After three weeks, the Colts rookies are starting to fall into a pretty comfortable rotation. There are three primary rookie contributors on offense and two primary rookie contributors on defense. As in previous weeks, the number of impact players who are in their sophomore NFL seasons is also considerable. The second-year players who are making major contributions are exclusively on the defensive side of the football because only one offensive player remains from the 2017 NFL Draft and he has missed much of the season with an injury.
We will take a time to breakdown the contributions from each of these players and consider how the Colts youth movement continues to develop as the season moves forward.
The offensive contributions are dominated by offensive lineman Quenton Nelson and running backs Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines. Nelson has played every down in his rookie season and is an important part of the early signs of improvement along the offensive line. Until Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni can work out the kinks and start generating respectable offensive stats, Nelson may get overlooked by national media be we have paid close attention at Stampede Blue. Our research indicates that he is likely one of the top guards in the NFL as a rookie.
The backfield situation in Indianapolis will likely remain a bit of a mystery. Frank Reich likes to employ a committee approach at running back and gives the defense a lot of different looks. He has certainly accomplished that early with Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines. These rushers bring very different skills to the field.
While Wilkins seems far better suited to be the bell cow type back who is in on the majority of plays, Hines has been a pleasant surprise after a rocky start in the preseason. They combined for 11 carries, 37 yards which isn’t a compelling stat line, but they have been given a lot of early repetitions and it will certainly help them develop. It will also allow the coaching staff to get a long look at how they project for the future.
The Indianapolis Colts defense has been a pleasant surprise in 2018. They rank 16th overall in yards per game but 10th overall in yards per play. They are ranked 15th against the run. They are 6th in the NFL in sacks per passing attempt with a sack on 9.01% of passing plays and are tied for third in the league with 10 sacks through the first three games.
This is impressive when you consider that the offense has been awful to start the season and has done very little to give the unit help. The defense is current 3rd in the league in terms of time of possession, not a good thing. Despite having their back against the wall over and over again, this group has gone from a liability to worthy of league-wide respect.
One of the biggest reasons for this change is rookie linebacker Darius Leonard. He leads the NFL with 41 total tackles, is tied with Margus Hunt as the team leader in sacks with 3, he has 6 tackles for a loss, 2 passes defensed, a forced fumble to seal the win in Week 2, and a fumble recovery in Week 1. Leonard has earned his nickname Maniac and has taken the NFL by storm.
Rookie defensive end Kemoko Turay picked up his first sack of the season against the Eagles and shared in another with Jabaal Sheard. While he still has a way to go, it is encouraging to see him continue to get a heavy work load with 49% of all defensive snaps as more of a pass rushing specialist.
Rookie linebackers Zaire Franklin and Matthew Adams continue to see work, often more in a special teams role. Franklin took 13 defensive snaps to veteran Najee Goode’s 3. While Matt Eberflus rarely uses a SAM linebacker, he calls on Franklin more than any other player to fill that role.
As for second-year contributors, Malik Hooker, Kenny Moore and Nate Hairston were in for 100% of the defensive snaps in the secondary. Anthony Walker played 89% and Grover Stewart played 27% of the defensive snaps. The statistical leaders from this group were Anthony Walker with 9 tackles and an interception, Nate Hairston with 7 tackles and a pass defensed, Malik Hooker with 6 tackles and an incredibly athletic pass defensed, and Kenny Moore with 3 tackles.
It is worth noting that Anthony Walker has really taken a step forward in the starting role and has taken Skai Moore entirely out of the rotation at middle linebacker. What is somewhat concerning for the undrafted rookie is that he was only in on 5 special teams snaps in the game as well. He may still be a strong backup in the minds of Chris Ballard and his coaches but he will need to quickly develop value on special teams if he hopes to stick around for long.
CORRECTED: Writing on the road without dual monitors can get you into trouble. Some of my defensive snap counts were from the wrong game. Apologies.