Top 2020 training camp battles for Colts: Important decisions to come at both wide receiver and running back

The 2019 season was a big disappointment for the Indianapolis Colts. The struggles began in the preseason, as Jacoby Brissett was thrust into the spotlight when Andrew Luck shocked the NFL with his retirement. Brissett then struggled to make ends meet as several of his running backs and wide receivers went down with injuries, which led to a 7-9 season and Brissett’s subsequent benching. Now with Philip Rivers under center and the addition of several talented players on both sides of the ball, postseason aspirations have returned to the “Crossroads of America.”

Frank Reich’s squad is a bit of a mixed bag. While he certainly possesses several young pieces on both offense and defense, the new veterans he has acquired will have to play important roles on this team. There of course is Rivers at quarterback, the Colts sent a first-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for star defensive lineman DeForest Buckner and they also took a flier on veteran cornerback Xavier Rhodes. If these new additions can play up to their potential and the younger players can come in and impress, the Colts could have something special in store for 2020. 

Reich’s first goal during this unprecedented offseason will be to evaluate his talent and establish a rough depth chart. This task will be more difficult than usual since there is no preseason due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Indy has plenty of talent, but which players will rise above the others before the regular season? Let’s take a look at five of the most intriguing training camp battles for the Colts. 

1. Wide receiver No. 2

Candidates: Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell, Zach Pascal, Dezmon Patmon

The offense still revolves around T.Y. Hilton, but as for who will get the most playing time opposite of him is still yet to be determined. The Colts selected Pittman with their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and he might be the favorite to serve as the other starting receiver. 

Pittman broke out in a big way during his senior season at USC, as he caught 101 passes for 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns in 13 games. At 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds, he has great size and will have the ability to make an impact in his rookie season with Rivers throwing him the football. We also can’t forget Campbell — who played in just seven games during his rookie season due to injuries. Also in the running figures to be Pascal, who led the Colts in receiving last year with 72 catches for 607 yards and five touchdowns, and maybe even the rookie Patmon, who is considered to be a great steal late in the draft. These are just the favorites, as others such as Marcus Johnson, Daurice Fountain and Artavis Scott will be fighting for playing time. 

It’s clear that the Colts used this offseason to acquire talent around Rivers, now they just need to sift through their options and find out who will work best on the outside. 

2. Running back

Candidates: Marlon Mack vs. Jonathan Taylor

We understand that both of these backs are going to get their touches, but will Mack be the clear-cut starter or will Taylor eventually end up taking his spot? The former Wisconsin star was one of the best running backs in college football over the past three seasons. He rushed for over 1,900 yards in all three of his seasons in Madison, and for at least 2,000 yards in each of the past two seasons. In 2019, he rushed for 2,003 yards and 21 touchdowns. Taylor did struggle with ball security at times, as he lost 15 fumbles in 41 career games. 

Mack recorded his first 1,000-yard season and has proven he’s a legitimate starting running back in this league. Unfortunately, it’s almost like running backs come a dime a dozen these days, so he is going to have to gear up for a major competition if he wants to hold onto his touches. It will also be interesting to see how touches are divvied up among the backups, as both Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins have flashed in the past. The Colts really have no shortage of talent in the backfield. 

3. Kicker

Candidates: Chase McLaughlin vs. Rodrigo Blankenship

For the first time since 2006, the Colts will have a new full-time kicker. Adam Vinatieri is not returning, so it will be McLaughlin vs. the rookie Blankenship. McLaughlin has bounced around a bit in the NFL, but may have found a new home in Indy. Last year for the Colts, he made 5 out of 6 field goals including a 50-yarder. He also made all 11 of his extra-point attempts, and his performance was good enough for the Colts to offer him a one-year extension. As for Blankenship, he was one of the best kickers in college football over the past few seasons. During his time at Georgia, he made all 200 of his extra-point attempts and 80 out of 97 field goal attempts. He won the Lou Groza award for the top college football placekicker last year, and was named first-team All-SEC. His goggles made him a fan favorite, and he could end up being a steal for the Colts as an undrafted free agent. 

4. Cornerback

Candidates: Rock Ya-Sin vs. Xavier Rhodes

Kenny Moore will certainly be one of the Colts starters at cornerback and I would expect he, Ya-Sin and Rhodes to be on the field when Indy is in its nickel package. Still, only two cornerbacks are on the field in base defense, so Reich will have to figure out if that will be Ya-Sin or the veteran Rhodes. Ya-Sin started 13 of the 15 games he played in during his rookie season and he recorded 62 combined tackles, five passes defensed and one interception. His performances were mostly up and down, but he did rebound and finish the season in a strong fashion. As for Rhodes, he’s hoping a change of scenery will serve him well.

Rhodes was once considered one of the top cornerbacks in the league, but he had a rough couple of seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. According to Pro Football Focus, 120 cornerbacks were on the field for more than 300 snaps last season, and only six had a lower grade than Rhodes. Even though he somehow made the Pro Bowl as an alternate, the Vikings made the decision to release him this offseason after seven years in Minnesota. In Indy, Rhodes will have a chance to start anew. He did turn 30 this offseason and didn’t record an interception last year, so it could be an uphill battle. Either way, we all know he’s capable of much more.

5. Middle linebacker

Candidates: Anthony Walker vs. Bobby Okereke

My colleague Josh Edwards had Walker starting in the middle with Okereke on the strongside in his Colts projected depth chart— which is entirely possible — but Reich has to figure out if Okereke is better utilized at MIKE linebacker. The former third-round pick out of Stanford recorded 65 combined tackles, two passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one sack in 16 games played with eight starts in his rookie campaign, and he’s expected to make a big jump from year one to year two.

“Yeah, we expect big things from Bobby,” Colts linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi said earlier this offseason, via the Colts’ official website. “He came in as a rookie and did a really nice job. Like Darius (Leonard), Bobby is a guy that has great physical attributes, but also more importantly, he works really hard at it. So we expect Bobby to make a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2, just in his production, his plays on the ball, interceptions, game-changing plays. Bobby has a lot of ability and we expect him to really have a great season this coming year.”

Even if Walker starts at middle linebacker in 2020, he’s entering a contract year. Okereke is probably seen as the long-term answer in the middle, but Borgonzi also says that Walker is just as versatile. So could he be moved to SAM linebacker? It’s worth keeping tabs on what happens with these two players not only in training camp, but through the regular season as well. Both should be in the starting lineup come the regular season, but where will they line up? 

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