Joe O. (London, England): “Which of the rookies have you been most impressed with so far this season?”
Walker: Since we are about a quarter of the way through the season, I think it’s fair to say we’re at a point where you can begin to see certain trends and playing styles from the rookies that have had significant playing time. On offense, Parris Campbell has played 66 total snaps so far (or 33 percent, the 14th-most on the unit). What’s interesting, however, is that Campbell played more snaps lined up out wide (17) than in the slot (13) last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, which could be an indication of his role with T.Y. Hilton either limited or out this Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. I’ve also said this before — it seems like we’re at the point of when, not if, Campbell takes a kickoff back for a touchdown. On defense, Rock Ya-Sin has the 10th-most snaps at 117 (about 64 percent), followed by Bobby Okereke (80 defensive snaps; 44 percent), Khari Willis (72 snaps; 40 percent), Ben Banogu (53 snaps; 29 percent) and E.J. Speed (three snaps; one percent). With Darius Leonard out for a second straight game Sunday against Oakland, I’m interested to see how Okereke responds to another starting opportunity at the MIKE linebacker position; to me, I saw him really start to settle in as last week’s game against the Falcons wore on, so he could benefit from a strong start against the Raiders. But, to me, the most impressive rookie so far has been Willis, which is why I’m eagerly awaiting his chance to start at free safety with Malik Hooker out the next few weeks with a knee injury. Willis has been really impressive out in open space diagnosing plays and making tackles, but he’s also done well with a few opportunities playing in coverage. One has to imagine Raiders quarterback Derek Carr will try to test Willis deep early to see if he’s up to the task, and there’s no indication so far that he won’t be able to step up and continue to make plays.
Christopher W. (Glen Allen, Va.): “Are the Colts slowing turning from a reputation of a passing team to now a top 5 rush attack? ”
Walker: I don’t know why they can’t be considered both. Yes, head coach Frank Reich issued the challenge to his offense at the start of the offseason program that he wanted a top-five rushing attack in 2019, but, to me, if you’re running the ball at a high rate in today’s NFL, that generally means you’re protecting a lead. So the Colts will do whatever they think is necessary — run, pass, or a mixture of both — to get a lead, and then you use the run game to help drain the clock from there. But I think it’s clear there will be games in which opposing defenses simply aren’t defending the run well, and Reich will exploit that time and time again; I look at the Oakland and Buffalo games last year, as well as the L.A. Chargers game this year, as prime examples of this. But, generally, the number show you can still pass the ball 58 percent of the time and be one of the better rushing teams in the league. We’ll see how this plays out.
Tim H. (Lafayette, Ind.): “Andrew thanks for the mailbag. Fun way to ask and receive information about our Colts. Watching this season to date our defense and special teams are struggling. Hopefully Vinetari has figured out kicking. Why don’t we sign another kicker? Defense it seems our defense is holding on to help with wins but just barely. What is our defense Line, LB, or CB/S strength and weakness. it seems the line needs help? Go Colts beat Raiders.”
Walker: Hey Tim, so are you suggesting the Colts keep two kickers on their 53-man roster? Because with the current setup, I don’t personally see that being a possibility. In rare instances some teams have kept two kickers because one will usually handle kickoff duties and be more of the big leg when attempting longer field goals, while the other kicker handles the short to intermediate field goal distances. But the Colts already have one of the better kickoff specialists in the league in Rigoberto Sanchez, and Adam Vinatieri’s issues to open the season simply weren’t related to distance. He just needed to find his right “swing,” to to speak, and it seemed like he got into a groove last Sunday against the Falcons, so the hope is that he’ll keep the momentum going. And as far as the defense goes, I’m not sure most people realize just how solid of a player Jabaal Sheard is up front. Once he is able to return — he’s questionable heading into Sunday’s game against the Raiders — I think he should make a huge difference, especially against the run.
Jim W. (Woodbury, Conn.): “Any concern on the long snapper, more for exp. & FG?”
