The mood was palpable in Westfield on Wednesday as Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard took to the podium. There are quite clearly high expectations coming into the 2019 season.
“Look, we’ve got a good football team. I’m not going to shy away from that. We’ve got a good football team, but that doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed wins,” a modest Ballard told reporters.
For Colts fans the mood spells optimism and excitement.
Part of the reason those feelings exist is due to impending training camp battles expected to produce, at the very least, a high level of competition and perhaps more clarity as the front office shapes the opening day roster.
Here are three upcoming training camp battles that we know Ballard will be watching closely.
While starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo has the position on lock down, he did miss five games in 2018 due to a hamstring injury. The backup spots will be of intrigue to Ballard.
“I think if you look at the o-line, we were really happy with Le’Raven Clark this spring. It’s different when you get the pads on,” said the GM. “You have to continue the growth, but that competition between him (Antonio) Garcia, Joe Haeg – all those at sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th linemen, those five spots, which you know how critically important I think those are.”
Lineman like Clark, Garcia, Haeg and J’Marcus Webb are all possible candidates to be Castonzo’s backup, and to fill out other backup spots. The former Patriot Garcia will miss the first four games of the season for a PED violation.
Meanwhile, Clark, Haeg and Webb could all step in during the early season if the projected starter at right tackle, second-year pro Braden Smith, goes down. Which player ends up becoming that first man up will largely be dictated by how the next few weeks play out.
Things got spicy this season after Ballard and company took Ben Banogu out of TCU in the second round, a player who spent most of his college snaps playing at defensive end. In the sixth round, Ballard took Mississippi State’s Gerri Green.
“On the d-line, there’s some depth and there’s going to be some competition between the young players with (Ben) Banogu getting some rush time and (Al-Quadin) Muhammad and Gerri Green,” said Ballard.
While Jabal Sheard and Justin Houston are set to start at the end positions, there will be snaps to go around to backups, particularly on third down. The Colts current depth in the d-line is impressive, with Muhammad, Banogu, Green, Kemoko Turay and even little-used Carroll Phillips.
Of all the backups, Muhammad commanded the most playing time last season, grabbing nearly 40 percent of all defensive snaps (Sheard led all ends with 77.65 percent of defensive snaps).
Turay, who played in 14 games last season, racked up the third-most snaps at defensive end under Sheard and Muhammad, with 36.5 percent.
The Colts have already expressed that Banogu could slot in on third down packages. But what if Muhammad has a fantastic training camp? Only time will tell.
The pass-catchers will be a fun group to watch in 2019. Moreover, this group may represent the most intriguing battle in all of training camp this year.
TY Hilton and Devin Funchess will start while Chester Rogers seems the likely third man. Beyond them, there’s quite a level of talent lurking underneath.
Backing up the starters will be third-year guys Zach Pascal and Marcus Johnson along with Ohio State rookie Parris Campbell and second-year man Deon Cain, who was sidelined with an ACL injury for all of 2018.
“I think there’s going to be real competition at wideout. It’s going to be fun to watch that group compete because they all have special roles,” said Ballard.
Chief among Ballard’s attention will be third-year wideout Zach Pascal, who played in just under half of all offensive snaps last season, bringing in a pair of touchdowns on 27 catches.
“I think he goes understated how Zach played last year,” said Ballard. “I thought Zach Pascal played really well for us. I mean that was a June claim and he comes in and competes his butt off and makes it. Plays unselfish, plays on special teams, plays any spot you ask him to play.”
On Cain, the former Clemson Tiger standout, Ballard is particularly ready to see what transpires in Westfield.
“Deon Cain. First, I’m very proud of the kid. To watch him work over the last year has been – I think Deon will tell you this. He’s probably grown and matured more in the last year. You know sometimes setbacks can be a positive and he turned it into one and man he worked his ass off. We’ll limit him here early, but the last two days have been pretty fun to watch,” said Ballard.
Cain missed his entire rookie season due to a torn ACL suffered in the preseason opener. Before that, at Clemson, he put up over 1,400 yards receiving and 15 TDS in 2016 and 2017, catching passes from both Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence.
With quarterback Andrew Luck having firmly escaped the grip of injury concerns, this season could be a special one for a receiving corps that hasn’t always been given its due respect.