By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
Justice Cunningham enjoyed a solid three-day rookie mini-camp with the Indianapolis Colts this weekend. So perhaps it’s fitting the reigning “Mr. Irrelevant,” as the final player selected in last month’s NFL draft, got the last word on Sunday.
Cunningham, who made a name for himself primarily as a blocker at South Carolina, lasted until the 254th overall pick in part because many teams had questions about his ability to contribute in the passing game.
Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said on draft night he believed Cunningham possessed an innate ability to get open and a nose for the end zone that would serve him well as a receiver. Despite a couple of scattered drops, Cunningham spent much of the weekend proving Grigson’s tape study correct.
As Indianapolis lined up for its final play Sunday afternoon, head coach Chuck Pagano decided to work on his “Detroit scenario.” The Colts completed an unlikely come-from-behind victory against the Lions in Detroit last season when then-rookie quarterback Andrew Luck threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Donnie Avery as time expired.
Using that scenario as a template, Pagano told the offense — led by tryout quarterback Tanner Marsh of Arkansas Tech — that it had four seconds remaining and one play to score a game-winning touchdown.
As Marsh dropped back, Cunningham popped open in the middle of the end zone. The quarterback lofted a perfect pass into Cunningham’s hands, and the tight end held on to set off an impromptu celebration.
All of the offensive players in camp rushed toward the end zone to jump with and high-five Cunningham.
“The highlight of the camp, a big pass play for a touchdown,” Pagano said. “It was our Detroit scenario. We try and do all of these mock-win situations. So four seconds on the clock, fourth down and you’ve got to have a touchdown to get a walk-off home run, if you will. So a pretty good way to end the camp.”
Pagano was asked if a bargain had been struck with the players, similar to Pat McAfee’s successful field goal attempt that ended training camp last summer at Anderson University.
“It wasn’t like an Anderson deal,” he said with a laugh. “We were done. We had enough work in. So that was it.”
LONG SHOT CASHES IN: Kansas State cornerback Allen Chapman participated in the rookie camp as a tryout prospect without a contract. But the former Wildcat was the only one of 13 tryout players to earn a spot on the 90-man offseason roster and potentially an invitation to training camp.
Chapman, who nearly intercepted a pass Sunday before it bounced off his sternum, replaces fellow Kansas State alum Nigel Malone on the roster.
Chapman got the most tangible award, but Pagano said he was happy with what he saw from all of the rookies.
“It was a great weekend,” he said. “The guys did an unbelievable job. What we are trying to find out is what these guys can digest from a mental standpoint. Physically, they pushed through it, but with only having 37 guys and 36 of them going, there isn’t much rotation in there. We took care of them as best we could, but they pushed through and they did a nice job. We are pleased with what they accomplished.”
Sixth-round pick John Boyett, a safety from Oregon who still is recovering from torn patella tendons in each knee, was held out of practices this weekend.
THORNTON ON ‘RIGHT’ PATH: Offensive guard Hugh Thornton worked exclusively at right guard throughout the three-day camp.
The Colts signed veteran Donald Thomas away from the New England Patriots ostensibly be the starter on the left side, and Thornton likely will compete with incumbent Mike McGlynn to start on the right. Veterans Joe Reitz, Jeff Linkenbach and the recovering Ben Ijalana also could be in the mix.
Thornton, picked in the third round last month, played every position but center at Illinois. He said he thinks of himself as a guard first, but he won’t limit his opportunities.
“I’m just an offensive lineman that loves to play the game,” he said. “Wherever they want to use me at, I’m excited.”
Despite Thornton’s versatility, Pagano said he believes it’s important to leave young players in one spot and allow them to learn and grow.
“I know he’s played a bunch of spots and can play outside (at tackle), but we are going to let him settle in there (at right guard) and get comfortable, learn everything and then go from there,” Pagano said. “He had a good camp, did a nice job.”
WERNER READY TO GO: First-round pick Bjoern Werner looked comfortable in his new role as an outside linebacker.
The former Florida State star primarily played defensive end in college, but he consistently has said he doesn’t have an issue standing up as a linebacker and dropping into coverage.
Though the padless practices of rookie mini-camp might not be the best barometer, Werner managed to make a good first impression.
“Usually, it takes players probably a whole offseason to get their feet underneath them,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “For him, he looks good the first day I saw him out of a two-point stance. He’s been working, I know, down in south Florida. He’s been working on it a lot. Usually, the hardest thing is once they standup, they don’t shoot their hands, but he seems like he’s doing a pretty good job of it right now. It’s a pretty good situation right now.”