Bubble Watch for Indianapolis Colts' Training Camp
As the Colts went into the 2013 offseason, it was paramount that the roster be improved upon across the board. Even though the Colts went 11-5 in 2012, the roster was one of the league's worst.
The Colts improved at every position with their acquisitions in free agency and the draft, and now have a much better roster than they did at this time last season. The new acquisitions include up to 11 potential new starters, and should be responsible for at least seven starters in 2013.
But, while many of the starters are already locked in for the upcoming season, the bottom half of the roster is a complete question mark. The Colts have brought in a plethora of depth-level players to increase the level of competition that will take place in training camp.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a few Colts who are on the bubble and will be fighting for their jobs this August.
Experience: 1 year
Depth Chart Position: Fifth wide receiver
Analysis: The Colts' first four wide receivers are pretty much set in stone in Reggie Wayne, Darius Heyward-Bey, T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill.* After that, however, things are a big more convoluted.
The Colts kept five wide receivers on their roster for most of 2012, and it seems unlikely that they would keep more than that under Pep Hamilton, who runs a more run-heavy offensive system. So, the battle in training camp should be for the fifth and final wide receiver spot on the roster.
Griff Whalen impressed fans and coaches last preseason, hauling in 12 catches in two preseason games for 125 yards and a touchdown. Whalen showed good instincts over the middle and solid hands alongside a natural chemistry with Andrew Luck. Unfortunately, a foot injury would keep Whalen off the field for all of the 2012 regular season.
As the Colts now head into 2013, Whalen appears to have the advantage for the fifth receiver spot, but nothing is certain. Nathan Palmer (last year's No. 5) will be trying to get onto the roster again, as will Jeremy Kelley, Jabin Sambrano and undrafted free agents Rodrick Rumble and Lanear Sampson.
*LaVon Brazill's four-game suspension throws a wrench into things. I still fully expect him to stick around in Indianapolis, but he won't count against the roster for the first four weeks. The Colts likely will keep two receivers (outside the top four) for those first four weeks, and then cut one to make room for Brazill.
Experience: 2 years
Depth Chart Position: Second-string tackle
Analysis: Ben Ijalana is one of the more complicated stories in Indianapolis. After being drafted in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, Ijalana didn't crack the starting lineup during his rookie training camp. However, he got his first NFL experience in Week 4, when rookie left tackle Anthony Castonzo went down with an ankle injury.
That would be, so far, his last NFL experience. Later in the same game, Ijalana tore his left ACL, and would be put on the injured reserve. One season later, just five days after being cleared for practice, Ijalana would re-tear his left ACL, and be once again forced to spend the season on injured reserve.
Ijalana played well when given the chance in 2011, shutting down rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Ijalana allowed just one hurry in 23 pass-blocking snaps and helping the Colts' backs run for 59 yards on nine carries, a 6.56 yard average.
Aside from playing well in his rookie season, Ijalana has impressed head coach Chuck Pagano with his work ethic, and he's made it very clear that Ijalana will have a chance to compete for a spot this offseason.
Experience: 2 seasons
Depth Chart Position: Third tight end
Analysis: Weslye Saunders was signed by the Colts last October after Dominique Jones was waived. Saunders was the third tight end for the second half of the 2012 season, and managed to contribute as a decent run blocker in heavy sets.
On the flip side, Saunders offered little in the passing game, and the Colts looked to improve at the position by drafting Justice Cunningham with the final pick of the 2013 NFL draft. To be fair to Saunders. he's lost weight this summer and looks to improve in the passing game in 2013.
But, Cunningham impressed in rookie mini-camp, and will push Saunders for the third tight end position. If the Colts only keep three TEs, Saunders may be out of a job come September. If the Colts decide to keep more, however, Saunders should have the edge over Jones, whom the Colts cut in favor of Saunders last season.
Note: With Saunders' recent suspension, his chances to make the roster look extremely slim.
Experience: 2 years
Depth Chart Position: Fourth-string running back
Analysis: After being drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, Carter saw nearly 250 snaps as a rookie, but was passed by rookie Vick Ballard in 2012, and only got on the field for 64 snaps. With the addition of Ahmad Bradshaw to the roster, Carter gets pushed down to fourth in the rotation, and that's not even considering seventh-round draft pick Kerwynn Williams.
Carter has his uses on the Colts' roster, namely as a short-yardage back. Carter's success rate of 68% on short-yardage plays is the best rate of any of the Colts' veteran backs. However, Carter is a plodding back, and won't be able to get much around the edge. With Vick Ballard already filling the role of between-the-tackles running back in the rotation, Carter seems expendable.
Some will argue that Donald Brown will fall behind Carter on the depth chart, but that seems unlikely. The Colts' coaches have spoken highly of Brown this offseason, while being fairly silent on Carter. Throw in the fact that Brown received nearly five times more snaps last season, and it seems unlikely that Brown would be cut in Carter's place.
Carter will have to watch Kerwynn Williams pushing him for the fourth spot. Williams is a shifty speedster, one who lacks size but can also contribute as a returner. If Williams makes people notice on offense as well as special teams, Carter could be in trouble.
Experience: 3 years
Depth Chart Position: Third-string defensive tackle (three-tech defensive end in base 3-4)
Analysis: Mathews had the second-most snaps among the Colts' defensive linemen last season, playing over 500 snaps throughout the season. Mathews is a versatile linemen with a lot of potential, but he may get pushed out of his position by the increasing amount of depth at defensive lineman.
The Colts re-signed Fili Moala this offseason, and Drake Nevis (who was ahead of Mathews on the depth chart last season) will return from injury. With Montori Hughes likely to be used in the same position and free-agent acquisition Ricky Jean-Francois likely to start, Mathews will be battling Hughes and Nevis for a spot in the rotation.
The problem for Mathews is that he's not particularly good at anything. Nevis is great against the run, as is Jean-Francois. Hughes has great athleticism and reportedly is very strong in run defense as well. Mathews isn't bad in run defense, but it's not necessarily a strength either. The other linemen on the roster simply offer more upside.
Experience: 1 season
Depth Chart Position: Third-string inside linebacker, second-string outside linebacker
Analysis: Hickman's value comes in his ability to play both outside and inside linebacker. Hickman played outside linebacker for 174 snaps last season, but the Colts have been using him at inside linebacker this offseason. Hickman also has been a solid special teams player while in Indianapolis.
Unfortunately for Hickman, he has a decent amount of players ahead of him at both positions. Jerrell Freeman, Pat Angerer, Kavell Conner and Kelvin Sheppard should be ahead of him at inside linebacker. On the outside Robert Mathis, Erik Walden, Bjoern Werner and Lawrence Sidbury likely will be ahead of him, with several others competing behind them.
If the Colts keep 10 linebackers, as they did last season, Hickman should make the roster, but some young, no-name linebacker always seems to stick out in training camp, and definitely could put Hickman in danger.
Experience: 8 seasons
Depth Chart Position: Third-string nose tackle
Analysis: The Colts signed McKinney to a two-year deal last year, but McKinney was forced to spend all of 2012 on injured reserve. With Josh Chapman set to contribute in 2013 and the acquisition of Aubrayo Franklin, the veteran nose tackle is in danger of being cut.
McKinney's never played 250 snaps in a season, and Franklin has much more experience. Meanwhile, Chapman has the upside and long-term potential to boost him ahead of McKinney. Both Chapman and Franklin have been running with the first team during OTAs, and McKinney seems to be the third guy in the rotation.
The Colts keeping three nose tackles is unlikely, so, barring injury, McKinney should be looking for a new home come September.