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7 Colts training camp positional battles to keep an eye on

There are still some starting spots up for grabs within the Colts starting offensive and defensive lineups at camp.

NFL: JUN 07 Indianapolis Colts OTA Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts kick off training camp this Wednesday at Grand Park in local Westfield, Indiana.

While the franchise is likely facing a short-term rebuild, there are some reasons for newfound optimism in the Circle City (namely top rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson’s promise and potential), while also some lingering question marks at a few critical positions.

So without further ado, let’s look at a few of the key positional battles entering Colts camp:

NFL: JUN 07 Indianapolis Colts OTA Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. Starting Quarterback

Look, it’s a matter of when, not if, #4 overall pick Anthony Richardson will ultimately be the starting quarterback for the Colts this year—and it’s a safe guess that his NFL career debut will come much sooner, rather than later in the 2023 campaign.

Personally, I’d be shocked if Richardson isn’t starting by Week 5 for the Colts because at a certain point, he needs the playing time, experience, and meaningful snaps—a sentiment that’s already been shared by Indy’s top brass such as team owner Jim Irsay, general manager Chris Ballard, and head coach Shane Steichen alike.

That being said, Richardson will have to prove that he’s ready and not have a ‘deer in the headlights’ look for the Colts to feel comfortable enough to start him from the get-go. Showing a lot of poise in the pocket and progression of his reads, while honing in his accuracy—particularly in the short game, would ease some of those initial concerns.

If not, the Colts have ‘veteran’ Gardner Minshew, who can at least help the Colts play competitive football behind center before Richardson is ready to take the reins for good.

NFL: MAY 06 Colts Minicamp Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2. Starting Cornerback

What was already a young and inexperienced unit got even greener, when former Colts starting cornerback Isaiah Rodgers reportedly violated the league’s gambling policy and then was subsequently (and recently) cut by Indianapolis.

The Colts had already presumably penciled rookie second round pick, Julius ‘Juju’ Brents on the other side of Rodgers—having seen both veteran stalwart Stephon Gilmore and backup Brandon Facyson depart earlier this offseason to other NFL teams.

However, now they’re having to replace Rodgers as well—which means 2nd year cornerback Dallis Flowers or another fellow rookie, 5th round pick Darius Rush, could be a sleeper to start opposite Brents. Either way, this is a really young secondary, even if it has speed, athleticism, and obvious upside.

Expect them to take their early lumps, but grow and improve as training camp progresses.

NFL: MAY 25 Indianapolis Colts OTA Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

3. Starting Right Guard

Look, I’ve always believed that a team can get away with an average starting offensive lineman as its fifth starter on the unit—although maybe not at left tackle these days.

The problem is that the Colts offensive line play has dropped off collectively where no one else can help compensate for the weakest link because the standouts are few and far between for what was one of the league’s most overpaid and underperforming units last year.

3rd-year pro Will Fries has been a serviceable starter at times for the Colts at starting right guard and did get better as the season progressed last year, making 9 starts. He already has a believer in new Colts offensive line coach Tony Sparano Jr. regarding his future growth.

The Colts will need to determine if Fries is ‘just a guy’ out there or a plus asset as a blocker. The first is ideally suited as a backup, and the latter is of course a solid regular starter.

The problem for the Colts is that even should Fries falter, there’s not proven depth behind him to really give great confidence about assuming a starting job as a replacement.

Los Angeles Chargers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

4. Starting Tight End

At the end of the day, I fully expect new head coach Shane Steichen to utilize each of the tight ends of Mo Alie-Cox, Jelani Woods, Andrew Ogletree, Kylen Granson, and now rookie Will Mallory to their respective skill-sets—whoever ultimately sticks of that deep group.

However, this group is WAY TOO crowded right now. Jelani Woods is one of the favorites to emerge and stay on the field for extended playing time, if his blocking finally falls in line with his sheer size (6’7”, 253 pounds) during his 2nd-year. He’s a breakout candidate, as he’s already shown flashes as a big red zone target/mismatch—particularly around the goal line.

NFL: MAY 25 Indianapolis Colts OTA Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

5. Linebacker

One of the biggest questions for the Colts is the ongoing recovery of star linebacker Shaquille Leonard, who’s rehabbing from a second back surgery.

Leonard may not be ready to go for the start of training camp, meaning both Zaire Franklin and E.J. Speed should be poised for a lot of playing time during his absence.

If Leonard is fully healthy and returns, he’s back to being the Maniac at Mike, no question.

If his absence is extended though, it’ll be interesting to see who plays as that third linebacker in some of the Colts base packages—alongside Franklin and Speed. It’s not as important as it may have been, as the Colts will play a lot of Nickel, but it’s still interesting.

NFL: MAY 06 Colts Minicamp Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

6. Slot Wide Receiver

This should be a battle between veteran wideout Isaiah McKenzie and rookie third round pick Josh Downs for the starting slot wide receiver job. I would expect because of seniority purposes that McKenzie will get the initial nod as the starter during camp over Downs.

However, like the Minshew vs. Richardson training camp battle at starting quarterback, I would expect Downs to ultimately be the starter, sooner rather than later. I just think he’d be an upgrade over McKenzie with his toughness and ability to make contested catches. Plus, it serves the Colts well to start building long-term chemistry between both he and AR5—which already showed initial promise during rookie minicamp.

NFL: JUN 14 Indianapolis Colts Minicamp Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

7. Starting Safety

It’s a safe bet that both Julian Blackmon and Rodney Thomas II should be penciled in as the initial starters at safety to start training camp. That being said, I’m still keeping an eye on 2022 third round pick Nick Cross, who may have the most physical ability of the group, and is still young for his age at only 21 years old.

Cross began last season as the starter before being benched because he was admittedly ‘thinking too much out there.’ If the game has slowed down for him as a ‘sophomore’, he could be a potential darkhorse at starting safety and challenge for one of the starting jobs.