WESTFIELD, Ind. – He was providing a State of the Colts at the outset of training camp, and Chris Ballard’s eyes sharpened when his attention drifted to the anticipated competition at wide receiver.
The top four spots were virtual locks: T.Y. Hilton, Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell, Zach Pascal.
After that? Well, that’s what training camp is all about.
“I think there will be some interesting battles at wideout,’’ Ballard said. “More than I think people realize. We have some good, young players.’’
When rosters are trimmed to 53 Aug. 31, Ballard and Frank Reich must juggle numbers to accommodate needs – and react to possible injury issues – at every position.
Given their druthers, they’ll probably keep six wideouts.
Difficult decisions loom because of the competition Ballard and Reich expected, and there’s no lack of candidates in the pursuit for what appears to be the final two spots. Dezmon Patmon, Ashton Dulin, rookie Mike Strachan and DeMichael Harris seem to be at the head of a long line.
Reich was especially upbeat following Sunday’s preseason opener against Carolina. Campbell was on the field for just 10 snaps, while Hilton, Pittman and Pascal went through warm-ups and then watched.
That provided invaluable opportunities for others. Seven wideouts stepped on the field and combined for 18 receptions on 22 targets (81.8%) for 291 yards. Five had a catch that covered at least 25 yards.
There was Jacob Eason’s feathery-yet-crisp fade to Campbell for 37 yards, a 26-yard in-stride toss to Patmon on a shallow cross and a 32-yard hookup with Strachan down the left side that saw Strachan – all 6-5, 225 pounds of him – go up and snatch an Eason pass away from cornerback Keith Taylor.
“Just playmaking and good speed,’’ Reich said of the group’s performance. “We really put a lot of emphasis the last couple of weeks on good releases versus press coverage. That’s a big deal, so saw some of that. Making the plays that come your way.
“We think we have quarterbacks who have the ability to get the ball down the field so we wanted to see big plays down the field.’’
That had been the case during the first three weeks of training camp. Strachan, the physically gifted seventh-round draft pick, and Patmon, the second-year wideout, had been especially active and noticeable.
The preseason opener was the next meaningful step in the evaluation process.
“Pretty encouraging,’’ position coach Mike Groh said after Thursday’s practice at Grand Park Sports Campus. “We got a lot of production out of those guys. I can’t think of another time in my career in a preseason game that we only played seven (wideouts), but all seven not only caught a ball but made an impact in the game with their play.
Dulin is heading into his third season after earning a roster spot in 2019 as an undrafted rookie. He’s appeared in 26 games and been targeted just eight times for five catches and 70 yards. His value, though, has been on special teams, which might be the tipping point in earning one of the six spots.
So what of Strachan and Patmon?
Here’s a look at each:
- Size: 6-5, 225 pounds
- College: Charleston (West Va.)
- Experience: Rookie; seventh-round draft pick
A couple of descriptions follow Strachan.
Strachan appeared in 29 games at Charleston, but the COVID-19 pandemic not only doused his aspirations to earn a spot on the Bahamas’ track team in the 400-meter dash for the Tokyo Olympics, but also wiped out his senior season in football. Prior to Sunday’s preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers, the last time he ran routes in a game was Nov. 16, 2019 against West Liberty.
His last season at Charleston: 78 receptions, 1,319 yards, 19 touchdowns, all school records.
“We’re really pleased with Mike’s development so far,’’ Groh said. “What, we’re three weeks into camp? I don’t want to put a timeline on it, but we all know his background: didn’t play any ball last year, coming from the Bahamas.
“Our scouting department did a great job. He’s still raw, but you see the physical gifts.’’
And that brings us to . . . the unique skillset.
“He’s got the speed and the power,’’ Groh said.
The size is obvious – it’s driven home when he stands alongside the 5-10 Hilton – and the speed is in the 4.45 range.
“It’s not just size alone,’’ Groh said. “The guy’s got really good vertical speed, and he can play with power. It’s like that power forward position, LeBron James, where he’s coming down on the fastbreak.
“We always want him to play big and play with speed and power, and he’s been able to do that.’’
Strachan seems to have one of those “Did you see that?” moments every day in camp. In red-zone work Thursday, he flashed to the back of the end zone and grabbed a high, hard pass from Eason for a touchdown.
Against the Panthers, he converted a third-and-3 with a 10-yard reception on a slant with a DB all over him, then used his speed to get down field and size to go over Taylor for a 32-yard catch. He finished with three catches for 57 yards.
“He does bring a unique skillset to our group,’’ Groh said.
Strachan is taking everything in stride.
“My goal is to do my job every day. Each play, do my job,’’ he said. “Go hard every route, and everything else will take care of itself.
“I believe in myself. I just have that belief. I have a big heart, and each day I want to come in here and compete.’’
One issue that might work in Strachan’s favor when the roster is trimmed to 53 is the team’s reluctance to waive him with the intention of bringing him back to the practice squad. His obvious upside might be enticing for another team to claim off waivers.
A pair of prolific Colts have noticed Strachan’s strong rookie camp and opening preseason game.
“It’s a big body, man,’’ Hilton said. “He’s huge. Just throw it up, let him go get it. And he runs really fast.’’
Reggie Wayne was equally impressed.
“Okay. I’ve seen the practice highlights and was like ok, ok,’’ he posted on his Twitter account. “Now my antennas are up for @Mike_Playmaker.’’
- Size: 6-4, 225 pounds
- College: Washington State
- Experience: 2nd season; 2020 sixth-round draft pick
With so many second-year players, the improvement is obvious and starts during training camp. Like Strachan, Patmon has been impossible to miss at Grand Park.
“Just his comfort within the system, knowing what to do and his familiarity with how we’re coaching him to do it with the techniques and everything,’’ Groh said. “Things have slowed down. He’s able to focus more on how to do it than always what to do.’’
Patmon had a team-high five catches against Carolina for 49 yards.
Last season wasn’t as extreme to Patmon as it was Strachan in terms of inactivity, but neither was he able to fully develop because of the COVID-19 pandemic. His on-field work during the offseason was eliminated as were the four preseason games. Patmon was active for all 16 regular-season games – the Colts clearly were concerned with losing him had they tried to carry him on the practice squad – but only stepped on the field once. He was on the field for two snaps in the regular-season finale against Jacksonville.
Last Sunday was a welcome change. Patmon started along with Campbell and Strachan in a three-receiver set. He handled 52 snaps (67%), 18 more than the second-busiest wideout.
“It felt great,’’ Patmon said. “I kind of got like one opportunity to suit up last year versus Jacksonville, (so) it’s kind of like my first game in two years. You’re out there with the fans. It felt great honestly – high electricity, high energy – and it felt good to go out there and make some plays.
“I think I did all right. Like I said, first real game basically in like two years so you kind of forget what it feels like to get tackled (and) have guys running at you.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.