Typically, when an NFL franchise gets veteran players back from long injury absences, rookie contributors start to take a back seat. Inexperienced players are often eased into heavier workloads as they get acclimated to life in the NFL.
This hasn’t been the case for the Indianapolis Colts.
The youth movement and promise to build “home grown” players has been more than lip service from General Manager Chris Ballard. He has put his money where his mouth is in the second year of a franchise rebuild and the results have certainly varied.
As you might expect, young players tend to make more mistakes and are susceptible to the wily ways of established veterans. They can also run hot and cold and tend to be more inconsistent.
The Colts haven’t been able to escape these trends but they have been able to get a lot of early mileage out of young players. The dividends may not fully show in 2018 but there is reason to believe that, armed with the largest budget in the league in 2019 and numerous high draft picks, Ballard will look to take an aggressive step forward as the team forms its identity. Young players will clearly be a big part of that identity.
Let’s take a look at each side of the ball for what stood out the most.
Rookie offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith were a part of the most dominant blocking effort Colts fans have seen in a long time. Andrew Luck was not sacked for a second consecutive week and Indianapolis was able to generate over 200 rushing yards. Both rookies played every snap and should feel proud about the effort they put forward against a Bill defense that ranked third overall coming into the weekend.
After second-year running back Marlon Mack returned against the Jets, it seemed clear that a new balance would be struck. Jordan Wilkins didn’t even see the field in the Meadowlands as Robert Turbin got his first meaningful game action after serving a four game suspension.
This week, with no Turbin, Mack took the field for 56% of the offensive plays. He used those opportunities to generate 126 rushing yards on 19 carries and a rushing touchdown, to go along with 2 receptions on 3 targets for 33 yards and a receiving touchdown. This is the second consecutive game where Mack was clearly the most talented player in the backfield. It is reasonable to expect that he will be featured heavily in the game plan going forward, unless the Colts are playing from behind and want to use Nyheim Hines in the passing game.
Rookie Nyheim Hines saw the field on 26% of the offensive snaps, compared to 23% for Jordan Wilkins. Hines rushed for 47 yards on 5 carries and added 1 reception for a 5 yard loss. Wilkins carried the ball 6 times for 46 yards and caught 1 pass for 8 yards.
The best news of all is that every runner had success. This gives Reich a lot of options moving forward.
It becomes almost boring to write about how outstanding rookie linebacker Darius Leonard has been this season. Against the Bills, Leonard played in 93% of the defensive snaps and only managed 17 tackles, including 12 solo, and a fumble recovery. Through seven weeks he leads the league in tackles and has 12 more tackles than the player behind him. I should mention, he didn’t play against the New England Patriots in Week 5.
He is averaging more than 13 tackles per game. Crazy.
Rookie defensive end Kemoko Turay continued to increase his activity on defense. He played 71% of the defensive snaps and collected 3 tackles, a strip sack recovered by the Colts and two quarterback hits. He was buzzing all around Derek Anderson throughout the game and continues to show signs of development. While his tackle total is low, he also is showing growth defending against the run.
The other rookie contributor primary rookie contributor was linebacker Matthew Adams who was very efficient in his 12 snaps. He gathered 2 tackles and a quarterback hit in his largest defensive snap count of the season. Other rookie contributors were Zaire Franklin, who played in 8 defensive snaps, and George Odum who took the field for 4. Neither collected a defensive stat.
As for the sophomore class, this group continues to play a major defensive role. Kenny Moore led all defenders by playing on 98% of the defensive plays. He finished with 7 tackles, an interception, and two passes defensed. His second-year counterparts Quincy Wilson and Nate Hairston were on the field for 70% and 48% of the defensive snaps, respectively. Wilson recovered a fumble and Hairston collected one tackle. Safety Malik Hooker participated in 88% of the defensive plays and also added a tackle.
Linebacker Anthony Walker had another strong game. He played in 77% of the defensive plays and generated 5 tackles, including a tackle for a loss. Grover Stewart rotated on the defensive line for 30% of the snaps but did not register a tackle.
In a blowout win, these stats tend to suggest that Derek Anderson spent much of his day throwing to the middle of the field or running the football. It is odd for such a large part of the defense to have a small statistical footprint.
The impact of rookies and sophomore players continues to grow this season. Even as the team gets healthy, there are signs of development and reasons to believe that the needle is pointing up for quite a few young players. It will be interesting to see if any of these players trail off as the NFL season wears on.