Projecting the Indianapolis Colts' Most Heated Roster Battles This Offseason
Yesterday we posted our early projections for the Indianapolis Colts' 53-man roster come September, but it's common knowledge that rosters are fluid. Until the final roster cuts come, that final group is a complete question mark.
There are battles throughout the Colts' roster, with little established depth on the team and inconsistent starters throughout. Even though the team didn't draft much starting talent, there is still plenty of open spots throughout the roster.
Every season there are some surprising rises in training camp, but for now, here are the top five camp battles we'll be looking forward to come August.
The Contenders: Sheldon Price, Qua Cox, Loucheiz Purifoy, Kameron Jackson, Keon Lyn, Marcus Burley
The Colts' depth at cornerback is, to say the least, thin. It starts at the top, where starting cornerback Greg Toler has disappointed. It doesn't help that the Colts lost dime cornerback Cassius Vaughn in the offseason. While Vaughn was not a favorite among Colts fans he was a decent depth corner, and that void has not yet been filled.
Josh Gordy, who was the Colts' fifth corner last season, will move up a spot for now and another corner will need to step in.
The only corner from last season's squad available to fill that spot is Sheldon Price, who was underwhelming as an undrafted free agent last year. Price was on the practice squad to start last year, and was activated on the roster in December but never saw the field. Price has great size and length at 6'2" but wasn't impressive in coverage in the preseason last year. He'll need to show improvement in order to stick in 2014.
Marcus Burley was signed off the street in January after bouncing around practice squads last season. Burley is just 5'10" coming out of Delaware last summer, but he hasn't been able to stick anywhere.
The Colts signed a number of cornerbacks after the draft, including Cox, Purifoy, Jackson and Lyn. Purifoy was the highest rated prior to the draft, but Cox is another dark horse to make the roster, and he has already made his mark with the local media.
The Winner: Qua Cox
At this point in the offseason, we haven't seen much of these guys. Unless one of the bigger-framed guys can show enough promise as a developmental prospect, the Colts just need somebody who can play here. Cox doesn't have ideal size, but he's a playmaker.
Starting Right Guard
The Contenders: Hugh Thornton, Jack Mewhort, Joe Reitz, Lance Louis
Arguably the weakest starting spot on the Colts' roster, guard received much more help than the other hole on the starting roster (safety). With an influx of bodies, the Colts have at least two players who should compete for the starting right guard position, along with 2013 third-round draft pick Hugh Thornton and Rietz, a carryover from the Polian era.
Thornton has the inside track on the spot, having started there last season, but it's certainly no guarantee that he wins the position. He was largely ineffective last year and finished as Pro Football Focus' 69th-best guard (subscription required).
Joe Reitz is a bit of a wild card. He was a solid guard in 2011 before getting hurt and struggling in 2012. He bounced back as a depth player in 2013, however, and finished with the Colts' best grade at guard from PFF (subscription required). However, we haven't seen any indication that this coaching staff has any faith in Reitz and that he'll even be considered for the starting spot.
The two newcomers come from very different backgrounds. Mewhort was a starting left tackle at Ohio State and was drafted in the second round by Indianapolis to play wherever the team needs him to on the line. Louis was a seventh-round pick in 2009 and hasn't played since tearing his ACL in November of 2012. Louis did start with the Chicago Bears in 2011 and 2012, with mixed results, but he was unable to make the Miami Dolphins' roster last season. He could be cut before the season starts, or he could compete for a starting role.
The Winner: Hugh Thornton
I know that Thornton isn't exactly loved by fans, but he did flash talent last year, and a year of NFL experience over Mewhort is a valuable asset. It wouldn't surprise me if Mewhort is starting by the end of the season, or even by Week 8, but for now the starting spot is Thornton's until somebody takes it from him.
Starting Strong Safety
The Contenders: Delano Howell, Colt Anderson, Sergio Brown, David Sims, Dewey McDonald
While fans clamored for another starting-caliber safety to be added to the roster, Colts GM Ryan Grigson saw no available upgrades, choosing to believe in the talent already on the roster. While that inaction was a mistake according to many, it's the situation we now find ourselves in.
