INDIANAPOLIS – Labor Day weekend in the NFL always brings your share of surprises, good and bad.
The Colts fell into that group as well, with Chris Ballard and Frank Reich cutting their roster down to 53 players, heading into Sunday’s season opener in Jacksonville.
What did we learn from the roster cuts?
1. Going With The Rookie Kicker
It was surprising to many on Colts beat that the team went with rookie Rodrigo Blankenship over the incumbent Chase McLaughlin for the placekicking job.
While Blankenship had some nice moments in front of the media, McLaughlin was slightly more accurate, especially on the shorter kicks, during those open sessions, which included the two scrimmages at Lucas Oil Stadium.
But Chris Ballard is looking for a higher ceiling with this job, knowing that Blankenship probably brings a tad more distance/success from north of 50 yards.
“It was close,” Ballard said of the kicking competition. “You’re splitting hairs between two pretty good players. The first four or five days (not in full pads) before (the media) even got out there, Rod didn’t even miss. Then he kind of went through a little rough patch. Then on the second scrimmage, I thought he looked really fluid and comfortable. At the end of the day it was a tough choice, and we just decided to go with Rod. We just think that he’s got something to him. We like Chase. Chase is going to kick in the league, but at the end of the day we were splitting hairs between the two guys. We had done a lot of work in the pre-draft process with Rod. We thought we saw what we needed to see here and ended up making a choice on Rod.”
Reich added that this might have been the toughest decision of the weekend.
Instead of going safer, and with the guy who kicked pretty well for you last December, the Colts will go with rec specs and the undrafted rookie.
2. Down Best Speed Rusher
For some, the biggest Colts news to come out of the weekend is the fact that Kemoko Turay will not play in a game until at least November.
The Colts kept Turay on the physically unable to perform list, with his dislocated and fractured ankle from last October still not healthy enough for him to practice yet in 2020.
“The surgery (Turay) had was a major surgery and COVID did not help this,” Ballard said over the weekend. “Turay has done everything we’ve asked. At the end of the day, he’s not ready and we’re not going to put a guy out there that’s not ready. We’re going to shoot for six weeks from now to try to get him back. He’s still having some pain in that ankle. He’s rehabbing his butt off and working his butt off. The trainers are doing a really good job with him, but he’s just not there yet.
“I think he’ll get there and I think in six weeks we’ll be having another discussion of when to get him back. He’s not quite ready so I figured let’s just keep him on PUP. Let’s give him some more rehab time, let him continue to get the ankle where him and the doctors are good to go, then we’ll move forward.”
Even though the Colts love their defensive line depth, Turay is the most unique speed edge rusher on the team.
Options to line up opposite Justin Houston in that rush package include Al-Quadin Muhammad and Ben Banogu, or even kicking Denico Autry or Tyquan Lewis outside.
But not having Turay for the first couple months of the season means the pass rush will not be as diversified as it could be. It’s a notable loss for a group hoping to find better success in creating pressure with 4 or 5 guys.
3. Key Camps For Several Necessary Guys
Ballard and Reich met the media on Sunday and a few guys were singled out for having strong camps.
They included these names, with Ballard’s comments below:
DE-Al-Quadin Muhammad: “Who is really coming on”
DT-Tyquan Lewis: “I’m really proud of Lewis and the way he’s performed, matured and really given us a lot of flexibility inside. I’m expecting big things from him.”
S-Malik Hooker: “Has had his best camp. He’s been an absolute pro here during training camp and it’s been fun to watch.”
OT-Le’Raven Clark: “Has had a really good training camp – probably his best since I’ve been here.”
CB-Rock Ya-Sin: “Has had a great camp – competitive. Everything we thought about him, he is just ascending and I think he is just going to continue to ascend because he is so dadgum mentally tough. He doesn’t say a word, he just works.”
S-Khari Willis: “Had a great camp.”
For various reasons, all of those guys bring some level of importance to the 2020 Colts.
4. Trey Burton To Definitely Miss Multiple Games
With DT-Sheldon Day (knee) going on injured reserve (to return later in the season) and DE-Kemoko Turay (ankle) staying on PUP, the Colts rounded out their injured trio on Monday afternoon by also placing TE-Trey Burton (calf) on injured reserve.
On Sunday, Ballard said this on the debate over whether or not to put Burton the IR, knowing that such a move would cause the veteran tight end to miss at least the first three games of the season.
“We’re still working through it. I can’t say yay or nay yet,” Ballard said on Burton’s possible IR status. “We’ll know more in the next couple days. We’re just kind of monitoring – seeing where he’s at and seeing what the best course of action is here, whether it’s going to be two or three weeks.”
The Colts did claim athletic tight end Noah Togiai from the Eagles on Sunday, a player that looks to have a similar makeup to Burton. He joins Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox as the healthy tight ends on the 53-man roster.
With Burton now definitely out in games against the Jaguars, Vikings and Jets, the Colts will be without a key part of their passing offense.
5. Like What Jacob Eason Has Shown
The Colts love tempering their expectations with Jacob Eason, but even Ballard complimented the rookie QB on Sunday.
It was a not a surprise to keep Eason on the 53-man roster, given the possible long-term impact he can have for this franchise.
“Jacob has done a good job,” Ballard said. “Everything we’ve asked him to do, he’s done. He’s very talented. I think you all saw it in the scrimmage, some of the throws he made. He is very talented, but he has to grow. He is a young player and he has to learn. He has to grow and he has to earn his way. At this point, he’s doing it.”
With Chad Kelly on the practice squad, the Colts will have all 4 quarterbacks in their building to start the season.
Ballard added that the Colts will have a quarterback ‘protected’ each week, likely in regards to COVID and that entire position room.
“We feel good about where we’re at with the position,” the GM said. “We’ll do some things each week to make sure we have a quarterback protected just in case things get scary on us on the weekend.”
6. Keeping All The Linebackers
For a position that tends to play mostly 2, and sometimes 3, guys a game defensively, some raised a few eyebrows at seeing the Colts keep 7 linebackers.
But this was something that was thought to be a possibility for two reasons: 1. Special teams help and 2. The Colts love all 7 of these guys, who all were drafted by Ballard.
“Darius (Leonard) speaks for Darius,” Ballard began when running down his linebacker group. “I was looking up stats the other day and Darius is matching things statistically that only a few guys have ever done. All Anthony Walker does is go to work and produce. He’s athletic, he’s fast, he can play every spot on the defense. He’s played at a high level. Bobby Okereke is just continually putting pressure because – I think we saw what he can do when he plays. From a three-starter standpoint, I’d match them up with anybody in the league. Then we’re fortunate because we have a good backup crew with Zaire Franklin, Matt Adams, E.J. Speed and (Jordan) Glasgow. They all play a certain role, but in terms of those top three, those are three really talented producers for our defense.”
You might have 1 of these guys inactive on a Sunday, but several of them will be playing all over the special teams units.