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What are ESPN’s ‘2020 NFL Training Camp Nuggets’ for the Colts?

NFL: AUG 03 Colts Training Camp Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

According to ESPN Stats & Info (subscription), the Indianapolis Colts have a number of ‘nuggets’ ahead of the team’s training camp—which will begin later this month (July 28th) at the team’s facility:

Indianapolis Colts

2019: 7-9, third in AFC South

2020 preseason FPI rank: 14th

Returning starters

Offense: 9 | Defense: 8

Nuggets to know

1. It’s no secret the biggest storyline for the Colts entering the 2020 season is the addition of veteran QB Philip Rivers. Rivers recorded the second-worst Total QBR (49) of his career in 2019 and finished with the third-most interceptions (20) in the NFL, including tied for the most picks thrown into tight windows (10), per NFL Next Gen Stats data. So how much does the 38-year-old have left in the tank? One thing that should help in 2020 is an upgraded offensive line; the Colts posted the NFL’s third-best pass block win rate (65%) while the Chargers ranked 19th (58%) last season.

2. Last season, Marlon Mack recorded the most rush yards (1,091) by a Colts player since Edgerrin James (1,506) in 2005. Despite Mack’s second consecutive season with 900-plus rushing yards and eight or more rushing touchdowns, the Colts added another playmaker to their backfield, drafting Jonathan Taylor in the second round. Taylor left Wisconsin with 6,174 rushing yards, fourth in FBS history. He is the only player in FBS history to rush for 6,000 yards in fewer than four seasons. How coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni elect to divide carries between the two talented running backs will be one of the top storylines to watch entering training camp.

3. On the defensive side of the ball, the Colts traded their 2020 first-round draft pick to the 49ers for DeForest Buckner, then signed him to a four-year, $84 million contract extension. Buckner gives Indianapolis a durable defensive lineman who can make an impact against both the pass and run. Since entering the league in 2016, Buckner ranks third among all defensive linemen in snaps (3,347), second in tackles (262), and 21st in sacks (28.5). His 209 tackles against the run is also the third most of any defensive linemen over that span.

All interesting nuggets to monitor for sure.

First, the Colts’ most critical question right now is what they can reasonably expect from newly signed 38 year old veteran quarterback Philip Rivers (i.e., whether he’s ‘cooked’ or can still be a pretty productive NFL starter).

This past season, Rivers threw for just 23 touchdowns to 20 interceptions, but he’s only one year removed from a 32 touchdowns to 12 interceptions season with the Chargers in 2018.

The hope is that by being reunited with head coach Frank Reich, Rivers can regain his prior Pro Bowl caliber form.

In Indianapolis, Rivers will be throwing behind one of the best offensive lines in football, and he’ll have solid receiving options such as Pro Bowler T.Y. Hilton, big bodied rookie Michael Pittman Jr. (and Rivers historically loves throwing to tall targets downfield), speedy slot wideout Parris Campbell, and the always underrated Zach Pascal, as well as Pro Bowler Jack Doyle and versatile veteran Trey Burton at tight end.

He’ll also be able to lean heavily on the Colts’ power running game that features a ‘1-2 punch’ of last year’s 1,000 yard rusher Marlon Mack and highly touted rookie Jonathan Taylor—which should better set up play-action and passing opportunities downfield.

Which leads me to the next nugget: Jonathan Taylor.

The 5’10”, 226 pound running back ran a 4.39 forty time (the fastest time among running back prospects who tested at this year’s NFL Combine) and places him in elite company with New York Giants’ All-Pro running back Saquon Barkley as the only two backs to weigh 225+ pounds and hit a 40 time of under 4.45 since 2014.

He’s also drawn athletic comparisons to Dallas Cowboys’ All-Pro rusher Ezekiel Elliott.

However, it’s not just that Taylor has a tantalizing speed-power combination, but it’s also that he was highly productive at Wisconsin.

He very well could’ve been the NCAA’s all-time career rushing yards leader—had he stayed for all four seasons, but instead, he finished his Badgers’ career with back-to-back seasons of rushing for over 2,000 yards and earned unanimous First-Team All-American, Big Ten Running Back of the Year, First-Team All-Big Ten, and Doak Walker Award honors for consecutive seasons at Madison.

Not to mention, Taylor is also incredibly durable as he had 926 career carries at Wisconsin, but rather remarkably, he never missed a practice because of injury, let alone a game.

As a dynamic talent at running back (with true home run hitting ability) and as a natural fit in their zone blocking scheme—featuring vision and patience, Taylor could very well end up the greater bellcow of the Colts’ primary two-headed rushing attack by season’s end.

Lastly, there’s freshly acquired All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who’s only 26 years old and is one of the best defensive tackles in all of football.

The Colts thought highly enough of Buckner to trade away the 13th overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft and rewarded him with a 4-year, $84 million extension shortly thereafter.

Colts general manager Chris Ballard has stated that ‘the three technique drives this thing’ regarding his defense, and Buckner should be a natural star in the middle of Matt Eberflus’ scheme as a tremendous physical talent, hardworking, and intelligent player.

The 6’7”, 295 pound defensive tackle has excellent athleticism, strength, quickness, and freakishly long arms which can wreak havoc. He had 19.5 combined total sacks over the past two seasons for the NFC Champion 49ers’ defense and should be an interior pass rushing force—although he’s a well-rounded defensive tackle against the run as well.

Overall, those are some of the biggest nuggets for the Colts ahead of training camp, but there will be other plot lines to monitor such as rookie Michael Pittman Jr.’s acclimation process, veteran Xavier Rhodes in coverage, 2nd-year defenders Bobby Okereke and Rock Ya Sin’s growth, as well as wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, tight end Trey Burton, and pass rusher Kemoko Turay’s overall health among others.