WESTFIELD, Ind. — Just like that, Grand Park Sports Campus is in the rearview mirror.
A training camp that consisted of 24 days and 13 practices has transitioned to three more weeks of preparation for the Indianapolis Colts.
It features Saturday night’s preseason meeting with the Chicago Bears at Lucas Oil Stadium and next week’s work with Philadelphia. The Colts and Eagles have a joint practice Tuesday, then meet Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field.
Then, things get real for Shane Steichen, Anthony Richardson and the franchise as a whole.
That would be the Sept. 10 opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium. Maybe the Colts find a way to end a season-opening drought that has reached nine games.
Remember Sept. 8, 2013? Remember Indy holding off the Raiders, 21-17, when they still called Oakland home?
When camp opened, we considered several areas of concern.
As camp closes, let’s revisit some of them.
1. Quarterback rotation:
Circle Aug. 15, 2023, on your calendar. That’s day 1 of the Anthony Richardson era. What many of us expected when Chris Ballard used the No. 4 overall pick in the April draft on the Colts’ quarterback of the future became a reality when Steichen named Richardson his starter for the present and, the team hopes, the next decade.
“I want to see just where he’s at,” Steichen said. “You know, get him out there with the guys and go from there.”
Richardson has been as advertised: charismatic, confident but not cocky, big arm that still lacks accuracy, lively legs. He’ll be a work in progress throughout his rookie season, but gives the franchise and the fan base hope.
It figures to be a very interesting ride with the rookie.
Bears coach and former Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus announced quarterback Justin Fields won’t play Saturday night. There’s no word whether Steichen will hold out Richardson as well.
Our advice? Allow Richardson to come out of the tunnel in front of the home folks, direct a safe first drive, then have a seat. He needs every rep he can get, but Richardson got in a ton of work against the Bears’ No. 1 defense earlier this week.
We were surprised when Jonathan Taylor was placed on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) at the start of camp. Everyone outside the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center expected the team’s offensive catalyst to be all the way back from Jan. 26 surgery on his right ankle. Normal rehab for the procedure – arthroscopic debridement to clean out the ankle – is four weeks, maybe six.
But here we are, nearly seven months removed from the surgery and it seems Taylor and the Colts couldn’t be further apart. He wanted – and had earned, in our estimation – an extension, which the team decided not to pursue until after the season. He requested a trade, which owner Jim Irsay immediately denied.
Two weeks ago, Taylor decided to continue his rehab process away from the team. That seemed like a broadside shot at the team’s medical/rehab staff.
How does this impasse end? With Taylor passing a physical and rejoining his teammates? With the team insisting he’s healthy and taking things to Defcon 1 when he insists he isn’t?
The upcoming season is all about making Richardson’s rookie season as less strenuous as possible. At the top of that list is giving him a strong run game. A non-Taylor run game will not be a strong run game.
Perhaps the most encouraging issue in camp was the day-to-day involvement of Shaquille Leonard. He’s the Colt a lot of us thought might open camp on PUP as he continued his Rehab 2.0 following November back surgery.
But Leonard was cleared from the outset and made encouraging progress. That included getting full-pads, full-contact work against the Bears.
We’re not predicting Leonard will be his disruptive, All-Pro self in ’23. But the Maniac certainly appears to be on the road back.
After participating in the first 12 camp practices, Leonard was a spectator in the 13th and final Thursday night. There was no word from the team about why he didn’t practice, so let’s keep an eye on that.
4. Offensive line:
The early signs are encouraging. After enduring a positional relapse that was at the crux of the team’s collapse last season, the No. 1 offensive line played well during camp and in the preseason opener at Buffalo.
What’s been most encouraging? We really didn’t notice left tackle Bernhard Raimann. Trust us, that’s a very good thing. The 2022 third-round draft has added roughly 10 pounds and seemingly has grown into the position.
The first group – Raimann, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Will Fries and Braden Smith – were together for the majority of camp until late injuries sidelined Kelly (foot) and Fries (calf).
Depth was a concern heading into camp and it’s uncertain whether anxieties have been alleviated. Danny Pinter stepped in for Kelly, and center, not guard, seems to be his best position. Rookie Blake Freeland might emerge as the backup swing tackle, but Arlington Hambright has shown the ability to play tackle and guard. That type of versatility is invaluable.
Warren Central H.S. product JuJu Brents was everyone’s favorite to be one of the opening-day starters, but a hamstring injury slowed the second-round pick’s rookie camp. Dallis Flowers and Darrell Baker Jr. earned most of the first-team reps on the outside. Kenny Moore II appears super motivated to put a subpar 2022 behind him.
However it shakes out, the depth promises to be in the hands of the young. Fifth-round pick Darius Rush showed flashes, none more bright than his 52-yard touchdown return with an interception in the preseason opener at Buffalo. Seventh-round pick Jaylon Jones also had a solid camp.
Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce are the unquestioned leaders of the pack, but one of the everyday highlights of camp was third-round pick Josh Downs. He’s quickly getting comfortable working out of the slot, has seemingly leap-frogged veteran Isaiah McKenzie on the depth chart, and has shown impressive run-after-the-catch kills. Of course, it helps that his roommate is Anthony Richardson. Downs joked – we think – that he’s always telling Richardson to look his way, that he’ll be open.
The alignment of the rest of the receivers group remains up in the air. Losing Ashton Dulin to a torn ACL was a major blow. He could play all three positions and was a stellar special teams contributor. Rodgers could figure into the 53-man roster, especially taking his return skills into account.
How quickly can James Washington get up to speed? He was a solid option in Pittsburgh for four seasons, and is just 27.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.