The Tenth in an Off-Season Position-by-Position Series on the Colts
INDIANAPOLIS – The process occurred over the course of the season.
And if Kavell Conner didn't know for certain in September he absolutely, certainly belonged in the NFL, he did by the season's end, at which time he and a fellow rookie had emerged as critical components of not only the Colts' linebacker scheme, but of the defense.
Conner and Pat Angerer. Angerer and Conner.
Throughout the course of the 2010 season, the duo developed at different paces, but by the end of the season, they were contributing to an improving Colts' defense.
And they had proven to be key elements of the team's future.
"They play hard," Colts middle linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett said during a 2010 season in which Conner and Angerer combined to start 20 games at inside and outside backer.
"There's no lack of effort. Those guys have been getting after it. As rookies, you're going to make mistakes, but those guys have constantly been improving and they've been able to help us."
With injuries first to Brackett and later to starting weakside linebacker Clint Session, Conner and Angerer were called upon to contribute to a contending team as rookies. They did so, and not only contributed, they showed themselves to be players with solid future with the franchise.
Angerer, a second-round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft from Iowa, began the season playing solidly on special teams, finishing the season as the Colts' leading tackler in that area with 16 stops, including 10 solo.
He then made his first start against Washington in Week 6, filling in for Brackett when the latter was hurt. He started three more games for Brackett in the middle later in the season, and also started seven games at strong-side linebacker.
"As a rookie, and as a young guy, I think anytime you get on the field it's a chance to improve and a chance to get better," Angerer said at the time. "I'm thankful for the opportunity, but unfortunately for me to get on the field, somebody had to get hurt. That's too bad."
Angerer said he felt increasingly comfortable as the season continued, and finished the season as the Colts' second-leading tackler with 75 defensive tackles, including 50 solo. He also had a sack, a quarterback pressure and two passes defensed.
"We already know (linebacker) Pat Angerer is a football player," Colts Vice Chairman Bill Polian said of Angerer shortly after the season. "He can play 'Sam' (strong side). He can play 'Mike' (middle). I hope Gary (Brackett) plays a long time, but whenever he's ready to hang it up, Pat's ready to step in, obviously."
Conner, a seventh-round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft from Clemson, drew similar praise following a season in which he started seven games at weak-side linebacker.
Conner, who also made solid contributions early on special teams, missed four games in October and early November with an injury, then returned and played the final nine games, starting seven in place of Session.
Conner developed into a quick, solid player, with Polian late in the season comparing him to former Colts linebacker David Thornton, a starter at outside backer from 2003-05 and a team leader during four seasons with the Colts.
Thornton went on to start four more seasons with the Tennessee Titans.
"I think you're looking at the next David Thornton," Polian said of Conner shortly after the season. "I'm putting him in pretty high cotton there, but this guy is a football player."
Said Conner, "At the beginning, I was a little nervous, just because it was a new level of football and you were going to experience new things. As you play ball, the more you play, I think you gain more confidence the more reps you get. The more experience you get, the more confidence you get.
"The key is going out and being focused, always being accountable when your name is called. You've always got to be accountable when your name is called and you have to be reliable."
Conner said while at the beginning of the season he may not have been completely certain how he would fare in the NFL, those concerns faded as the season continued.
"At the beginning, I was a little nervous, just because it was a new level of football and you were going to experience new things," Conner said. "As you play ball, the more you play, I think you gain more confidence the more reps you get. The more experience you get, the more confidence you get.
"There's a lot I have to work on, and I'm not content. I just want to come out and get better. I'm just happy I got into a situation where I got to play in my rookie year. I still feel like I can still come out and better and that's what I have to work on."
Angerer and Conner each said by season's end they had played enough they no longer felt like rookies, and didn't want to be considered as such.
"I think the other guys on the team hold us accountable just like everybody else," Angerer said. "We work hard, and we like to be held accountable and do our best."
Said Conner, "We're both in the same situation, so we try to go out and communicate and make sure we're on the same page so we can be on the same level. . . . I'm never going to be content. I want to come out and get better every day."
And by year's end, the duo that had started the season on special teams playing reserve defensive roles had emerged as the starting outside linebacker duo on either side of the veteran Brackett. The pair started opposite one another the final five games, during which time the Colts held their final four opponents under an average of 80 yards a game rushing.
"That's not an easy thing to do in this league, particularly with some of the different looks that they have to face week in and week out," Caldwell said of the two rookies starting alongside one another.
"They have been able to do a pretty good job as a tandem in there."
Session finished the season with 38 tackles and a sack in five games, and Philip Wheeler – a starter in six games – finished with 48 tackles on defense and 12 on special teams.