If General Manager Chris Ballard has earned a reputation for anything, it has been drafting young players who he intends to give significant opportunities early in their careers. The Colts average team age is among the bottom of the league, and would likely be at the bottom if not for having the oldest player in the league to throw off the numbers.
We’re just fine with that GOAT, just pointing out the obvious.
Each week, we’ve given fans a snapshot of how rookies have impact the previous game. We monitor snaps counts and other statistical production to get an idea of how well young players are developing and how much they’re being used. Numerous injuries have pushed young players into even bigger early season roles but if last season was an indication, this sort of thing can be a blessing in disguise.
As the season wears on, teams will undoubtedly have to manage injury-related challenges. The teams with the best or most experienced depth will have a leg up on those who are too top heavy and unable to weather the annual injury storm. While some teams were starting to wear down or wear out late in the 2018 season, the Colts were seeing young players start to reach their year-one potential and make impact plays.
Will this year be the same? Let’s take a look at rookie and a few key second-year players and how they have come along through 5 games.
Rookie wide receiver Parris Campbell had an impressive training camp showing, utilizing his speed and short-area quickness to create separation and make some nice plays in one-on-one drills. As the season started, it was expected the Campbell would compete with Deon Cain, Chester Rogers and Zach Pascal for snaps.
Campbell missed the Week 5 Chiefs game with an abdominal injury. Prior to that game he saw the field for 41% of the offensive plays and started to see a gradual increase in snaps after Week 2. He has carried the ball once for 7 yards and caught 10 passes for 93 yards and one receiving touchdown.
It’s fair to say the Campbell has yet to breakout in the regular season. He still struggles to get separation and the work he needs to do running routes shows up on film. Still, he was under-utilized at Ohio State in college and has time to learn. With the emergence of Zach Pascal as a blue collar favorite for the offense, it will be interesting to see how Campbell’s usage is impacted by the future return of Devin Funchess from injured reserve.
At this point, Campbell’s stock is flat.
Second-year running back Nyheim Hines had an impressive rookie season, primarily as a receiver out of the backfield. His usage in this area is still prominent as he is second to only T.Y. Hilton (24) with 18 receptions. Hines has been primarily used in the two minute and third down packages. He has seen the field for 28% of the offensive snaps and tallied 120 receiving yards.
Hines’ has been less impressive as a rusher, carrying the ball 13 times for only 30 yards. Given the mix of good and bad, we’ll say that his trajectory remains flat. Though his explosiveness in the open field looks like a big play waiting to happen.
Fellow second-year running back Jordan Wilkins remains an enigma. He is rarely used, as he has only seen the field for 13% of the offensive snaps, but is highly productive when he gets a chance. He has used 19 rushing opportunities to put up 125 yards of production — over 6.5 yards per carry. He has looked like lightning in a bottle between the tackles and is the kind of explosive player who could take full advantage of this offensive line.
Don’t get me wrong, Marlon Mack is having a career year and is one of the best running backs in the league through five weeks. Still, it’s a long season and Mack could benefit from a managed workload if the Colts want him to be fresh late in the season. For those keeping track, Wilkins has also caught 2 passes for 15 yards. His trajectory remains up.
Deon Cain was one of the biggest stories of the off-season. He returned from a terribly unfortunate ACL tear in his rookie season and started to turn some heads in training camp. There was a lot of hope from the fan base that Cain could break out and continue the dominant performances of his last two off-season programs, giving the Colts something they desperately needed and lacked at wide receiver in 2018.
While Cain has seen the field for 50% of the offensive snaps, he has only 4 receptions and 52 yards to show for it. In Week 4, he was targeted 5 times and didn’t have a single catch. In his last two games, he has one catch for 7 yards. At this point, his trajectory is down.
Rookie linebacker Bobby Okereke has been asked to fill in for Rookie Defensive Player of the Year Darius Leonard as he recovered from a Week 2 concussion. Well, technically he was asked to fill in at Mike for Anthony Walker, who filled in for Leonard at the Will.
In any case, Leonard’s injury has led Okereke to seeing the field considerably. In Leonard’s absence, Okereke has taken 83% of the defensive snaps. When Leonard was healthy, Okereke was only on the field 21% of the time. He has gathered 19 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 pass defensed and a fumble recovery early this season. He has gone through some early growing pains and made some mistakes but has also seemingly learned from some of them.
There is no doubt that Okereke/Walker has been a step down from Walker/Leonard but that’s not entirely surprising. The good news is that Okereke has not been a huge liability and has been able to take advantage of early season reps to gains some experience. Given the likely return of Leonard, Okereke’s trajectory is flat.
Rookie cornerback Rock Ya-Sin was entrenched early in the season in a battle with third-year corner Quincy Wilson for playing time. At this point, it’s safe to say the Ya-Sin has won that battle. He has seen the field for 78% of the defensive snaps and tallied 17 tackles and an impressive pass defensed. He has also experienced some welcome to the NFL moments. While the bag has been mixed, his trajectory is up.
Rookie safety Khari Willis has been the biggest rookie defensive difference-maker to this point in the young season. Injuries to Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers have tested the Colts’ depth at the position and Willis has answered the call. He has played every defensive snap in the last two games and is currently second on the team with 24 tackles, 1 TFL and a pass defensed.
Willis has shown incredible instincts and vision, making quick breaks at ball carriers in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage to blow up plays. There is no doubt that his trajectory is up and he has made a strong argument to take over across from Hooker as a starter when he returns.
Rookie defensive end Ben Banogu has received limited opportunities to this point in the season but that may change. Through five games, Banogu has taken 22% of the defensive snaps and tallied 5 tackles, a half sack, and 2 quarterback hurries. Now that Kemoko Turay’s promising second-season has come to an end, Banogu may get a closer look. To this point, his trajectory is flat.
Finally, rookie linebacker E.J. Speed threw the NFL crew for a loop on draft day. A small schoo prospect with incredible athleticism. Speed has shown his... range early an often in a Colts uniform. If the preseason showed anything else, it’s that Speed still has some work to do being disciplined and properly identifying plays as they unfold in front of him.
Still, it’s encouraging to see him get some early-season opportunities. He may see his role disappear when Leonard returns but gathering 5 tackles and a TFL only on 31 snaps gives some sense of how productive the young linebacker could become. Due to a lack of promise for additiona playing time, his trajectory is flat.