Coming out of the 2018 spring training program, there are early indications of progress and setbacks at numerous positions for the Indianapolis Colts. During the summer break period of the off-season, we will take a look at each position on the Colts roster as compared to where it was at this time a year ago and try to project how the roster will look in September.
We continue this project by focusing on a dynamic group of tight ends who may be featured heavily in Frank Reich’s offense.
Frank Reich Loves Utilizing Tight Ends
In 2017, the Philadelphia Eagles targeted tight ends 165 times, averaging more than 10 targets per game. Only the Kansas City Chiefs, with Travis Kelce averaged more. In 2016, the Eagles led the league with 185 targets to tight ends. Before he landed in Philadelphia, Reich’s Chargers were third overall in the NFL with 161 total targets to tight ends in 2015.
This means that Reich-led teams over the last three seasons have averaged a minimum of 10 total targets per game to tight ends. The last two seasons featured Zach Ertz and Trey Burton, while Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green were led the way for the Chargers. Ultimately, no matter who ends up taking the field for the Colts at tight end in 2018, there is every reason to believe that this player will be featured heavily and given the opportunity to have a major impact in the offense.
The Colts are Loaded with Pass-Catchers at Tight End
Other than T.Y. Hilton, no player in the Colts offense has been trusted by his quarterback more than Jack Doyle. His production in 2017 led to his first Pro Bowl berth, in a season where Andrew Luck didn’t take a single snap. Doyle’s athletic abilities are not particularly astonishing. What makes him special is that he has a knack for getting open, has reliable hands, and is the type of blue collar worker that gets recognized as a leader on his team.
If Doyle continues to stay healthy, there is every reason to expect that he can approach or exceed the career numbers he put up in 2017 — 80 receptions for 609 yards and 4 touchdowns.
When Chris Ballard chose to trade away Dwayne Allen to the Patriots, he put pressure on a small group of other players at the position. The best bet for success was likely budding prospect Erik Swoope, who subsequently missed all of 2017 recovering from “minor knee surgery.” Heading into this off-season, Ballard and Reich brought in former first round (10th overall) hybrid wide receiver/tight end in Eric Ebron. He fits the mold of a player like Ertz, who will use superior athleticism and speed to create mismatches lined up all over the field.
While Ebron failed to live up to the lofty expectations fans in Detroit had for him, he has been a productive NFL tight end in the early stages of his career and is still only 25 years old. For comparison, second-year players Tarell Basham and Nate Hairston are 24 years old. Ebron’s ceiling is realistically as high as it ever was, particularly joining a tight end focused offense led by Frank Reich and catching passes from Andrew Luck. There is every reason to expect that he will be featured heavily in 2018.
Behind Doyle and Ebron things are somewhat murkier. If Swoope can manage to get back onto the field healthy, and stay that way, he has a lot of potential as another mismatch nightmare. At this point, that is starting to feel like a big “if” as he missed spring training activities — this is after he was potentially going to be activated last season.
Ross Travis joined the team late last season and got some attention in the passing game, showing up length and deceptive speed. Darrell Daniels was a regular part of the tight end rotation throughout the year and could take another step forward in his progression. Mo Alie-Cox is another basketball transition prospects who will likely need more time to be featured in an NFL offense.
Tight End will be a Strength in 2018
Compared to a season ago, the Colts have considerably more talent at the tight end position. Even if Swoope had remained healthy, he would have required a breakout season to fill in as Doyle’s counterpart in two tight end sets. The addition of Ebron gives Indianapolis a solid one-two punch and two players who have skill-sets that are Pro Bowl worthy — particularly in a Reich-led system. If any one of the players behind them steps forward — such as Swoope returning to form or Daniels progressing, this will be one of the deepest position groups on the team and potentially one of depth charts at the position in the NFL.