For roughly three weeks in the summer, NFL teams head to training camp to practice. The Indianapolis Colts headed up to Anderson University to camp, and it was really our first chance to see the team in action. Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson was at camp for much of the three weeks, and he offers his five biggest takeaways from camp.
Cautious Optimism Surrounding Defense
Colts fans have seen it all too often. The optimism about the defense in training camp and preseason only to see it disappoint once again. It's been since the Tony Dungy era, in 2007, that the Colts have truly had a great defense. Since then, they've been lucky to even have an average defense. Yet still, every year it appears that it'll be the year they finally have a good unit. That's the reason I say that I'm cautiously optimistic this year, but from what we saw in camp, this unit has the potential to be the best defense the Colts have had since that '07 team. The front seven looks to be very good, with Cory Redding, Josh Chapman, and Arthur Jones as the starters along the defensive line - all three of whom had strong camps. Jerrell Freeman and D'Qwell Jackson should provide a very good interior of the linebacking core, and then with guys like Robert Mathis (after week four), Bjoern Werner, and Erik Walden outside, this unit could be very good. As for the secondary, that's where there are question marks. Vontae Davis can be an elite cornerback, but he needs to play like it consistently in 2014. Greg Toler also had a very good camp, and if he can stay healthy it would be huge for the Colts. Darius Butler, of course, is a very good slot cornerback. LaRon Landry had a bad year last year, but we know he has the talent - he just has to stay healthy. The other safety spot is undecided, but it'll likely be either Delano Howell or Mike Adams. If the secondary can stay healthy (and that's a huge if), this defense could be a good one in 2014. I'm cautiously optimistic, but it looks good so far.
Reggie Looks like Reggie
There's nobody on the team that the fans love quite like Reggie Wayne. Nobody - and that includes guys like Andrew Luck, Robert Mathis, Pat McAfee, and some of the other fan favorites. The reaction of fans during training camp to Reggie Wayne solidified it. Whether it was a "Reggie!" chant, a loud cheer whenever he caught a pass, or the constant focus and pictures being taken of the veteran, Reggie Wayne was one of the focal points of Colts camp. More than the fan attention, however, we were all watching him to see how he would do coming off of a torn ACL at age 36. Training camp would be his first real action back. And let me tell you - Reggie Wayne looks exactly like Reggie Wayne. He's catching everything. He's still got nearly perfect timing with Andrew Luck. He's still cutting sharply and running routes precisely. He's still got the quickness out of breaks that allows him to get separation. In short, the only way you'd be able to tell that Reggie was coming off of a torn ACL is by the compression sleeve that he wears on his leg. That's it. Other than that, he looks exactly like the six-time Pro Bowler. He's still running with the first team offense a lot, and there's absolutely no reason to think he won't be a big factor in the offense this year. And with him needing just 1,015 yards to pass Marvin Harrison on the franchise's all-time receiving list, there's a real chance he'll get there this year.
More Questions than Answers
Entering training camp, there was really just one position that we didn't know who was going to start at. Of course, I'm talking about the safety position. But after watching camp, we're not much closer to figuring out who is going to be starting there. It'll still likely be either Delano Howell or Mike Adams I think ending up as the starter, but the Colts have also added in Sergio Brown and Colt Anderson into the competition. So we're not much closer to getting a solid answer. More than that, we've had other questions open up. Starting center Khaled Holmes went down in the preseason opener, and while he should be back for the regular season opener, the backup spot now has become a big center of attention. And then with Donald Thomas now out for the season, Jack Mewhort is the starting left guard. Anytime you start a rookie, there will be question marks. And then there were also the injuries to Vick Ballard, Jeris Pendleton, and Daniel Adongo - all over the team, backup spots are getting much more attention because of injuries, and as such, it feels like we've ended camp with even more questions than we entered camp with. The last three preseason games should (hopefully) go a long way in helping to answer them.
Pass Rush Looking Good
When it was announced that star pass rusher and 2013 NFL sack champion Robert Mathis was suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season, the concern about the pass rush was magnified greatly. There were major questions and concerns entering training camp. And while we have to again be cautiously optimistic, this feels like an area where we've actually had our questions answered and our concerns calmed. Much of that was because of second year outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, who was one of the biggest stars of training camp - if I was to give out awards for training camp, he might get the award for the most impressive player. Last year's first round pick, Werner had a disappointing rookie season in which he managed just 2.5 sacks, but he looks greatly improved this year. His initial burst on the snap looks much better and he has been displaying great pass rush moves. We've seen pass rushers greatly impress in preseason and not do anything afterward (Jerry Hughes with the Colts, Caesar Rayford, etc.), but Werner looks like he's actually improved. His burst, his pass rush, his knowledge - it's all much better. He'll be starting for Mathis the first four games and will be counted on to provide the bulk of the pass rush, and while he's not Robert Mathis, he looks like he'll be a good pass rusher - which will be even better when Mathis returns. Also, rookie outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome has looked very good as a pass rusher in camp too, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him get some playing time early on for the Colts in passing situations. We've been fooled before by strong camp performances from pass rushers, but there's plenty of reason to think that won't be the case with Bjoern Werner this year.
A Pep in their Step
There are plenty of reasons why I wasn't nearly as disappointed with Pep Hamilton last year as many fans were. One of the biggest reasons, however, was that I truly realized what the plan for the offense was going to be last year with Dwyane Allen, and then they had to change it once he went out for the year. Now, Allen is back, and it's going to be huge for the Colts offense. Allen is a sure-handed receiving threat, a tremendous blocker as a tight end, and can also play in the backfield in a fullback-type role. He's going to be doing a lot for the Colts in 2014, and he's going to be a huge part of the offense. More than just Allen, however, the receiving core looks great (T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief, Da'Rick Rogers, Griff Whalen), they still have Coby Fleener, and Andrew Luck is impressive, as always. Trent Richardson looked good in camp, so we can only hope that it'll carry over to the season. Luck is being given much more control at the line of scrimmage and based on both camp and the first preseason game, there's plenty of reason to be excited about the offense and Pep Hamilton as offensive coordinator. I've said all along that I thought this year Colts fans would come to understand why people throughout football like Pep so much, and based on what we've seen in camp I think that'll be true. There's no reason this offense shouldn't be one of the best in football.