Colts set to embark on 2017 season

The Indianapolis Colts’ 2017 rookie class reports to the Indiana Farm Bureau practice facility on Saturday at West 56th street, one week before the veterans report to training camp on July 29.

Next Saturday, Colts Owner Jim Irsay, General Manager Chris Ballard, Head Coach Chuck Pagano and the remainder of the coaching staff will begin to get a better feel of the kind of roster they’ll be working with in 2017.

That roster, currently sitting at 90 players, will dwindle down to 53 men before the start of the regular season.

Below are five points to keep an eye on heading into training camp and what impact these areas could have during the course of the season:

  1. Competition — Undoubtedly the biggest difference between former GM Ryan Grigson’s rosters and what one can expect out of the Ballard regime. Grigson preferred to sign veteran and aging free agents to fill out his roster and often whiffed on draft picks. Ballard, on the other hand, mentioned he prefers to develop draftees and retain them on second and, potentially, third contracts to create a culture. While Ballard has worn out the free agent market in his first offseason with the Colts, it is notable that all of the free agents he has signed are still young and have the opportunity to reach their full potential in a Colts uniform. That’s where the word ‘competition’ comes in. Ballard wants to see his players compete for roles on the team, and has not been shy about voicing his opinion on the matter. Watch for a more intense and physical training camp and preseason, as guys push each other for roster spots.
  2. Offensive line — Indianapolis has struggled with this position group since quarterback Andrew Luck entered the NFL. For a guy like Luck, with potential of being MVP when protected, it is vital for the Colts to improve in run-blocking and pass protection. In 2016, Indianapolis helped running back Frank Gore eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground, but yielded 44 sacks on its quarterbacks, or nearly 2.8 per game. However, the offensive line showed vast improvement over the course of last season in pass protection. According to pro-football-reference.com, the Colts allowed 33 sacks in the first nine weeks for an average of 3.7 sacks per game. That included a season-high-tying six sacks in losses to Jacksonville and Kansas City in weeks four and eight, respectively. After a bye in week 10, Indianapolis only gave up 11 sacks over the final seven games, an average of two fewer sacks per contest. The offensive line didn’t allow a single sack on Luck in consecutive games against Minnesota and Oakland in weeks 15 and 16 while starting three rookies (Ryan Kelly at center, Joe Haeg at right guard and Le’Raven Clark at right tackle). If those rookies, along with veterans Jack Mewhort at left guard and Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, can continue to improve, expect Luck and the Colts offense to flourish in 2017.
  3. Defense — Improvement on this side of the ball is critical to the Colts having any success in 2017. Too many times last season, Indianapolis shot themselves in the foot when the offense would be forced into a high-scoring affair. The offense averaged 25.7 points per game last season, good for 8th in the NFL according to pro-football-reference.com. However, the defense allowed 24.5 points per outing, ranking 22nd overall. Ballard has re-tooled this side of the ball via the draft and free agency, having released veterans Mike Adams, Arthur Jones, Patrick Robinson and D’Qwell Jackson. Ballard also drafted safety Malik Hooker, cornerback Quincy Wilson, outside linebacker Tarell Basham, defensive tackle Grover Stewart, cornerback Nate Hairston and inside linebacker Anthony walker. Watch for at least a couple of these rookies to play big roles for the Colts in 2017.
  4. Special teams — A third of the team was essentially reset this offseason as Pro Bowl punter Pat McAfee retired and long snapper Matt Overton was released. Replacing them is punter Jeff Locke and long snapper Joe Fortunato. Despite Locke having to compete with free agent signee Rigoberto Sanchez, the specialists are nevertheless new faces alongside place-kicker and future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri. Replacing McAfee and Overton is no easy task and is worth monitoring throughout training camp and the preseason.
  5. Coaching — One could argue what this fifth topic of interest could be: there are a number of popular names that will be fighting for roster spots; Luck is rehabbing from shoulder surgery and it is unclear whether he’ll be practicing come next Saturday; no one has a clue who the Colts’ starting linebackers and safeties will be. However, every offseason sees veteran names cut from each team, it’s simply part of the business; Considering Ballard has not signed another QB to the roster eases my anxiety over the health of Luck; And while the linebackers and safeties are unknown, no shortage of bodies exists that leads me to believe strong candidates won’t emerge during camp and preseason action. Thus, I’ve landed on coaching. Pagano was hired by Irsay and Grigson, not Ballard. It will be interesting to watch their relationship continue to evolve during the season. While Irsay has requested continued patience from the fan base, another year of disappointment likely will not bode well for Pagano. Also of note here: Indianapolis hired a new wide receivers coach in Sanjay Lal, who is well respected across the league. Lal should bring new leadership to the receiving group and ought to give Ballard and Pagano a clearer picture on who survives the roster cut.

Dates to know:

  • July 22: rookies report to camp
  • July 29: veterans report to camp
  • July 30: practice open to the public at Lucas Oil Stadium
  • August 5: practice open to the public at Warren Central High School
  • August 13: preseason opener vs. Detroit Lions
  • September 3: final rosters trimmed to 53 players
  • September 10: regular season opener at Los Angeles Rams

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