Now that we’re past the halfway point of training camp, we’re starting to get a read on the strengths and weaknesses of the 2018 Indianapolis Colts roster. Some young players have made an impression, free agent additions have started to show how they might contribute to the team, and a bit of personality has started to take shape in the most physical training camp practices that have been reported for many years.
As we approach the first preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks, Bob Kravitz sat down to interview former Colts head coach Rick Venturi to get his thoughts. Venturi has decades of football coaching experience at every level of competition and shared some insight into some of the highs and lows on the roster and provided some perspective on realistic expectations for Luck, the coaching staff, and the team in 2018.
Who is Popping in Training Camp?
Every year, new faces join the team who make an early impression and who will have a meaningful impact on reshaping the team. Kravitz asked Venturi which players in particular have popped for him in the preseason as potentially helping the team win games in 2018.
Venturi talked at length about the potential impact fans might see from Eric Ebron and Deon Cain:
... Ebron is showing the athletic skills that we hoped he had. You know there may be some downsides, there may be some dropped balls here and there but he is a match-up nightmare as a defensive coordinator because he’s a guy that they’re going to move around. Even in 3 days, I mean he’s lined up literally everywhere and you’re going to get him on safeties, you’re going to get him on linebackers, you’re going to get him in match-ups that you want... Jack is a reliable swiss army knife, he is going to do what he needs to do in the scheme. Ebron gives you a creator at different spots.
Eric Ebron has had a tumultuous start to his NFL career. While some will say that he has under-performed his draft position, the reality is that his production level rivals some of the best tight ends in NFL history. The biggest knock on Ebron has been the propensity to drop passes once in awhile but at no point has anyone questioned that he is a physical specimen that rarely comes along in football. He has the size to play tight end and the speed to be a receiver. Don’t be surprised if he is a big part of the 2018 Colts offense right away.
Regarding Cain, Venturi was slightly more tempered due to his inexperience in the NFL:
I’ve learned over the years not to get too high or too low based on gym class... I was shocked when he lasted to the sixth round... These two guys are so important to you because you have got to get help for Hilton, you can’t be a one-trick pony. We have seen that. T.Y. is a very good player but if he’s your only guy, particularly downfield, they’re going to find ways to take him away. You can get mad at him all you want but in the end you have got to surround him with better players. Again, you will get reliability out of Doyle but I think you have potential playmakers now in Ebron and Deon Cain.
Perhaps no player not named Luck has garnered as much attention during the Colts off-season program as Deon Cain. When Indianapolis chose to allow Donte Moncrief to test the waters in free agency and ultimately allowed him to sign with Jackonsville, there was a void to fill across from T.Y. Hilton. While it is certainly likely that Chester Rogers and Ryan Grant will help fill that void, the Colts need a young wide receiver to step up, carry some weight and stretch the field. We will have to wait to see how he performs when the lights come on but at this point, Cain has made a name for himself.
A Look at the Running Backs
When Chris Ballard allowed Frank Gore to leave via free agency, he turned the page on a new chapter for the backfield. The nucleus of the group now are rookies and a second-year player who played his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury. The most reliable veteran of the group will serve a 4-game suspect for PEDs to start the year. This concerns Venturi.
The loss of Turbin in the first month hurts because he is a reliable veteran who you can put in any situation and know that he wasn’t going to give the game away. Now you are going to be a committee, you are going to have Hines, you are going to have Mack, you are going to have Wilkins. All of those guys bring a skill set but none of them, at this stage... is a really complete back.
While it is certainly fair to acknowledge that having a veteran like Turbin is ideal, particularly early in the season, it is also fair to acknowledge that Turbin is not a complete back either. The primary difference between the backfield with and without him is that the ability to pass protect and short-yardage is hurt without him. The committee approach would likely still remain heavily in affect.
Two young running backs have been making an impression through the first week of training camp, Jordan Wilkins and Marlon Mack. A huge positive for Mack has been that he looks much more willing to run through contact and take the ball between the tackles. Of all running backs who will start the season on the active roster, Mack is the most likely to take a lead role.
With regard to his development, Kravitz asked what it would take for him to become an every down back. Venturi said:
The first area is, and I notice it is not there yet, he has got to learn to put his foot in the ground and get north and south when that hole is there. He tends to always want to bounce it but you are going to be hit or miss that way and that is what he has been... then of course pass protection. You know, that is always the Waterloo of rookies. He had his problems, there is no question about it, a year ago.
