It is hard to watch this Indianapolis Colts team and not come away excited about the future. SB Nation has put together the FanPulse feature this season and and confidence levels have remained high, despite a four game losing streak and a 1-5 record. It is clear that the fan base believes the needle is pointing up for a young team that is playing in its first year under a new coaching staff, and in only the second season under a new general manager.
The key word has to be “young.” There are major contributions coming from first- and second-year players who are clearly going to make up the backbone of the franchise’s short- and long-term future.
Two starters on the team’s offensive line, a line that has tied a franchise record for consecutive games without allowing a sack (5 games), are only 22 years old. The oldest running back on the roster is rookie Jordan Wilkins, who is 24. He is joined by Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines who are both only 22 years old. Starting linebackers Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker are only 23. Three of the team’s top corner backs are 22, 23, and 24 years old — Quincy Wilson, Kenny Moore and Nate Hairston, respectively.
There are clear indications that the offense is starting to put things together and if the defense can manage to continue generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks, there is time to go on a run for a potential playoff berth — if not an AFC South championship. This year was always supposed to be a rebuilding year, with the hope that there would be signs of moving in the right direction. At this point, the team is starting to look further along than fans anticipated.
Armed with what will likely be 9 or 10 picks in the 2019 NFL Draft and over $120 million in projected cap space, Chris Ballard could have all of the leverage he needs to do something very special in the coming off-season. If what he does comes anywhere close to what he has done with a full slate of draft picks in 2018, and some key free agents, the AFC will be on notice.
Let’s take a look at how first- and second-year players impacted a blowout divisional win at home against the Tennessee Titans.
How about this offensive line? A unit that has been heavily criticized, and entirely unable to put the pieces back together since Tarik Glenn retired in 2007, has been asserting itself as one of the top units in the NFL. After veteran free agent Matt Slauson was placed on injured reserve, waiver wire addition Mark Glowinski has stepped in and had a positive impact. For those who were wondering, Glowinski is 26 years old and in his fourth NFL season.
Starting center Ryan Kelly is 25 years old and is in his third NFL season. Kelly’s backup, snagged off of the Los Angeles Rams practice squad, Evan Boehm is in his third NFL season and is also 25 years old. Do-it-all offensive lineman Joe Haeg is 25 years old and in his third NFL season. He is expected back from the injured reserve list in a couple of weeks.
As for the rookies, both Quenton Nelson (22) and Braden Smith (22) played every offensive snap against the Titans. They were a part of an effort that allowed no sacks and no quarterback hits for the afternoon. They blocked for a ground game that generated over 100 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Rookie running back Nyheim Hines played on 26% of the offensive snaps and carried the ball 5 times for 14 yards, good for only 2.8 yards per carry. He has struggled more in the last five quarters than he has since an awful preseason performance. He had only 1 catch on 3 targets for 20 yards, dropped a swing pass that hit him in the hands, and lost a fumble that luckily found its way out of bounds. He will need to clean this up if he wants to play a bigger role in the offense moving forward.
Fellow rookie ball carrier Jordan Wilkins was only in for 18% of the offensive plays but was highly active when he saw the field. He carried the ball 4 times for 30 yards, good for 7.5 yards per carry and added a touchdown. Wilkins has been very efficient in a change of pace role and has broken big runs in consecutive games — including his 18-yard carry on Sunday.
Second year rusher Marlon Mack saw the bulk of the offensive workload, taking the field on 61% of the offensive plays. He carried the ball 16 times for 61 yards, a 3.8 yards per carry clip. He added a rushing touchdown and 1 catch on 2 targets for 8 yards.
It’s easy to forget that Mo Alie-Cox is in only his second NFL season. He continues to receive considerable playing time with Erik Swoope recovering from injury. He saw the field on 42% of the offensive plays and was targeted once, an overthrow by Luck that would have looked very similar to his beautiful one-handed grab against the Raiders earlier in the season.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the game was that undrafted rookie safety George Odum was one of only two players to play in 100% of the defensive snaps (veteran corner Pierre Desir was the other). Odum gathered 6 tackles and one tackle for a loss. He was also the unfortunate victim of an officiating crew who flagged him for unnecessary roughness at the end of the first half — allowing Tennessee’s lone first half score ASTERISK.
Rookie Defensive Player of the Year candidate Darius Leonard continues to play like a maniac. He played on 81% of the defensive snaps and produced 7 tackles, a sack, a quarterback hit, an interception, a pass defensed, and a forced fumble. He has been the most consistently impactful defensive player I have seen on a Colts defense since Bob Sanders — who won Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts in 2007.
In 2007, Sanders had 96 tackles, 6 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, 2 interceptions, 6 passes defensed, and one fumble recovery in 15 games.
This year, Leonard has 104 tackles, 8 tackles for a loss, 5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, 1 interception, 3 passes defensed, 4 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries in 9 games.
Let that sink in awhile.
Fellow second round rookie Tyquan Lewis played in only his second NFL game this weekend and saw the field on 79% of the defensive snaps. A knee injury to Margus Hunt certainly impacted his playing time. He gathered 3 tackles and his first tackle for a loss. It’s still very new for Lewis, but early signs are encouraging.
Other fellow second round rookie Kemoko Turay was called upon for 65% of the defensive snaps and gathered 1 tackle, a sack and 2 quarterback hits. He has been able to increase the pressure on a per game basis since the start of the season.
Rookie linebackers Skai Moore and Matthew Adams also saw the field. Adams played on defense for 29% of the snaps, while Moore rotated in at middle linebacker on 27% and gathered 2 tackles.
Second-year corner Kenny Moore was saw the field on 97% of the defensive snaps and tallied 10 tackles, including a half sack and one tackle for a loss. It was his second dominant performance in a row after he collected 6 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss, 3 passes defensed, and the game-sealing forced fumble against the Jaguars a week ago.
Fellow sophomore Quincy Wilson received considerable playing time and an opportunity to start. He finished with 3 tackles and an interception, playing in 73% of the defensive snaps. He will need to build on this game to earn more time when the secondary gets healthy.
Second-year linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. played on 67% of the defensive snaps and gathered 4 tackles and a tackle for a loss. He was joined on 22% of the defensive plays by Grover Stewart who did not register a defensive stat.
Corner Nate Hairston and safety Malik Hooker missed the game due to injury.