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Indianapolis Colts skill position scarcity

Indianapolis Colts running back Deon Jackson celebrates his touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis Colts spent the last few days deliberating to cut the roster from 90 players to 53, and the process seems to be far from finished.

An initial takeaway is the lack of depth among the 15 offensive skill position players after the Colts trimmed down the roster by Tuesday’s deadline.

Running back Jonathan Taylor was not traded before the Colts’ self-imposed deadline and remains on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, meaning he will miss the first four games of the regular season (vs Jacksonville, at Houston, at Baltimore, vs Los Angeles Rams) and cannot be reactivated until Week 5. Ever since his rather acrimonious trade request five weeks ago, the 24-year old has reached a stalemate with the franchise that took him with the No. 41 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Taylor (ankle) has not participated in any on-field team activities since undergoing arthroscopic debridement surgery in January, missing all of OTA’s, veteran minicamp, training camp, and the preseason with the deadpan look in his face whenever in the public eye.

Taylor played his veritable hand of cards in searching for a team willing to acquire him, but the Colts felt the offers on the table were not at fair-value for the 2021 All-Pro. It makes sense to pay a premium price to the best player on the roster – who could jolt the development of Colts quarterback Anthony Richardson – but Colts owner Jim Irsay took a public stance against the state of the running back market in his only training camp appearance after months of respite from a disastrous campaign.

Every dollar spent on players counts toward the salary cap, including those on the practice squad or PUP list. The Colts are allowed to keep 16 players on the practice squad, with a max of 10 players who have accrued between 0-2 years of playing time and a max of six players with unlimited accrued playing time in the NFL.

Colts offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter was asked during Sunday’s coordinator zoom meeting how he maximizes time between the preseason and strategizing for game week during the regular season.

“It’s a thing where we are not necessarily game-planning any opponent,” Jim Bob Cooter said. “We are still sort of practicing against the Colts defense. Our Colts offense is going up against this Colts defense. But as we get going through the week and you have a little extra time in a meeting room or something like that, it is sort of natural to peek at that first opponent.”

“Everybody gets excited for the first game of the year so we’re no different. We may peek at that first opponent a little bit and see if we can’t figure out one extra thing that you might figure out when you just have that single week. It’s a great week to kind of get everybody back to just one more sort of pure week of work where we get to go practice against our defense and Coach (Shane) Steichen gets to put together certain, ‘What are we doing? Is it red zone day? Is it two-minute day?’ We kind of get one last competition against our guys while we’re sort of preparing for the season.”

Indianapolis kept three quarterbacks, including first-round draft pick Anthony Richardson, Gardner Minshew, and Sam Ehlinger. NFL owners implemented a new rule in May, which allows teams to carry a third emergency QB on gameday, without having to report him on the active roster. The third signal caller can only enter the game if the two QBs ahead of him are injured, disqualified or ejected.

Despite the ongoing saga with Taylor, the Colts will carry three running backs to complement their raw rookie in the backfield. Zack Moss suffered a broken right arm during training camp, but his timetable to return can be as early as Week 1. Deon Jackson took first-team reps throughout camp, but is coming off a 2022 campaign in which he accumulated 236 rushing yards and one touchdown on 68 carries. Fifth-round draft pick Evan Hull rounded out the backfield, rushing for 53 yards on 17 carries in three preseason games, and scored a touchdown in the finale.

In the most surprising offensive move, the Colts kept just four wide receivers on the roster, including Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce, Isaiah McKenzie and third-round draft pick Josh Downs. After losing Ashton Dulin to a season-ending torn ACL, Indianapolis is very thin from the perimeter, but a move is expected to add more depth to the receiver corps if a gem is found through the waiver wire, where Indianapolis currently holds the No. 4 spot to pursue players who have been waived.

“(Alec) Pierce has done a really nice job,” Cooter said. “He’s done a really nice job of what we’re asking him to do. We are putting him in a lot of different situations where he’s running, hopefully, most of the route tree. There was a certain point in camp where, gosh, he was getting open every single play and the ball was just going to the other side of the field. That sometimes happens to you at receiver. I think Pierce has had some great plays in camp.”

Five tight ends made the roster, including Mo Ali-Cox (hamstring), Kylen Granson, Jelani Woods, Andrew Ogletree, and fifth-round draft pick Will Mallory. The versatility of the TE group allowed Steichen to keep each player based on his specific skillset, whether its in the run blocking, or as a veritcal threat or possession.

Danny Pinter suffered a season-ending broken ankle in the preseason finale and was placed on injured reserve, leaving the Colts without a backup center. Indianapolis kept nine offensive lineman on the roster, including center Ryan Kelly, tackles Bernard Reihmann, Braden Smith, Arlington Hambright, fourth-round draft pick Blake Freeland, along with guards Quenton Nelson, Will Fries, Wesley French and Carter O’Donnell.

As the room for trial and error has concluded, Indianapolis hopes Richardson becomes the panacea to end its six-year QB carousel.