Walker: From my perspective there are no concerns, Jim. The Colts in June proved this by signing Luke Rhodes to a contract extension that reportedly made him one of the higher-paid long snappers in the league for a reason. The guy has worked extremely hard at his craft as a snapper, he has a tremendous rapport with Rigoberto Sanchez and Adam Vinatieri, and then he brings that mindset as a former linebacker to Indy’s coverage units.
Brad D. (Frankton, Ind.): “Is our early season LB play a legit concern for this team moving forward?”
Walker: I don’t think it’s fair at this point of the season to try to pinpoint one position or another as a “legit concern” for the Colts’ defense. I think you can look at overall trends — third downs, timely pass rush, stopping the run, rookie development, etc. — and evaluate what went right and what went wrong from game to game, but it’s still too early to try to make declarations about sweeping changes or anything along those lines. I think at linebacker, specifically, you’re seeing a lot of moving parts at the moment, and the team is relying on youth (as expected). So that, in turn, can lead to some teachable moments from time to time, but I think you’re also seeing adjustments being made that should pay off in the long run.
Richard G. (Nashville, Ind.): “What are we doing on special teams to improve on our special teams return game?”
Walker: The Colts currently rank seventh in the NFL in both punt return (9.4 average) and kickoff return (22.6 average), so they’re certainly not struggling in those areas. But their coverage units rank 24th in punt average (9.0) and 28th in kickoff average (28.5) allowed through three games. These are areas in which Indy excelled last season, as their coverage units ranked first in punt return average allowed (4.4) and ninth in kickoff return average allowed (22.0), so I’m more inclined to believe these current averages will improve over time, especially as the younger players continue to evolve in their roles on special teams. The Colts also dodged a bullet for Sunday’s game against the Raiders, as explosive return man Dwayne Harris has been ruled out with an ankle injury, so it’s up to Indy to make sure Jalen Richard doesn’t hurt them in Harris’ place.
Pamela K. (Indianapolis): “What’s the number of touchdown passes for Peyton Manning”
Walker: What am I, Google? I can help, though. What are we looking for? Career touchdown passes? 539. Touchdown passes with the Colts? 399. Anything else?
Alonzo Q. (Houston): “The WR’S Corp banned up so are gonna try to get parris campbell some deeper route with the hands and speed He has?”
Walker: With T.Y. Hilton being doubtful for Sunday’s game against the Raiders, I’ve got to imagine Parris Campbell’s role will increase significantly if Hilton can’t go. As previously mentioned, while Campbell was brought in to primarily play from the slot — and his snaps the first two weeks would indicate that’s been the case — he logged more outside snaps (17) than in the slot (13) last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, a game in which Hilton played only the first two quarters. So I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Jacoby Brissett unloaded on a couple bombs to Campbell on Sunday against the Raiders.
David H. (Bremen, Ind.): “With all the salary cap money lined up for next year, would the Colts make a move to bring in an Pro Bowl caliber offensive lineman, if the opportunity presents itself? I know they don’t become available very often, but with how Ballard values offensive line play I think he would in a heartbeat if he could. Also how important is building up an offensive line vs bringing in talent. It seems like it is a much more close knit group compared to other positions. Thanks.”
