The San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts square off Saturday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium, and it might help to know what the Colts are up to! We are most concerned about the 49ers roster during the preseason, but there is a whole other roster of players on the field, so we might as well learn a little about them, right?
I chatted with Stampede Blue writer Chris Blystone this week, offering him some thoughts on 49ers players to watch today, and where the team is headed this year. He responded in kind to my questions about his Colts. I asked him about position competitions, reserves to watch, and fan expectations with the return of Andrew Luck. Thanks to Chris for taking the time!
What’s the biggest offensive position competition to watch on Saturday?
Given the youth across the roster as a whole there are a lot more positions up for grabs than in years past, however on offense none is more uncertain than the wide receivers. The Colts have T.Y. Hilton as the obvious number one, but beyond that nothing is really set.
Chester Rogers and Ryan Grant are the guys slotted in next on the depth chart, but Grant has been completely unremarkable throughout camp and hasn’t shown any real chemistry with Luck. Rogers is almost certain to get a spot in the top three, but still needs to show he can consistently get separation and work on his route running if he wants to play a role on the team going forward.
Losing rookie Deon Cain really hurt, as he was challenging for the third wide receiver spot and making highlight reel plays throughout camp. His loss opens up the opportunity for Kasen Williams, K.J. Brent, Zach Pascal, and Steve Ishmael, who have all impressed at various times this offseason. The problem is that nearly all of these guys have struggled with minor injuries.
How this race shakes out is hard to predict. Beyond Hilton and Rogers I think there is very little certainty, and it is definitely possible that the Colts will be watching waivers closely for receiver talent.
What’s the biggest defensive position competition to watch?
The defensive line is definitely the area where competition is the hottest. It is the area of the defense with the most talent, and from top to bottom there is not a huge drop off. While there aren’t any absolutely dominant pass rushers or run stoppers, this is a group of guys who all have talent and play their roles well. Jabaal Sheard is probably the only guaranteed starter at the right end position.
With rookie defensive end Kemoko Turay coming back from a knee injury and making his debut, it will be an interesting watch. John Simon has made the transition to defensive end and stood out both preseason games so far, so Turay probably has to light it up to beat him out for the starting job.
On the interior, Al Woods has been a consistent force paired with Denico Autry. However, Hassan Ridgeway has had a monster preseason, notching 4 sacks from the interior. If he can repeat that kind of performance, it will be hard to keep him out of the starting lineup.
When you add in guys like Ryan Delaire who looked great last week, and Margus Hunt who has had a pretty good preseason as well, this is a group that remains unsettled but has a lot of potential.
Who are the offensive reserves to watch?
Rookie running back Jordan Wilkins immediately comes to mind. He has not been getting reps with the first team, but that seems unlikely to continue if he keeps producing. I’ve broken down his film from both of the first two preseason games, and the theme for him seems to be that he gets hit in the backfield and still finds a way to get 5+ yards on the carry.
Wilkins drew some comparisons to Le’Veon Bell in terms of his patient style of running in the lead up to the draft, and he is certainly a patient runner. While the worry for many when he was drafted was that behind the Colts offensive line, this could be a killer, he has proven to have great contact balance, vision, and his patience is typically paired with good instincts that lead him to daylight. The early thought is that this kid could end up the Colts starting running back by the midpoint of the season. Not bad for a 5th round pick.
Who are the defensive reserves to watch?
I’ve mentioned one already, but Hassan Ridgeway is a guy to keep an eye on. He has looked like a mismatch against backups so far in the preseason. So much so, that I am not sure whether he’ll get first team reps or stick with the second team.
Rookie linebackers Zaire Franklin and Matthew Adams have both looked solid so far in the preseason. Franklin in particular has stood out and leads the team in tackles with 12. The linebacker group as a whole is very young and unproven, but have been making exciting plays and are a greatly improved group as far as overall athleticism.
How good they will be is up in the air, but these two rookies have impressed in the time they’ve been on the field, and as both are 7th round picks, the Colts have to be happy to get solid depth out of these guys and the hope that defensive coordinator and linebacker guru Matt Eberflus can develop them into solid rotational players or eventual starters.
What are fan expectations for 2018, particularly given all the questions surrounding Andrew Luck?
The expectations are modest for this team. We have seen Andrew Luck turn a team around in a hurry, and know that he can do it again if he is in top form. However, there are a lot of questions on this offense. Wide receiver, running back, and offensive line positions remain unknowns. The preseason hasn’t been totally indicative of what the offense will look like, because Frank Reich is not showing his hand much as far as play calling goes, but that is to be expected.
The offensive line hasn’t played with starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo yet in the preseason. His hamstring injury has held him out and he won’t likely play until week one of the regular season. The impact of his absence has been hard to watch, and it highlights how close the line is to complete disarray.
With such a young defense running a new scheme, the offense will need to score a lot of points. The defense will be a boom or bust affair in my opinion. They will give up big plays and also create turnovers, but that will mean the offense has to be very good to get a lot of wins. As the season progresses, I think the defense will continue to improve as the young players learn and grow. The Colts also have a relatively easy schedule with all but one of their divisional games coming in the back half of the season. That will be to their advantage with such a raw roster.
While there is a lot of talk about the improved AFC South, I think that the Jaguars and Titans come back to the pack a bit this season with both the Colts and Texans seeing improvement and healthy contributors returning. To me, this team seems like a 7-10 win team that could sneak into the playoffs if a few things go their way. However, they are still at least a year away from being a true competitor.