INDIANAPOLIS – Preparation for what figures to be an interesting 2023 for the Indianapolis Colts ramped up this week.
Welcome to Phase 3 of the NFL’s offseason workout program, aka organized team activities, aka OTAs.
The Colts and first-year head coach Shane Steichen opened their offseason work April 10 and have methodically advanced to the point they’re almost allowed to play football.
Over the next month, teams are allowed 10 practice sessions that permit 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, followed by a mandatory three-day minicamp. Live contact is prohibited, but it’s as close to actual football that’s allowed until training camp in late July. Receivers vs. defensive backs. Offensive linemen vs. defensive linemen. Linebackers vs. tight ends and running backs in coverage.
There’s no overstating the importance of the offseason for the Colts. They’re following a new leader and there’s a restocked offensive staff, they added a quarterback of the future, and they must put the recent past behind them. You know, last year’s 4-12-1 nightmare and the fact they’ve failed to reach the playoffs in consecutive seasons and in six of the last eight.
The Colts were allowed to hold their two OTA sessions Tuesday and Wednesday, and local media will watch the entire squad work for the first time this offseason on Thursday. That’s followed by practices May 31-June 2, June 5-8 and the June 13-15 mandatory minicamp that completes the offseason workouts.
Here are five significant areas of interest:
Anthony Richardson is the undeniable quarterback of the future, but is Gardner Minshew II the quarterback of the present? Everyone who matters – owner Jim Irsay, general manager Chris Ballard, Steichen and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter – agrees Richardson needs as many reps as possible to accelerate his development. Remember, the No. 4 overall pick in the draft started 13 games and attempted 391 passes at Florida.
“Thirteen starts,’’ Steichen noted. “I think when you play more, that’s how you develop. You know what I mean? So, with him playing and his experience as a player and getting more reps, practice reps, game reps, I think that’s how you develop.”
So, give the rookie as many reps as possible.
But Steichen and Cooter also must get Minshew up to speed, just in case Richardson isn’t adequately prepared for the Sept. 10 opener against Jacksonville. That could be a delicate balancing act.
One thing to keep in mind. If Richardson hasn’t shown enough development to start against the Jaguars, it could be difficult to impact his learning curve once the season beings. That’s when the starter must get the vast majority of the work with the starting group to prepare for the next game.
Shaquille Leonard is the heartbeat of Gus Bradley’s defense, but is coming off his second back surgery six months. The most recent on Nov. 15 ended a frustrating and unimpactful fifth season – 11 tackles and one interception in three games and 74 snaps – and has led to another extensive rehab. Everyone agrees Leonard came back too quickly from the first surgery (June 9). He was cleared to practice roughly three months later.
Now, extreme caution is being taken. As should be the case.
It still would be somewhat reassuring if Leonard is able to do something during OTAs. If not, questions will persist until the start of training camp.
More medical matters
Teams rarely offer extensive medical updates during the offseason, but hopefully some clarity will be provided on the status of several prominent players.
Along with Leonard, there’s running back Jonathan Taylor (right ankle), punter Rigoberto Sanchez (torn right Achilles tendon), defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis (torn left patellar tendon), cornerbacks Isaiah Rodgers Sr. (knee) and Kenny Moore II (ankle) and tight end Drew Ogletree (torn right ACL).
All should play prominent roles this season.
Taylor underwent arthroscopic surgery in late January to remove loose particles that had been bothering from for a few years.
“Physically, I’m feeling well right now,’’ he said last month.
He added he hadn’t been cleared to do everything on the practice field at that point, “but we’re rollin.’
“Anytime you get a procedure, you’ll definitely feel the difference.’’
In another Taylor-related issue, the 2021 NFL rushing champion is switching representation to First Round Management’s Ethan Lock and Malki Kawa. They also represent Leonard.
Taylor is heading into the fourth year of his rookie deal, which is generally when teams extend top players.
For the most part, the starting group is set with Bernhard Raimann at left tackle, Quenton Nelson at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center, Will Fries at right guard and Braden Smith at right tackle. That’s how 2022 ended.
Surprisingly, the Colts haven’t been overly active in addressing what was a subpar group. The only significant additions have been Tony Sparano Jr., who replaced Chris Strausser as offensive line coach, and two draft picks. Tackle Blake Freeland was taken in round 4 and Jake Witt in round 7.
We wonder if someone pushes Fries at right guard and whether Freeland is viewed as the swing tackle.
OTAs is the time to determine who fits where.
How has Bradley stacked his depth chart at the position? Gone are Stephon Gilmore (traded to Dallas) and Brandon Facyson (re-signed with the Raiders). Moore, Rodgers and Dallis Flowers are the top incumbents, and Ballard used three of his 12 draft picks to reinforce the position: Juju Brents (round 2), Darius Rush (round 5) and Jaylon Jones (round 7).
Brents might be an opening-day starter, but the Warren Central H.S. product is expected to miss the entirety of the offseason work while recovering from wrist surgery.
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