Walker: I think when evaluating the future of the Colts’ offensive line, one should look at the contract situation for each position. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is currently in a contract year. Center Ryan Kelly has one year remaining on his contract after the Colts picked up his fifth-year option this offseason. Other than that, Indy’s offensive line is pretty locked in for the foreseeable future: left guard Quenton Nelson has his rookie deal through at least 2021, and a fifth-year option would extend that through the 2022 season; right guard Mark Glowinski this offseason signed a reported three-year extension that should keep him under contract through 2021; and right tackle Braden Smith and his rookie deal also keeps him under contract through 2021. So I think if you’re Chris Ballard and his personnel staff, at this point you’re evaluating the possibility of extending Castonzo and/or Kelly, and then of course you’ll always keep an eye on who might become available in the free agent market down the road. But building through the draft, especially up front, will always be a priority, so that’s why it’s important to keep an eye on the development of rookies like Jackson Barton (who is on the Colts’ practice squad) and Javon Patterson (who is on injured reserve), as well as the prospects the team could be targeting next year with its nine picks in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Eduardo C. (San Juan, Puerto Rico): “HI ANDREW, REALLY ENJOYED OUR VICTORY THIS LAST SUNDAY!!! OUR PASSING GAME REALLY LOOKED SPECTACULAR WITH JACOBY. MY QUESTION IS, DO YOU THINK WE WILL BE A MORE BALANCED GOING FORWARD.?? I WANT TO BE A TOP 5 RUSHING TEAM, BUT ALSO WANT TO SEE T Y, EBRON , DOYLE, CAMPBELL, CAIN, RODGERS, PASCAL, MO AND THE BACKS FLOURISH IN OUR PASSING GAME. ALSO SEE JACOBY , BECOME A TOP TIER TD MACHINE AS WELL. KEEP UP YOUR EXCELLENT WORK AND ANSWERS COMING, AND AGAIN, GO COLTS!!!”
Walker: The Colts last year passed on 61.6 percent of their offensive plays — which was the ninth-most in the NFL — and this year through three games are passing on 51.9 percent of their offensive plays, ranking 28th. Like so many other categories, I expect this number to move closer to “normal” as the season wears on. But saying that, I believe Frank Reich when he says he wants to commit more to the run game this season, so if that plan comes to fruition, my guess is the Colts will be passing more in the 58-percent range of their offensive plays by season’s end. Again, so much of this is predicated game-by-game on so many factors; if the Colts have lots of second-half leads, for example, they’re naturally going to run the ball more (and vice versa if they’re trailing in the second half).
Ed B. (Ballston Lake, N.Y.): “Hi Andrew glad to have you back. Wondering if due to the injury tp Malik Hooker might GM Chris Ballard might workout Eric Berry as the the two have a prior history at KC? Thanks”
Walker: Hey Ed, thanks for reading. I know there’s a past connection there between Chris Ballard and Eric Berry from their time together in Kansas City, but there are a number of other factors at play here. What’s the player’s outlook from a health perspective? Berry was able to play in just three games last year — two late in the regular season and one in the postseason — as he dealt with a heel injury (he also missed all but one game in 2017 with a torn Achilles). Does he now have a clean bill of health? Also, what kind of role would a guy like Berry be willing to play for the Colts’ defense? Malik Hooker is expected to miss the next few weeks with his knee injury, but he is expected to eventually return. At that point, would a guy like Berry — a five-time Pro Bowl and three-time All-Pro selection — be willing to accept a potentially smaller role? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and I don’t have any knowledge about the Colts’ potential interest in Berry, but oftentimes these situations are much more complicated than they appear at first glance.
@laxfootballguy on Twitter: “Who do you think will step up with Hooker out? Do you think Willis will or do you think they will have faith in Odum to handle the work load?_”
Walker: It seems as if Khari Willis is the next man up at safety with Malik Hooker out the next few weeks. While George Odum or Rolan Milligan could see some added defensive snaps, the Colts are extremely confident in what the rookie Willis brings to the table. We wrote about this very topic earlier in the week.
@pdhtbone on Twitter: “I love how much TY wants to be on the field for the team! Much respect for his toughness, but should we take a week to make sure he is healthy?_”
Walker: T.Y. Hilton is certainly extremely tough, and he proved that once again down the stretch last season when he played through high and low sprains to the same ankle to be there for his team as it made its improbable run to the postseason. But I don’t think this is about toughness; it’s about the team trusting Hilton to provide realistic feedback as it pertains to his injuries. If there’s a risk of a setback, or if Hilton feels he simply can’t be productive on gameday, then he won’t play — period. Frank Reich and his staff is big on trust, and a guy llke Hilton has more than earned his fair share of it.