I really like that they hired Rathman as running back coach. He is a guy that I have coached against, both as a player and as a coach, and I think he might be what the doctor ordered for those young kids because he is tough, he was a tough player, he was a blocker. You know, with all rookies, whether it is Mack, whether it is Hines, whether it is Wilkins, the toughest adjustment to pro football is third down pass protection.
While reports have indicated that Mack looks more willing to play through contact between the tackles, it fair to list that as a concern until he shows that he can do it during the regular season, at full speed, against other teams. The biggest knock on him, and the one that will likely have the biggest impact on whether he truly blossoms as an NFL running back, is his ability as a pass-blocker. To this point, he has been noticed as being primarily responsible for allowing his quarterback to take big hits. In Indianapolis, with Andrew Luck returning after missing a full season due to injury, that won’t be tolerated for long.
A Look at the Wide Receivers
Venturi already mentioned Cain’s potential but didn’t expand on the role he thought he could play in 2018. He also admitted that, other than T.Y. Hilton, there really isn’t a whole lot that is written in stone about which players will make an impact. The two other receivers who are expected to compete for a top role are Chester Rogers and Ryan Grant. Venturi went into detail about each of the complimentary receivers.
On Cain Venturi said:
Even for me to talk about Cain may be premature but he has looked really good. He looked good at Clemson, he was a 20 touchdown guy. You don’t do that in the ACC and most of them were taking the top off of the defense. He can climb the defense. He is a legitimate 4.4 guy, I mean this kid can fly, he can go get it. He has not shown any deficiency in the hands, which was the knock. Quick as hell, he made two great body control catches yesterday on the sidelines. I walked out of here really fired up to tell you the truth.
These observations are in line with what has already been discussed at great length regarding Deon Cain. He has made spectacular catches on the sidelines, shown excellent body control, and has used his speed to make plays down the field in training camp. The team has been working with him on his route tree to help broaden his role. That may be the biggest question-mark about how much he can push his way into the rotation. He has to make defenses respect him all over the field or he will limit his reps and have a hard time consistently winning against NFL level defensive backs.
Another player who has been a potential breakout candidate the last two years is Chester Rogers, formerly undrafted out of Grambling State. He has flashed the ability to be effective and showed some rapport with Luck in 2016 but has yet to put it all together. Venturi discussed some of the reasons why Rogers has struggled and how he feels about his future:
I love Chester, Chester was my pick to click two years ago in training camp. He made me look good, he out-played Phillip Dorsett who was the number one draft pick and he was an undrafted free agent. He has actually shown skill levels but it has been flashes. Always it is an injury here or there, it is something that has kept him out. It is not to say that he can’t do it. He was a 90 catch guy at Grambling, so he was a productive kid in college, but he hasn’t been healthy.
It all comes down to staying healthy and stringing a full season together for Rogers. Every time he is forced to miss games it holds him back from taking that next step. If he can manage to stay healthy, he has shown enough as a route runner and enough elusiveness with the ball in his hands that he could certainly compete for a starting role.
The other primary contender for significant reps is Ryan Grant, who was added through free agency. He is coming off of the best season of his NFL career and is known as a player who is reliable, a great route runner, and someone who will earn the trust of his quarterback. Venturi expended on that concept:
Grant is kind of a Jack Doyle of the wide receivers. He is a reliable kid. I like him. He is tough, he will catch the ball in traffic. He is a 50 catch guy. He is not going to light it up, he doesn’t really get on top of anybody but if the scheme comes to him, let’s say you have to lead into coverage, he is going to catch the ball for you. He really should be a slot.
There is every reason to believe early on the Grant will play a meaningful role in the Colts passing game in 2018. While it is unlikely that he will be a red zone or big play threat, he is the type of player that allows a team to keep moving the chains. Blue collar guys like that are important on any team and if he can become anything like a Jack Doyle for the receivers, the Colts will be very happy to have him on the roster.
The last receiver to get some comments from Venturi is rookie Reece Fountain. He has not been getting a lot of media attention to this point and a lot of fans are understandably concerned about what this means for his future. Venturi seems to be confident in his ability to develop but has tempered short-term expectations:
The other kid who I thought wasn’t bad in preseason, he hasn’t done much yet in camp, is Fountain. He is the kid from Northern Iowa. He is a kid who I think has skills. It will probably take him awhile. The game will probably be big for him for awhile but he’s got it.
Only time will tell for how Fountain can move from playing against lower levels of competition at Northern Iowa to making an impact in the NFL. For now, it is best to temper expectations.