The Washington Times-Herald

December 21, 2012

Rookie class, the gift that keeps on giving

Tom James
Tribune Star Correspondent

INDIANAPOLIS — While Christmas is still two days away, it's safe to say that the Indianapolis Colts figure that they've received most of their gifts already.

When it comes to the Colts' 2012 rookie class, the team has certainly gotten much more than they may have thought possible. Of the 10 players selected in last spring's draft, five -- quarterback Andrew Luck, running back Vick Ballard, tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton -- have either won jobs as starters or have received substantial playing time.

Another first-year player, wide receiver LaVon Brazill, has gotten more work as the season has progressed. Two others, offensive guard Justin Anderson and nose tackle Josh Chapman -- have been placed on the team's injured reserve list. Quarterback Chandler Harnish is on the practice squad.

Outside linebacker Tim Fugger was the only draft pick not to make the team out of training camp. Fugger suffered a sports hernia last summer during off-season workouts and was never completely healthy. There's a good chance, however, that he might be re-signed at a later date once he has been cleared to fully participate in athletic activities.

But when looking at Indianapolis' 2012 rookies and the contributions that they've made to the team's 9-5 record, it takes some digging to come up with another Colts' draft class that has made such a huge immediate impact.

Perhaps the 1998 group that provided quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receivers Jerome Pathon and E.G. Green, and offensive guard Steve McKinney is comparable. But the mark of a good, or even great, draft class is how the group does over the long haul. Are they one-year flashes in pan or can they continue to produce over the course of several seasons?

Whatever the case, this year's rookie crop certainly has some impressive numbers to fall back on:

*Luck has completed 308-of-564 passes for 3,978 yards, 20 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. He has thrown for the most yards in a single season by a Colts' rookie quarterback. With 74 passing yards, he can break the NFL's rookie record for passing yardage today at Kansas City or next week at home against Houston.

*Hilton ranks third on the team in receiving with 44 receptions for 716 yards and six touchdowns. He has recorded four 100-yard receiving games this season, which is a franchise rookie record. Hilton needs one more touchdown reception to tie John Mackey and Austin Collie for the third-most by a Colts rookie. He also has 25 punt returns for 281 yards and has a 75-yard return for a touchdown to his credit.

*Ballard has rushed for 667 yards in 14 games and has made 10 starts. He needs 33 rushing yards to reach 700 for the season.

*Allen is fourth on the Colts in receiving with 40 receptions for 482 yards and three touchdowns. He needs three receptions to surpass Ken Dilger for the most receptions by a rookie tight end.

*Fleener ranks fifth in receptions despite missing some playing time with a shoulder injury. He has registered 24 receptions for 278 yards and a TD. Fleener needs six catches to pass Dallas Clark for the fourth most by a rookie tight end.

*Brazill, in limited duty, has caught 11 passes for 186 yards.

That's pretty good production for a draft class selected by a first-time general manager (Ryan Grigson) and a first-time head coach (Chuck Pagano).

Interim coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who has been around some pretty good draft classes when he was in Pittsburgh and was with the Colts when the 1998 class was selected, has been impressed.

"We’ve had that many [rookies] on the roster. But to have an active role every Sunday, no this is by far the most [first-year players making major contributions]," Arians said recently, adding that there's a common denominator as to why this rookie class has been this good so quickly.

"We have great leadership on this team. The veterans have helped these rookies. Some take their jobs. Others -- whether it’s on the field, in the classroom, or in the community -- these guys have all joined hands with these young guys because they know those young guys are their chance to get to the playoffs. So that kind of all spells team.”

With the Colts on the cusp of clinching a spot in the AFC playoffs -- a win today against Kansas City would secure Indianapolis' playoff aspirations -- Arians had a feeling that the franchise could turn its fortunes around with this rookie class.

"I knew we had the talent. [The question was] whether or not we could put it all together and maintain it, I think the greatest tribute I think to this bunch of guys is how well the next man has stepped up. Because it’s been I think we’re up to 14 now different new faces coming in and I think we lead the league in [injured reserve] guys," he said.

While Luck has gotten the bulk of the credit for the way Indianapolis has been able to turn around its won-loss record, as well as the majority of the media attention, Arians points to the contributions and development of Hilton and Brazill as rookie receivers.

"Thanksgiving to Christmas is when you want your young wide receivers to step in and have a major role. LaVon [Brazill] has started to increase his productivity. T.Y. [Hilton] has had more opportunities and obviously now is becoming a major factor in our offense but also as a punt returner. We always thought it was there, but you’ve just got to watch him grow," he pointed out.

"In Pittsburgh with Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, we’d have never got to the Super Bowl without those two guys developing after Thanksgiving and making huge plays in the playoffs for us. I think these guys are now in a position, rookie year is gone, they’re in their sophomore, junior seasons now. So their roles have expanded each week.”

So far, this group of first-year players haven't run into the much-talked about "rookie wall" as of yet. The "rookie wall" is a term that describes how players react to the longer NFL season. By this time of the year, most college programs have concluded their seasons.

"We address it all the time. I started harassing them [late last month] about the rookie wall and what to expect. It’s more of a mental fatigue than a physical fatigue. They’re all doing a good job of taking care of their bodies right now. They’re running fast and doing those things. It’s the mental grind, and this is when the big boys play, [in] December," Arians explained.

"What you did in November doesn’t mean a doggone thing.  It’s what you do in December that they remember. These guys have a chance to do something special if they just stay in the moment and don’t worry about the future. Take care of their bodies, take care of each day."

By getting so much playing time this season, these rookies aren't really rookies anymore.

"They’ve logged enough snaps to be second or third-year players by now. So we don’t consider them rookies anymore. There’s no such thing as a rookie wall unless you got here three weeks ago," Arians said.