INDIANAPOLIS – There’s work to be done. There’s always work to be done.
Despite what has been a busy two months for Chris Ballard and his personnel staff – trading away one quarterback, trading for another, signing a Pro Bowl pass rusher and a former Defensive Player of the Year cornerback, the draft, etc. – the Indianapolis Colts aren’t a finished product.
“Player acquisition is year ‘round,’’ Ballard said.
And regardless the tweaks and/or overhauls at various positions, there’s always another area that requires attention.
“I will say this: every team has a hole,’’ Ballard said prior to the NFL Draft. “It’s almost a misnomer out . . . there are these perfect teams.
“No. Every team has some really good strengths and some weaknesses. It’s your job – our staff and our coaches – to figure out what (the weaknesses) are and then play around them when you have them.’’
The Colts are heading into their fourth week of offseason workouts and the three-day rookie minicamp opens Friday. The roster is taking shape, and those strengths and weaknesses are coming into better view.
Oddsmakers like what Ballard and his staff have done. Depending on which betting site you favor, the Colts are at least co-favorites with the Tennessee Titans for the AFC South and are considered to have a slight edge by many.
Here’s a look at the roster. We’ve included the nearly 20 undrafted rookies that reportedly have agreed to terms, according to IndyStar and other outlets.
Starter: Matt Ryan.
Backups: Sam Ehlinger, James Morgan, Jack Coan-x.
Comment: We don’t want to downplay other offseason moves, but the success of 2022 – at the very least winning the AFC South for the first time since 2014 – hinges on the Carson Wentz-to-Matt Ryan transition. Simply put, Ryan must represent a marked upgrade, both from leadership and consistency standpoints. At a quick glance, the Wentz-led offense was just fine: 9th in points, 2nd in rushing and 16th in total yards per game. But it doesn’t take long to detect the debilitating flaws: 26th in passing, 24th in completion percentage, 19th in yards per attempt. Over the final eight games, Wentz averaged 170.6 yards per game. Six times he finished with fewer than 186 yards. And don’t take our word for the lack of leadership. Listen to owner Jim Irsay.
The only remaining question is whether Ballard opts to sign a veteran backup. Our unsolicited advice: Do it. Ryan has missed only three of 225 regular-season starts in 14 seasons and just one since 2010. But the bold moves the team has made during the offseason are evidence it believes it’s a serious playoff contender in ’22. A vet QB offers necessary insurance. It would be risky putting a couple of games in the hands of Sam Ehlinger.
Running back (6)
Starter: Jonathan Taylor.
Backups: Nyheim Hines, Deon Jackson, C.J. Verdell-x, D’Vonte Price-x, Max Borghi-x.
Comment: This remains one of the strongest rooms in the NFL. Jonathan Taylor is coming off a historic season – first-team All-Pro, a franchise-record 1,811 rushing yards, a franchise-record-tying 20 total TDs, a league-leading 2,171 yards from scrimmage – and there’s every reason to believe there’s more to come. Nyheim Hines saw his opportunities slip a bit – the 40 receptions were a career low – but he set career highs with 4.9 yards per carry and 7.8 per catch. Hines should benefit from Ryan’s presence.
Training camp competition will determine the pecking order behind Taylor and Hines, but we should consider Deon Jackson the front runner.
Wide receiver (11)
Starters: Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce-x.
Backups: Parris Campbell, Ashton Dulin, Mike Strachan, Dezmon Patmon, Keke Coutee, DeMichael Harris, Kekoa Crawford-x, Samson Nacua-x, Michael Young Jr.-x.
Comment: First-year position coach Reggie Wayne likes his group and hopes to make them “household names.’’ We’ll see. Michael Pittman Jr. emerged in his second season with 88 receptions and 1,082 yards, but continued growth might well depend upon his supporting cast. Someone must step up to take the heavy focus off Pittman. Is that second-round pick Alec Pierce? Maybe Parris Campbell, if he’s able to stay on the field? Mike Strachan? Dezmon Patmon? Keke Coutee?
Too many questions for us. We’re in favor of adding a veteran to the mix. Ballard keeps telling us unsigned T.Y. Hilton still can play. Does Indy give him one more season?
Tight end (8)
Starters: Mo Alie-Cox, Kylen Granson.
Backups: Farrod Green, Eli Wolf, Michael Jacobson, Nikola Kalinic-x, Jelani Woods-x, Drew Ogletree-x.
Comment: The team’s reaction to Jack Doyle’s anticipated retirement was to re-sign Mo Alie Cox and invest a pair of draft picks in Jelani Woods and Drew Ogletree. Frank Reich prefers to keep tight ends heavily involved, and that’s going to hinge on Granson building on a rookie season that consisted of 11 catches and 106 yards and Woods contributing in year 1.
Offensive line (15)
Starters: LT Matt Pryor, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Danny Pinter, RT Braden Smith.
Backups: G/T Will Fries, T Shon Coleman, T Carter O’Donnell, T Brandon Kemp, T Jordan Murray, T Bernhard Raimann-x, C Alex Molette-x, T Ryan Van Demark-x, G Justin Seltzner-x, T Wesley French-x.
Comment: This is a strange mix. Three-fifths of the starting unit returns in left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Braden Smith. But gone are left tackle Eric Fisher and the right-guard tandem of Mark Glowinski and Chris Reed. Ballard re-signed Matt Pryor and believes he has a legitimate shot at holding down the left tackle spot. He started five games last season: one at left tackle, one at right guard, three at right tackle. Danny Pinter will be given every opportunity to step in at right guard.
