Indianapolis Colts: Top Position Battles to Watch in Camp
Training camp is a laid-back affair for fans. You show up, park and lounge while watching grown men run drills.
By itself, it's not particularly stimulating, but it's the return of football, so fans flock to it. But amidst the drills, the seven-on-sevens and full scrimmages, there's a real element of competition, one that makes the trip to training camp more than just a practice: Roster battles.
With a roster of 90 to be cut down to 53, players are fighting for their jobs during training camp. Players sticking out in training camp make a name for themselves, giving them a leg up on the competition. It's impossible to gauge exactly how much it affects things, but looking back at past reactions from training camp is fairly revealing.
This Stock Up, Stock Down from the first week of 2013 training camp, for example, actually proved to foreshadow some of the key themes for the 2013 season, like Greg Toler's injury issues, the struggles of the rookie linemen, Griff Whalen's importance, etc.
This year, it's a new year, but the training camp battles will prove to be crucial in several key areas once again. Today we look at those areas with the five most important roster battles of 2014.
Entrants: Donald Thomas, Jack Mewhort, Joe Reitz, Josh Walker, Hugh Thornton, Lance Louis
Contenders: Thomas, Thornton, Mewhort
Each of the key elements for this battle has significant questions. Of the six players who are competing, it most likely will come down to Donald Thomas, Hugh Thornton and Jack Mewhort (possibly Lance Louis as well).
Thomas, the incumbent starter, is coming off of not one, but two season-ending muscle tears. According to the Indianapolis Star's Stephen Holder, Thomas suffered a torn biceps along with his reported torn quad, which complicates his recovery. If he can recover in time to start, Thomas is a strong run-blocker with passable pass-protection skills. His strengths would be a huge asset to Pep Hamilton's run schemes.
The 2013 rookie, Thornton, struggled mightily at times last season, but also flashed a mobility and motor that Hamilton would love to keep in the starting lineup. He has the physical gifts to succeed in the Colts system, but he needs some technical refinement.
This year's second-round pick, Jack Mewhort is a nasty blocker whose style is one that will resonate with fans. But he's a rookie and is a step behind the veterans on the Colts offensive line. Mewhort is flexible enough to move across positions, so he may be used as a utility lineman during his rookie year rather than throwing him into the fire right away.
Favorite(s): Thomas and Thornton
If Thomas is healthy, he's the best guard (currently) on the roster. With Thornton having a year of experience over Mewhort and the rookie having versatility that Thornton lacks, it just makes sense to start Thornton and use Mewhort as the sixth lineman to start 2014.
Starting Running Back
Contenders: Richardson, Bradshaw, Ballard
There are two competitions going on here, with the top three (Richardson, Bradshaw, Ballard) fighting for a starting spot while the bottom three fight for a spot on the roster at all. The latter will likely come down to special teams, which is something we'll see in training camp.
For the starting spot, it's difficult to anticipate how effectively Bradshaw and Ballard will bounce back from season-ending injuries. Bradshaw has faced injuries for much of his career and has recovered quickly in the past, but never one quite this serious. Ballard, on the other hand, is coming off of an ACL tear, which makes it near impossible to gauge how his explosiveness and lateral agility will shine in 2014.
With that in mind, we look at Richardson. The front office is invested in him, having traded a first-round pick in him last year. Richardson will reportedly get his chance in 2014, despite a historically bad year in 2013, according to Mike Wells of ESPN.com. He may have a short leash, but the team wants, perhaps even needs, him to succeed.
When you combine his relatively clean bill of health and his support from the front office and coaching staff, you have to give this one to Richardson. I'm of the opinion that Bradshaw is the better runner, but don't be surprised if Richardson is still starting Week 1. After all, Richardson does still possess a balance, power and agility combination that few backs in the league have.
Starting Strong Safety
Entrants: Mike Adams, Delano Howell, Sergio Brown, Colt Anderson, David Sims, Dewey McDonald
Contenders: Adams, Howell
The Colts have brought in veterans (Mike Adams, Colt Anderson) and rookies (Dewey McDonald) to compete with the incumbents (Delano Howell, Sergio Brown, David Sims) at safety. With Antoine Bethea now in San Francisco, the Colts need somebody to start next to LaRon Landry.
