INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts are a team that is relying on young talent in 2012.
As General Manager Ryan Grigson and Head Coach Chuck Pagano are reshaping the future of the team, its present is being aided by a solid draft class.
Six members of April's draft class are playing prominent roles in the team's 4-3 start. Two other members, defensive tackle Josh Chapman and offensive guard Justin Anderson, are rebounding from injuries and hope to join the others as Indianapolis continues its fight in 2012.
Four of the six rookies – quarterback Andrew Luck, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and running back Vick Ballard – have produced very well in starting roles. Wide receivers LaVon Brazill and T.Y. Hilton also have found time to contribute, too.
As Indianapolis prepares for a Sunday showdown with Miami, a team that will bring 12 rookies of its own to Lucas Oil Stadium, Interim Head Coach Bruce Arians noted the accomplishments of the first-year players.
"Oh no," said Arians this week if he ever had been around a draft class in his 20 NFL seasons that had produced so many early contributors. "To have this many guys in major roles I think is incredible. It's a testament to Ryan (Grigson) and the scouting staff for getting the right guys, and the coaches for picking those guys. It's a credit to those guys for being in tune."
For years, the Colts have had a spirit of inclusion that welcomed new faces and demanded production from all 53 squad members. Twenty Colts remain on the active roster who joined the team prior to this season.
Stalwarts like Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Antoine Bethea can speak to how they were brought along as younger players. Wayne, Freeney and Bethea started nine, eight and 14 games, respectively, as rookies, while Mathis was a key reserve in 16 games in 2003. Arians says players like them have helped indoctrinate the newcomers.
"The veterans have taken those young guys and have shown them how to do it in the locker room, on the field and off the field," said Arians. "And yeah, it's a credit to all of them. But no, I've never been around this many rookies playing."
Luck and Allen have started every game this season, while Fleener has opened six. Luck has hit 160-of-288 passes for 1,971 yards, with eight touchdowns and interceptions. His yardage total tracks among the best ever produced by an NFL rookie through seven games, and the club's winning percentage (.571) is the best through seven games for a team with a rookie signal-caller taken first overall in the draft.
Fleener (21-222) and Allen (17-174, two touchdowns) rank third and fifth on the team in receptions. Both play key roles in a rushing attack that has gained 148 and 171 in the last two games, the team's two highest totals of the season.
Ballard has started the last three games in place of running back Donald Brown, who was hurt in the late stages of the October 7 victory over Green Bay. Ballard rushed 20 times for 84 yards against Cleveland, while gaining 55 yards on 12 carries in last week's 19-13 win at Tennessee. It was his 16-yard scoring reception in overtime that decided a tight battle.
Hilton and Brazill have found ways into multiple-receiver sets for Indianapolis. Hilton is fourth on the squad with 18 receptions for 253 yards. He had four receptions for 113 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown catch, against Jacksonville to become the first NFL rookie receiver to top 100 yards this year. Among Brazill's receptions this year was a key nine-yard catch on third-down in the game-tying drive last week that put the Colts and Titans into overtime. Both players also have shared punt and kickoff return duties.
"I don't know if we still know," said Arians when asked if the club knows what it has in its draft class. "There's so many that have a ceiling that's way up there. As long as they keep striving to get better, there's no telling how good this class could be."
Luck has endured the rigors of his position, perhaps the toughest in all of sports. He likes the opportunities the draft class and others have had, but he has an eye cast for the next nine games.
"We have a long way to go as a rookie class, this team," said Luck. "I think obviously good players, drafted good guys, got good free agents and we are getting chances to go out on the field, putting us in position to put the ball in our hands, get the ball to the guys on special teams.
"Guys are stepping up to the plate. I think a big thing for us is realizing you are a rookie, that doesn't mean you have to play as a rookie. You don't have that excuse. This team needs us, the rookies to perform well and perform well now. I think guys have taken that to heart."
Arians has said repeatedly that he considers the team's draft class as players, not rookies. There is no time to dwell on league experience, it is time to produce. With a full spring, training camp and seven games completed, he said no player is considered new, unless that player has joined the team in the last week or so.
The Colts are one of seven conference teams with at least four wins. Six others trail that pack by one win so while Indianapolis is positioned at the moment, all attention must focus on the present.
Tackle Anthony Castonzo was last year's first-round draft pick. Castonzo is a seven-game starter this year after opening 12 games in 2011. He enjoys his new teammates and believes there are things that can improve. He thinks the team is just scratching the surface of what it can accomplish.
"I think so, for sure. We really haven't reached our potential," said Castonzo. "You watch the film, and you see so many guys who could be playing better. Once everybody puts their best game together, it's going to be awesome."