This one’s for the other guys.
When the Colts close out their preseason schedule Thursday night in Cincinnati, we’ll see only a smattering of play from the starters. Their primary work was done Sunday against Cleveland. They may play a series or two against the Bengals, with the rest of the game in the hands of players fighting for their professional lives.
Three such players in particular have done their best to capture the attention of the coaching staff. The Colts’ leading rusher in the preseason, Kerwynn Williams, is a seventh-round pick. Their leading tackler, safety Delano Howell, is an undrafted rookie free agent. And of course their sack leader is outside linebacker Caesar Rayford, a 27-year-old refugee of the Arena Football League.
Don’t tell them the game in Cincinnati is meaningless.
“We’re still evaluating a bunch of guys,” said Coach Chuck Pagano. “Everybody understands and knows that following this last preseason game, 31 other teams including ourselves have to get down to a 53-man roster so there’s still a lot at stake for a lot of guys from an evaluation standpoint.”
>> RAYFORD: THE SACK MAN
Rayford has been the defensive star of the preseason with five sacks and two forced fumbles. A sixth sack was wiped out by an unrelated penalty against a teammate in Sunday’s 27-6 victory over the Browns.
At 6-7 and carrying (at least) his listed 267 pounds, Rayford has demonstrated remarkable athleticism and tenacity in attacking opposing quarterbacks. But he’s behind stalwart Robert Mathis and first-round pick Bjoern Werner at the rush linebacker spot.
“It’s fun to see a guy like Caesar come in from where he came from and do well,” Pagano said. “To me, it all goes back to preparation. The kid’s here non-stop and he’s constantly asking questions, asking the right questions. He practices his tail off. … He’s a football junkie. He’s one of the first guys in and one of the last guys to leave the building. And so he’s able to play fast. He knows exactly what to do come game day.
“His measurables and God-given ability, those things that you can’t coach, it’s unbelievable the size and length that he has. He’s got a knack for edge rush, beating a guy, getting the tackle’s shoulders turned and then he’s got that move down pat now. I’m a firm believer in it. Again, it’s going to be interesting post-Cincinnati game to see how this thing shakes out.”
Rayford has put on more than 30 pounds since finishing his college career at Washington in 2007, which has helped transform him from an Arena League star into a legitimate NFL prospect. Though he had two sacks in each of the last two games, he knows he’s fighting an uphill battle.
“My mindset is it doesn’t matter what I did last game, I’m going to go out and compete like nothing happened, make the best of every play, every opportunity I get,” he said. “What I did last game doesn’t matter this game. It’s all about Cincinnati and got to go out there and compete because those guys ain’t worrying about what I did last game. It’s what I do now.”>> WILLIAMS: THE FLASH
A prolific multi-purpose threat at Utah State, Williams rushed for 1,512 yards and a 6.9 per-carry average as a senior, adding 45 receptions for 697 more yards and a grand total of 21 touchdowns. But at 5-8, he’s undersized for an NFL running back.
He hasn’t let that hold him back.
Williams has 77 yards on 23 carries in the preseason, most on the team, and his 27-yard burst against Cleveland was the Colts’ longest running play. He also opened that game with a 39-yard kickoff return, demonstrating in those two instances the kind of flash he can bring to a game.
“I would like to think that Kerwynn, he’s one of the guys that has been somewhat opportunistic as far as getting an opportunity to make a play and then of course making the play,” said offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. “He’s been able to create his own yards. Even in our scrimmages over the course of training camp, he shows a knack for making a guy miss in the hole and getting more out of plays that in most cases you would think were starting to break down. He’s done well for himself.”
He’s behind Ahmad Bradshaw, Donald Brown and Vick Ballard at running back, but last week’s trade sending Delone Carter to Baltimore may have opened the door. Should the Colts keep four at the position, as they did at the conclusion of last season, Williams could stick.
“Definitely it would be a great accomplishment,” Williams said. “It would be a dream come true to make the 53-man roster and be a part of an organization like the Colts. I’m definitely excited for the opportunity and if the opportunity does present itself, then I’ll be ecstatic, I’ll be beyond words.”
HOWELL: THE OPPORTUNIST
When the Colts opened the preseason against Buffalo, they had a rash of injuries at safety that essentially left them with no choice but to play Howell. He was the last man standing at the position.
Not only did he play all 90 snaps on defense and 17 more on special teams, Howell played exceptionally well. Though his playing time has decreased in the two games since because other safeties have returned, Howell remains the team’s leading tackler with 14, adding one pass defensed.
“He’s in excellent shape. Marathon man,” Pagano said of Howell after the Buffalo game. “There’s a guy, we talk about opportunity, there’s a guy that took full advantage of an opportunity. Got a couple guys down, guy gets a chance, goes in and played a tremendous amount of snaps and played extremely well. … Overall, he made a statement. He was one of those guys we talked about becoming necessary. “
One of the many Stanford products with the Colts (along with Hamilton, Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener and Griff Whalen), Howell began his college career as a running back before switching to safety. He also was a long-jumper for the Cardinal track team, so he has the requisite athleticism.
“The ultimate goal is to prove to your teammates and the coaches and everything your ability to contribute,” he said. “I just plan on taking full advantage of this game and doing everything I can to prove to them what I can do. …
“This is the one we’ve been looking forward to for the young guys, for guys that are trying to prove something, trying to claim a spot. This is the game we’ve been looking forward to. There’s going to be a lot of opportunity, a lot of snaps and everything. I know all of us, all the young guys and everything, people that are fighting to earn a spot, they’re all going to be taking advantage of it.”