During this weekend's minicamp that was scheduled for both rookies and veterans, here are five players to watch as they battle for positions. It will only get more interesting as we push on towards training camp, so here's a first look.
Anthony Gonzalez, Wide Receiver: Generally speaking, a player makes the most progress between their first and second seasons. Everything begins to slow down for the player and they get more out of offseason programs because they have a base of knowledge to build upon. Though Gonzalez by no means struggled after being pressed into service last season, everyone has room for improvement, especially a second year player.
In addition to the fact that the former first- round pick needs to continue to get better in order to live up to the lofty expectations receivers face in Indianapolis, he also needs to prepare himself for being one of Manning's primary targets in the post-Marvin Harrison era. With Harrison's future in doubt due to the knee injury he sustained last season, Gonzalez may need to be ready for that era sooner than later. This weekend's practices will provide an indication of how far he has come since the end of the 2007 season and how much better he needs to become.
Gijon Robinson, Tight End: After spending a year on the practice squad, Robinson suddenly finds himself as the most experienced tight end on the Colts roster not named Dallas Clark. Ben Utecht is now in Cincinnati and Bryan Fletcher is now on the streets, so Robinson is essentially on the second-string by default, but that doesn't mean he can't take advantage of the situation.
Standing in his way are Zac Herold, 2008 fourth-round pick Jacob Tamme and 2008 sixth-round selection Tom Santi. Herold was signed to a 2008 contract during last season after going undrafted last year and bouncing around from team to team for most of 2007. Tamme has drawn comparisons to Clark and Santi is in the mold of Utecht, but they are both rookies and will need to adjust to the speed of the game at the NFL level, Tom Moore's offensive system, and deciphering the various gestures and arm motions in Peyton Manning's repertoire.
This is Robinson's job to lose, and he must be aware of that fact. However, if he was unable to beat out Utecht — someone the Colts let walk away as a restricted free agent this offseason — and Fletcher -- someone they released after the draft — he may not have what it takes to beat out the men currently standing between him and a roster spot.
T.J. Rushing on the move during a return against the Titans.
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TJ Rushing, Cornerback/Return Specialist: Although the Colts signed Texas cornerback Brandon Foster as an undrafted free agent, the free agents that Rushing should be watching out for are receivers Rudy Burgess of Arizona State and Charles Dillon of Washington State. Both men have fairly extensive kickoff and punt return resumes from their college days and will challenge Rushing for the return specialist position.
Although he did return a punt 90 yards for a touchdown in 2007, he made almost as many fair catches (14) as returns (19 times). And if you take out the touchdown return, he averaged 8.8 yards on 18 punt returns. He was primarily used on kickoff returns, where he averaged 23 yards on 31 returns. For the past few years, the Colts have been looking for "the guy" to use in the return game, someone who strikes fear into the hearts of special teams coaches throughout the league and someone to favor Peyton Manning & Company with a shorter field. It could be that Polian has uncovered that gentleman, or it could be that Rushing fights off his potential successor for another year.
Charlie Johnson, Offensive Tackle: After Jake Scott departed as a free agent, it was assumed that Dylan Gandy would be the long-term solution for the Colts at right guard — or at least until he played out the one-year qualifying offer he signed as a restricted free agent. After drafting three interior linemen in April, then signing an offensive tackle as a free agent after the draft, Indianapolis placed Gandy on waivers and they are now faced with more questions than answers.
Johnson played both tackle positions last season, subbing for the injured Tony Ugoh and Ryan Diem at different points. But given his build, mentality and footwork, he projects better on the inside than he does on the outside. Since he is the most experienced of the men currently vying for that lone roster spot, he has the edge. The Colts didn't draft Mike Pollak, Jamey Richard, and Steve Justice for nothing, though.
Kenton Keith, Running Back: Despite his unreliable hands, Keith entered the offseason as the odds-on favorite to back up Joseph Addai in 2008. An undrafted free agent who made an immediate and positive impact on the team, Keith was another success story for Bill Polian.
Indianapolis, though, must have seen the situation through differently colored glasses. They drafted Michigan tailback Mike Hart in the sixth round and recently brought fan favorite Dominic Rhodes back into the fold. Rhodes is familiar with the offensive system and should be able to resume his 2006 form. So the assumption is that the battle for the third running back slot is between Hart and Keith, with undrafted free agent Chad Simpson also in the mix. Although Keith's receiving issues are well documented, it would also be a stretch to say that Simpson and Hart can be described as more than "slightly capable" in the receiving department. Also, Keith has already had a year to learn how to pass block, which is a very important aspect of being a tailback for the Indianapolis Colts.
Still, Keith has an established veteran in front of him and two hungry rookies behind him, which in not an enviable position.