With the off-season officially in its quiet stage, it’s time to look ahead and evaluate players our group of writers is most excited about. The Colts are an exciting, young football team, so there are plenty of candidates to choose from.
Elliot Denton-Singh - Kemoko Turay
Turay started his rookie year as many expected when he was drafted in the second round, managing to have a strong early impact. His rookie season was slowed by injury and resulted in only 4 sacks. His sophomore season was limited to only 4 games due to a nasty ankle injury, but it too was off to a promising start. Unfortunately, the injury robbed him of most of the 2020 season as well, as he was limited to only 7 games and never looked like he did pre-injury.
Turay was expected to be the speedy, edge bending, pass-rushing threat the team needs and Chris Ballard covets so much.
This year, Turay will only be asked to play a complementary role for the pass rush. The Colts have DeForest Buckner in the middle, along with Kwity Paye, Tyquan Lewis, Al-Quadin Muhammad, and Ben Banogu on the edges. Turay will be more of a situational pass rusher who has another NFL season under his belt. He should be even more familiar with the defensive scheme and has spent the offseason with Robert Mathis working on a go-to pass-rushing move. It all Turay seems to be set up well for an exciting year.
Andrew Thomison - Bobby Okereke
Okereke is expected to slide into the MIKE linebacker role this season. The third-year linebacker has been very productive during his first two seasons, racking up a total of 137 combined tackles and an interception. Okereke’s athleticism and ability to play sideline-to-sideline are what have me most excited about watching him in 2021.
The numbers may not have been eye-popping last season, but Okereke certainly had his moments last year — like the diving interception against Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns, which helped get Indy back into that game. Pairing him with All-Pro Darius Leonard could very well give Indy one of the better linebacking corps in the entire league. There’s no question that Okereke has the size, speed, and overall capability to take the next step, and I think he’s going to become a star for the Colts’ defense this season.
Evan Sidery - Michael Pittman Jr.
As we saw on Wildcard Weekend in Buffalo, Michael Pittman Jr.’s late-season ascent was very real. The Bills had All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White shadowing Pittman throughout the game, and the rookie got the best of him on a few occasions.
With a quarterback who will give him more chances on 50/50 deep balls, who also has an affinity for bigger-bodied wideouts, the Carson Wentz / Michael Pittman Jr. connection has the chance to be a key cog in the Colts’ offensive engine for 2021 and beyond.
I predict this will be the year where Pittman takes the baton from T.Y. Hilton as the Colts’ new WR1. Pittman can run the full route tree, and, as mentioned, Wentz will play right into his biggest strengths.
An underrated element that will help MPJ further blossom in Year 2 is the Colts’ expected return to a heavy reliance on RPO concepts. Head coach Frank Reich utilized it often with Wentz and Andrew Luck from 2017-2018. However, after Luck’s retirement, this portion of the playbook disappeared with Jacoby Brissett and Philip Rivers under center for Indy over the last two seasons. Expect to see Pittman reel in plenty of quick slants via Wentz on top of the more aggressive shots down the field.
Here’s a bold prediction: Pittman Jr. will receive 100+ targets from Wentz. Playing the Alshon Jeffery role in the Eagles’ 2017 offense with Reich calling the plays, MPJ is being set up to feast on a weekly basis during the 2021 campaign.
Mateo Caliz - Khari Willis
I expect Willis to make a giant leap this season and emerge as one of the leaders for this young defense. Willis has been one of the team’s most reliable tacklers, with just a 6.8% missed tackle percentage and an excellent weapon against the running game, racking up 19 stops. Willis also made his fair share of plays in the passing game, racking up 2 interceptions and 6 pass deflections this past season.
If Blackmon continues his emergence, then he and Willis will have the chance to form a top 5 defensive backfield in the NFL, and one that could anchor this Colts’ defense for years to come.
I expect Willis to take yet another big step in his development and become not only a key piece of this Colts’ defense but also earn some recognition as a top safety in the entire NFL.
Brett Mock - Julian Blackmon
Just about everything about Julian Blackmon’s rookie season was unexpected. Few thought he would be able to make an impact until well into the season. When Malik Hooker suffered an early injury, it would have been entirely understandable for the fan base to fear an incredible drop-off in expected production. Instead, Blackmon took advantage of his early opportunity to move into a starting role.
Even in his first game, Blackmon flashed the kind of speed, range, and tenacity the Colts had hoped Hooker would develop after a brief and impressive collegiate career at Ohio State. Blackmon’s timing to lay big hits and dislodge receivers from would-be routine catches played a big role in the outcome of numerous games early in the season. His range and athleticism in coverage resulted in tipped passes and turnovers.
While it’s fair to acknowledge that Blackmon faded later in the season, and fell out of the Defensive Rookie of the Year discussion, it’s also entirely reasonable to come away impressed that he could have such a big impact at all under the circumstances. In a pandemic shortened offseason, recovering from an ACL tear that limited his ability to take live reps in practice, and without the benefit of the type of offseason repetitions young defenders often need to make an early impact, Blackmon still spent the first half of the season putting the league on notice. It’s not surprising if he was only “good” the rest of the way.
Imagine what he’ll look like over a full year removed from his ACL tear and recovery, with a full offseason. It should be exciting to watch.
Chris Blystone - Parris Campbell
Call me a sucker and you’d probably be right, but the Colts player I’m most excited to watch in 2021 is Parris Campbell. If you are out on Campbell, I’d understand. He’s spent his first two years in the NFL becoming best friends with the medical staff and has had almost no impact on the roster at all. However, when he’s been healthy, what he’s put on film is an electric playmaker who will almost certainly do something exciting with the ball in his hands.
The Colts’ wide receiver room is an interesting one. If Michael Pittman Jr. takes a second-year leap and T.Y. Hilton has a good rapport with Carson Wentz, they could be a very good unit, even if they aren’t quite in the range of some of the best ones out there. The question remains: what will Campbell contribute? A healthy season would be huge for him. His yards after the catch ability and the way his speed can stress defenses would be a major asset for a team that could use it. I’m going to be foolishly hoping he beats the odds of injury. If he can, it’ll be a really fun offense to watch.