As preseason begins with the Indianapolis Colts reporting Tuesday to Anderson University for training camp, there are more questions than answers about the 2016 roster.
Here are the five most pressing questions at the outset of the exhibition season:
1.) Who else is rushing the passer?
New defensive coordinator Ted Monachino has inherited 35-year-old Robert Mathis and possibly not much else when it comes to getting after quarterbacks. That Trent Cole took a pay cut to return after a three-sack Colts debut doesn’t sound too promising for the edge rusher opposite Mathis. While Erik Walden has his moments and plays with a nasty edge, fans have to be hoping some young blood opens some eyes in preseason. The short list of guys to keep an eye on includes Tennessee rookie Curt Maggitt, who was undrafted because he missed 2015 with a hip fracture. When the outside linebacker last played in 2014, he had 11 sacks in the Southeastern Conference. He signed with the Colts because he saw an opportunity on a team with aging pass rushers (neither Mathis nor Cole are signed after this season). First-year pro Earl Okine is being converted to outside linebacker from defensive end because of his pass-rush skills. Syracuse rookie Ron Thompson and seventh-round pick Trevor Bates from Maine will also get their share of snaps to show what they can do at outside linebacker.
2.) Who’s reliable on the O-line’s right side?
The Colts bolstered the offensive line with the first-round selection of center Ryan Kelly, who is expected to be a long-term anchor for the guys in front of quarterback Andrew Luck. Anthony Castonzo returns at left tackle and Jack Mewhort at left guard, which leaves everyone wondering who will play right guard and right tackle. Indy native Joe Reitz is slotted at right tackle to start camp. He’s been a versatile pro, capably of playing either tackle or guard, but it’s fair to question if he’s a long-term solution at his current position. The Colts invested a third-round draft pick in offensive tackle Le'Raven Clark and a fifth-round pick on offensive tackle Joe Haeg, which suggests the team wasn’t sold on Reitz as a long-term fixture. If so, they would use the picks on another position. The Colts also reportedly like the upside in 2015 seventh-round pick Denzelle Good, who could push Reitz at tackle or move into the guard spot. Hugh Thornton should be the starter at right guard, but he spent all of offseason training activities in rehab. Thornton suffered an ankle injury in the 15th game and finished last season on injured reserve. A former third-round draft pick, this is Thornton’s last chance to prove he can be a consistent player or he won’t be re-signed.
3.) Who fills in for Arthur Jones?
The bad news late last week that the defensive tackle will be suspended the first four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs is a bit of a nasty gut punch considering the timing of the punishment. It’s not like the Colts can walk out on the street and find a suitable replacement. They have no other choice but to look to their own roster. Second-year pro Henry Anderson would be the obvious answer if he wasn’t on the mend from knee surgery. Don’t expect Anderson to be healthy until October or November. That means rookie Hassan Ridgeway likely competes for snaps with nose tackle Zach Kerr and tackle T.Y. McGill. The Colts selected Ridgeway in the fourth round because the Texas defender has exceptional pass-rush skills for an interior lineman. He had 17.5 tackles for loss including 9.5 sacks the past two years at Texas. How quickly that ability translates to the NFL can be determined by late August, but the Colts need a reliable run stopper at the tackle position until Jones returns. Don’t be surprised if Kerr emerges as the early down guy with McGill and Ridgeway getting their share of snaps in pass-rush situations.
4.) Who else starts at inside linebacker?
Few were surprised when Jerrell Freeman, who didn’t like accepting a one-year restricted tender last year, bolted in free agency for Chicago. The Colts could have re-signed him, but instead decided to move on with two young inside linebackers, Nate Irving and Sio Moore, who have started before but still need to prove themselves with the Colts. One of them likely steps in next to D'Qwell Jackson, the NFL’s No. 2 tackler last season. Irving insists he’s completely healthy more than a year removed from knee surgery. He was a full-time starter in Denver before getting hurt midway through 2014. The Colts have yet to see him regain the form that enticed the team to sign him as a free agent. Moore played extensively in Oakland until he got dinged a bit and then fell out of favor with the Raiders’ new coaching staff. The Colts acquired him last season, but Moore didn’t have much as an impact as a reserve. If neither of these options impress, the door could be open for Florida rookie Antonio Morrison, a fourth-round pick who had the Colts’ Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson gushing about the guy’s intensity. Morrison bounced back quickly from knee surgery on two ligaments to lead the Gators in tackles in his final college season. Despite suffering from a staph infection this past offseason and having a chest port removed four days before his pro day, he still worked out for NFL teams. He’s a tough guy from Chicago who backs up his swagger as a ferocious hitter. The Colts love how he doesn’t back down from anything. That included barking back at a police dog when he was 18.
5.) What other backup spots are worth watching?
This is the all-encompassing finale to ensure other positions are addressed because, as suggested at the beginning, there are more than five questions that could be asked. And preseason is more important for the guys trying to prove they belong on a roster as opposed to the guys who are already established. If Frank Gore is still the go-to guy at running back, the question is who will spell him to ensure the 33-year-old rusher stays fresh? Veteran backups Robert Turbin and Jordan Todman were signed as capable options with experience. Turbin won a Super Bowl ring with Seattle. One rookie who has created some early buzz is Josh Ferguson, an undrafted Illinois prospect who received $35,000 in guaranteed money to sign with the Colts. He showed his burst and shifty moves in the offseason, but now the pads come on. Can he still play that way? Switching sides to the defense, another position that jumps out is cornerback -- the Colts have a DOZEN on the roster. That’s a lot of guys for four or five roster spots. Vontae Davis, newcomer Patrick Robinson and nickel back Darius Butler are the regulars. Beyond them, who among the other nine emerges? Second-year pro D'Joun Smith has yet to show what he can do after missing all but 20 snaps as a rookie due to a knee injury. Jalil Brown, Tevin Mitchel, Tay Glover-Wright, Chris Milton, Daniel Davie, Winston Rose, Darius White and Frankie Williams are the other cornerbacks to watch.
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