Indianapolis Colts: First Impressions from Training Camp
It can only go up from here, with more news and analysis to come as the season gets underway. Fans are thirsty for information, and who can blame them?
Unfortunately, training camp is all too rife with information that simply doesn't matter. Reports of certain players doing well in camp are often taken to extremes, when it's an awful way of judging players. Physicality is at a minimum, and all situations are controlled. It's football in it's lightest form, even when the pads come on.
So for the first round of training camp information, we break down what's actually important from the Colts' first four days at camp.
RB Depth Depleted
By now, the news about Vick Ballard tearing his Achilles tendon has been made common knowledge. According to Kevin Bowen of Colts.com, Ballard will be placed on the injured reserve list, although it's worth noting that to this point the Colts have not done so.
Regardless, Ballard is likely done for the year and possibly for his career. As far as medical advances have come, Ballard is now coming off of a torn ACL and torn Achilles, missing what is likely two full years of football, which is an eternity in the NFL. It's possible Ballard fights back, and it would be a great story but an unlikely one. It's a heart-wrenching story for Ballard, both of whose injuries came on non-contact drills.
For the Colts, the meaning is complicated. On one hand, Ballard was likely going to be the third back. He was a back who was fairly average as a rookie and was coming off of the aforementioned ACL tear. Realistically, this is not a critical blow.
On the other hand, the Colts' running back corp is now down to Ahmad Bradshaw (coming off of a season-ending injury, chronic foot problems), Trent Richardson (extremely poor 2013 season) and three unproven players (Dan Herron, Chris Rainey, Zurlon Tipton). The Colts did sign RB Davin Meggett to the roster in the wake of Ballard's injury, but he's been through camp several times and is a long shot to seriously compete for a spot.
Even if Ballard wasn't expected to contribute much in 2014, it's a devastating blow to the depth of a position that desperately needs it. Ballard was a coach favorite and a well-rounded back, albeit one with a low ceiling. The pressure is now on Bradshaw to stay healthy and Richardson to produce, so that depth doesn't need to utilized.
Defensive Line Depth Strengthened
According to Jake Arthur of the Indy Sports Report, the Colts' transition from Ricky Jean Francois to Arthur Jones as the starting DE opposite Cory Redding seems to be complete.
When Jones was signed, there was some speculation to what the lineup would be, but Jones and Redding starting always made the most sense. While we likely will see some hybrid lineups with all three on the field, Jones and Redding flanking Josh Chapman is the starting lineup at this point.
While it's a bit of a smack in the face to have Jean Francois—who is in the second year of a four-year, $22 million deal—coming off the bench, having all three defensive ends in the rotation is going to be critical for the line this season. So often we look at the starting lineups and leave our analysis there, but for the defensive line especially, the depth is just as important as the starting lineup.
Consider those three snap percentages over the last two seasons, according to Football Outsiders. In 2013, Cory Redding played 59.1 percent of the possible snaps (55.4 percent in 2012), while Jean Francois played just 37.1 percent (27.0 percent). Meanwhile, Jones played 48.3 percent of the possible snaps in Baltimore (46.3 percent).
That means between the three of them, they've averaged less than half of the possible defensive snaps. The rotation will be key, and having Jean Francois to come in and spell Jones, or even potentially Redding, should help the drop-off be minimal. There will be some side effects to losing Fili Moala who is on the injured reserve after tearing his ACL in OTAs, but a three-man rotation of Jones, Redding and Jean Francois will be fairly consistent.
Multiple Tight End Sets to Be Featured
Perhaps the biggest talk over the last few days is just how critical the return of Dwayne Allen is to the Colts offense in 2014. Pep Hamilton was animated when talking to Stephen Holder of The Indy Star, who says the Colts will use more two-tight end formations this year and less fullback-inclusive groups.
This would include more 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) and less 22 and 21 personnel (two-back groups). Last season the Colts ran 12 personnel 15 percent of the time, while 22 and 21 personnel groups were on the field 16 percent of the time, according to Football Outsiders. If most of the Colts' increased tight end usage is at the expense of the fullback, it should result in increased efficiency. Simply put, Dwayne Allen is a greater threat than Stanley Havili.
Granted, that 12 personnel wasn't very productive in 2013 (-22.3 percent DVOA), but with Allen on the field, the dynamic is completely changed.
Now, if the increase of tight end usage is at the expense of the growth of receivers like Donte Moncrief and Da'Rick Rogers or the timing of Hakeem Nicks, then there could be a problem. For now, the talk of placing priorities on tight ends is a good thing.
Bjoern Werner Ready to Step Up?
There is no doubt the Colts are counting on Bjoern Werner to step up in Robert Mathis' absence. According to Mike Wells of ESPN.com, Werner has been getting first-team snaps to prepare for the season's first four games. Mathis, meanwhile, has been playing largely with the second team.
The question remains: Is Werner ready to step up to the challenge?
Last season was a disappointment without question for Werner. But the Florida State defensive end-turned-linebacker was always viewed as a project, so the real expectations were going to come in his second- and third-year jumps.
For now, Werner has had a solid camp. He's been active, getting his hands in passing lanes and showing a renewed burst. Of course, right now it doesn't really matter. Darrius Heyward-Bey had some great days in camp last year, too. Defensive and offensive line are the most difficult things to judge during a low-key training camp. It'll be easier to judge Werner once the preseason begins.
The real importance here is the coaches are counting on Werner to produce in Mathis' spot. They are going all-in on the second-year linebacker. It's up to him to produce.
Revelations at Wide Receiver
So far in camp, T.Y. Hilton has been the unquestioned No. 1 receiver, according to Josh Wilson of Stampede Blue, with Reggie Wayne being his starting partner. Hakeem Nicks has been getting snaps as the third receiver.
This is the way it should be.
Last season, Hilton was underutilized, or poorly utilized, for a large portion of the season. But as he proved in the playoffs, with 17 catches for 324 yards and two touchdowns, Hilton is a bonafide star when used properly. Odds are, he'll start 2014 where he left off.
The rest of the receivers after the top three are in one big group. Donte Moncrief, who has gotten some snaps with the first team, Griff Whalen and Da'Rick Rogers have a leg up on undrafted free agents Eric Thomas and Tony Washington, but if one of the UDFAs impress (especially on special teams, where Washington has potential to produce), they have a real shot.