Colts' undrafted rookies aim for preseason impact
Running backs Darren Evans and Chad Spann grew up dreaming of the day they could walk onto a pro football field, strap on a Colts helmet and play in front of their hometown fans.
They never imagined things would be this tense.
The two undrafted rookies will spend Friday night trying to make a strong enough impression on coaches that eventually they'll win one of Indianapolis' precious roster spots.
''It definitely makes it a little tougher,'' Spann said before facing the Washington Redskins. ''But this team has a history of undrafted guys making the team and actually contributing, making key plays.''
It is true. The Colts current crop of undrafted success stories begins with Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, defensive captain Gary Brackett and starting safety Melvin Bullitt, though it certainly doesn't end there. Cornerback Jacob Lacey, who is vying for the other starting job at cornerback, receiver Blair White and starting guard Kyle DeVan took the same path to the NFL in the past few seasons.
But this year is different for everyone.
The lockout cost rookies around the league valuable time to learn playbooks and defensive systems, and forced coaches to compress their evaluation periods.
Normally, undrafted players could have signed immediately after the draft, gotten their playbooks right away and the participated in the litany of offseason mini-camps that traditionally begin in late April or early May. Indy's coaches use that time to immerse rookies in the team's practice schedule and playbook lingo and begin the evaluation process.
This year, it's a whole new ballgame.
The first time Spann and Evans got their hands on a playbook was a little more than three weeks ago. Coach Jim Caldwell tried to make up for lost time with extra meetings for the rookies, who wrapped up their first training camp Thursday morning. And final cuts are now less than three weeks away.
''At the end of the day, you can still evaluate football talent and how quickly guys pick up the system and how they perform when the lights go on,'' Brackett said. ''Obviously, you've got to get the most out of your reps and opportunities and you can control the tempo with which you play.''
The Colts aren't the only team trying to adapt to a compressed schedule.
Last week, coach Mike Shanahan played Washington's starters the entire first half. This week, he pumped in crowd noise to simulate Friday night's atmosphere at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Though Shanahan has not said how long he intends to play his starters this week, he has announced quarterback John Beck will start over Rex Grossman. But picking a starter may prove easier than trimming the roster.
''I think it's tough on everybody,'' he said this week. ''That was the big question going into the lockout. You're going to miss all those OTA days of evaluations, so I think everybody's under the gun. You have to make your decisions quicker. I think the big question mark a lot of people had was, are they going to increase the squad size? Instead of 53, are they going to go up two or three? Obviously, that stayed the same, so a lot of decisions are going to have to be made in the next few weeks.''
For a player like Spann, or other undrafted rookies, the new rules present another complication.
Spann was Indy's primary kickoff returner in last week's loss at St. Louis. With kickoffs moving to the 35-yard line instead of the 30, more touchbacks are expected this season and could prompt the Colts to avoid saving a roster spot for a kickoff return specialist, as they have usually done, and use a second player for returning punts. That could reduce the odds of making a team.
''I feel like things are going pretty good, but it is a little trying to put in this offense and applying it to the defense,'' said Colts rookie Jake Kirkpatrick, who won last year's Rimington Award. ''But we're doing what we can.''
It's not just the Indy guys fans will be watching Friday night.
Redskins quarterback Ben Chappell, a native of Bloomington, Ind., who played his college ball with the nearby Hoosiers, will be back in his home state fighting for the job behind Grossman or Beck. Shanahan has not said how long Chappell will play, though he did say he will try to play some of the guys who didn't make it onto the field last week -- like Chappell.
Caldwell will use a different strategy.
With Peyton Manning still recovering from offseason neck surgery, Curtis Painter is expected to play more than the two series he got last week. The starters likely will play at least a quarter, too. Then he'll give guys like Spann and Evans a chance to show they belong on the team.
''The only thing you can control is going out and performing the best you can and playing as fast as you can for as long as you can,'' said Evans, Indiana's Mr. Football in 2006. ''You've just got to put yourself in the right position when you get a chance.''