The third preseason game is considered the “dress rehearsal” for NFL teams. The first team offense and defense tends to play for an entire half, and that should be the expectation for quarterback Andrew Luck this afternoon. Players who are looking to solidify a spot on the depth chart have an opportunity to make or break the their status during Week 1 of the regular season at certain positions and those who are simply trying to stake a claim to the bottom of the roster will hope to get opportunities in the second half.
What could make today’s game particularly interesting is that the Colts are facing an opponent who has invested a great deal in former Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Anytime an NFL franchise takes a chance on a new signal caller, it is worth taking note. No position has a greater impact on a team’s fortunes during the regular season, or even in the playoffs, than quarterback. Any franchise who finds a legitimate one will become immediately relevant.
Is this the year the 49ers step back into relevance in the NFC West? Today’s game could show signs of what is to come.
As for the Colts, there are some very important position battles that are coming down to the wire for various reasons. Primarily, lingering soft tissue injuries have been holding out key players. While fans should get the most realistic sense of what the offensive and defensive schemes might look like in the first half of the game today, the preseason is still more useful from an individual player or position evaluation perspective.
WHO TO WATCH
CB Quincy Wilson — Wilson was drafted in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He was selected after Chris Ballard already picked safety Malik Hooker in the first round. There were reasonable expectations that Wilson would compete for a starting spot during the 2017 season, but he was never able to solidify himself in that role and spent far too much time inactive or dealing with “injuries.”
The name of the game for Wilson this year will be consistency. His spring workouts and training camp have been anything but consistent. Wilson has earned praise from his coaches in camp and after Monday’s preseason game but he also appears to be in danger of entering his second season in a backup role to Kenny Moore, Nate Hairston, and Pierre Desir. Time is running out to stake his claim and every snap will count today.
DE John Simon — With second-year defensive end Tarell Basham nursing a knee injury and failing to show signs that he is ready to take on a starting role in the Colts new 4-3 defensive front, the starting spot opposite Jabaal Sheard is wide open. Rookie second round pick Kemoko Turay is currently listed at the top of the depth chart but he has been unable to participate in much of training camp practice and will not have a great deal of opportunity to get live game reps in preseason prior to Week 1.
John Simon was one of the best defensive players for the Colts a season ago. I doubted his ability to make an effective transition to defensive end due to lack of size and other more promising young options already on the team. I am not too proud to admit that Simon is proving me wrong. At this point, he should be the clear starter opposite Sheard and today’s game will give him another live chance to prove that he has what it takes to put pressure on the quarterback in a new position.
DE/DT Margus Hunt — While Hunt may not be on the radar for a lot of Colts fans, he was surprisingly more effective in 2017 than anyone thought he would be when Ballard targeted him in free agency. He spent much of his early career failing to find a true position with the Cincinnati Bengals as a 4-3 defensive end, and appeared far more comfortable and natural in a 3-4 system.
This year, he is back to playing in a 4-3. As a defensive end, he will likely continue to have difficulties in a system that emphasizes speed on the edges. His best fit, in my mind, could be as a penetrating, disruptive 3-tech defensive tackle. Of course, Denico Autry is clearly the starter at that spot, Hassan Ridgeway has been making his presence felt in that role, and rookie Tyquan Lewis is expected to play a hybrid defensive end/3-tech role when he returns from injury as well.
Where do that leave Hunt? It’s funny to ask that question about a player who has earned starting reps throughout camp, but he could find himself as the odd man out as a jack of all trades and master of none. His best hope may be that he and Autry would form the most accomplished set of kick blockers on special teams in the NFL.
RT Denzelle Good vs. RT Braden Smith — While it is not entirely surprising that there would be a competition at right tackle that includes Denzelle Good, most would have expect Austin Howard to be the front runner and clear starting candidate at this point. Few would have predicted Braden Smith to be a serious contender that the spot at all and even fewer would have pegged him as the likely starter.
Yet, here we are. After two preseason games and an increasingly large work load at right tackle in training camp, Braden Smith has to be considered the front runner to start in the regular season. We can’t speak too soon, however, as Good entered the 2017 regular season as the starter at the position and looked really good until his season was lost to injury. If he can return to 100 percent and stay healthy over the next two weeks, he can reclaim the starting position and allow Smith to play a support role early on.
LB Skai Moore — Few question that Moore was worthy of a pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. His stock had him as high as a middle round pick on some draft boards. He was the biggest name to join the Colts as an undrafted free agent and has not disappointed at any time since he arrived in Indianapolis.
An injury to second-year middle linebacker Anthony Walker has given Moore the opportunity to get a long look from the coaching staff. He has used that opportunity to be disruptive in the passing game and is clearly the best coverage linebacker the Colts have had in years — maybe even since Cato June played as a weak side linebacker for Tony Dungy.
How can Moore hold up against the run? How often will he make mental errors and get picked on by veteran quarterbacks? Those are legitimate concerns and the more he can prove that he is ready in live game reps, the stronger his claim will be to keep his starting position when Walker returns.
WR Ryan Grant — Grant was one of the more talented free agent wide receivers to hit the market in the off-season. He is still relatively young and is coming off of the most productive season of his career. He is known as an excellent route runner with reliable hands who can move the chains.
So far, he hasn’t done anything noteworthy for the Colts. He dropped a pass that hit him in the hands last week that a “sure-handed” player ought to reel in. He has failed to establish any meaningful timing with Andrew Luck or earn his trust. He is certainly not as athletically gifted as a lot of other receiver prospects that surround him on the roster.
Third-year receiver Chester Rogers has more timing and chemistry with Luck than he does at this point and, frankly, Ballard can’t afford to have him fizzle out. The receiving room is barren of veteran experience not named Hilton and having someone step up to take pressure off of “the Ghost” needs to be a priority.
Will Grant and Luck get on the same page in time? Today could go a long way in showing that they are on track.
RB Nyheim Hines — When the Colts selected Hines in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, many thought he would fit perfectly in Frank Reich’s offensive scheme. Hybrid players like Hines can line up all over the field and allow the Andrew Luck to keep the ball moving without taking the time to substitute or move into different packages.
To this point, Hines has earned a reputation for fumbling and for his inability to field punts. He needs to have a chance to make his impact felt on offense to take attention away from the special teams gaffes. If this truly is a “dress rehearsal” and if Reich will open up the playbook slightly for a series or two, it will be interesting to see how Hines is inserted into the game plan.
4:30 PM ET on Saturday, August 25, 2018
Lucas Oil Stadium – Indianapolis, Indiana
Courtesy of 506 Sports, here are the local television listings:
WXIN (FOX/59 – Indianapolis)
WBKI (CW/58 – Louisville)
WFFT (FOX/55 – Fort Wayne IN)
WCWW (CW/25 – South Bend IN)
WTWO (NBC/2 – Terre Haute IN)
WPBI (FOX/16 – Lafayette IN)
WTVW (CW/7 – Evansville IN)
WCIX (My/49 – Champaign IL)
KFVE (My/9 – Honolulu)
WFNI (107.5FM/1070 The Fan) and WLHK (Country 97.1 Hank FM)
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