INDIANAPOLIS – Slowly, the Colts are inching towards a bit of normalcy.
The virtual nature of the Colts offseason program continues though, with the team hosting their first full 90-man roster meeting this Tuesday.
Frank Reich gave the veterans last week off from meetings, with the Indy staff turning all its focus to the 2020 rookie class.
Tuesday’s meeting will bring all the Colts’ vets and rookies together for the first time this spring, as players continue to be scattered all over the country.
On Monday, Reich met the media and did say he’s expecting some guys to begin returning to Indy in the coming weeks. But there’s still no date on the horizon for players allowed to take part in activities at the team facility.
What were some of the highlights from Reich?
–On if Reich believes that Philip Rivers will play longer than his 1-year contract: “I won’t get into the contract negotiations only because I wasn’t in on those. That’s Chris (Ballard’s) job. Obviously, Chris keeps me up to speed with everything, especially on that contract. It’s contract negotiations. It was normal. There was push and pull on each side and multi-year deal, and this (type of) deal and trying to get numbers to balance out right. It finally just came down to what it was. I think the spirit of it was, ‘We are in this together. And, as long as Philip wants to play, he wants to be here.’ It’s the NFL. We know he’s got to prove it. We’ve got to prove it as a team to keep him wanting to play. I can just tell you from the previous relationship, I really believe it’s Philip’s intent to play multiple years. I personally believe that he’s more than capable of playing multiple years. But as far as how the contract gets worked out, it’s the NFL. We keep things realistic there. But I’m very optimistic it’ll be a multi-year thing.”
Bowen’s Analysis: Based off everything we’ve heard over the last couple of months, the Colts really feel that Rivers, 38, will play with them for longer than just one season. Smartly though, the Colts didn’t tie their hands contractually with a deal that has Rivers locked onto the books past the 2020 season. You never know when a guy of that age is going to drop off. Reich was asked on Monday about Rivers already accepting his next job, as the head football coach in-waiting at St. Michael Catholic High School in Alabama. Reich said this news was zero surprise, joking that he knew this was coming for Rivers when the two were together in San Diego a handful of years ago.
–On what center Ryan Kelly has meant to Reich and the Colts: “Ryan has been great. When I first got the job here a couple of years ago, he was one of the first players that I met. It was fun to get to meet Ryan. I remember saying to Chris, ‘If we are going to go where we want to go as an offense, then Ryan Kelly is going to have to step up and be an alpha dog.’ I didn’t realize how much of an alpha dog he is. He has been top notch. This guy has taken complete control of the offensive line room as far as calls, what we do in the protection world, in the run game. He’s a really, really smart football player. He prepares very hard. He’s tough. He’s got that personality, deep voice and talks with a lot of authority. He’s not one for much small talk. He’s just barking out the signals. I think Ryan breeds confidence. When you hear him make the calls, you hear it with authority, you hear it with conviction. I think the offensive line feeds off it. Everyone talks about Quenton (Nelson) and he is our inspirational (guy) in many respects, but don’t underestimate the kind of leadership that Ryan is bringing.”
Bowen’s Analysis: Reich handed out some high praise for the Colts center, who turns 27 years old next week. The center position means a lot in a Reich offense given the amount of quarterback/center collaboration in the system. The 2019 season was important for Kelly to prove he can stay healthy. He did that in starting all 16 games, after he had missed 13 games the two previous seasons. Chris Ballard loved what Kelly showed in 2019, too. One would think that Kelly could/should be in-line for a contract extension. Currently, Kelly is in the final year of his rookie contract, with him making $10.3 million on a team option.
–On if Reich feels that the Colts pass defense needs to evolve schematically: “In a million ways I think (Matt Eberflus) is a great coach. I think he has a great demeanor. He’s very disciplined, has very strong convictions. You get to know Flus and he’s this very disciplined, strong guy. And you think, does he have any flexibility? Can he adapt? Sometimes I think we mistakenly think guys like that are stuck in his ways. Flus is not stuck in his ways. Flus knows how to adapt. He knows how to adapt to our personnel. I see the last two years, when guys get hurt, ‘OK, now we have to play more zone. Or, now we can play more man. Or, we are not getting enough production out of this coverage, or this front, or this split, so we will change it up.’ Flus is the way a coach should be. He has strong core principles, but he’s got a creative mind and he understands that it’s about players playing those schemes. So you have to fit those players in there and do what’s best for them, given your core principles. I’ve seen, on a high level, he has that ability. As we continue to add pieces to our defense, I think it’s just going to get better and better, under this scheme.”
Bowen’s Analysis: Under Matt Eberflus, the Colts defense has allowed back-to-back seasons of 70 percent completion percentage. No NFL team has ever done that. Clearly, there’s been a pass defense struggle in Indianapolis. And it sounds like Reich has no problem whatsoever with the scheme and how it’s evolved. It appears the consecutive year struggles in keeping opposing quarterbacks from getting into a rare rhythm is more personnel driven. Will the arrival of DeFoest Buckner, continued development of young defensive backs in Rock Ya-Sin, Khari Willis and Marvell Tell, plus a resurgence of Xavier Rhodes, get the Colts to being a more difficult pass defense to complete passes on?
-On the ankle rehab of DE-Kemoko Turay: “I feel good about it.”
