WESTFIELD, Ind. – When the Colts traded for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and quarterback Matt Ryan, and signed signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore, they didn't just bring in three big-time players.
They felt like they brought in the right three big-time players both in talent and cultural fit.
"I think Chris (Ballard) and Frank (Reich) do a great job of when they do bring free agents in, their personalities, how they like to play and how they go about things is already so much like the guys that are already in the building," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "It's always such a seamless fit. I don't really think there have been too many guys that we sign that personality wise and play-style wise didn't really mesh with everybody that was already here."
And through the first two weeks of training camp, those three players have already made a significant impact on their new team:
Gilmore arrived in Indianapolis with plenty of accolades and accomplishments – he's a Super Bowl champion, the 2019 AP Defensive Player of the Year, a two-time first-team All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler. But with the Colts, he's being asked to play a different style of defense with different assignments than he's been accustomed to in his successful 10-year career.
Defensive backs coach Ron Milus pointed to Gilmore previously following an opposing team's best receiver wherever they lined up – outside or in the slot – whereas with the Colts, he'll mostly play either on the left or right side of the defense. But while Gilmore has earned plenty of team and personal trophies, he didn't arrive acting like he has all the answers for how the Colts want him to play.
"This guy is very, very humble in his approach," Milus said. "He doesn't say a lot. All I hear is a lot of 'yes, coach, okay, how do you want me to do that?'"
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley described Gilmore as a "true pro" who quickly developed trust with the Colts' defensive backs. And as Gilmore has learned the techniques, details and nuances of playing cornerback in Milus and defensive coordinator Bradley's scheme, his decade of banked experience is helping elevate the play of not only those defensive backs, but the wide receivers he faces in practice, too.
"A lot of times he knows what route I'm running before I even run the route," rookie wideout Alec Pierce said, "just like off splits and how I'm stemming and stuff like that. So that's why I'm always trying to pick his brain and see what he's seeing."
And Reich summed up the challenge for Pierce and the Colts' wide receivers: "Half the time he knows what you are doing and you still have got to find a way to win."
Gilmore, then, is challenging a wide swath of his teammates with his play and his lead-by-example mentality. If you're a defensive back, it's impossible to miss the amount of studying Gilmore does – which leads to him being able to recognize routes before they're even run, as Pierce said – and having to face No. 5 in practice is forcing the best out of Ryan and the Colts' wide receivers, too.
And then beyond the intangible impact from Gilmore – he's making a ton of plays, too. Gilmore picked off Ryan during seven-on-seven on Sunday and has had plenty of pass break-ups while playing sticky coverage throughout camp.
"He's good. He really is," Ryan said. "And he's got excellent pattern recognition, really savvy, good ball skills. He's talented and he's one of those guys who times times can put a seed of doubt in your mind of what he's going to do — is he going to break on something, is he going to give you something. With guys like that, I've played against a lot of them in my career, you have to be really accurate and you have to make good decisions. But it's gonna force us to get better.
"And that's really good work for our wide receivers, it's really good work for me. Going against good players all the time sharpens your skills and we're certainly fortunate to have him here."
The standard for the Colts' defense over the last few years has been rallying to the ball – that's how you slow down the Tennessee Titans' freight train of a running back, Derrick Henry, after all. It doesn't matter what position you play or where you are on the field – sprint to the ball and make a play.
The energy, effort and motor Ngakoue has brought to practice hasn't just met that standard. It's elevated it.
An example: When running back Nyheim Hines ripped off an explosive run in an 11-on-11 period during Sunday's practice, Ngakoue sprinted 30 yards up the field to get to him.
"We critique our effort first," Bradley said. "We told them, you already have a high standard, but now we have to take that standard to another level. Each day we look at our effort to make sure it is on par with what is the standard.
"And when you can show a play like that with Yannick and him running down the field, it's a good sign that they are holding that standard very high."
Ngakoue's relentless energy has been a staple of Colts camp. He's blown up a handful of plays with remarkable quickness; his first-step burst and surgical technique have made him one of two players to have eight or more sacks in every season since 2016 (the other is Aaron Donald).
"He works really hard and just how he approaches the game, he hates losing," defensive end Kwity Paye said. "In the one-on-ones, when he kind of gets stuck or whatever, he kind of takes it personal. But it's good to see a guy that hates losing because that's the guy you want on your team.
"If you have a guy that's just okay if he loses a rep and is just kind of like, 'Whatever.' That's not the kind of guy you want to go into war with because when it really gets tough, you can't depend on guys like that, but to have Yan on our side is great."
The Colts already knew what kind of player Ngakoue was – this is a guy who's sacked a Colts quarterback at least once every year of his career. But getting to know him up close, and working with him on a daily basis – that's been eye-opening.
"I love his attitude," Reich said. "Whether he's making plays or even if he's getting beat, he's got this relentless attitude that I think all of our guys should have, do have, but he's definitely going to be a leader on our defense."
Ngakoue's impact, too, is stretching well beyond Grand Park.
The Colts have mostly had efficient, clean and crisp practices with little wasted time and even fewer wasted plays. Ryan's presence and leadership have been a big part of that trend; and when things aren't up to par, they're quickly corrected.
On Sunday, the Colts' offense had a handful of mental and physical errors. Ryan talked after practice about nipping those mental errors in the bud while not dwelling on the physical ones (like dropped passes).
One day later, offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said he felt like the Colts' offense practiced well from an energy and execution standpoint.
"Whether you're the first guy on the depth chart or the last guy, everybody is held to the same standard," wide receiver Ashton Dulin said of Ryan. "That just brings us all together as a room and it elevates everybody's game. He'll quiz you out of the blue at a random moment — walking down the hallway, what do you have on this play. It's fun. He's great to be around. Great leader, great person and we couldn't be happier to have him."
Keeping his teammates sharp on and off the field has been an emphasis of Ryan, who over his 14 years as an NFL starting quarterback has learned how to prevent minor issues from becoming major problems during training camp. And through his experience and natural leadership qualities, players gravitate toward Ryan, reinforcing his message and the team-wide belief in their QB1.
"I can't describe it, you just get chills," Hines said. "He starts talking to us, and you just look at him and go okay, this guy is about to lead us to a championship or to (the) AFC South (championship) and lead us as far as we want to go."