With all those names, it comes down to two: Adams and Howell. The grizzled free agent compared to the young undrafted free agent, the competition should be one of the more intriguing ones in the Colts' camp in 2014.
Howell exploded onto the scene during training camp last season, filling in for an injured Landry and Joe Lefeged. He impressed in camp and preseason, earning himself a roster spot and making Lefeged expendable. When filling in again for Landry in the regular season, Howell left an impression on Colts fans, and later review revealed that, while he did have flaws, Howell's instincts gave him an edge that would allow him to be a passable starter.
The Colts signed Adams in mid-June, the first established, starting veteran to join the group since Bethea's departure. Over the last three seasons, Adams has started 39 games, including seven last year. In that time period, Adams has racked up a positive-5.3 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), although he was slightly negative last season.
I like Howell a lot, but his best role is as a reserve. Adams has experience that will be necessary in an inconsistent secondary, along with durability. It'll be closer than their respective careers would hint at, but Adams should be the favorite to win the starting job.
Depth Inside Linebackers
Entrants: Andrew Jackson, Josh McNary, Mario Harvey, Kelvin Sheppard, Henoc Muamba
Contenders: McNary, Jackson, Sheppard
The addition of veteran D'Qwell Jackson in free agency fills the starting spot next to Jerrell Freeman, but the rest of the inside linebacker position is very much in flux.
Aside from just making the roster, the biggest battle will be for the third linebacker position, a nickel linebacker. The three that should contend for that spot have drastically different stories.
Kelvin Sheppard was traded for Jerry Hughes prior to last season and was quite the disappointment. He was a failure as a starter, just as much as he was in Buffalo. He's a big, strong linebacker, but struggles in space.
Josh McNary was a rookie last year, a former Army officer picked up by Indianapolis early on. His usage picked up near the end of the season, especially as a nickel linebacker and a pass-rusher.
Andrew Jackson is the wild card, a wild card from Western Kentucky. He is a big, physical linebacker, a "thumper." More of a Kavell Conner-type, Jackson should mesh well when matched up with linebackers like Freeman, Jackson or McNary.
The more the Colts used him, the more I liked Josh McNary last season. He can run, isn't afraid to be physical and is a very good pass-rusher. He's very versatile, and using him on third downs or passing downs allows defensive coordinator Greg Manusky to show several different looks.
Entrants: Bjoern Werner, Andy Studebaker, Jonathan Newsome, Aaron Morgan, Daniel Adongo
Contenders: Werner, Newsome
In order to replace Robert Mathis during the first four weeks of the season, the Colts will need somebody to step up into a dynamic pass-rushing role. This isn't something the Colts have seen from anybody currently on the roster, at least not in the NFL.
The two players most likely to have a legitimate chance at the starting spot are Bjoern Werner and Jonathan Newsome. Last year's first-round pick, Werner didn't show nearly enough pass-rush skills last year and was groomed as a strong-side outside linebacker. But the team has confidence that he can play either side, and the switch to rush outside linebacker may prove to be a helpful one.
Newsome was a pass-rushing specialist for Ball State last season, with measurables that matched up favorably with Mathis' college measurables (Mathis: 6'2", 235 pounds, 4.67 40-yard dash; Newsome: 6'2.5", 247 pounds, 4.72 40-yard dash, per NFL Draft Scout). He'll get his chance at snaps with Mathis out, and if he can make an impact with some penetration and quarterback pressures, he'll keep his role even when Mathis returns.
Newsome will get a chance, but fifth-round draft picks don't just start out as pass-rushing phenoms in the NFL. There have been just four players ever to be drafted in the fifth round and have more than five sacks in their rookie year.
It generally takes rookies some time to adjust, and Werner has the advantage of a full year of experience. While Newsome may overtake Werner some day, the sophomore linebacker will start the season as Mathis' replacement.