INDIANAPOLIS – The pre-draft talk was incessant and often focused on two areas.
However, anyone who paid attention to 2021 and the past few months realized there was a third major prong to the Indianapolis Colts’ excursion into the NFL Draft.
That would be tight end.
After addressing arguably the team’s most pressing need with Cincinnati wideout Alec Pierce – round 2, 53rd overall – general manager Chris Ballard and his staff turned their attention to adding two more options in the Matt Ryan-led passing game.
In round 3, they snatched Virginia tight end Jelani Woods. In round 6, they added Youngstown State’s Drew Ogletree to the tight ends room.
In the span of 24 hours, incumbent Mo Alie-Cox not only was given reinforcements, but suddenly had position teammates he’ll actually have to look up to. Alie-Cox is 6-5, 267 pounds. Woods and Ogletree come from similar 6-7, 250-ish molds.
Kylen Granson, the 2021 fourth-round pick, is a relative Smurf at 6-3, 242.
Collectively, the pieces are in place for a needed uptick at the position.
“I feel good about that room,’’ Frank Reich said. “As you know, the offense really wants to be tight end-centric in some way. A lot of playmaking goes on in the middle of the field. You get unique matchups, there’s a lot of things you can do formationally, there’s a lot of things you can do when you put multiple tight ends on the field at the same time.
“You always want to have enough good players that you can put those different personnel groups on the field. We want to be multiple and it starts inside out and the tight end position is really important.’’
That’s been the case even before Reich arrived in 2018.
Think of Jack Doyle, who enjoyed a career year – 80 receptions, 690 yards, four touchdowns – and made the first of two Pro Bowl appearances in ’17. Or think of Eric Ebron, the 2014 first-round draft pick who was cast aside by Detroit only to earn his lone Pro Bowl bid in his first year with the Colts on the strength of 66 catches, 750 yards and 13 TDs, all career highs.
From 2017-20, the tight ends room averaged 96 catches, 1,065 yards and 10 TDs.
Last year, the impact dramatically lessened: 64 catches, 724 yards, seven TDs. Alie-Cox was re-signed to a three-year, $18 million contract, but Doyle retired following nine blue-collar seasons.
So, yes, the room demanded an influx of playmaking potential.
The Colts selected two tight ends in the same draft for the first time since 2012 delivered Coby Fleener (round 2) and Dwayne Allen (round 3) to the roster, and they believe they hit on a pair of “unique’’ talents.
“Jelani is unique,’’ Ballard said. “I’m not going to lie to you, I sweated it out because I think he’s got really big upside both as a receiving tight end and as a blocker . . . he’s a unique athlete and he’s a guy that’s always open.
“It’s kind of like Mo. When you’re 6-7, the quarterback can put the ball up and he’s athletic enough to make a play on it. This kid can run.’’
Woods had long been on the Colts’ evaluation radar, and that heightened at the East-West Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas prior to Super Bowl LVI. Marcus Brady, the Colts’ offensive coordinator, was his head coach while Klayton Adams, Indy’s tight ends coach, was his coordinator.
That relationship continued to percolate as the evaluation process unfolded.
“When I got to the Combine . . . it’s kind of like we knew each other,’’ Woods said. “Then, of course, we worked each other out after my Pro Day. We had a good relationship.’’
Brady and Adams gave Woods a crash course on the Colts’ offense, most notably how tight ends were used. That widened Woods’ eyes.
“I was like, ‘Man, I hope this is a team that looks at me,’’’ he said. “It was nothing but God that actually happened. I remember telling my parents when I was at the East-West Shrine game, I was like, ‘Man, I love this Colts offense.’
“They give you so much room to create and so much room to make plays and be a reliable resource within the offense.’’
Woods’ journey to Indy has been an interesting one.
He spent four years at Oklahoma State (2017-20) and arrived on campus as a quarterback prospect. After redshirting in ’17, he transitioned to tight end.
The flashpoint for the position switch? The week leading up to 2017 Bedlam Week – Oklahoma State vs. Oklahoma – coaches had Woods play the role of Mark Andrews, the Sooners’ standout tight end, during practice.
“I ended up pretty much killing our starting defense,’’ Woods said with a laugh. “The next morning, they ended up calling me and asking me to switch to tight end and if I’d have any problem with it.
“I ended up switching that same day and then going into bowl season, I started getting my reps in at tight end.’’
In 34 games, Woods had 31 catches for 361 yards and four TDs.
He transferred to Virginia for the 2021 season and made an immediate difference. He was first-team All-ACC on the strength of 44 receptions, 598 yards and eight TDs.
Ogletree, meanwhile, represents another tight end who’s somewhat new to the position. He began his career as a receiver at the University of Findlay – 54 receptions, 785 yards, 10 TDs in 27 games – before transferring to Youngstown State and switching to tight end. The past two seasons, he had 40 catches for 391 yards.
Ogletree took a top-30 visit to Indy and believed the Colts had more than casual interest, but his optimism for a call from them waned after they selected Woods.
“I saw the Colts took a tight end, I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ I was bummed out because they’re only an hour and a half away from my hometown, so it would have been a great experience to play over there. So I was a little bummed out,’’ he said.
“Then, I received a call and I was just in there with my family and I couldn’t be more blessed.’’
As Ogletree mentioned, the Colts are getting an unfinished product.
“They can mold me into whatever they want because I’ve only played tight end for only one year and I have a receiver background,’’ he said. “I think I put some pretty good stuff out on film of me playing tight end.
“I feel like I’m a ball of clay. They can hold me however they want, however they see fit.’’