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Colts Mailbag: AFC South Outlook, Running Backs And More Ahead Of 2021 Season Opener

With the Colts' 2021 preseason wrapped up and preparation for Week 1 starting in earnest on Labor Day, fans had a number of questions about the state of the team with the Seattle Seahawks nearing on the horizon. 

Jonathan Taylor Mailbag readers can submit their questions to have a chance of them being answered in our Mailbag series.

Missed out on the party this week? Not a problem — you can submit your question(s) for next time by clicking here, or by taking part in the Forums and the Colts' Reddit. You can also send your questions to @JJStankevitz on Twitter.

Let's get after this week's questions:

Justin Bradford, Marion, Ind.: Do you think the Colts will be #1 in the AFC South?

JJ Stankevitz: Let's start here, since this is probably the biggest over-arching question about the 2021 Colts. This team is not satisfied with merely making the playoffs; the Colts want to host their first home playoff game since 2014. And that means emerging from the AFC South as division champions.

"As a team, you always want to win a Super Bowl," cornerback Kenny Moore II said at the start of training camp. "In order for us to do that, step one is winning the division."

The Colts will kick off AFC South play with an early test on the road against the Tennessee Titans in Week 3. From there, the Colts play the Houston Texans at home (Week 6), the Titans at home (Week 8), the Jaguars at home (Week 10), the Texans on the road (Week 13) and the Jaguars on the road (Week 18).

Anything can happen and the Colts don't view any team as an easy win - every opponent is a challenge. But The Athletic's Mike Sando polled five NFL front office executives to rank the AFC teams from No. 1 to No. 16, and the South shook out like this:

  1. Colts (average vote: 5.8)
  2. Titans (average vote: 6.2)
  3. Jaguars (average vote: 12.4)
  4. Texans (average vote: 15.8)

So looking at that, expect another tight division race between the Colts and Titans, which could be determined by one game, one half, one quarter, one drive, one play - anything. But the Colts know how close they were to a division title last year, which would've meant a home game instead of a trip to Buffalo to face the red-hot Bills. And winning the AFC South is going to be a big goal for this game in 2021.

Riley Wheatley, Sydney, Australia: Do you think Carson Wentz missing most of training practice will hurt the Colts offence going into Week 1?

JJ Stankevitz: First of all, shout-out to our readers in Australia, where it indeed is spelled "offence" and not "offense" (unsure if the Coriolis Effect has anything to do with it).

It's been a start-and-stop preseason for Wentz, who participated in two practices before a bone fragment dislodged in his foot in late July, requiring a procedure on Aug. 2. Wentz then participated in the final three training camp practices at Grand Park before landing on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, which sidelined him until Thursday's final preseason practice at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. So that's only six practices before the Colts get going on prep for the Seattle Seahawks next week.

But a few things here. One, Wentz put in a ton of work with his teammates before training camp - he threw with teammates in California, Indiana and Texas since being traded to the Colts from the Philadelphia Eagles and spent plenty of time away from the field with them, too. There's clearly a level of trust and leadership Wentz has cultivated with his new team over the last half-year.

And too, Wentz has a strong relationship with Reich dating to their days in Philadelphia, so it's not like he's coming into this thing needing to learn how to communicate and work with his head coach and playcaller. That's important.

"Because you've worked together you physically know what he can do, what he's best at. You mentally know what makes him tick," Reich told me before training camp. "And as a coach, when it comes to the fundamentals and techniques, you know what the one or two spots are, the danger spots. When he gets in a rut, this is it — he starts to do this and we need to correct this. You know what drills, you know how to get those things corrected, you know what's worked."

The question facing Wentz and the Colts next week will be if he's cleared to fully participate in Wednesday's practice.

"I think it's generally safe to say that if we come in here and Carson is taking most of the reps on Wednesday, the intention is that he's going to play," Reich said Thursday.

Mario Tomasello, Honolulu, Hawaii: The Colts just got a new LT. Will he start immediately? The thought of Aaron Donald lined up one on one with (Julién) Davenport is scary.

JJ Stankevitz: Fear not, Mario. The Colts don't play the Rams until Week 2 and Aaron Donald mostly rushes from the interior, where Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly and Mark Glowinski reside.

