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Fight for the 53-Man: Colts Key Preseason Positional Battles

NFL: AUG 17 Preseason - Browns at Colts Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts have only two weeks of preseason football left, meaning final 53-man roster cuts will be here sooner than we know it.

While the majority of the Colts 53-man roster is pretty well settled, there are a few last remaining positional spots that could still be potentially up for grabs.

Among the more highly contested positional battles are as follows:

NFL: Preseason-Cleveland Browns at Indianapolis Colts Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Tight End: Hale Hentges vs. Ross Travis

The Colts have their top 3 tight ends firmly solidified with Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron, and Mo Alie-Cox atop the depth chart.

However, perhaps the most intriguing positional battle right now is the ongoing competition between undrafted rookie Hale Hentges and 4-year veteran Ross Travis.

Highly regarded for his blocking ability, Hentges had been one of the most pleasant surprises of Colts training camp—having also showcased incredibly reliable hands and solid route running:

The former Alabama Crimson tide team captain has caught 5 receptions for 53 receiving yards in two preseason games.

Much like Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle—another undrafted rookie scooped up by the Colts, Hentges won’t necessarily ‘wow’ you on the field with outstanding athleticism, but he does a lot of little things deceptively well that can really help a team win football games.

Meanwhile, Travis initially impressed after being claimed off waivers by the Colts from the Kansas City Chiefs in November of 2017—catching 2 receptions for 33 receiving yards in his debut game with Indianapolis.

The 26 year old had a nice training camp and offseason in 2017, but his regular season was unfortunately over before it started after he suffered a torn ACL last year.

To his credit, Travis has worked hard in his recovery, and it showed last weekend, as he caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Colts backup quarterback Chad Kelly:

Verdict: Hale Hentges

To be honest, I am not sure either one of these tight ends would make it through waivers and ultimately end up on the Colts practice squad unclaimed—if push came to shove.

That being said, Hentges, with his youth and blocking ability, seems like the safer bet for the Colts to protect on their 53-man roster.

He may not be quite as explosive of a receiver in the passing game as Travis, but he seems like he would add more value on special teams and along the goal line—which is big for any team’s fourth tight end.

Plus, based on purely pride, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Colts try really hard for an undrafted rookie to make their 53-man active roster for a 21st consecutive season—and Hentges is really the best bet of anyone right now.

NFL: Preseason-Cleveland Browns at Indianapolis Colts Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerback: Marvell Tell vs. Nate Hairston

The Colts top five corners appear to be set with Pierre Desir (starter), Rock Ya-Sin (starter), Kenny Moore (slot), Quincy Wilson (nickel), and Chris Milton (special teams).

However, there appears to be room for at least one more cornerback to squeak on their 53-man roster between rookie Marvell Tell and 3rd-year veteran Nate Hairston.

The Colts selected Marvell Tell in the 5th round of this year’s NFL Draft.

An impressive athlete with a 42.0 inch vertical and a SPARQ rating that was in the 99.4% percentile (2nd best in his draft class at the position—only at safety), Tell has an abundance of the athletic traits that NFL scouts look for in a defensive back.

However, his transition from collegiate safety to NFL cornerback hasn’t always been smooth, as he’s shown his fair share of growing pains in both training camp and preseason games.

Specifically, Tell had two lapses in coverage last weekend and was called for a suspect defensive pass interference penalty, before having a nice pass breakup in coverage—somewhat redeeming himself.

For what it’s worth though, he was also named to Pro Football Focus’ “Team of the Week’ in his preseason debut against the Buffalo Bills just a week prior.

Meanwhile, his primary competition, Nate Hairston, is fighting to keep his spot on the 53-man roster.

The 25 year old cornerback out of Temple had an impressive rookie season back in 2017 as a slot cornerback for the Colts.

He then started 7 of the Colts first 8 games in 2018. However, injuries and ultimately ineffectiveness hampered his season last year—as he eventually fell out of the Colts cornerback rotation entirely.

Hairston has so far shown some struggles in zone coverage during the preseason and is far better served being utilized in the slot as opposed to the outside.

Verdict: Nate Hairston

It wouldn’t be shocking to see Nate Hairston ultimately traded, as the Colts already have their long-term slot cornerback, Kenny Moore, for the 53-man roster.

Nevertheless, Hairston has more experience and much more polish than Tell at this stage of their respective careers at cornerback.

This seems like it very well could be another “Daurice Fountain situation”, where the Colts select a raw, physical toolsy player (Tell) in the mid to late rounds of the draft, determine that he’s not quite ready for the 53-man, and try to sneak him through waivers and onto their practice squad for further development—much like Fountain last year.

Indianapolis Colts Training Camp Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Safety: Rolan Milligan vs. Matthias Farley

The Colts appear to have their top four safeties safely penciled in with Malik Hooker (starter), Clayton Geathers (starter), with two backups: rookie Khari Willis and 2nd-year veteran George Odum joining them.

That leaves potentially one remaining spot between holdover Matthias Farley and last year’s practice squad and eventual active roster promotee Rolan Milligan.

Farley is beloved by Colts general Chris Ballard and seems to be somewhat of a fan favorite among the Colts locker room, as well as the Indianapolis community at-large.

Despite being productive when called upon, the former undrafted free agent from Notre Dame has been hindered by injuries as of late—having missed 11 games last season after suffering season-ending shoulder, groin, and wrist injuries.

While Farley’s spot was once figured to be relatively safe, he was still playing late in this past Saturday’s preseason game—including on special teams—which is never a great sign for a potential bubble player’s roster security.

Milligan was signed to the Colts practice squad in October of last season—as he had also spent previous time with the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions organizations.

He was promoted to the Colts active roster in January of 2019 in the wake of veteran safety Mike Mitchell’s season-ending injury.

Verdict: Matthias Farley

It would be one thing if Milligan was the “shiny new toy” with impressive physical measurables, considerable more youth, etc., to warrant replacing Farley—who could really use a healthy, bounce back season with Indianapolis.

However, the Colts appear to really value what Farley brings to their locker room, special teams units, and there doesn’t appear to be enough in favor of Milligan to ultimately replace the 4-year veteran.

NFL: DEC 09 Colts at Texans Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Wide Receiver: Zach Pascal vs. Other Roster Needs

Okay, this may be stretching the positional battles a bit, but just bear with me...

If Pascal ultimately remains on the Colts final 53-man roster, it’ll be by the hair on his chiny, chin, chin because head coach Frank Reich has already said his teams typically haven’t carried six wide receivers—with T.Y. Hilton, Devin Funchess, Parris Campbell, Deon Cain, and Chester Rogers as pretty much roster locks right now.

The 24 year old Pascal caught 27 receptions for 268 receiving yards and 2 touchdown receptions last season in 16 games (4 starts) for the Colts.

Pascal is helped by the fact that he can return on special teams, which adds to his versatility—and also the fact that he arguably ran the best route of any Colts wide receiver last season against the Houston Texans (but I digress):

However, the Colts already have wideout Chester Rogers, who is the primary punt returner, and backup running back Nyheim Hines has been given cracks as the team’s top kick returnman.

Pascal is firmly on the bubble right now, and the chances of him staying on the Colts final 53-man roster very well might depend on whether the team can make it through these next two preseason games without any significant injuries.

Verdict: Other Roster Needs.

Whether it’s along the offensive or defensive line, or another position group all together—who knows, I think general manager Chris Ballard will look to add depth on the 53-man roster elsewhere—rather than at wide receiver—which would be too much of a team luxury.