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Offseason Notebook

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Returning Colts players know pressure in 2023 will be on them, not No. 4 overall pick in NFL Draft

Players on both sides of the ball don't want whoever the Colts take in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft to feel the weight of turning around their 4-12-1 2022 season. 

Eleven years ago, Reggie Wayne had a message for the last quarterback the Colts took with a top-five draft pick. 

"I'm gonna hold it down until you feel like you're ready," Wayne told Andrew Luck back then. "And then when you're ready, I'll sit in the passenger seat and buckle up."

The meaning of that message: Don't put the weight of the franchise all on yourself in Year 1. The Colts were coming off a 2-14 season and had recently parted ways with Peyton Manning. That's a lot of pressure for a first-year quarterback; Wayne and the Colts worked early on to alleviate as much of it as the could. 

A little over a decade later, Colts players – the guys who were on 2022's 4-12-1 team – will dispense a similar message to whoever the team drafts Thursday night, regardless of who it is and what position he plays. 

"We're putting it on ourselves," running back Jonathan Taylor said. "No matter what happens with this pick, we know that hey, people are looking toward us for guidance, leadership — guys who have been here in this system and have had success."

Taylor and the Colts' returning players know they need to be the main reason why this year becomes better than last year. It's a message general manager Chris Ballard sent at the start of the offseason, and one that's been embraced by the team in the wake of such a disappointing season. 

"Our best players have to play to their standard," Ballard said in January. 

So Taylor, who battled ankle issues for nearly the whole 2022 season and saw his yards per carry average drop from 5.5 in 2021 to 4.5 in 2022, doesn't want the pressure of turning things around in 2023 to fall on whoever the Colts take at No. 4. 

"That's really asking a lot of a rookie regardless of the position," Taylor said. "It doesn't matter what his position is, it's a lot to put on a rookie saying hey, we need you to help take us to the next level. No, it's going to take that plus everyone else who has already been established to help whoever that guy lean on us."

Colts coaches and players have been working for a few weeks already on establishing and reinforcing their standards for the 2023 season – standards that players will expect every draft pick to meet once they get inside the walls of the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. Six 2022 captains are back on the team in 2023: Taylor, left guard Quenton Nelson, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, linebackers Shaquille Leonard and Zaire Franklin and cornerback Kenny Moore II. 

"For us, that's showing them — whether it's workouts, whether it's practices, whether it's in the film room — just constantly competing," Franklin said. "And once they see that the best guys are trying to do their best version, try to get the best out of themselves and constantly try to raise their level, everybody will follow suit."

Among the other returning players who will be counted on to turn things around: Wide receivers Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce and Ashton Dulin; tight ends Mo Alie-Cox, Jelani Woods and Kylen Granson; offensive linemen Bernhard Raimann, Ryan Kelly and Braden Smith; defensive linemen Kwity Paye, Dayo Odeyingbo, Grover Stewart and Tyquan Lewis; linebacker EJ Speed; and defensive backs Isaiah Rodgers Sr., Dallis Flowers, Julian Blackmon, Rodney Thomas II and Nick Cross. 

It'll be on those guys, first and foremost, to make sure 2023 is better than 2022. After all, whoever the Colts take in this year's NFL Draft wasn't here for last season.

"I'm still thinking about (2022)," Pittman said a few weeks ago. "Today we were watching some film in there, and I'm like, dang, we had that game, we let it slip. It's always there. Which, I don't know, might be good because we don't ever want to feel like that ever again. I mean, that was probably the ultimate low of my career."

The Indianapolis Colts are back on the field for the first day of veteran voluntary minicamp at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.

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