As we’ve stated so many times, proven depth is an issue. Initially, rookie Bernhard Raimann should compete with Pryor for snaps at left tackle, but don’t rule out the coaching staff looking at him at guard if Pryor is the no-doubt guy at left tackle. Position coaches Chris Strausser and Kevin Mawae must develop reliable prospects during training camp. Remember, the Colts had to use 10 different starting combos in ’22.
Defensive end (7)
Starters: Yannick Ngakoue, Kwity Paye.
Backups: Dayo Odeyingbo, Tyquan Lewis, Kameron Cline, Ben Banogu, Cullen Wick-x.
Comment: Yannick Ngakoue and Kwity Paye should form a productive edge tandem. Ngakoue, Aaron Donald and Von Miller are the only players to register at least 8 sacks in each of the last six seasons. He’ll man the LEO position in Gus Bradley’s defense, just as he did last season with Bradley in Las Vegas. That moves Paye to the “big end’’ spot, and Paye should benefit from Ngakoue’s presence.
Kemoko Turay and Al-Quadin Muhammad are gone, so success of the edge group might hinge on Odeyingbo experiencing a sizeable jump in year 2 after his rookie development was impeded by his rehab from a torn Achilles. Also, versatile Tyquan Lewis is on the mend after rupturing his patellar tendon in late-October.
Defensive tackle (6)
Starters: DeForest Buckner, Grover Stewart.
Backups: Chris Williams, R.J. McIntosh, Curtis Brooks-x, Eric Johnson-x.
Comment: There’s no issue with a DeForest Buckner-Grover Stewart tag team. The issue is with which players fill out Bradley’s interior rotation. R.J. McIntosh has appeared in 18 games with zero starts for the New York Giants and Green Bay since 2018 with 18 tackles. Chris Williams had four tackles in eight games with Indy last season. Eric Johnson and Curtis Brooks are rookies. Too often, the interior rotation is only as strong as its weakest link.
Starters: Darius Leonard, Bobby Okereke, Zaire Franklin.
Backups: E.J. Speed, Jordan Glasgow, Brandon King, Malik Jefferson, JoJo Domann-x, Forrest Rhyne-x.
Comment: For the first time in his six drafts, Ballard didn’t select a linebacker. That’s because previous drafts added quality and quantity. Darius Leonard remains the tip of the spear, and that won’t change in Bradley’s scheme. Bobby Okereke is heading in to his contract season and coming off his best season: a team-leading 130 tackles, 1 sack, two interceptions, four passes defensed. The team showed its appreciation of Zaire Franklin by re-signing him to a three-year, $12 million contract.
This will be a good time for E.J. Speed to make a more noticeable transition from special teams standout to contributor at linebacker. He was on the field for a career-best 13% of the defensive snaps last season (146 total) and generated 18 tackles. His snaps on special teams since 2018: 152, 209, 276.
Starters: Stephon Gilmore, Isaiah Rodgers.
Nickle: Kenny Moore II.
Backups: Brandon Facyson, Marvell Tell III, Anthony Chesley, Tony Brown, Chris Wilcox, Alex Myers, Marcel Dabo-x, Rodney Thomas II-x.
Comment: Stephon Gilmore’s addition provided the necessary component, especially after the trade with the Raiders to acquire Ngakoue cost starting corner Rock Ya-Sin. Gilmore was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, but his ensuing two seasons were impacted by a torn quadriceps. He insists he’s put that injury behind him and is eager to return to his playmaking form (27 interceptions, including at least two in eight of his 10 seasons). Gilmore had two interceptions in eight games last season after being traded from New England to Carolina.
Kenny Moore II is coming off his first Pro Bowl selection and remains one of the league’s top nickel corners, even though his performance slipped a bit near the end of ’21. Either Isaiah Rodgers or free-agent pickup Brandon Facyson should start opposite Gilmore, but Bradley will need someone else to emerge as a reliable fourth corner.
Starters: Khari Willis, Julian Blackmon.
Backups: Rodney McLeod, Armani Watts, Will Redmond, Nick Cross-x, Sterling Weatherford-x, Trevor Denbow-x.
Comment: Khari Willis returns for a fourth season as a starter, but he’s yet to start every game in a season. He missed a career-high six games last season and has missed 10 games overall. That’s not an exorbitant number, but it’s still a concern, especially with him entering the final year of his rookie contract. Meanwhile, the other returning starter, Julian Blackmon, suffered a torn Achilles in mid-October.
That’s why no one should casually dismiss the free-agent signing of Rodney McLeod. He’s heading into his 11th season and brings 123 starts and Super Bowl pedigree (win in Super Bowl LII with the Philadelphia Eagles after the 2017 season) to the room.
We’re curious how quickly Nick Cross gets on the field, even if that’s on special teams. Remember, Ballard gave up a 2023 third-round pick to get into position to select him.
Starter: Rodrigo Blankenship.
Backup: Jake Verity.
Comment: It will be interesting to see how Rodrigo Blankenship handles training camp. He suffered a hip injury during pre-game warm-ups in week 5 at Baltimore, was replaced by Michael Badgley and remained out of the picture even after adequately rehabbing the injury. The team should be at least a little concerned. Blankenship has converted a so-so 83% of his field-goal attempts (44-of-53) and is just 3-of-8 on kicks of 45 yards or longer, including 1-of-4 on 50-plus yard attempts.
Jake Verity will be given an opportunity to push Blankenship after spending much of last season on the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad.
Starter: Rigoberto Sanchez.
Starter: Luke Rhodes.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.