Early Predictions for the Indianapolis Colts' Training Camp Battles
It's almost June, which means it's time to start looking ahead to the offseason competitions between the Indianapolis Colts players. Each position has its own fringe guys, players who will be battling just for the right to stay with the team throughout the regular season. Then there are the battles for starting positions, which are their own monster.
We've already broken down which camp battles will be the most intriguing, but which current Colts have the edge?
After all, what's the offseason without a little premature prognosticating?
Starting Running Back
The battle for the starting running back position will be an interesting, and potentially infuriating, one. Trent Richardson has had the most invested in him, while Vick Ballard already has a year of semi-successful starting under his belt.
Then there's Ahmad Bradshaw, who has flashed the most talent during his career. Bradshaw is a true all-around running back. He's not an elite runner or receiver, but he's above average in both when healthy and is easily the team's best pass-protector.
While he's had injury issues in his career, he's never had knee issues like Ballard did last year, which can severely alter one's agility and explosiveness. The neck injury Bradshaw suffered last year shouldn't impact his ability to run well in 2014, while Ballard's torn ACL very well could.
No, the battle should come down to Bradshaw and Richardson. While I've been on record saying that Richardson will win the battle, I think that's more because of Bradshaw's ability to stay healthy than Richardson's improvement.
Richardson should improve in 2014, but enough to overtake Bradshaw's talent advantage? Richardson probably will end up with similar or more snaps by the end of the season, but Bradshaw should win the starting spot to start the season.
Winner: Ahmad Bradshaw
Starting Right Guard
Many Colts fans don't want to see Hugh Thornton starting after a rough rookie season. Thornton was one of the league's worst guards, coming in as 69th among 81 starting guards in Pro Football Focus' grades. Thornton gave up 39 pressures in pass protection, tied with Mike McGlynn for 10th-most among all guards in the NFL.
So, there is plenty of hope that rookie Jack Mewhort or veteran Lance Louis will push Thornton for a starting spot. But while Mewhort will likely start someday, I predict that Thornton will win the spot to start the 2014 season.
First, Thornton has a year of experience under his belt, and that is no small thing. Ryan Grigson has spoken in the past about his hesitancy to start rookie offensive linemen, telling ESPN's Paul Kuharsky:
...a first-year offensive lineman, there are a lot more bullets flying in that vicinity he’s working in that involves thinking, that involved experience... A lot of times on the offensive line, their first year they are going to see exotic blitzes that they’ve never even dreamed of. They are going to see pass-rushers and body types that they never knew existed.
Thornton may have had a poor rookie season, but it was still against NFL defensive linemen, which is a huge step above the Big Ten defenses that Mewhort faced last season.
Second, Thornton did show promise at the end of last season and should take a step forward in 2014. According to Colts Authority's Ben Gundy, Thornton "has the highest ceiling of any of the Colts' linemen, and has shown flashes of brilliance."
Thornton struggled mightily against New England in the divisional game, but had two straight strong performances prior to that. He has all the physical tools necessary to be a starting guard, it's merely technique and mental breakdowns that must be improved going forward.
Like the Colts kept Thornton on the bench to start his rookie year, I expect them to curb Mewhort's exposure early on. He'll likely get his chances to start at some point in 2014, but not in Week 1.
Winner: Hugh Thornton
The race for the fifth cornerback spot is not a glamorous one. The winner will spend most of his time on special teams, and fans will likely bemoan any opportunity for the player to get on the field, as it often will mean something terribly wrong has happened.
But depth is a critical thing for an NFL franchise, especially at cornerback, where the Colts have struggled with injuries for years. During the last five seasons, the Colts have had at least eight defensive backs play 145 snaps, so the need for talent is there.
Currently, it's difficult to give the edge to any one player. Sheldon Price, Marcus Burley, Qua Cox, Loucheiz Purifoy, Keon Lyn and Kameron Jackson are all relative unknowns in the NFL for 2014.
While a true favorite won't be able to be identified until training camp picks up, I'll give the edge to Qua Cox at the moment. Cox is the only corner to immediately catch the eye of the media in rookie minicamp, and that's never a bad thing.
Winner: Qua Cox
Starting Strong Safety
The expected winner for this battle is no surprise to anybody, Delano Howell is the only safety on the Colts roster behind LaRon Landry who played significant snaps in 2013. The closest competition to Howell's 212 regular-season defensive snaps last season is Colt Anderson with 38.
Anderson did play a strong safety role in Philadelphia, while Howell played the Colts' free safety spot, but Howell has all the traits necessary to play either spot in the Colts system. Howell can attack the line of scrimmage, play deep center field or cover tight ends man-to-man. He has some physical limitations, but beating out the rest of the depth safeties on the roster shouldn't be a particularly difficult task.
Sergio Brown wants to have a chance to start, but Howell was the Colts' clear choice last season, and it's difficult to envision Brown taking a huge leap forward in his fifth season. Unless Howell's foot injury severely hampers his abilities, he should be a starter come Week 1.
Winner: Delano Howell
The Colts brought in veteran linebacker D'Qwell Jackson in free agency and drafted Andrew Jackson in the sixth round of the 2014 draft, bolstering a linebacker unit that struggled immensely in 2013. With the former Cleveland starter slotted to start next to Jerrell Freeman, the question that remains is who will be the third linebacker in 2014?
In 2012, the Colts had four inside linebackers with at least 300 snaps. In 2013, the Colts had three inside linebackers with at least 400 snaps, and two more with at least 130. Leading the way in total snaps from 2013 was Kelvin Sheppard with 428. Josh McNary was next with 134 and Mario Harvey had 72. Also competing for a spot will be Andrew Jackson and former CFL player Henoc Muamba.
Sheppard and McNary figure to be the most likely competitors for the third linebacker spot with their experience in the Colts defense last season. Sheppard has the advantage of playing the most last season, even if fans will tell you that McNary overtook him at the end of the season last year.
While McNary did see his snap count go up at the end of last season, it wasn't necessarily at Sheppard's expense. While McNary had 107 snaps through the final four games of the season (including the playoffs), Sheppard started each of those games and had 137 snaps over the same period.
But there's one thing that should help McNary in this case, and that's his usage. If you look at McNary's snaps last season, he was primarily a nickel linebacker, used in passing situations. Just 18 percent of his snaps came against the run, compared to 59 percent of Sheppard's. That should help McNary, as the Colts linebacker rotations generally come in passing downs. McNary's ability to rush the passer, and create plays like this, should be a big boost considering the lack of pass-rushers on the roster.
Winner: Josh McNary
Kyle is an NFL and Indianapolis Colts analyst for Bleacher Report and Draft Mecca as well as being the head editor for Colts Authority. Follow Kyle on Twitter for more stats, analysis and general NFL analysis.