Last April when the Colts selected 12 players during the 2023 NFL Draft, there was an expectation that multiple rookies would see the field at some point. However, who could have guessed they would get so much production from players selected after the first round.
Though quarterback Anthony Richardson was the highest player drafted by the Colts, injuries limited him to just four games. Fortunately, in the third round, the front office drafted another player who provided the offense with a spark this year.
"Josh Downs was really good," general manager Chris Ballard said. "I think we see the upside of what he can be and I think you're gonna just see him take off even more."
During the Colts' Week 18 game versus the Houston Texans, Downs caught his 66th pass of the season. That broke the previous record for receptions by a rookie set by Bill Brooks (65) in 1986.
As impressive of an accomplishment as that was, what made Downs most proud was the way he dealt with hardships throughout the year.
"Just being able to battle through adversity, like certain injuries, just kept playing through it – dealt with the knee pretty much the entire season," Downs said. "So, being able to get through that just shows how blessed I am. It wasn't my own strength. I got the strength from God to just keep going, especially in that Patriots game. I didn't even know I was gonna be able to play and I got through that.
"So, that resilience, that consistency to just keep pushing week in and week out, competing against the best players and living out my dream. I always thought I'd play in the NFL as a kid, but being able to do it is a little different."
Downs finished the season with 68 receptions, 771 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns.
Another rookie pass catcher of note was fifth round pick Will Mallory.
Despite joining a crowded tight end room, Mallory still managed to catch 18 passes for 207 yards.
"I thought Mallory - again he's another one that's gotta stay healthy. But when he's healthy, he's a real threat as a receiving tight end," Ballard said. "I mean, he is. He's fast, he's a good athlete, he can run and he's really good after the catch."
Stepping in for tackles Bernhard Raimann and Braden Smith when they dealt with injuries this year, fourth round pick Blake Freeland wound up starting nine games this season.
In that time, he faced some of the NFL's best edge rushers such as T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett and Brian Burns.
"I don't care who the tackle is when you're lining up against Myles Garrett, that's not easy," Ballard said. "But there never was the look of doubt or despair in his eyes and that's an encouraging thing. He will get better and he will continue to grow and it will be fun to watch him this offseason.
In terms of adversity, no rookie on the team had to overcome more than second round pick, cornerback JuJu Brents.
As an Indianapolis native, Brents was ecstatic to be drafted by the Colts and the feeling was mutual. Unfortunately, due to lower body injuries, he was only able to play nine games this season.
"I mean, things didn't go as planned for me," Brents said. "I had a lot of goals, some of them I did accomplish, some I did not. Overall, it's a learning experience and it was a solid first year I would say, but I'm just looking forward to this next year and continue to meet and rise those goals to the next given level."
Despite not being on the field as much as he would have liked, he still made an impact on the defense. He finished the season with 43 tackles, six pass deflections, one interception, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble.
"At the end of the day with JuJu, he's very talented, he cares deeply, we think he is gonna really be an excellent player," general manager Chris Ballard said. "But he's got to be healthy and he's got to practice, that's how you get better. He's a great kid and he cares and when he played, he played well."
Now heading into the offseason, Brents is focused on doing all he can to ensure his body can handle all 17 games.
"Just to fully fortify my body, making sure that I'm able to withstand a full season," Brents said. "That's gonna be my number one goal. I mean, it's obvious I know I can go out there and play and perform, but it's hard to do that when you're not on the field. So, I just want to make sure that I'm dialed in on all those aspects off the field and make sure that I'm fully ready to go when it comes to the 2024 season."
While there was no surprise that Brents was expected to start early in his career, the same couldn't be said for seventh round pick, Jaylon Jones.
The third cornerback taken by the Colts, Jones knew there were no guarantees he would make the 53-man roster, nonetheless start any games.
Still, he said he always maintained his confidence that he had what it took to make it into the NFL.
"Being a seventh round pick, I looked at it as opportunity," Jones said. "Every time you get an opportunity, what are you going to do with it? And ever since I was little, I've been a fighter. You gotta live for something. You gotta fight for what you want. I just appreciate all my coaches and the guys in the room helping me be in position to get one percent better every day."
His confidence and work ethic paid off because he ended up making the roster over fifth round pick Darius Rush.
For the first four games of the season, the majority of Jones' playing time came on special teams. However, that all changed when starting cornerback Dallis Flowers tore his Achilles in Week 4.
As upset as Jones was to see his friend go down, he said was ready to step up whenever his opportunity came.
"Honestly, I was just ready at any time," Jones said. "I hated the fact that Dallis had went down with a season-ending injury, but I always prepared myself like I was gonna play. So, my name got called and I had to finish out the rest of the [Rams] game. I just always try to stay prepared and always be on my P's and Q's, just making sure I was ready to go out there and go to battle with my brothers. So, I was ready at any moment."
Since Week 5, Jones manned a starting outside cornerback spot and in the opinion of defensive backs coach Ron Milus, did so valiantly.
"He's been the one that's gone out there and done the work that's necessary for him to get prepared to play at this level," Milus said. "It's not like he was at a small school, he was at [Texas] A&M. So, there were some expectations there I'm sure. And when he got here, we told the whole room, 'If you're on this team, if you're in this secondary, at some point you're going to be called upon."
"We just didn't know that for this poor guy who was drafted in the seventh round, it would come so quickly and we were gonna need him as an integral part of what we're doing."
Jones ended the year with 44 combined tackles, five pass deflections and a tackle for loss.