The biggest reason why Grigson is so confident is Howell, the 24-year-old safety out of Stanford. Howell was a notable reason why the Colts succeeded early last season, aiding in the team's adjustments when LaRon Landry was injured. Howell is a versatile safety, who can come up and play in the box or drop back into a deep, center-fielder role. But his athleticism is limited, as is his ceiling. He's more of an ideal role player than a true starter.
Sergio Brown has been talked up a lot by the Colts coaches, but he's only been a special teams player since being cut by the New England Patriots in 2012. He's played just 63 defensive snaps for the Colts since then, most notably giving up the game-winning touchdown to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 3 of 2012.
Sims and Anderson are both special teams players as well, for the most part. Anderson did play nearly 300 snaps for the Eagles in 2012, including four starts, but it was largely a failed experiment. Sims has bounced around practice squads, landing in Indianapolis while being unemployed for much of last season. McDonald is an undrafted free agent, a strong safety with pop but limited coverage skills.
The Winner: Delano Howell
It's hard to take this from Howell, who earned the third safety role out of nowhere last season and played well enough in relief to warrant some confidence. But, Howell did have a significant foot injury last year and further injury could slow him down.
Fourth Running Back
The Contenders: Chris Rainey, Dan Herron, Zurlon Tipton
The trio of Trent Richardson, Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard should be the main rotation of backs in the Colts' running game in 2014, assuming that Bradshaw and Ballard return from injury strong. But the fourth running back spot is still up for grabs.
Rainey and Herron each spent some time on the roster last season, with Herron playing 11 snaps to Rainey's five. Herron is a former Ohio State Buckeye with good acceleration and strength, while Rainey came out of Florida. Rainey is smaller at just 5'8" and 175 pounds, but he is explosive and a potential special teams contributor. For what it's worth, Herron saw his snaps in the offense in Weeks 10 and 12, while Rainey took snaps in Weeks 13 and 14.
Sure he has a cool name, but Tipton is more than just another name coming out of Central Michigan. Tipton has quick acceleration and good balance in the hole to pair with a notable understanding of how his blocking schemes work. Sure he's just an undrafted free agent, but he has a real shot to make the roster.
The Winner: Zurlon Tipton
This is one of the harder spots to predict, as any of these guys could end up making the roster, and it will likely be more because of their special teams' performance than running the ball. I really like what Tipton showed at Central Michigan and would love to bring some fresh talent in, but this is not an open-and-shut case by any means.
Backup Inside Linebacker
The Contenders: Josh McNary, Andrew Jackson, Kelvin Sheppard, Mario Harvey, Scott Lutrus, Henoc Muamba
The leader for nickel linebacker snaps, McNary played 134 snaps last season, almost exclusively on passing downs. McNary was in on running snaps just 18 percent of the time, versus 59 percent for Kelvin Sheppard, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Sheppard still saw snaps near the end of the season, but it was in a two-down linebacker role. McNary saw his playing time increase at the end of the season, and he hopes to use that to vault him to more time in 2014.
If Sheppard wants to continue to get snaps in 2014, he'll have to beat out Andrew Jackson, the Colts' sixth-round pick out of Western Kentucky. Jackson has the prototypical body and style for a two-down role, according to WKU defensive coordinator Nick Holt (via Colts.com):
He’s big, physical, likes to take on guards, can take on guards by himself and thump those guys to secure his gaps inside. He can play over offensive linemen and stuff those guys in the hole.
Then there's Harvey and Lutrus, who have lingered around the bottom of the Colts roster for the past few years. Harvey is the only one that has seriously contended for snaps but neither are favorites to land a rotational spot in 2014.
The most intriguing player is Muamba, a former No. 1 overall pick in the Canadian Football League. Muamba, like Jerrell Freeman before him, was a CFL All-Star before the Colts contacted him about trying the NFL. Like Freeman, he has good range across the field, and he may be a surprise riser in training camp.
The Winner(s): Josh McNary, Andrew Jackson
I was impressed with McNary's job late last season, and his ability to pass rush gives him an edge no other Colts inside linebacker possesses, especially with OLB Robert Mathis out for the first four weeks. Sheppard has the experience edge on Jackson, but he's been so ineffective in Indianapolis, fans can only hope that Jackson beats him out.