As the month of June slowly comes around, the NFL’s 32 teams are methodically preparing for their respective training camp sessions. Every year, the teams use the preseason, which includes the camp as well as three preseason games, to select their best possible group and narrow the roster down to 53 primary players.
Furthermore, clubs also use both the training camp and the matchups to settle some close battles for starting jobs while also deciding on the outlook of their depth chart. Last time out, we took a look at what the New York Giants’ camp could offer as far as competition at different posts. Another team that promises to have an eventful July and August is Indianapolis, by virtue of the many Colts position battles.
Last season, the Colts managed to put on their best regular-season record since 2014, finishing second in the AFC South at 11-5. Indy was tied with Tennessee for first place and missed on the fourth seed in the AFC by a hair. Yet, the Colts were amongst the strongest contenders in the conference and things aren’t bound to change in 2021. Players coming back from injury woes, re-signing returning assets, and one unpleasant departure have established vital battles at four different positions. In order for Indianapolis to at least replicate their impressive 2020 campaign, they have to make the best decision regarding each case.
Here are the highlights of the Colts’ intra-roster competition this upcoming summer.
2021 Colts Position Battles To Watch: Offense
WR3│Parris Campbell vs Zach Pascal
The depth and quality of the Colts’ receiving corps leaves a lot to be desired, especially with a new quarterback under center like Carson Wentz. At the top of the pyramid in that department, T.Y. Hilton and Michael Pittman Jr have been thoroughly reliable weapons for whoever has led the unit. However, what might prove to be more intriguing is the top option beyond that duo. That is mainly due to the expectations for 2019 second-round pick Parris Campbell to be healthy in 2021 and pose a threat to Zach Pascal‘s unchallenged status as a third-choice pass-catcher. Except for Campbell, the most prolific receivers next in line include the likes of Ashton Dulin and De’Michael Harris.
After appearing in seven games during his rookie campaign, racking up 24 targets and 18 receptions, Campbell began his sophomore year in the professional game in a fantastic manner. He was targeted nine times, catching six of those, in Indy’s losing visit to Jacksonville in Week one. However, he injured his knee on a hit from Minnesota safety Harrison Smith the following week, ending his 2020 season.
That gave Pascal the #3 spot easily, but he justified this carte blanche only to mixed success. Zach Pascal managed to catch 62 percent of the 71 passes that were intended for him. While that is not an abysmal figure, it is noticeably lower than Pittman’s 65 percent on an identical amount of targets. More importantly, while it is satisfying, if not great, for a wide receiver in his role, it is still worth exploring and exploiting Campbell’s talent to the fullest extent.
There has been a very high bar set and attached to Parris Campbell’s name for two years now. Despite the high stakes, the Ohio State alum has yet to be actively utilized within the Colts’ roster. After two awful injury-ridden campaigns, Indianapolis hopes 2021 could be his breakout year. This could take him very far in his battle for a starting job against a trusted name in Indy’s air raid like Zach Pascal. It can even carry on to the season itself, with the two players splitting a portion of the workload. On the contrary, Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady could have more confidence in Pascal and give him a more active role at the start of the 2021 season.
RB2│Nyheim Hines vs Marlon Mack
The decline in the way the league has perceived Marlon Mack in the past two years has been absolutely staggering. In 2019, Mack was the ninth-most used running back in the NFL, producing 4.4 yards per rush on average. The fifth-year former USF prospect was also near the middle of the pack in turnout amongst the NFL’s ten backs with most carries. That made him one of the most reliable ground-game assets at the time.
Fast forward to March 2021. Marlon Mack signed a low-profile one-year, $2-million deal to remain with Indianapolis early on during the 2021 NFL Offseason. What happened in between those two events and what drove his price and reputation down?
Following a deeper look at his numbers, nothing that significant, if not nothing at all. Mack missed almost the entirety of the 2020 campaign after suffering a ruptured right Achilles tendon in Week one. His season ended after just four rushing attempts for 26 yards. A year on the sidelines resulted in a downturn that equaled millions of dollars in Mack’s value. After many teams failed to get a productive running back at a massive discount, the Colts used the opportunity to bring him back aboard.
If healthy, Mack could experience a successful bounce-back campaign in his fifth season with Indianapolis. However, his market price all but indicated that he would need to win back his previous role first. Insofar, this is impossible as long as Jonathan Taylor is available. The former Wisconsin running back is slated to begin training camp as the Colts’ top runner.
Mack’s first duty is to earn a respectful share of the carries behind the second-year player before putting the team on notice by duplicating his previous figures. However, he will have to deal with stiff competition in that task as well in Nyheim Hines.
