INDIANAPOLIS – The more Frank Reich considered the projected roster at his disposal in his third season, the more his grin widened and his optimism grew.
By all accounts, things came together in the offseason.
There was the trade and $84 million extension for defensive cornerstone DeForest Buckner. There was the decision to see how much more Philip Rivers had to give. One more season (at $25 million), or two? There was the April draft that hopefully injected two playmakers into an offense that sorely lacked pop (Michael Pittman Jr. and Jonathan Taylor).
There were offensive pillars Quenton Nelson and Anthony Castonzo, and by extension an offensive line that returns intact. That was defensive catalyst Darius Leonard. There was the anticipated growth of Marlon Mack, Kenny Moore II and Anthony Walker, and recent draft classes that have gained trial-by-fire experience.
There was the return of the vast majority of the front-liners from a year ago. And let’s not forget, this is a young roster. Fourteen of our projected starters are 26 or younger. Versatile back/punt returner Nyheim Hines is heading into his third season. He’s 23.
Reich was bullish on the dramatic move that delivered Buckner to Indy, and so much more.
“Not just that piece,’’ he said, “but there are a number of little moves, less moves if you say, that Chris has made that I really think have filled in our roster. I think Colts fans should be really excited right now.
“I know you don’t want to get over-hyped. You rather under-promise and over-deliver, but I’m excited. This roster is a good roster; good players, good talent and equally as important to Colts Nation, these are good men.’’
The time is now for all of the moves – big and small – to come together.
The Colts have missed the playoffs in four of the last five seasons for the first time since 1988-94. They’ve endured losing records in two of the last three seasons. The last time they finished with a losing record in three of four: a nine-year stretch from 1978-86.
“We are trying to win now,’’ Reich said. “It’s important to win now.’’
Veterans report to the Farm Bureau Football Center Tuesday to begin their COVID-19 protocols. Players must have three negative coronavirus tests before they’re allowed in the building, then are tested daily for at least the next two weeks.
With football actually on our doorstep but with a whiff of uncertainly still lingering, here’s a look at our projected 53-player roster. The most difficult decisions likely involve how many players to keep at certain positions, which will impact other positions.
We consider this as deep a roster as Ballard has constructed, and it’s going to be difficult for unproven talent (undrafted rookies) to earn a spot. Here’s where we remind you at least one undrafted rookie has made the Colts’ opening-day roster in 21 straight seasons, the NFL’s longest active streak.
Quarterbacks (3): Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, Jacob Eason (R).
- Comment: It would be ideal to carry just two, but Eason must be given every opportunity to learn behind Rivers. At issue is whether the coaching staff sees any benefit to placing Chad Kelly on the practice squad. We don’t.
Running backs (4): Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, Jonathan Taylor (R), Jordan Wilkins.
- Comment: Initially we went with three and Jordan Wilkins was the odd-man out. But the commitment to running the football requires healthy bodies, and backs tend to get dinged up.
Fullback (1): Rosie Nix.
- Comment: Nix needs to be a special teams stud to stick. Roster spots are too precious to carry a fullback who might block four or five times a game in short-yardage and goal-line situations. We’re not dissing fullbacks as a profession, but if you’ve got an elite offensive line, let it flex its muscles when the situation warrants.
Wide receivers (6): T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, Zach Pascal, Michael Pittman Jr. (R), Marcus Johnson, Reece Fountain.
- Comment: It’s hard to imagine Reich and Ballard going with five, especially if they’re still having flashbacks to how injuries depleted the position last year. The passing game needs serious bounce-back seasons from T.Y. Hilton and Parris Campbell. One thing to keep in mind: Hines could be viewed as a quasi-wideout.
Tight ends (3): Jack Doyle, Trey Burton, Mo Alie-Cox.
- Comment: Doyle remains the foundational piece, but the Colts need Burton to be a down-the-field threat.
Offensive line (8): LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Mark Glowinski, RT Braden Smith, OT Le’Raven Clark, G Jake Eldrenkamp, G Danny Pinter (R).
- Comment: Eight just feels too few, but that’s the number the Colts carried into 2019. That worked just fine since the starting combo remained intact for all 16 games for the first time since 2000. But the odds are against a repeat. Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only the 2002-03 Kansas Chiefs and 2007-08 New York Giants have had the same five linemen start all 16 games in consecutive seasons
Ballard and Reich are adept at dealing with sudden depth issues by using the practice squad. That might be required at this position with perhaps rookie Carter O’Connell or Chaz Green.
Line (9): DeForest Buckner, Justin Houston, Denico Autry, Kemoko Turay, Grover Stewart, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Sheldon Day, Ben Banogu, Tyquan Lewis.
- Comment: Arguably the deepest area on the team (running backs might disagree). Coordinator Matt Eberflus loves to use a rotation system to keep players fresh, and has a ton of talent. We’re not sold on Tyquan Lewis; this is a put-up-or-see-ya season. If the team’s patience with Lewis runs out, we’ll take a flyer on Kendall Coleman. The Cathedral H.S. product has been working with Robert Mathis on his pass rush skills.
Linebacker (6): Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker Jr., Bobby Okereke, E.J. Speed, Zaire Franklin, Jordan Glasgow (R).
- Comment: If we absolutely had to steal a roster spot, this would be the position. We could live with five ‘backers considering how often Eberflus is in sub packages. The only caveat to that is backup ‘backers are heavily involved on special teams. That’s why we’ve got sixth-round draft pick Jordan Glasgow sticking.
Cornerbacks (6): Kenny Moore II, Rock Ya-Sin, Xavier Rhodes, Marvell Tell III, T.J. Carrie, Isaiah Rodgers (R).
- Comment: This has the potential to be a very good group, if, that is, Xavier Rhodes is able to approach his All-Pro form of 2017. A trio of Moore, Ya-Sin and Rhodes would be intriguing, not to mention aggressive.
Safeties (4): Malik Hooker, Khari Willis, George Odom, Rolan Milligan.
- Comment: Enjoy Hooker while you’re able. He’ll likely be elsewhere in 2021 after the Colts opted not to exercise the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. The status of rookie Julian Blackmon was addressed Monday when he was placed on the Active/Non-Football Injury list. He tore his ACL in December.
Kicker (1): Chase McLaughlin.
- Comment: McLaughlin versus rookie Rodrigo Blankenship figures to be one of the more interesting training camp competitions. After dealing with the kicking travails last season, the coaching staff has to get it right.
Punter (1): Rigoberto Sanchez.
Longsnapper (1): Luke Rhodes.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.