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5 Colts to watch in Week 1 vs the Bengals

Key players to keep an eye on in the season opener against the Bengals.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The countdown to Colts football is down to mere hours. We are less than a day away from seeing all the work of the offseason and preseason on the field — from seeing the much anticipated debut of Head Coach Frank Reich and the return of Andrew Luck under center. So there is a lot to be excited about as a Colts fan.

Now this Sunday won’t be an easy matchup for the Colts. The Bengals have an aggressive defense and some scary play makers on offense that are among the league’s best. In order for the Colts to pull out the win, they need their difference makers to have a big game. Now I’d like to note that these aren’t the best players on the Colts’ roster necessarily, rather the players who will be vital to the Colts if they hope to have any success on Sunday. So without further ado, here is my top 5 Colts to watch against the Bengals:

Anthony Castonzo, LT (or whoever starts at LT):

The Colts have made it a point of emphasis to address the offensive line this offseason. They spent the 6th and 37th overall picks in the 2018 draft to take two guards, Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith respectively, along with signing free agents such as guard Matt Slauson and tackle Austin Howard. Despite all this effort into improving the depth, the offensive line struggled a bit during the preseason. A main reason for this was the absence of their consistent left tackle Anthony Castonzo.

If Castonzo is able to play this Sunday, it will be a huge boost to the team as he is a huge upgrade over any other player who could potentially play that spot. Castonzo has missed almost the entire offseason with a hamstring injury that has been giving him problems. If he is unable to suit up, it will likely be Joe Haeg or LaRaven Clark filling in at left tackle.

This position will be one to watch this Sunday though as promising young pass rusher Carl Lawson suits up for the Bengals. Lawson had 8.5 sacks last year as a rookie and did so as a situational rusher. He appears to be much quicker this preseason as well so regardless if it is Castonzo, Haeg, or Clark starting at LT, this position will be a key one to watch.

Eric Ebron, TE:

Now, I was very tempted to put longtime staples of this offense such as Jack Doyle or TY Hilton here but I ultimately decided to go with Ebron as I think he is more key to this offense’s success this Sunday. Not that I don’t think Hilton or Doyle will be productive, just that I expect production from them whereas Ebron being effective will be more key to this offense.

Ebron brings something entirely new to the Colts offense. Hilton is the deep downfield threat and Doyle is the underneath safety blanket. Ebron on the other hand gives Luck a middle of the field option that can really stretch a defense.

Colts reporters have been raving about Ebron all offseason even though we haven’t seen too much in the preseason. Coach Frank Reich will likely open up the playbook a little more now that the season is starting up and that’ll likely mean more targets in space for the athletic tight end. If the Colts really want to exploit this Bengals defense (and their new rookie safety Jesse Bates), they must utilize him in the downfield passing game. Keep an eye on Ebron and expect a big game from him this Sunday.

Darius Leonard, WLB:

The highly anticipated debut of rookie Darius Leonard will be an important one. Leonard is expected to make his first career start this Sunday against the Bengals after having a very impressive preseason. Leonard along with another rookie Skai Moore drew praise all preseason long for their strong play, especially in the run game. Leonard has displayed his excellent play speed and run anticipation and really made an impact in that area of the game so far in his young career.

Leonard is a vastly different linebacker than the Colts have had in years past. With his start this Sunday it not only shows the new emphasis on youth in Indy but also on speed. That speed will truly be put to the test this week as two fairly dynamic runners in Gio Bernard and Joe Mixon come into town. If the Colts are to have any luck shutting those two down, Leonard must have a big game. I don’t expect him to be perfect and he’ll definitely have his fair share of rookie hiccups but keep your eyes on the promising rookie this Sunday.

Malik Hooker, SAF:

Dominant safety play is just so fun to watch in the NFL. Players like Earl Thomas and Eric Berry have built stellar reputations in recent years as being elite ball hawks who strike fear into opposing QBs. Now Malik Hooker isn’t near the level of those two players but he was well on his way last season after picking off 3 passes in 7 games before tearing his ACL. His play steadily improved each game and he was looking like he was on the cusp of stardom before that unfortunate injury.

After a long offseason of recovery, Hooker is finally back and ready to play in the opener on Sunday. I cannot simply articulate how important a player of his caliber is to a young defense. Hooker roaming the middle of the field takes so much pressure off of the young corners and linebackers tasked with having to cover players such as AJ Green, John Ross, and Tyler Eifert. Expect Hooker to have a huge game this weekend even if it doesn’t reflect in the box score. Just his presence in the backend of the field alone makes him a key player for this game.

Andrew Luck, QB:

Now I don’t want to get ahead of myself but this may be the single most important game of Andrew Luck’s career. After missing the last year of football due to a shoulder injury, the Colts will finally have their star QB back under center.

The difference is almost astronomical.

I probably don’t have to remind anybody but this is the same quarterback who led a 2-14 team to the playoffs in just his rookie season. That player alone makes the Colts, who are coming off a disappointing 4-12 season, favorites to at least contend for a playoff spot this year.

Now this will be a very tough task for Luck on Sunday. Along with going against a brutal pass rush that features Carl Lawson and elite defensive tackle Geno Atkins, the Bengals also have a very young promising corner in William Jackson who allowed a 41.6 passer rating when targeted last year.

To make matters a bit worse, the Colts will likely be without their starting running back Marlon Mack as well. So it will be a tough game but just seeing number 12 suit up in a real game is huge. I expect a big game from Andrew Luck this weekend as he reintroduces himself to the league that has somewhat forgotten him the last year and a half.