Injuries are forcing the Colts to make roster adjustments in order to put a healthy team on the field. For instance, in place of rookie linebacker Darius Leonard was rookie linebacker Zaire Franklin. In place of right tackles Joe Haeg and Denzelle Good was rookie guard/tackle Braden Smith. Even undrafted rookie George Odum had to take snaps during the game after Clayton Geathers left with an injury.
The bad news is that these changes are made out of necessity and signal that the Colts are experiencing another season with a ridiculously high injury rate. The good news is that rookies are getting the opportunity to test their mettle against starting NFL talent and coaches are getting a look at film to help them improve.
Let’s take a look at the role rookies played in Foxborough.
Two of Chris Ballard’s top three picks in the 2018 NFL Draft played every snap on the offensive line. Quenton Nelson continued his impressive rookie season and Braden Smith out-performed the expectations of his coaches at right tackle. Given what we saw of him in preseason, I’m not particularly surprised by Smith’s performance. With the announcement of Matt Slauson’s move to injured reserve, it will be interesting to see how the coaches handle Smith moving forward. One has to imagine that he will be given a long-term starting spot until or if Joe Haeg returns from the injured reserve.
Rookie running back Nyheim Hines continues to see his role in the offense increase. Despite a small stature, he doesn’t shy away from contact as a blocker but his use in the passing game will be his most important contribution. The downside of his usage is that fellow rookie Jordan Wilkins has seen an decrease in his carries. Hines dominated the backfield snaps with 67% of the load while Wilkins had 22% — Turbin had 11%.
Hines carried the ball 15 times for 45 yards, a 3 yards per carry average but hauled in 7 passes on nine targets for another 45 yards. Wilkins carried the ball 6 times for 39 yards, a 6.5 yard per carry average and hauled in 2 passes on 2 targets for 9 yards.
When Marlon Mack returns and after Robert Turbin has a week of full practice to carve out his role in the committee, it will be interesting to see which rookie back is still involved. Smart money says that Hines may see his share of the offense stay at or around the same while Wilkins struggles to see the field.
One question that has to start getting louder is when to the Colts activate rookie wide receiver Reece Fountain, or even undrafted rookie Steve Ishmael. There is no depth receiver in front of them that screams long-term solution so it wouldn’t be surprising to see one or both join the active roster at some point.
With Darius Leonard watching the game on the sidelines, Zaire Franklin was given the opportunity to play a larger role on defense. In fact, Franklin never left the field. After Anthony Walker suffered a concussion, veteran Najee Goode saw 74% of defensive snaps. Franklin finished with 11 tackles, with only one solo.
Kemoko Turay continued to be an active part of the defensive line rotation, gathering 55% of the defensive snaps. He finished the game with 1 quarterback hit. The only other rookie contribution on defense for the game was George Odum with 9 snaps. He did not tally a defensive stat.
Second-year defenders did continue play an important role on defense, however. Malik Hooker played every defensive snap and led the team with 12 tackles. Anthony Walker played in 20% of the defensive snaps and gathered 3 tackles before leaving the field with an injury. Grover Stewart spent 47% of the game at nose tackle, which is higher than Al Woods at 41%, and tallied 3 tackles for the game.
Health has been a long-standing issue for the Indianapolis Colts. The upside this year is that the first- and second-year players that Chris Ballard is hoping will form the team’s identity are getting a lot of opportunities on the field and having a chance to make an impact. The downside is that even rookies and second-year players have been affected by the injury bug and the team simply cannot afford to have more of its young talent missing games for extended periods of time.
Imagine how much better off the team would be if there were meaningful contributions from Deon Cain, Tyquan Lewis, Reece Fountain or Steve Ishmael. The latter two still have a chance and are sitting on the practice squad waiting but the first was a training camp and preseason sensation and the second was supposed to be one of the primary pass rushing puzzle pieces on defense. Lewis may return this season but losing Cain may have been a bigger blow than initially thought.