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What starting spots on the Colts offense are still up for grabs?

Head coach Shane Steichen anticipates roster position battles during road trip against Philadelphia Eagles.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star
Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Juwann Winfree (8) celebrates with wide receiver Josh Downs (1) and tight end Will Mallory (86) after scoring a touchdown in Saturday’s preseason victory over the Bears.
Jenna Watson/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

With nine days before the 53-man roster cut deadline for all 32 NFL teams, Indianapolis Colts head coach Shane Steichen anticipates a competitive nature to decide the remaining position battles during the final preseason road trip.

After Saturday’s 24-17 win over the Chicago Bears, Steichen told reporters he has not decided to play rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson, or any starters, in the final preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Colts’ 2023 first round draft pick will wait to make his home debut on Sept. 10, when the Colts host the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“I think we had those two joint practices against the Bears back-to-back days,” Steichen said. “To me, I look at those as legit games. He got all those reps and a lot of starters didn’t play on both sides of the ball and that was the decision that was made.”

Steichen revealed tight end and slot receiver are offensive positions that can still be won in the final week of the preseason. TE Kylen Granson has earned first-team reps throughout training camp, while Jelani Woods (hamstring), Mo Alie-Cox (foot), and Andrew Ogletree (shoulder) were sidelined in the joint-practices with the Bears and did not play in either preseason game. The Colts have shown a tendency to run 12-personnel with a traditional two tight end set without a receiver in the slot for designed runs and run-pass option plays.

Granson is coming off a 2022 campaign in which he produced a team-high (TE) 31 catches for a career-high 302 receiving yards. With several injuries to the skill group, Granson grasped the opportunity to build chemistry and make his presence known as a reliable target and worthy adversary in the run game.

Josh Downs and Isaiah McKenzie have rotated first-team reps in the slot. A significant aspect Steichen looks for in a slot receiver is a natural feel for the position. Downs secured two receptions for 20 receiving yards in Saturday’s win, and has progressed to become a favorite target of Richardson. Through two preseason games, the Colts third round draft pick has four receptions for 49 receiving yards. He leads all Colts receivers who have caught at least three preseason passes with 12.25 yards per reception.

“I feel like they use a lot of tools to my advantage, and they try to exploit my strengths and they put it out there,” Downs said. “Coach (Reggie) Wayne has helped me a lot, Coach (Shane) Steichen and Coach Jim Bob (Cooter). They’ve been calling good plays for me and all the other guys like Alec (Pierce) and Pitt (Michael Pittman Jr.) and Isaiah (McKenzie). So, they are doing a good job. I feel like I’m good here and I’m glad I’m here.”

“You have got man-to-man coverage on nickel guys, you have got matchups on linebackers, you have got guys blitzing off the slot that you have to adjust your route to,” Steichen said. “I have thought he has done a tremendous job along with Isaiah (McKenzie) and the rest of that crew.”

After WR Ashton Dulin suffered a torn ACL and was placed on injured reserve, the Colts depth in the receiving corps became more volatile. Indianapolis signed free-agent receiver James Washington on Friday and the sixth-year pro made an immediate impact in crunch time the very next day.

Sam Ehlinger led the Colts past midfield with nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter, and Washington made the play of the game on a seam down the sideline for a 42-yard catch. On the next play, Ehlinger scrambled left and ran in for a touchdown to cut the deficit to 17-13.

“It’s awesome. Shoot, we signed him (Washington), what 24 hours ago,” Steichen said. “He goes in and catches the go ball down the sidelines, but he is playing in this league. He had some good years in Pittsburgh, and to get him in here and to have him make that play was awesome to see. It really sparked our offense.”

Tough decisions fall on the hands of the first-year head coach as the Colts will decide to keep either six receivers or four tight-ends on the roster before the Colts enter the 17-week gauntlet.