INDIANAPOLIS — A big portion of the Indianapolis Colts‘ offseason was spent focusing on who the starting quarterback would be, who they would add to help at receiver and who would start at left tackle.
One other focus, which became even more pertinent after Jack Doyle announced his retirement: Who would play tight end?
They answered that question when they selected Jelani Woods out of Virginia in the third round (73rd overall).
At first glance, you would think Woods is a clone of 6-foot-5 Colts tight end Mo Alie-Cox.
Tall. Moves well. Can go up and snag a ball.
Basically exactly what coach Frank Reich looks for in an offense that relies on the tight ends in the passing game.
“It’s kind of like Mo,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said about Woods. “When you’re 6-7, the quarterback can put the ball up, and he’s … able to make a play on it. This kid can run. This kid can really run, so we’re excited to get him.”
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Playmaking tight ends are imperative in the passing game in the NFL. Think Travis Kelce with the Kansas City Chiefs. George Kittle with the San Francisco 49ers. Mark Andrews with the Baltimore Ravens. And Kyle Pitts with the Atlanta Falcons.
The Colts don’t have a tight end on the roster at the level of any of those players, but they envision their group will be able to cause the type of mismatches where defensive backs are too small to defend their tight ends and linebackers are not quick enough to stay with them downfield.
“I feel good about [the tight end] room,” coach Frank Reich said. “As you know, the offense really wants to be tight end-centric in some way. A lot of playmaking goes on in the middle of the field. You get unique matchups. There’s a lot of things you can do formationally, there’s a lot of things you can do when you put multiple tight ends on the field at the same time.”
The Colts’ tight ends accounted for 64 receptions and seven touchdowns last season. Those numbers should go up with the addition of the more consistent Matt Ryan replacing Carson Wentz (traded to the Washington Commanders) at quarterback and a bigger emphasis on the play-action game.
Alie-Cox is the starting tight end for the Colts, but the pecking order is wide open after that, meaning Woods will have an opportunity to get snaps because 2021 fourth-rounder Kylen Granson doesn’t have the backup spot locked down.
Like Alie-Cox, Woods didn’t begin his football career as a tight end. The difference between the two is that Woods has always played football. Alie-Cox played basketball at VCU before switching over to football. Woods played quarterback in high school before moving to tight end after putting on a strong practice performance in that role after joining Oklahoma State.
“Bedlam rivalry week [for Oklahoma State] we play Oklahoma,” Woods said. “During that time, [Oklahoma] had Mark Andrews, so they wanted me to impersonate Mark Andrews for the week, and I ended up pretty much killing our starting defense. The next morning, they ended up calling me and asking me to switch to tight end and if I’d have any problem with it. I ended up switching that same day, and then going into bowl season, I started getting my reps in at tight end and stuff like that.”
The switch panned out because Woods ended up transferring to Virginia last season and was an All-ACC selection after totaling 598 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. His eight touchdowns were fourth among tight ends in the country in 2021.
Ballard got an up-close look at Woods last fall. He drove down to Pittsburgh to watch Virginia take on Pitt after the Colts’ game at the Buffalo Bills in late November.
“There was this 6-7 giant running around, catching balls on the field pregame,” Ballard said.
Woods’ size isn’t the only thing that caught Ballard’s eyes. It was also how well he moved down the field. There were times in college that Virginia had Woods play in the slot, where he used his speed to run seam routes down the field and his size to make tough catches.
“I felt like he looked even bigger in person. I really did,” Reich said during the team’s minicamp last month. “I mean, he’s a big man. I knew he was big on tape, but he’s a big man — really looked good. It’s all going to be, for Jelani, about consistency, about not just making the big flash play, but really developing as a blocker. That’s going to be really important.”
A key component in how much game action Woods gets will depend on his ability to block. Doyle was a do-everything tight end for the Colts. He could not only catch passes underneath, he had zero problem mixing it up in the blocking game, which is needed with NFL-leading rusher Jonathan Taylor in the backfield for the Colts.
“Mo went through this, and Mo’s gotten better at it, but any time you’re that tall, learning how to play with leverage and play with your pad level down,” Ballard said. “It’s just something that’s going to take a lot of work. He’s a big man. I think he’s got 230 pounds of lean mass on his body. He’s probably going to play at about 255-260. It’ll take him some time to learn how to really block, but he did it at Oklahoma State. So, we think he’ll be able to do it here.”