Bowen’s Analysis: Reich didn’t want to divulge much on injured guys and their rehabs (he was asked specifically about Kemoko Turay-ankle and Parris Campbell-foot). Turay is doing some field work and has been busy training with Robert Mathis again this offseason, following his ugly ankle injury last October. Injured guys, including Turay, are allowed to rehab at the Colts facility right now, as the only football operations personnel inside of the building during this time. Given Turay’s dominant speed trait and the flashes he showed last season, his rehab and health for 2020 could also enhance things when it comes to pass defense.
–On the lack of in-person impressions players can make this spring: “It’s not ideal. You have to make your bones on the field, prove it on the field and every time you are out on the field counts, including OTAs. But always, every year I’ve been in coaching, the same thing happens, we get through OTAs, and we do learn a lot. But we are still not in pads. We tend to get real hype about some guys, but as coaches we say, ‘We got to wait until we get the pads on, because that’s when we really find out.’ I’m not discounting the fact that we don’t learn a lot during OTAs. You do get to. But we are in the same position every team is in. We are finding ways to do that. One of the ways we are doing that is having guys send videos in. We give them the drill of the day. ‘Tell your girlfriend, or your wife, or your friend to film the video of you doing the drill, getting a few reps in. Send it into your position coach and we’ll critique it and we’ll coach you.’ We are doing little things. That’s not near the same (as normal), but it is one little step that we can do. But that is part of the process that we are missing for sure.”
Bowen’s Analysis: Particularly with the rookies, and undrafted free agents, those guys are missing out on valuable impression time this spring. As Reich says, nothing can compare to more full-padded evaluation—which will hopefully come in training camp and the preseason. For now though, this is how the staff must handle things virtually. Reich used an example of Philip Rivers going down the street to a field and repping through check-down drills, by having a net in the area he would be throwing to Nyheim Hines. Reich did say Rivers is planning to move to Indianapolis ‘sooner, rather than later’ with guys talking about getting back to Indiana in the coming weeks. Once the NFL enters their summer moratorium, expect Rivers and others to hold some workouts with teammates at various sites away from the team facility.
–On the difficulty for a rookie quarterback learning without game reps: “Having been there, and played the position and coached the position for so long, I think what happens with rookie quarterbacks is they see ghosts and what I mean by that is they see things that aren’t really there. All the other things are true in that the game is faster, there’s better disguise. The other thing you see is (young quarterbacks) misjudge how far a DB can break, or how far a safety’s range is, so they have to figure that out. I also think they see some things pre-snap and they assume certain things and that’s not always how it plays out. What I talk to rookie quarterbacks about is you’ve got to be patient. We talk about chunking all the time. One of the big secrets to how we teach is, I say secret, but this is normal commonplace teaching stuff, there’s 11 defensive players there, but really if you chunk it together, you can put them in three different pieces. So you have to understand how guys are connected, if one guy moves, what that implies to what everybody else on the defense is going to move. Part of our process is helping our young quarterback understand in this league how the parts are all connected. That way, rather than looking at 11 different pieces, he’s really only looking a 3 or 4 different pieces and you can play fast, and he’s not seeing ghosts. And he understands the integrity of the coverage and the front and how it all syncs up in this league with the multiple fronts and coverages that you see. That’s just a learning process. They don’t get all the reps, so you have to get those young quarterbacks watching a ton of film, so when they get out on the field, they have to put themselves in the play every time. Then I think you have to spend a little extra time with them 1-on-1.”
Bowen’s Analysis: This will be the challenge for Jacob Eason. The Colts are not in a position to give Eason any reps, or even have him dressing, this season. Remember, Eason started as a true freshman at Georgia in 2016, but has played just one season since then (2019 at Washington). So, he has really limited game experience compared to most drafted quarterbacks. Reich is the ideal coach to take on this challenge of trying to develop Eason (see those possible strides), without many snaps under center.
–On the usage of Nyheim Hines in 2020: “It wouldn’t surprise me if in a game this year Nyheim has 10 catches. Philip has an uncanny ability to get the ball to the backs on check downs and using him like that. Nyheim will be very much integrated into the game plan, on all three downs. I wouldn’t anticipate that he’s going to play as many snaps as Marlon (Mack) and Jonathan (Taylor), but there’s still enough snaps for him to be very, very productive this year.”
Bowen’s Analysis: This backs up what we heard from Nick Sirianni last week about the role for Hines in this offense. What Reich is saying is how we’ve laid out a potential running back rep chart for the Colts in 2020. Some people raised their eyebrows at Reich saying Hines could catch 10 balls in a game this season. Let’s not forget, Hines caught 9 balls twice with Andrew Luck in 2018 (and 7 on two other occasions). In 2019 though, Hines caught more than 4 balls in just one game all year long. Given Rivers’ history, expect Hines usage to get closer to that ’18 level.
–On if Reich has thought about playing time this preseason: “I had a plan in my mind of what I was thinking but I wanted to make sure everybody felt good about it. Chris and I talked it through for the group. I know exactly how much I want the starters playing. If we have a normal preseason, that plan is already laid out. It’s no secret. If we have four preseason game, I would like for the starters to play in the first three preseason games, like we normally would do. Ramp it up a little bit each game, leading up to that third game and get them ready to go.”
Bowen’s Analysis: This meeting for Reich included input from his coordinators and the team’s strength and training staff. This will be a fluid situation, but it bears monitoring once we get clarity on how training camp and the preseason will unfold in 2020. Does limited work together this offseason mean coaching staffs will want to see their players together in the preseason more? Reich has stated before he doesn’t put a whole lot of stock in veterans playing in the preseason. Last year, the Colts starters hardly played at all in the preseason (which we tend to forget given the Andrew Luck chaos overshadowing things).