INDIANAPOLIS – There aren’t many pressing questions surrounding the Indianapolis Colts’ roster as the team opens its 2020 training camp.
It’s yet to be determined who will take over for veteran Jabaal Sheard at defensive end, and incumbent Chase McLaughlin will compete with undrafted rookie Rodrigo Blankenship for the place-kicking duties. Aside from that, most of the preseason intrigue involves finer details.
Who will get the bulk of the carries at running back? Will anyone inspire confidence as the swing tackle? How will the wide receiver depth chart shake out?
When asked for his opinion on positions to watch over the next month, Colts general manager Chris Ballard zeroed in on the linebackers.
Darius Leonard is a certified all-pro, Anthony Walker is coming off back-to-back 100-tackle seasons and Bobby Okereke has created as much buzz as any young player on the roster. There’s also ample depth with E.J. Speed, Matt Adams and Zion Franklin ready and willing to push the starters and rookie Jordan Glasgow expected to make an impact on special teams.
“I think the linebacker position is one that I think we have a lot of talent,” Ballard said. “I think it will be fun to watch those guys battle for the roster.”
The problem could become finding enough snaps for everyone. Despite missing three weeks in the concussion protocol, Leonard was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time last season. Walker led the team in tackles. And Okereke displayed his rare athleticism while playing both the middle and strong-side spots.
It’s not difficult to make a case all three players are among Indianapolis’ 11 best defenders, and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus isn’t ignoring that fact.
He said Friday the team will test drive defensive formations throughout training camp and could find ways to keep three linebackers on the field more often. Despite making eight starts in 2019, Okereke was on the field for just 46% of the Colts’ defensive snaps. Leonard was at 80% and Walker played 79%.
Eberflus said Indianapolis could play its base defense against opponents’ sub packages or manipulate its own sub packages to include an extra linebacker.
“You can do those things, too, without giving anything away, but there are a lot of different ways you can maneuver your people and put them on the field,” he said. “But the best 11 is what we’re always trying to do. We’ll take away some of those things during the training camp here and the practices and the walk-throughs, and then we’ll see how it goes and see if it moves down the road.”
OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS
Philip Rivers has seen almost everything a defense can throw at him in 16 years as an NFL quarterback. The 38-year-old also has a comfort level in his new offense because of past experience with head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni.
But that doesn’t mean Rivers hasn’t been learning new concepts this spring. Sirianni said there are “a handful” of elements in the offense that are either brand new or have been incorporated since Reich last worked with the quarterback in 2015.
“There’s definitely some things that we do here with the Colts that we know he didn’t do with the Chargers, that Frank picked up and did when he was with Philadelphia,” Sirianni said. “So there’s definitely things that we do that (Rivers is) gonna need reps at. He’s studying the film and looked at the film of some of these things.”
Rivers acknowledged that reality near the end of the virtual offseason in June and said it helped recharge his batteries.
“I’ve always worked at it hard in the offseason, but I’ve never had to study,” he said. “I would work and like to watch tape and go back and evaluate the previous year and do all that stuff, but as far as actually studying playbook stuff, I hadn’t had to do that in a long time. That has actually been fun to do.
“It has been kind of a challenge to flip through the notebook and look up things that you’re used to knowing like the back of your hand. I’ve had to work at that a little bit.”
‘PAIR AND A SPARE’
Eberflus has long espoused a singular philosophy about the depth chart: “A pair and a spare.”
At every position, he wants two players prepared to be the starter and a third with enough knowledge to fill in if necessary. As the NFL adjusts to the still raging coronavirus pandemic this fall, that philosophy also will spill over to the coaching staff.
Everyone in the organization needs to know how to do someone else’s job in case of an emergency.
“We have to have the flexibility to adjust and adapt to the circumstances and then overcome obstacles and adversities together,” Eberflus said. “That’s what we’re going to have to do.”