While the starters are already thinking about Week 1 at Buffalo, several players are on the bubble for making the Indianapolis Colts’ final roster.
That makes Thursday’s home preseason finale against the Cincinnati Bengals all important for them.
Head coach Chuck Pagano said earlier this week that the final game often determines one or two roster spots. The Colts must trim their 75-man roster to the league-mandated 53 players by 4 p.m. EDT Saturday.
Which players are in need of making a favorable final impression? Here’s a list of possibilities:
* Rookie wide receiver Duron Carter — His play finally picked up in the third preseason game at St. Louis, where he caught three passes for 25 yards. That bumps his preseason total to four receptions for 41 yards. Admittedly nervous in his first two games, the son of Hall of Famer Cris Carter will probably make the roster anyway as the No. 5 wide receiver based on his stellar practices and training camp. But he should get more playing time in this game than before, so putting up decent numbers would help cement his spot.
* Running back Vick Ballard — He’s trying to bounce back from another hamstring injury and Pagano says the fourth-year pro is “trending in the right direction.” But Ballard realizes he can’t make this team from the training room. If his body cooperates, Ballard can help himself immensely by performing well against the Bengals. It’s not that the Colts are unaware of his ability. They just want to have some confidence that Ballard can stay healthy after spending the past two seasons on injured reserve. It’s unlikely the team keeps five running backs, so this game is likely make-for-break for him.
* Inside linebacker Henoc Muamba — The former Canadian Football League star was a rookie backup last season, but rookie Amarlo Herrera is slotted in that spot this season and has impressed coaches with ability to quickly pick up the defensive calls. If Muamba is going to stick for another year, he needs to make some plays in this game to make this decision more difficult, presuming the team keeps just four inside linebackers. It’s possible that because Nate Irving is still on the mend from knee surgery, Muamba sticks. But as soon as Irving is healthy enough to play, depending upon roster needs at other positions, the Colts likely keep just four inside linebackers.
* Wide receiver Griff Whalen — Andrew Luck’s former college roommate at Stanford has been cut three times and spent a lot of time on the practice squad, but has also managed to get signed to the active roster enough to play in 19 games with three starts, catching 26 passes for 282 yards and two TDs. The Colts appear set at wide receiver, so it’s doubtful they keep six. But Whalen is a survivor, and a solid effort in this game could impact his status, if not on cut day then possibly down the road when injuries typically impact depth.
* Cornerback Jalil Brown — Training camp’s interception leader grabbed his first one in preseason at St. Louis. Although he dinged a shoulder, Brown has helped himself with a solid August. Because Greg Toler could miss extended time with a neck injury, the Colts need to determine who can play third and fourth cornerback slots in addition to Vontae Davis and Darius Butler. Rookie D'Joun Smith, a third-round pick, has had his share of struggles, but it’s doubtful the Colts will give up so soon on a higher selection.
* Running back Tyler Varga — The rookie from Yale fired up his teammates with a hard-earned touchdown run against the Rams. Varga has had just nine carries for 32 yards (3.6 yards per carry), but the window could be open for a reserve running back if rookie Josh Robinson needs time to recover from a concussion and/or Ballard is unable to stay healthy. Thought to be a long shot to make the roster, Varga should have a chance to show what he can do against the Bengals. Even if the team is set at running back, a strong showing could earn a practice-squad spot.
* Safety Colt Anderson — The Colts’ leader in special-teams tackles a year ago should get more playing time in this game than the previous three. The other three safety spots appear to be set with Mike Adams, Dwight Lowery and rookie Clayton Geathers. If Anderson piles up the tackle numbers and makes a couple of big plays, he’ll prove himself worthy of a reserve spot, which would likely translate to a lot of special-teams work again this season.
* Wide receiver Vincent Brown — The fifth-year pro has been kind of a forgotten man in the pass-catching equation with four catches for 38 yards. But unlike Carter, he has NFL experience. If Carter doesn’t play well and Brown does, don’t be surprised if that changes the team’s thinking on who should be the No. 5 wide receiver.
* Quarterback Bryan Bennett — It’s doubtful the Colts will keep three quarterbacks on the active roster, but Bennett has to be thinking about showing he’s the guy to run the scout team as a practice-squad player. Except for one solid series in his debut at Philadelphia, the undrafted rookie has struggled. He’s completed just five-of-24 passes without a touchdown, two interceptions and a lost fumble. Unless he plays well, and it’s possible he plays most if not all of this game, the Colts likely look elsewhere for that practice-squad spot.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.