INDIANAPOLIS – “It’s going to be a very interesting year, without question.”
No better quote sums up the year 2020.
Those words from Chris Ballard was more in reference to the 2020 football year, as his Colts roster has reported for the start of training camp.
For now, Ballard has not heard from any Colts players opting out for the 2020 season—a year defined by the word ‘fluid’ and needing the ultimate team/league effort if it’s going to go off as currently scheduled.
Head athletic trainer Dave Hammer has added the title of ‘infectious control officer’ with the Colts looking to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 by having an infectious response team, screening stations, social distancing throughout the team complex, 1-way traffic hallways, dividers in between lockers and contact tracing chips, which will beep if people are within 6-feet of each other. Player meals are no longer served buffet style. They are ordered through an app, and placed in bags for guys to eat.
Welcome to the NFL in 2020.
Ballard noted the four biggest keys, COVID related, for the Colts this season: testing, contact tracing, social distancing and sanitizing/wearing a mask.
What were the other main highlights from Ballard on Wednesday?
-On the most intriguing positions or position battles to Ballard: Ballard talked about the uber talented linebacker group, the DeForest Buckner-led defensive line and the kicker battle.
Bowen’s Analysis: The Colts GM believes his linebacker trio of Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker and Bobby Okereke ‘compares to anybody in the league.’ That’s high praise for the young bunch. Ballard also pointed to the depth at linebacker—-the ‘upside’ of E.J. Speed and rookie Jordan Glasgow competing for a spot on special teams. Along the defensive line, Ballard pointed out his own massive emphasis in that spot and the need to be ‘great’ there. He is bullish on the domino effect Buckner can have across that group. Lastly, Ballard mentioned the kicking competition. He mentioned the names Chase McLaughlin and Rodrigo Blankenship competing against each other (and not Adam Vinatieri, who remains a free agent). Ballard stressed the importance of putting those young kickers into some pressure moments during camp practices, without the live game preseason reps for either of them this year.
-On ramping up the live periods in practice without preseason games: “We’ve always had some pretty lively sessions anyways, but we will probably have 2 or 3 occasions where we will get after it. We’ve got to play and get our team ready for the season, so you are going to see some more physical practices in spurts just so we can get ourselves ready to go, and to evaluate.”
Bowen’s Analysis: The loss of an entire preseason schedule totally eliminates the closest things teams get to evaluating guys in real settings. Frank Reich said the Colts will have 2 practices at Lucas Oil Stadium this camp (with or without fans remains to be seen) that will be more of the ramped up physical sessions. A ‘healthy tension’ is how the Colts head coach described trying to keep guys away from soft tissue injuries, yet still properly preparing the team for the September 13th opener. Ballard said the Colts will be creating some ‘competitive situations’ in training camp to try and make up for no game action in August. Ballard did mention that he was very pleased with the shape that the rookie class showed up in last week.
-On if any Colts have opted out of the 2020 season: “None at this point. I have not had any discussions about it. We had a big meeting last night where we went through everything that we are doing, what the risks are and what we are doing to mitigate the risk, but at this point, none.”
Bowen’s Analysis: The Colts are really trying to drive home the point to players of ‘listen, gather information and take your time’ before making a decision on the 2020 season. Players have until August 4th (at least) before a decision is needed. For now, the Colts are going to work with the 90-man roster allotment, knowing it must be cut down to 80 by August 16th. Ballard said that decision might change in the next week or so as the team works through the first part of camp. Teams are currently not allowed to bring in perspective free agents for workouts right now. If you have a free agent visit, the team must do it with the ‘intent to sign them,’ according to Ballard.
-On stressing to players the need to ‘behave’ away from the team facility: “It’s a really good question and it’s one at the forefront of our building. There’s going to be sacrifices that are going to have to be made by all of us…It’s like the ultimate test of discipline right now.”
Bowen’s Analysis: Both Ballard and Frank Reich are adamant that the Colts will have an advantage over other teams in the necessary maturity required to go through such a season. This revolves around the character trait that is so important to Ballard in the roster building process. Ballard and Reich have told visitors that might come during the season that such visits will have to be put on-hold this year. As Ballard rightly said, the ‘peer pressure’ within the locker room should influence the actions of guys. If a player makes a mistake off the field, he’s putting the entire team at risk and that move is ‘selfish.’ From a leader of the team standpoint, Ballard likes the temperament Reich brings to such an unusual situation. Reich’s ‘no panic, no excuse’ approach to life and coaching will be important for the Colts to lean on.
-On the 2021 salary cap situation now having a clearer picture: “We needed some clarity on where we are going. Now we have a little bit more clarity and we are currently working on a plan of how we want to move forward.”
Bowen’s Analysis: Ballard noted that the Colts will have ‘some lines in the water’ in the extension game, now that they have a much better idea of what the salary cap ramifications will be moving forward. When I heard this answer, it was hard not to directly think about Ryan Kelly, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and someone the Colts had contract extension talks with back during the spring. More so than guys like T.Y. Hilton or Marlon Mack, Kelly seems to be in the best shape to get an extension before the start of the regular season, if the Colts do want to give him Jack Doyle and Kenny Moore type treatment.
-On what Ballard has learned about Philip Rivers: “Easy, he loves football. Wants to win. Tremendous internal drive to be a great teammate, to win, to be the best he can be. He has had to buy into some things that we do here nutritionally and workout wise that he’s never had to experience before. It’s different for him, but he’s bought into it. His love for the game and football, and his teammates, they are going to feel it even more now that he’s here in the building.”
Bowen’s Analysis: Along with rookies, quarterbacks have been in Indy, and are through the testing process, allowing them to be in the team complex. Unlike Frank Reich, this is Ballard’s first time getting to feel Rivers’ presence on much more of an in-person basis. Ballard wanted some more tension within his locker room. That was something he felt the Colts didn’t have enough of last year. We can debate Rivers as an elite level quarterback nowadays, but he would seem to check the box in providing a high standard of work ethic and self-drive. That’s obviously key in a season unlike any other.