WESTFIELD — The highlight of Reece Fountain’s big week came at the end of last Thursday’s practice.
On third down from the 10-yard line, the second-team offense was attempting to close out its two-minute drill with a touchdown. Fountain sprinted down the sideline and beat cornerback Jalen Collins to the goal line.
Then the 6-foot-2 wide receiver made his first glance back at the quarterback. Phillip Walker's throw came in high and hard. Fountain leapt effortlessly and pulled down the catch for the score.
That’s the kind of big-play making the Indianapolis Colts are looking for at Grand Park Sports Complex. But it’s only one piece of a large evaluation process.
No position has been as competitive as wide receiver through the first two weeks of training camp, and the battles won’t even really heat up until preseason play begins Thursday at the Buffalo Bills.
“As a whole, they’ve all done a really good job, from even really OTAs until now,” wide receivers coach Kevin Patullo said of his young group. “They’re growing tremendously. All the guys are.
“So, at this point, I put ’em in different positions, move ’em around, see what they know, stress them out as much as we can and then just kind of lead into the preseason game. Most of those guys are going to play a lot of that first and second game. That’s kind of really the evaluation part that I’m looking forward to watching.”
The roster mechanics at wide receiver are complicated and will bear close inspection throughout the preseason. First, there’s the question of whether the team will keep five or six players at the position. From there, it’s a matter of matching players with complementary skill sets and making sure the offense has all the roles filled to be as versatile as possible.
Then there’s the special teams component.
Big plays like Fountain’s touchdown bring the fans to their feet and energize his teammates. But it’s the quieter moments on the kickoff coverage team or the punt team that often make the difference in being part of the 53-man regular-season roster and spending the fall on the practice squad.
“It really is big,” Patullo said. “You look at a lot of the guys around the league, depending on how many you keep, they gotta be core guys of some sort. If they’re not a returner, they gotta be on the punt team, on the kickoff team. They gotta be on the kick return team somewhere in the front line.
“So it’s pretty important for most of those guys to all be tuned into special teams. And the good thing is in all these preseason games, they will all play special teams. So they’ll be evaluated pretty well with that.”
Fountain is a 2018 fifth-round pick out of Northern Iowa who spent most of last season on the practice squad. He’s competing against a wide-range of experience and skill sets for one of the final roster spots.
Steve Ishmael, an undrafted 6-2 receiver from Syracuse, mirrored Fountain’s practice squad experience a year ago but actually got the call up to the active roster first. Krishawn Hogan, a 6-3 receiver from Marian, is in his third year with Indianapolis and is showing he’s regained the burst and explosion that eluded him last year as he recovered from a major knee injury.
Chester Rogers is the most experienced player in the group, having carved out a role as a punt returner and slot receiver in three seasons as an undrafted free agent out of Grambling State. In 41 career regular-season games, the 6-foot target has 95 receptions for 1,042 yards and three touchdowns.
Zach Pascal, a 6-2 receiver claimed off waivers from the Tennessee Titans in June 2018, impressed general manager Chris Ballard with his work ethic and versatility a year ago. A crisp route runner and reliable special-teams hand, he earned four starts and had 27 catches for 268 yards and two touchdowns.
And then there’s Deon Cain and Marcus Johnson — a pair of highly regarded receivers returning from season-ending injuries.
Johnson has a history with head coach Frank Reich from their days together with the Philadelphia Eagles and is a 6-1 target with superior route-running ability.
Cain is the most talked about wide receiver in camp who has never taken a regular-season snap. A 6-2 burner out of Clemson, he was a training camp sensation in 2018 before tearing up his knee during the preseason opener at the Seattle Seahawks.
His return is perhaps the most anticipated on the roster.
“It’s gonna show this year,” safety Malik Hooker said. “Deon Cain is gonna be a household name in the NFL this year. A lot of people are gonna be surprised.”
Those seven players are fighting for a maximum of three spots, highlighting the intensity of the competition.
It’s been evident every day in practice.
Cornerback is another hotly contested position with a wealth of young talent, and the matchups between the defensive backs and wideouts have produced many of camp’s most compelling reps.
“The competition is very high, from all positions,” four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton said. “They’re very high. Guys are competing. Offense pushing the defense, defense pushing the offense. Special teams guys are competing. That’s what you need, and this team is special.”