We don't know when Eric Fisher will make his Colts debut, though. He was on the Physically Unable to Perform list in training camp until he was moved to the Reserve/COVID-19 list. General manager Chris Ballard said the Colts will decide whether to place Fisher on the active roster or injured reserve when he is able to come off the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

But Reich did say last weekend Fisher was "tracking" in his progress rehabbing an Achilles' injury suffered in the AFC Championship last January with the Kansas City Chiefs. So again, we'll see.

Also, Julién Davenport came on strong during training camp and the preseason at left tackle. The Colts like where the former Texans and Dolphins tackle is at entering the season and feel they can rely on him if he needs to start while Fisher works his way back.

"Getting to talk to him I really like his mentality and confidence about himself," Nelson said. "A little bit more on the quiet side but getting to know him, the guy can play."

Landen Suman, St. George, Utah: How do you expect the reps to be spread out between the four running backs? Will (Jordan) Wilkins be inactive a lot?

JJ Stankevitz: How the Colts divide up touches for Jonathan Taylor, Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins has been a question I've got a lot over the last few months. Let me double back to my pre-camp chat with Reich, who said this when I asked him about it:

"I think going into this season this year, it'll be a little bit more, hey, Jonathan will be a little bit more of the bell cow," Reich said. "But we're still going to spread it around. Nyheim's gotta touch the football. Jordan is incredible — I'm a big Jordan Wilkins fan. Jordan is incredibly talented. We're going to continue to spread it around but I think Jonathan has established himself as the guy, hey, he's our main running back and then we'll complement him with Nyheim and the other guys."

As for inactives, we'll see how that shakes out on gameday. But Wilkins, in addition to being a running back Reich likes a lot, is a key special teams contributor - he played 138, 189 and 130 snaps on special teams in 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Jordan Kennerknecht, Roanoke, Va.: How much playing time do you think Keke (Coutee) will have this year since the Colts wide receiver room is deep?

JJ Stankevitz: The Colts added Coutee to their practice squad this week after he was released by the Houston Texans during final cuts. 

If that surprised you because you've mostly watched Coutee against the Colts, well, you wouldn't be wrong. 

  • Coutee vs. Colts (4 games): 36 targets, 27 receptions, 328 yards
  • Coutee vs. everyone else (19 games): 81 targets, 56 receptions, 613 yards

So on a per-game basis, Coutee is averaging nine targets, about seven receptions and 82 yards against the Colts; against everyone else, he's averaging about four targets, three catches and 32 yards. 

Coutee, of course, won't play the Colts (except in practice) as long as he's a member of the practice squad here. And you're right, Jordan, the Colts do have a deep receiver room even with T.Y. Hilton and Dezmon Patmon on injured reserve - Michael Pittman Jr., Zach Pascal, Parris Campbell, Mike Strachan and Ashton Dulin will all need to step up, but after watching that group in training camp, there's no reason to think they won't. 

Still, with the ability to elevate two players from the practice squad to the active roster on gamedays, maybe there's a chance we see Coutee making plays for the Colts instead of against the Colts this fall.

Realz Tuia, Mesa, Ariz.: _Julian Blackmon, how good is this kid? Fresh off an ACL tear and makes an impact as a rookie. _

JJ Stankevitz: He's really good. It was incredible how Blackmon stepped in and played as well as he did last year given the circumstances. 

Blackmon felt like he faded toward the end of 2020, though, after such a grueling climb to get back on the field. 

"My legs were just so heavy at the end of the year," Blackmon said. "I feel like going through the ACL (injury) and having to rehab and then getting into everything – by November, December I was kind of regressing. This year I'm excited because I got to be able to have spring, got to train in the offseason (and) get my legs right. It's really going to be a good year."

Also, Blackmon and Khari Willis are going into their second year as the Colts' safety pairing. And after building a strong foundation last year, they feel like they can be even better in 2021. 

"Just knowing what to do, trusting each other, having a relationship outside of football," Willis said. "Just having chemistry, having confidence in one another to do each other's jobs and just knowing him. I know him, he knows me, he knows how I like to play, I know how he likes to play and just kind of feed off each other that way. That's why it was successful last year, but I feel like this year we have way bigger steps to take."

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