INDIANAPOLIS – This is the last in a series taking a position-by-position look at the Indianapolis Colts heading into training camp, which is scheduled to open July 28 at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
Today: SPECIAL TEAMS
Kickers: Chase McLaughlin, Rodrigo Blankenship
Punter: Rigoberto Sanchez
Long snapper: Luke Rhodes
Returners: Nyheim Hines, Zach Pascal, Isaiah Rodgers
New era: For the first time since 2005, someone other than Adam Vinatieri will be the opening-day kicker. Let that sink in. Over that same stretch, the Dallas Cowboys have had five different kickers open the season.
For the first time since 1998, an open competition in training camp will determine who handles the job.
Vinatieri’s prolific 14-year career with the Colts and Hall of Fame-worthy 24-year NFL career likely ended when the team placed him on the injured reserve list last December.
A persistent knee injury that greatly impacted his effectiveness all season – a career-high 14 missed kicks, several of which were costly – wouldn’t allow him to finish the season.
Vinatieri underwent surgery to address meniscus and patellar tendon issues with his right knee.
“After 24 years in the league and 47 years old, I don’t have many regrets,’’ said the NFL’s career scoring leader and four-time Super Bowl champion. “I didn’t like the way the last year ended, but I’m not disappointed in my career at all.
“I’d like to play again, but if not, that’s part of the deal. If it’s not in the cards and I’m not coming back – and I’m not saying that – then, yes, I’ll be at peace.’’
In all likelihood, we’ve seen the last of Vinatieri on the football field. His rehab has been impeded by the COVID-19 pandemic. And let’s not forget, he’s 47.
Vinatieri’s next signature moment likely is enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
To drive home the uniqueness of what’s going on with the Colts’ kicker position, consider they’ve had just five kickers on their opening-day roster since their relocation to Indy in 1984. Preceding Vinatieri were Mike Vanderjagt (1998-2005), Cary Blanchard (1995-97), Dean Biasucci (1986-94) and Raul Allegre (1984-85).
The last time there was open competition for the position was in 1998 when Vanderjagt, a Canadian Football League standout, outkicked Blanchard. Vinatieri was signed as a free agent in 2006 and there was never a doubt who would be doing the Colts’ kicking.
It’s McLaughlin: When Vinatieri went on IR, Chris Ballard turned to Chase McLaughlin. The rookie had kicked earlier for San Francisco (7-of-8 on field goals) and the Los Angeles Chargers (6-of-9), and settled in nicely in Indy. Over the final four games, he converted 5-of-6 field goal attempts, including a 50-yarder at Jacksonville, and all 11 of his PATs.
In January, Ballard re-signed McLaughlin to a one-year, $675,000 contract.
“We liked him,’’ he said. “The 50-yarder in Jacksonville on the grass? That was (a) pretty cool moment. I think he would’ve made it from 65.
“You come in and follow Adam Vinatieri, you’ve got a little something to you. He’s got a real calm demeanor. We like Chase.’’
Or it’s Blankenship: The virtual offseason and truncated camp is going to make it difficult for an undrafted rookie to make the roster. There might be fewer reps, which means fewer opportunities to catch a coach’s eye.
Let’s not discount Rodrigo Blankenship’s chances. He’ll have more than a month to kick against McLaughlin and convince the team he’s worth the risk. In 56 games at Georgia, Blankenship converted 80-of-97 field goal attempts (82.5 percent), with a long of 55, and didn’t miss on 200 PATs. He piled up a school-record 440 points. As a senior, he was named recipient of the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation’s top kicker.
And then there’s this: Ballard gave Blankenship a $20,000 signing bonus, which is hefty for an undrafted player.
It’s Hines’ time: Finally, Nyheim Hines gave everyone a full dose of what he brings as a punt returner. Remember week 16 against Carolina? He returned three punts for 195 yards, including 84- and 71-yard touchdowns. The yardage total was a club record and the fourth-highest in NFL history. His two TDs tied the league record for a single game.
“Surreal,’’ he said after the game. “I’ve had dreams where I’ve played well and I don’t think I even had a day like that in dreams.’’
Hines took himself out of the punt-return discussion when he experienced ball security issues during his rookie preseason. But he assumed the duties last December after a knee injury sidelined Chester Rogers. He finished with 281 yards, which trailed only New Orleans’ Deonte Harris (338) and Chicago’s Tarik Cohen (302). Harris returned 36 punts and Cohen 33.
Hines returned nine.
Now, Hines yearns for an expanded role on special teams.
“I’d love to do punt and kick returns,’’ he said, ‘but I have to go out there and earn both the jobs.
“That is what I plan on doing.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.