INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts are not unique in the National Football League in having undrafted rookie free agents make the 53-man playing roster.
Indianapolis is, however, among the most adept teams at infusing such players into the roster, and it has been a time-tested ability for the club.
One such new addition this year is defensive back Joe Lefeged (pronounced lah-FEJ), a player who was bypassed in the 2011 draft but who found his way to opening day.
The undrafted route he took was not unique in today's NFL, but the lack of an off-season normalcy made the path more precipitous.
Without a rookie camp, a full-team mini-camp and a series of OTAs (organized team activities) that run through the middle of June, Lefeged and other players like him started the crash course of trying to make the team when the training camp bell sounded on August 1.
What is difficult in typical circumstances was made even more so by the lack of spring work.
Players were thrust into practices and games on an accelerated basis with the proving ground being as difficult as always.
The native of Germantown, Maryland played in all four preseason games. Like all newcomers, he did all he could to make the squad, then he had to wait the outcome.
Following his final outing at Cincinnati, he felt good about what he had shown.
"Right now, I am (happy where he is). Just the simple fact that I think I got better each game," said Lefeged. "That's the one thing I just wanted to focus on, just try to improve a little bit each practice and each game and see where I end up."
Players look for those incremental improvements both on the field and in the classroom. While position groups bond and help, they still are competing. The best advice a player could have is to listen to the key voices around him, the head coach and a position coach. Lefeged picked up such a tip, and he dwelled on it in trying to make the team. He also found he needed to trust his given abilities.
"One thing I think I did pretty well was tackling. I did a decent job at that," said Lefeged. "On day one, Coach Alan (Williams) told me, 'If you want to make the team, you have to be able to run and be able to tackle.' That's what I focused on all preseason. I need to just believe what I see. I see it, but I'm not really sure. If I believe my instincts a little bit more, I think I'll be better at getting to the ball. I will be a lot quicker."
Head Coach Jim Caldwell instructs all players to manage the little things about their jobs and to focus on the specific details in their preparation and approach. A former collegiate defensive back himself, Caldwell notices the talents in Lefeged.
"Joe Lefeged is one of those guys with a nose for the ball," said Caldwell. "He has instincts and fine tackling ability. He explodes and is a guy who has a good feel for defending the pass as well. He is a very good guy for our special teams. For a young guy, he is a pretty well-rounded player."
A key to anyone's success in any endeavor is having a support group. Lefeged has found that in Indianapolis.
"A lot of guys helped, Gary Brackett, (Melvin) Bullitt, Antoine Bethea, all of them," he said. "They have been great, especially when I had issues in the first week of camp like understanding the defense. They helped me, brought me along and taught me how to play Colts defense. They did a great job. It's like a family atmosphere here, especially when you have rookies coming in. They welcome the rookies. That's probably one of the main reasons why a lot of free agents make it here. The older guys take their time to help when they could be resting or doing other things. They come out and help the younger players. They helped me a lot."
That Lefeged cites veterans for helping others again is not unique. What is beyond the norm is that he has a predecessor in Brackett who has traveled this familiar path. Brackett was an undrafted Rutgers free agent who made the club in 2003. He played in a reserve and special teams capacity until earning a starting role in 2005. Brackett now is a team captain who has played in two Super Bowls.
Brackett is just one example of what Lefeged and other young players are trying to become. It starts by working hard, paying attention to details, listening to important voices and dreaming big.
For Lefeged, one big goal has been accomplished. He survived the final preseason cut. His support group is in place to assist. Lefeged will follow his instincts and instruction in starting his Colts career.