Hines turned in an impeccable 2020 performance, standing amongst the club’s leaders in both the running and receiving departments. The NC State alum had the second-most carries for the team, averaging 4.3 yards across 89 rushes, while also posting the second-most targets and catching 82% of the 76 passes intended for him. It should be noted, however, that he only averaged 7.7 yards per reception, which explains his high success rate more than any immense receiving skills. Yet, Hines offered the Colts solid upside as the second-choice running back, now holding leverage to retain his role.
One would think that Hines and Mack can co-exist in the #2 spot. The latter would be the primary second-choice runner while the former would get more targets out of the backfield while also being utilized on the ground. However, considering his past success, the Colts would be missing on a lot of production should this scenario prevail. Marlon Mack needs to show that he deserves to take over Hines’ complete running workload. Only in such a case will Indianapolis take advantage of the benefits of Mack’s consistency.
On paper, he is a much more attractive option to get a significant portion of the workload in this edition of the Colts position battles. However, the price of his contract indicates otherwise as regards what Indy, as well as other clubs, might think about him.
2021 Colts Position Battles To Watch: Defense
ILB│Zaire Franklin vs E.J. Speed
Last year, the Indianapolis Colts enjoyed dominance against their opponents’ running factions. The team only allowed 3.7 yards per run, which was the second-fewest in all of NFL football. Their linebacker trifecta of Darius Leonard, Bobby Okereke, and Anthony Walker contributed the most to this accomplishment on the ground. However, the Colts will have to overcome obstacles when it comes to this group in 2021.
Anthony Walker became a free agent after the conclusion of the 2020 NFL season. Eventually, Walker signed with the Cleveland Browns after spending four years in Indianapolis. The 2017 Colts draftee was coming off his worst campaign since the year of his debut in pro football. Still, he ranked second within the team in combined tackles with 92 and was tied with Khari Willis as the third-most successful solo tackler. In other words, a crucial piece of Indy’s powerful linebacker unit is now off to Cleveland. Moreover, his replacements don’t look substantially impressive either.
The battle for the opening left from Walker’s exit is currently down to two candidates. These are Zaire Franklin and E.J. Speed, both deep backups last winter. Franklin, who started two games in 2020, and his inexperienced colleague combined for 28 total and 21 solo tackles throughout last season. Not only did they have back-row roles last year but they both lack significant playing time on the NFL stage and have no leverage to establish good preseason outlooks. Franklin has never participated in more than 17 percent of the defense’s snaps whilst Speed has yet to start a professional game.
Neither asset seems even close to what Anthony Walker had to offer to the Colts defense over the past three years. Perhaps the possibility of either being a starter doesn’t sound very encouraging. Nevertheless, one will have to be named a starting inside linebacker, with Franklin standing as the frontrunner heading into the camp.
DE│Kwity Paye vs Tyquan Lewis
The Colts’ steady pass-rush, which held its ground with 40 sacks last year, 13th-best in the NFL, is also set to undergo some noticeable changes. Firstly, the unit’s sack leader, DeForest Buckner, is back after posting nine sacks in his inaugural campaign in Indy. Furthermore, Grover Steward wasn’t as unstoppable rushing opposing quarterbacks but he did start all 16 games and was a crucial part of the group’s success against the run.
Also, Al-Quadin Muhammad is likely to snatch one of the two openings left by the departures of defensive ends Justin Houston and Denico Autry. Muhammad took a part in 56 percent of all defensive snaps, the same portion as Steward. The battle for the second DE post could be closer, though.
Despite his positive sack production, Tyquan Lewis fell in the shadow of Houston and Autry as regards playing time on the edge of the defensive front. And rightfully so, since both put on more than seven sacks in their last season with the Colts. Nonetheless, Tyquan Lewis wasn’t disappointing either, posting four sacks while appearing in just 40 percent of the group’s total snaps. This surprising sack rate has now made him a frontrunner for a starting job.
His track record slows that optimism down a bit. Prior to 2020, Lewis had a combined six starts, two sacks, as well as no more than 32% snap participation in a single season. However, that shouldn’t be a problem since he has only three NFL campaigns behind his back and should improve by the season. Still, the Colts headed into the 2021 NFL Draft seeking insurance, subsequently bringing competition to Lewis for the post.
Enter Kwity Paye. Indianapolis drafted the Michigan pass-rusher with the 21st overall pick on the first day of the event. This move made the need for upgrades in that department apparent. Across four seasons with the Wolverines, Paye recorded 11.5 sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss, with peaks at 12.5 and 6.5, respectively, in 2019. Meanwhile, no other season has seen him post TOL and sack figures north of 5.5 and two, respectively. Also, Paye followed that breakthrough campaign up with a threefold decrease in both components. He certainly has his avid limitations and causes for concern. Still, his status as a first-rounder should be enough to feature him in one of the Colts position battles for a starting defensive end job.
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