inconsistent, thin secondary.
T.Y. Hilton: A True No. 1?
One of the things that stuck out most from camp was T.Y. Hilton's clear role as a No. 1 receiver. The true test will come when the regular season begins, but currently, Hilton's connection with Andrew Luck is the most dynamic, fluid relationship in the passing offense. Yes, even better than Luck and Reggie Wayne.
Luck's timing down the field with Hilton has always been impressive, but the injury to Wayne last season forced Luck to increase his reliance on the speedy wideout, and the chemistry between the two has spread to shorter and intermediate passes as well. Wayne's injury, along with Darrius Heyward-Bey's lackluster play, also forced Pep Hamilton to learn how to use Hilton effectively. By the end of the season, Hamilton had figured out how to make Hilton a featured cog in a high-powered offense (see the playoffs).
Of course, Hamilton played Heyward-Bey over Hilton inexplicably for half of a season last year, so nothing is guaranteed when it comes to Hilton. As Luck's timing with veteran Hakeem Nicks improves, we may eventually see him get more snaps as a starter and Hilton being rotated out more frequently.
But for now, Hilton is the clear No. 1, with Wayne his No. 1b.
Leadership Quotient to Come from Inside Linebacker
One of the biggest issues following the NFL's free-agent rush in March was how to replace Antoine Bethea's leadership. Bethea, while not a loud or demonstrative leader, was a consistent, dependable presence in the defensive backfield for years in Indianapolis. He was a solid tackle, cleaned up the mistakes of others and was vocal in pre-snap organization.
Robert Mathis and Cory Redding were the other veteran leaders, but their role was largely motivational and example-based. Their position on the field didn't lend itself to pre-snap communication.
But that's where inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson comes in. Jackson has long been a stand-out individual in Cleveland, and his experience and willingness to take on a leadership role should be huge for Indianapolis this season. While Jackson's play has taken a step back in recent years, his intangibles will play a large part in the Colts' defensive makeup.
LB's D'Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman should be on field together a bunch in Base and Nickel, both instinctive and productive tacklers.— Phil Savage (@SeniorBowlPhil) August 1, 2014
Combined with Jerrell Freeman's development, the Colts linebacking corp should be dependable at worst, and potentially a dynamic, pace-setting unit.
Da'Rick Rogers vs. Griff Whalen Is a Battle of Style, Not Substance
One of the most irritating narratives that I've encountered in the wake of training camp is the incessant Griff Whalen vs. Da'Rick Rogers discussion. For many, there is room for just one on the roster, and the two are in an ongoing contest for that final spot.
The most common narrative, based on fans that I interacted with, is that Whalen is a really hard worker, catches everything thrown at him and runs perfect routes. Rogers, on the other hand, doesn't give as much effort and has sloppy breaks.
First, from my observations, the concerns over Rogers' work ethic are completely overblown. For one, it's a dangerous game to attempt to separate hard workers and lazy players in a camp practice that is run at half-speed 90 percent of the time. Second, Rogers' long stride and smooth gait may make it seem like he's not running full-speed, but he's blowing by corners with regularity. Rogers was right there with Whalen after practice catching passes from Chandler Harnish. None of the practices I saw included evidence of a lesser work ethic.
Now, are Whalen's routes sharper, and his hands more consistent? Of course, there's no arguing that. But they're two very different kinds of receivers, who play very different roles in the offense. Rogers doesn't have quite the short-area quickness or consistent hands that Whalen does, but Whalen doesn't possess Rogers' long frame or his top-end speed either. Rogers used both of those traits to beat corners for touchdowns in practices I attended.
No, the differences between the two aren't a matter of substance, merely of style. They have different strengths and play different roles in the offense. There is a place for both, and camp reinforced my belief that the Colts should, and will, keep six wide receivers.
Offensive Line Depth Is Non-Existent
Now that Donald Thomas is done for the season, and Jack Mewhort is working almost exclusively with the first-team offensive line, the lack of depth the Colts have on the line has been exposed even more than it already had been.
Outside of Joe Reitz, Lance Louis (coming back from a torn ACL) and Xavier Nixon (who has been hurt and not practicing), the Colts' depth offensive linemen have included seventh-round pick Ulrick John, undrafted free agent Jonotthan Harrison, undrafted free agent Josh Walker and undrafted free agent Matt Hall.
Reitz and Nixon are the only depth linemen who played last season, and both have been played at tackle during camp, despite their only competent play in 2013 coming at guard.
The Colts offensive line may take a small step forward this season, but if any of the starting linemen are hurt for any extensive period of time, it will be a mess. Just three of the 15 linemen on the roster played more than 200 snaps last year (Anthony Castonzo, Gosder Cherilus and Hugh Thornton).
Pressure on Trent Richardson Continues to Mount
Of course, a look at the 2014 Colts can't finish without a look at the oft-maligned Trent Richardson.
While it's near-impossible to judge a running back or offensive line in camp, where I could count on one hand the number of times somebody actually fell down, one thing has become abundantly clear in camp: All of the pressure rests on Richardson's shoulders.
Sure, Ahmad Bradshaw will do his best to carry part of the load, but he has his own injury history to worry about.
With Ballard gone for the season and Donald Brown in San Diego (after the Colts decided to not offer him a new contract), there is very little buffer for Richardson.
Now is the time when Richardson is supposed to alleviate the fears that the Colts threw away a first-round pick. With the offensive line as thin as it is, that's going to be a tall order for the former third-overall pick.
All statistics and snap counts come from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. All training camp observations were obtained firsthand by the reporter unless otherwise noted.