INDIANAPOLIS – A simple glance at the Indianapolis Colts' roster by position group shows that none of their tight ends were selected in the first round of the draft. None were taken in the second or third round, either. The same can be said about Rounds 4-7.
The Colts have a roster full of undrafted tight ends. Don’t be alarmed, though -- the Colts definitely aren’t worried about it.
What the Colts see is a group of tight ends that are interchangeable and play with the same motivation.
“They are all great football players, meaning they are just instinctive and they’re tough and they’re great teammates,” coach Frank Reich said. “That group -- you love it when you see them celebrating each other’s successes and you know it’s genuine. Those, as you can see in describing those three gift-sets, are all different, and that’s how they complement each other.”
What’s so unique about those names (outside of football fans possibly needing to Google a few of them)?
All five were undrafted. No team in the NFL has had more than three undrafted tight ends take a snap this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Doyle, Alie-Cox and Burton are the top three tight ends on the Colts' depth chart. And all three immediately noticed that distinction of not being drafted during training camp.
“Probably one of the first meetings that we all had in person, I remember it getting brought up," Doyle said. "Yeah, the old saying 'it's a chip on your shoulder' or whatever you want to say. The thing that I love about our group is that we all do it together and we all have close relationships and we have a ton of fun out there. I think the undrafted thing is just another element to making up our room."
The 30-year-old Doyle is the elder statesman of the group. The Colts claimed him off waivers from Tennessee in September 2013, and he's made two Pro Bowls in the years since. Burton had his eye on his future teammate when he came out of Florida in 2014.
Doyle’s emergence that year showed Burton that there’s a spot on an NFL roster if he could play with that “chip on your shoulder." He couldn't be intimidated by the tight ends who were drafted.
“It’s not only when Jack came out that I was watching him,” Burton said. “I’ve spent my whole career watching him. He’s somebody that when you come into the league as an undrafted guy, you know who came in the year before and plays the same position. I’ve had a ton of respect for him.”
Added Doyle: "Trey is able to do a little bit of everything just from his athletic ability. He obviously can run great routes, but isn’t scared to get in there and mix it up in the run game and can do some good things there."
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it tough for position groups to hang out away from the facility. Doyle and Burton are both married with kids. If they were to hang out, it would be at Alie-Cox’s bachelor pad, offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni joked. It’s there where Alie-Cox probably shows more of his personality because he’s usually pretty quiet -- unless you get him going talking about basketball.
Alie-Cox wasn't supposed to be playing in the NFL. His professional path was going to be in the NBA or overseas after his four-year college basketball career at VCU. But the Colts brought the former power forward in and the coaching staff transformed him into a route-running tight end who has been able to use his above-the-rim playing style to go up and snatch passes from quarterbacks.
"Mo has just made so many great strides and has become such a better football player," Doyle said. "It’s just so fun. I love Mo. It’s so fun to see and to see him do well. He is just a big guy who can overpower and make a lot of plays and is a heck of a blocker. A lot of times you don’t see that from guys that make that transition from basketball.”
The different playing styles allow the Colts to use each of the tight ends to their strong suit. That’s imperative with Reich and quarterback Philip Rivers being big believers in using the tight ends in the passing game.
Burton replaced the departed Eric Ebron as the Colts hybrid tight end because of his receiver skill set. His transition to Indianapolis -- minus a calf injury at the start of the season -- has been a smooth one because he was with Reich when the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017. Doyle is known as “Mr. Reliable” to Reich because he blocks and he’s an “excellent route runner.” Alie-Cox’s 6-foot-5, 267-pound frame is an intimidating sight for smaller defensive backs in the middle of the field.
“I really think what we do is we utilize them,” Sirianni said. “Not to say they can’t do something. Like Jack is a Pro Bowl tight end. It’s just that one guy might do something a little better than the other guy. I think we do that with every position. Who does this the best? We want to get him in that position to do so without giving anything away to the defense.”
The tight ends in this group will never be mistaken for Kansas City’s Travis Kelce or San Francisco’s George Kittle. Like most teams, the Colts would love to have players of that caliber on their roster. But the Colts have a group of tight ends who took it personally that they never heard their name called during the three-day NFL draft and found their niche, and it is working out all right for them.
“We have something special,” Burton said. “We all knew what it took to get to this position and I think the way we got into this league is something we carry into the years we play. It’s a really cool dynamic. You can see it daily on how we handle ourselves and do things.”