As the Colts season slogs to an end and we begin looking back over it to sift through the wreckage for any kind of small victories to take away, it makes sense to take a look at how this rookie class has done and who might be the most surprising of the Colts’ rookies this season.
With the purge of the roster performed by Chris Ballard to start the 2017 season, perhaps no team in the NFL put more pressure on its young talent to play well. This was intentional, and while frustrating to us as fans, will have a big impact on this team’s capabilities going forward. They relied heavily on their rookies in several positions.
The special teams unit saw big changes with the loss of Pat McAfee and the addition of undrafted free agent rookie Rigoberto Sanchez. Sanchez has played above anything that could have been expected of him. Pro Football Focus made him their choice for their midseason all-rookie team as punter, grading him the 5th highest punter in the NFL.
On offense, Marlon Mack has played the role of change of pace back to Frank Gore, a role that was increased with the loss or Robert Turbin. While he was widely viewed as a high upside back with explosive big-play ability, his underutilization and struggle in pass protection have limited his production. On the offensive line, Deyshawn Bond took snaps at center while Kelly was out injured before a quad injury ended his season.
The area where the Colts put the most pressure was on their defense. Malik Hooker established himself early in the season as the team’s best option at free safety. Even after going down in week 7 with a torn ACL, Hooker is still tied for first in the league for interceptions among rookies, having snatched 3. This of course was no surprise, as Hooker was drawing comparisons to Ed Reed during the lead up to the draft.
Kenny Moore spent time at special teams before stepping into a more significant role at cornerback due to injuries. Quincy Wilson took up the starting spot early in the season in Vontae Davis’ absence, then disappeared into witness protection or something. That is a story for another time. But the most surprising contribution given where he was selected and the difficulty of the position has been Nate Hairston.
Hairston has been a consistent contributor all season as a slot corner and it is almost criminal that he doesn’t get more credit for what he has done. Until his junior year at Temple, Hairston was a receiver. Let that sink in just a bit. This kid had two years of experience playing cornerback before jumping into the role as the Colts’ starting nickel corner.
At 6’0” 196lbs, Hairston has proven a willing tackler, a valuable player on the blitz, and an asset in coverage. So far this season Hairston has netted 28 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 passes defended, and an interception. Before this past Sunday, he had not given up a touchdown all season. As a point of comparison, Chris Harris of the Broncos, who is regarded as one of the top slot corners in the league, has 35 tackles, no sacks, 2 interceptions, and 6 defended passes.
Given Hairston’s relative inexperience and the learning curve that comes with playing cornerback at the NFL level, it is fair to be very excited about what the Colts have found in him and what he could be for this defense in the future.