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Preview: Three keys for Colts’ preseason opener vs. Panthers

What to watch out for as the Indianapolis Colts open up their preseason slate vs. the Carolina Panthers.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The 2021-22 season for the Indianapolis Colts has officially begun. After months of anticipating, we finally have a game to cover here on Stampede Blue as the Colts square off with the Carolina Panthers.

Although many players on both sides will be sitting out today’s action, it’s an important baseline to see whether preseason storylines maintain into live game reps. Based off training camp intel, the three biggest areas to follow along with in today’s season opener.

Jacob Eason vs. Sam Ehlinger

With Carson Wentz sidelined after the second day of training camp due to a foot injury that forced him into surgery, potentially missing the regular season opener now, Indianapolis needs to find out which of their young backup quarterbacks can go out and win them a football game in a pinch.

After taking all of the starting reps for a week-plus into training camp, 2020 fourth-round pick Jacob Eason from the University of Washington is losing ground to 2021 sixth-round selection Sam Ehlinger. Although Eason possesses the stronger arm by a country mile, Ehlinger’s moxie and mobility have made this an interesting discussion throughout preseason action.

By the end of this past week of training camp practices up at Grand Park in Westfield, Eason and Ehlinger have split starting reps. Since this late change, allowing the Colts to see how their mobile backup functions with the 1s, each quarterback prospect has shown flashes.

Eason will start the first quarter and a half of action, per Colts head coach Frank Reich. Then, Ehlinger will take over the reins presumably into the fourth quarter for Indianapolis. In Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings, the roles will reverse as Ehlinger takes over the starting duties ahead of Eason.

These three preseason games will be a case study into how Indianapolis can gauge Eason and Ehlinger. Neither has ever received snaps in a live NFL game, so this will be a valuable experience for the both of them.

Ehlinger is gaining steam in the quarterback battle. If he outplays Eason today, it’s going to flip the script entirely in his favor to win the backup job behind Wentz long-term.

Michael Strachan’s Emergence

The biggest winner in training camp so far has 100% been Michael Strachan, Indianapolis’ seventh-round pick at wide receiver. Possessing jaw-dropping athletic traits, Strachan was a dart throw from a Division II school to see whether he can stick on the NFL level. The results have been outstanding to this point.

The 6-foot-5 wideout from Charleston (West Virginia) has worked his way onto the Colts’ depth chart as WR5 thanks to an excellent professional debut. Strachan has won reps over Xavier Rhodes, Rock Ya-Sin and Marvell Tell III in camp action, impressing with his big frame and impressive athleticism.

Can Strachan’s strong first impression carry over into live action? That’s easily one of the biggest storylines to monitor throughout the Colts’ preseason opener. If so, Indianapolis may have lucked into a long-term development piece within their wide receiver room that’s been missed.

Just imagine the possibilities for the Colts if Strachan hits his max ceiling. Strachan on one side, Michael Pittman Jr. on the other, while Parris Campbell patrols the slot. That’s a fun trio to think about for Indianapolis.

Young Pass Rush

Unfortunately, rookie Kwity Paye will not suit up in the Colts’ preseason opener due to a sprained ankle suffered earlier this week in training camp. However, the returns so far on the Michigan edge rusher have been excellent.

Today, though, it’s an important opportunity to check on the progress involving three other Colts pass rushers: Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay, and Ben Banogu.

Lewis has handily won the strong-side starting role after Denico Autry’s free-agency departure to the Tennessee Titans, and he could put up similar numbers in a full-time role. The 2018 second-round pick flashed often throughout last season. Now, can he do so every Sunday for Indianapolis?

Turay is the fastball combination within the Colts’ pass rush artillery. A fully healthy Turay is a weapon Indianapolis can utilize with copious amounts of success. During the 2019 season, Turay flashed early and often as a player who was about to take a massive leap before fracturing his ankle in Kansas City. Since then, Turay has been rehabbing and waiting for the opportunity to explode back onto the scene.

Throughout training camp, Turay has been unblockable. Sure, it’s against backup tackles, but it’s a super encouraging sign that the bendy Rutgers EDGE could be back to 100 percent health. If that’s the case, watch out for Turay and Paye forming a lethal pass-rush combination on third down for Indianapolis.

Banogu was on the roster bubble heading into training camp, and honestly had a tough road to a 53-man spot unless he dominated. Well, if the first few weeks are any indication, Banogu looks the part of another young pass rusher to have taken a much-needed leap forward. Banogu needed to ascend up the ladder after a disappointing second season where he barely logged any action. If he can follow the same path as Lewis entering Year 3 as a real rotation piece, it bolsters Indy’s already strong defensive line to a whole new level.

These three storylines take the cake for Colts-related storylines in their preseason opener. However, there’s so much more to monitor when they take the field at Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time.

Stay tuned to Stampede Blue as we’ll have coverage throughout today’s action!