Indianapolis started 5 rookies in a season opener for the first time since 1982 on Sunday afternoon, which is the first time since the franchise has been in Indiana. If you followed the team at all through the eighties and early nineties, you’ll find that statistic pretty impressive.
Granted, Braden Smith was in for the first play and limited to only three other snaps in the game but the youth movement is very real for the Colts, and Chris Ballard isn’t being shy about giving the rookies PT. We will examine how much each of the rookies played on Sunday and consider how much of an impact they played in the outcome of the game.
The offensive line featured Quenton Nelson taking all 82 offensive snaps. The aforementioned Smith took four snaps and was brought in an eligible receiver in jumbo packages to get an extra lineman on the field. In his four snaps, Smith allowed a sack to Carlos Dunlap.
In his 82 offensive snaps, Nelson was called for holding on the second offensive play of the game in his “welcome to the NFL” moment against Geno Atkins. On the very next play, he was driven back into Andrew Luck’s face and gave up some pressure. Nelson went to the ground while blocking Atkins later in the game but it didn’t impact the outcome of the play. On another play, Nelson was beat by Atkins to the inside and allowed Atkins to effectively stuff a run up the middle.
Atkins finished the game with a sack that should be credited to Joe Haeg and a couple of additional quarterback hits, neither which were Nelson’s responsibility. Against what is arguably the best defensive line the Colts could play this season, Nelson held up quite well.
In the backfield, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins were on the field for a total of 83 total plays. Neither lit up the stats sheet on the ground but they received the bulk of the backfield responsibility, even with veteran Christine Michael available to carry the load. They tallied 19 carries for 59 yards, which is just slightly better than three yard per carry. They also hauled in a 10 passes for 54 yards.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Colts offense, primarily in the first half, was the multitude of different looks they threw out on the field to create mismatches and dictate the pace of the game. Hines didn’t put the ball on the ground and showed the speed that helped get him to the NFL on more than one occasion. The are reasons to believe that he will continue to be an active part of the rotation when Marlon Mack and Robert Turbin return to the field.
While it is true that the only rookie defensive starters were linebackers Darius Leonard and Skai Moore, this only tells part of the story. In fact, if you want to fully understand the emphasis Ballard is placing on getting young players experience, this is where it is on full display.
Darius Leonard played all 55 defensive snaps in his first NFL game. He gathered 9 total tackles to lead the team and a recovered a fumble. His presence on the field is underrepresented by his stat sheet. It has been a very long time since any linebacker has played in Indianapolis with this kind of range. He was impacting the game all over the field and earning his “maniac” nickname.
He was joined by former undrafted free agent, turned rookie NFL starter, Skai Moore in the MIKE role. Moore was on the field for 26 snaps and gathered 2 tackles. He split his time with second-year linebacker Anthony Walker, who participated on 23 defensive snaps and picked up 5 tackles and a hit on Andy Dalton.
What may be even more impressive is that the starting SAM linebacker was rookie seventh round pick Zaire Franklin, whose 9 snaps were more than veteran Najee Goode’s 7.
The defensive line also included a strong rookie representation with Kemoko Turay in on 22 snaps, for 40% of the load. Unfortunately for Turay, he was not credited with any sacks or hits on the quarterback. In fact, his only entry in the stat sheet is a penalty for a horse collar tackle on Giovani Bernard.
Second-year cornerbacks Kenny Moore and Nate Hairston were both on the field for 54 of 55 defensive snaps. Second-year free safety Malik Hooker was in on 73% of the team’s defensive snaps. Second-year cornerback Quincy Wilson was in on 39 and second-year defensive linemen Grover Stewart and Tarell Basham added 22 and 9 respectively.
This Colts roster is dominated by young players and Chris Ballard is wasting no time getting his players onto the field — especially on defense. This philosophy will likely include some growing pains but by mid-season fans should have a pretty good sense of where the team’s talent stands as they prepare to head down the stretch.