The end of NFL preseason is near, so go ahead, exhale.
While the Colts’ exhibition finale at Cincinnati Thursday night is considered meaningless in the standings, players on the bubble can’t think that way. Nor will the coaches who study the film and make final arguments for whom stays and for whom goes when the roster is cut to 53 by 4 p.m. Saturday.
So while it might seem a stretch, here are five reasons to watch the Colts and Bengals at 7 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium.
1. While the company line is that a players’ fate is determined by the body of work, from training camp through this game, this is it for guys looking to make a lasting impression. Only the coaches know how many roster spots are up for grabs, but it’s probably fair to say a promising player can secure a job with a solid game. This game is all about filling the roster, so pay close attention to who plays, how much, and when. Guys used extensively in the second half are probably long shots, although you just never know.
2. Chandler Harnish. While the roster classifies the Hoosier hopeful from Bluffton, Ind., as a first-year quarterback, this will be his third preseason finale. He’s spent much of two seasons on the practice squad. He knows the drill. It’s his best chance to play extensively and make a case for a job, perhaps not with the Colts because backup Matt Hasselbeck seems safe, but maybe with another team looking at quarterback depth. Harnish could also end up back on the practice squad, presuming he clears waivers. Don’t feel too badly for him. The practice-squad gig pays $6,300 per week, $107,100 for a 17-week regular season.
3. Dan “Boom” Herron. The Colts need a third running back and have narrowed that job down to three options, Herron, Zurlon Tipton and David Fluellen. Boom played his college ball at Ohio State and was on the Bengals’ sideline for this game a year ago. He’s the Colts’ leading rusher in preseason with 104 yards on 18 carries, and has caught 10 passes for 53 yards and one TD. This time of year, when so many bodies are used, that qualifies as a workhorse. Another solid game secures a job.
4. Each year, an undrafted unknown or two emerges as a surprise. Defensive tackle Zach Kerr, a rookie out of Delaware, has been outstanding. He’s listed as a backup behind Arthur Jones on the team’s unofficial depth chart. Kerr is tied for third with 10 tackles, and has shown he can do more than just stop the run with a sack and a quarterback hurry. Perhaps the Colts have made up their minds about him already, in a positive way, but one more solid effort reinforces he’s a keeper.
5. The Colts still have to settle on depth at safety. In the absence of the injured Delano Howell (neck), veteran Mike Adams has started. But who backs up Adams and LaRon Landry? Sergio Brown, Colt Anderson and Dewey McDonald are the guys listed as backups on the depth chart. Because of Howell’s situation — he’s seen neck specialists and continues to be evaluated but hasn’t practiced in three weeks — expect the Colts to keep four safeties who are playing. That means there’s an odd man out among the three aforementioned guys. Brown is arguably the team’s best special-teams player and the Colts re-signed him in the offseason, so it’s doubtful he’s going anywhere. So it likely comes down to either Anderson or McDonald. Both should play much of this game.
Others to watch: Who plays center, since Khaled Holmes (ankle) and backup Jonotthan Harrison (thumb) are injured? Expect to see a lot of Thomas Austin and FN Lutz; LB Henoc Muamba was signed from the Canadian Football League, where the Colts discovered ILB Jerrell Freeman in 2012. While Muamba isn’t Freeman just yet, he has a team-high 15 tackles; LB depth might be the toughest roster decisions to make. Those in the ILB or OLB mix with Muamba are Josh McNary, Cam Johnson, Kelvin Sheppard, sixth-round pick Andrew Jackson and special-teams standout Andy Studebaker; CB Louchez Purifoy has shown ability, on defense and as a returner. He’s probably going to make the squad — he would have been drafted were it not for off-field issues at Florida — and this could be his most extensive playing time yet.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.