INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts' rookie class was historic in 2018.
First-round draft pick Quenton Nelson and second-rounder Darius Leonard became the first pair of rookie teammates to be named First-Team All-Pro since the Chicago Bears' Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus in 1965. Nelson also made the Pro Bowl, and Leonard led the entire NFL in tackles.
However, the potential of the Colts' 2018 rookies doesn't end there.
Fellow second-round picks Braden Smith and Kemoko Turay both excelled in the background, answering the call to start when needed and producing in the process.
While Nelson and Leonard have obviously already been recognized on the national stage, Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire thinks Smith and Turay are up next, listing them both as second-year breakout candidates in 2019.
“General manager Chris Ballard has built an estimable inside offensive line with center Ryan Kelly, and guards Quenton Nelson and Mark Glowinski. The surprise guy last season was Smith, selected in the second round out of Auburn. A guard in college, Smith moved to right tackle in the NFL, getting better as the year went along with his strength and movement skills. Per Pro Football Focus, Smith allowed four sacks, nine quarterback hits, and 25 quarterback hurries in 601 pass-blocking snaps. With a full season at this new position under his belt, expect better things from this talented offensive lineman.”
The original plan to have Smith as the team's right guard of the future couldn't have been scrapped any smoother, with circumstances essentially forcing the Colts to put Smith at right tackle and then Mark Glowisnki at right guard instead early in the season.
From there, the Colts' offensive line began to take shape, putting together its most effective season in recent memory. As a unit, the line kept Andrew Luck cleaner than any other quarterback, allowing just 18 sacks, and it paved the way for five games with at least 150 rushing yards (including the playoffs).
Taking into account the two playoff games that Smith and the Colts played, he was Pro Football Focus' third-highest-graded rookie offensive lineman (71.4), trailing only Nelson (76.7) and fellow right tackle Mike McGlinchey (73.2) of the San Francisco 49ers.
Smith now has the benefit of going this entire offseason training as a right tackle as opposed to this time last year, and he is learning from new coaches Chris Strausser, Howard Mudd and Klayton Adams.
As for Turay, Farrar saw plenty of flashes out of the Rutgers product in 2018:
“Turay had bouts of production around frustrating injuries at Rutgers, but the Colts thought enough of him to select him in the second round of the 2018 draft. Turay finished his rookie season with (four) sacks and 40 total pressures, showing an estimable ability to bend the edge with pure speed, and get to quarterbacks with stunts up the middle. He officially put the league on notice with two sacks against the Eagles in Week 3, beating left tackle Jason Peters for one quarterback takedown, and crashing inside for another. Turay excelled as a rotational pass-rusher in Matt Eberflus’ defense, and could steal a bigger role in 2019.”
According to PFF, Turay’s 38 total quarterback pressures (sacks, hits and hurries combined) finished third among all rookie defenders (and second on the Colts) in 2018 despite missing two games. All rookie edge defenders considered, Turay had the sixth-best pass-rushing grade (67.6). PFF also credited him with just one missed tackle on the season.
In two games already this preseason, Turay is off to a hot start, already being credited with four tackles, one sack, one quarterback hit, three hurries and four stops, which constitutes a "failure" for the offense according to PFF.
Turay remains laser focused on improving and becoming the best pass rusher that he can.
Soaking up all the knowledge imparted on him by the likes of his trainer and Colts' all-time leading sacker Robert Mathis, and current veteran teammates Justin Houston and Jabaal Sheard, Turay tirelessly uses the tips to work on his craft.
“Just trying to get better each and every day. Just watching film and just looking at the bad habits that I did during the season and just trying to improve and polish it up a little bit,” Turay told Colts.com about some of what he did with Mathis over the offseason. “Last year, I didn’t have a consistent move — I was just using different moves — but this offseason I just constantly stayed here in Indianapolis, and just constantly just worked on my body and tried to find my move and who I am as a pass rusher.”
How has the development of those moves and counters come along since the offseason? Pretty well so far.
"Just constantly using my hands, just attacking them," Turay said when asked about the development of his moves. "Last year I was just avoiding and just using tricks and whatever, so I'm just practicing going head on. Going long-arm, stab, long-arm, rip and make all my moves look the same."
With his work ethic and the tutelage of some incredibly knowledgeable veterans by his side, Turay might just sack his way to becoming a household name for NFL fans in 2019.