With the suspension of Weslye Saunders last week, the Indianapolis Colts' already too-active offseason became even more noteworthy.
While an active offseason is often used as a compliment, when that activity includes suspensions and arrests, nobody comes out looking good.
Saunders' suspension marks the team's third such blemish in less than a month, with wide receiver LaVon Brazill's four-game suspension and safety Joe Lefeged's arrest coming in late June. Saunders, like Brazill, violated the NFL's substance abuse policy, although the two may have had different infractions.
According to Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star, Brazill's infraction was testing positive test for marijuana, the second failed test of his short career. Saunders, however, was suspended eight games due to violating the league's performance enhancing drugs (PED) policy for a second time (Saunders was suspended four games last season as well).
The newest infraction doesn't seem like much on the surface due to Saunders' place on the roster (third tight end at best, a camp cut at worst), but the suspension begets a host of complications that cannot go unnoticed.
What the suspension means for Weslye Saunders
The eight-game suspension for Saunders is a huge blow to his career hopes. The infraction is the second since his arrival to the NFL in 2011, and he had troubles in college as well.
Saunders has had plenty of chances, and it just seems like he isn't going to learn at this point. One would think that his four-game suspension and subsequent release from the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2012 would be a wake-up call for the young tight end. Saunders himself referred to this after signing with Indianapolis last season, calling it "a one-time thing. I learned from it and am ready to roll."
With all due respect to Saunders, it sure doesn't seem like a one-time thing.
Saunders was investigated by the NCAA in 2010 for allegedly contacting potential agents illegally and was also found to be, along with several other South Carolina football players, living in the Whitney Hotel at reduced rates, deemed an illegal benefit by the NCAA.
Saunders would later be suspended and then dismissed from the South Carolina football team for violating team rules.
Even if the incident at South Carolina had nothing to do with banned substances, Saunders simply has a history of incredibly poor decision-making, and his faulty judgment will be a significant detractor in his bid to continue with his NFL career.
It's not a certainty that his career is over, but it will be an uphill battle from here on out for Saunders, who will have to prove to teams that he's dedicated to smart decisions both on and off the field.
What it means for training camp
Simply put, Saunders' suspension means that rookie Justice Cunningham, Saunders' former teammate at South Carolina, has a much better chance of making the roster than he did just one week ago.
The Colts' third tight end spot figured to be a three-way battle between Saunders, Cunningham and Dominique Jones, but that battle is down to just two now.
Saunders may stick around, as he won't count against the final roster until after his suspension is over, but Cunningham or Jones should get a spot for those eight weeks at the very least. I'd be very surprised if either were cut in favor of Saunders midway through the season, although it wouldn't be unheard of.
Between the two, Cunningham seems to have the advantage over Jones.
Cunningham was drafted as a tenacious blocker out of South Carolina with potential in the receiving game. Cunningham only had 23 catches for 324 yards as a senior but wasn't utilized much and has more potential than one might think. He's not a particularly explosive athlete, but he has soft hands and knows how to use his 6'3", 258-pound body to get separation from the defender.
Jones was used primarily as an H-back and fullback last season and only reached the field for 33 snaps. He wasn't necessarily a liability but did little to make a positive impact. Throughout the offseason, he's primarily been working as a fullback. I would be surprised if the Colts kept him over Cunningham, who offers much more in terms of upside, for the third tight end.
What it means for the Colts' locker room
After Brazill's suspension, there was talk of whether or not the Colts had a locker room problem. Most, including myself, dismissed the notion as silly, and rightfully so. There was no evidence for such a problem, and one reserve receiver failing a drug test was not a sign of a poisoned locker room culture.
However, after 12 games' worth of suspensions and a particularly frustrating arrest scenario in less than a month, the question is worth discussing.
The one positive in all this is that the Colts who have gotten in trouble are all reserves and/or fringe players. While players such as Von Miller, Bruce Irvin and Aaron Hernandez have had drug, PED or other arrests this offseason, the Colts' starters have kept things clean and low-key.
But with three players getting arrested, and people have taken notice.
Last week, Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star asked the question: do the Colts need to react to the rash of off-field problems?
The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. Despite head coach Chuck Pagano stressing sound judgment prior to the team breaking for the summer, three players have all had serious incidents.
The incidents themselves make the franchise, general manager Ryan Grigson and Pagano look bad enough already, and a statement must be made. Unfortunately for Saunders, he likely will become the scapegoat, although it's perfectly deserved, as Chappell says.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is the last thing a player fighting for a roster spot should do is give the team a reason to cut him. The personnel department always is weighing one player’s pluses and minuses against other players at the same position.
The bottom line: Saunders offers an opportunity for the Colts to show they’re fed up with this player violating that policy and another player showing poor judgment.
If none of the three players are disciplined by the team, whether by fine or release, it will leave a very poor image as the resounding takeaway from this offseason. The Colts have preached both character and discipline throughout the brief Grigson and Pagano era, and to allow this to pass without addressing it would fly against everything they wish the franchise to stand for.
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