With opener looming, COVID-19 once again ripples through Colts; Wentz, Kelly, Pascal out for now

INDIANAPOLIS– The Indianapolis Colts continue to be hit hard by COVID-19 issues, and the latest blow threatens the availability of three major players for the start of the season.

Quarterback Carson Wentz, Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly and wide receiver Zach Pascal have been placed on the NFL’s COVID-19 list.

The proximity of the Sept. 12 opener against the Seattle Seahawks is the overriding issue, along with the reason each player was added to the COVID-19 list.

Suddenly, the Colts are looking at the possibility of Jacob Eason, not Wentz, starting against the Seahawks. It’s also possible the only other available quarterback would be Brett Hundley. Rookie Sam Ehlinger is expected to miss a month with a sprained knee.

NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported Wentz, Kelly and Pascal are close contacts with a staff member who tested positive. Under that scenario, each could return in five days – that would be Thursday – if they remain negative and asymptomatic. Under NFL protocol, only an unvaccinated player can be a close-contact case.

That was the case with All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson. He was placed on the COVID-19 list last Thursday as an unvaccinated close contact, but removed from the list Monday and returned to practice.

Left tackle Eric Fisher also was placed on the COVID-19 list last Thursday following a positive test. He must miss at least 10 days, which will impede his rehab from a torn Achilles.

Even if Wentz, Kelly and Pascal go through the league protocol and are cleared as soon as Thursday, it’s hardly ideal. After Thursday’s practice, players have the next three days off.

And then there’s Wentz, who’s still in rehab mode following Aug. 2 foot surgery and was expected to rejoin full team practice Monday. That was the next step in his process: determining if his left foot will hold up to a total practice, and on consecutive days. He practiced on an extended but limited basis during the final three days of training camp at Grand Park Sports Campus.

“We’ve got to see how he responds to going one day in team,’’ Frank Reich said. “This will be a big week to determine where those two guys (Wentz and Nelson) are.’’

Now the best-case scenario is Wentz – along with Kelly and Pascal – returns to the active roster Thursday and gets a full week of practice leading up to the Seattle opener. However, that means just three full days of work since next Monday is a very light on-field session for players.

Monday’s news is the latest COVID-19 shockwave to ripple through the Colts’ organization.

The current tally: nine players and four staff members impacted by COVID-19 by either positive tests or as close contacts since the start of training camp.

Reich missed the first week of camp after being a “breakthrough’’ positive test. Another member of the staff also received a positive test.

As camp began, cornerback Xavier Rhodes, defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, cornerback T.J. Carrie  and offensive tackle Julién Davenport were placed on the COVID-19 list.

Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus missed the first two preseason game because of a positive test, then Fisher and Nelson were added to the COVID-19 list last week.

And the regular season has yet to arrive.

The Colts remain one of the NFL’s least vaccinated teams. Reich recently estimated 75% of the roster had been vaccinated. Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, said last week 93% of the players had been vaccinated.

Reich, general manager Chris Ballard and owner Jim Irsay repeatedly have preached the importance of the players – everyone – to be vaccinated.

Irsay was especially strident in July.

“We’re doing everything we can… to try to get everyone vaccinated,’’ he said. “It’s professional football. We’re here to win. I know what it means to get into a position to possibly win and have something go sideways on you, like an injury and (COVID-19) is somewhat similar to that.

“It’s always hard to win in the National Football League and it’s really hard to win big. It’s just because of reasons like this. You have to make choices and you have to decide. Am I in this to win a championship and what price am I willing to pay? That’s what it really comes down to.

“Someone pays a higher price, they’re going to take it from you. I go into it saying, ‘I’m going to do anything I can to help us win football games within the rules. That’s just the kind of competitor I am. I’m very competitive and I want guys that are competitive. I want guys that are willing to pay the price for victory and step up. Again, this falls into that category.’’