Is class approaching Chris Ballard’s 2018 NFL Draft haul?


Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. discusses playing better as the season progresses.

Indianapolis Star

Rookie kicker Rodrigo Blankenship had just finished chatting with the media after connecting on the biggest kick of his NFL life. As he was leaving, rookie running back Jonathan Taylor shouted to him, “That’s one for the books, Hot Rod!”

Taylor was talking about their dramatic overtime win over Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, but he could just as easily have been talking about the Colts rookie class in general. Think about their contributions to that game. Their fingerprints were all over that pivotal Colts victory:

  • Blankenship drilled the game-winning field goal. 
  • Julian Blackmon forced the game-changing fumble in overtime. 
  • Michael Pittman scored the first touchdown of his career from 45 yards away and led the Colts in receiving yards (66). 
  • Taylor delivered maybe his best game as a Colt, rushing for 90 yards on 22 carries (4.1 YPC), while leading the team with four receptions (24 yards). 

Every team, coach Frank Reich said Monday, expects to receive significant contributions from their rookie class, but these Colts youngsters are exceeding their peers around the league.

It’s too soon to say if general manager Chris Ballard struck gold in the same way he did in 2018 when he nabbed franchise-altering players on both sides of the ball (Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard), as well as key contributors in right tackle Braden Smith, running back/returner Nyheim Hines and defensive linemen Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay, but the 2020 class is off to a fast start. 

In fact, let’s check in on the Colts rookie class, starting with the top pick: 

Michael Pittman: 2nd round, 34th overall

Indianapolis Colts’ Michael Pittman (11) runs in for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in Indianapolis. (Photo: AJ Mast, AP)

Is he the heir apparent? For nearly a decade, T.Y. Hilton has admirably carried the WR1 torch passed down from Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, but it could be time for him to hand it off to the next man in line. 

It’s far too early to say Pittman deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as three Colts icons, but there’s little doubt he has the makings of a true No. 1 receiver. Over the past two games, he’s been exactly that for the Colts, leading the team with 10 catches for 167 yards and a touchdown.

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If there’s been one element missing from the passing offense this season, it was the presence of a true top target. While Philip Rivers and Reich love to spread the ball around, Pittman — an advanced route-runner for his age, big and physical up to the catch and nasty afterwards — has the ability to make crucial catches and explosive plays down the back stretch of the season that can lift this passing offense to another level. 

It really is a shame Pittman got hit with compartment leg syndrome earlier this season and missed four games or his breakout might have happened sooner. If he hadn’t, we might have a better idea if he could get to Nelson’s level in terms of offensive impact. If Pittman takes the reins from Hilton and blossoms into a true No. 1 receiver, it’ll at least be a conversation. 

Jonathan Taylor: 2nd round, 41st overall


Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor discusses capitalizing on opportunities.

Indianapolis Star

Patience. It’s not just what Taylor needs occasionally when picking a hole to run through but what the Colts fan base needs to practice when evaluating the rookie runner. Not all rookies figure out the NFL as fast as the next guy on this list. For some of them, it takes time. 

Taylor is clearly one of them. It’s important to remember that no rookie had the benefit of a traditional NFL offseason or any sort of preseason. They were all thrown into the fire, especially Taylor, who thought he’d at least get to share the backfield with Marlon Mack and learn from the veteran.

But when Mack went down with an injury in Week 1, Taylor was handed the keys to the running game. He hasn’t taken off the way many had hoped, but he’s definitely showing signs of progression. He was more decisive with his cuts against Green Bay and ran with authority against the Packers and Titans. Perhaps most impressively, however, this past Sunday seemed to be the first time Taylor was able to create his own yardage consistently. He broke tackles and made defenders miss just enough to churn out some extra yardage. 

Finally, if there’s one reason to feel optimistic about Taylor going forward, it’s that he’s already shown the ability to address weaknesses in his game. Remember, two of the knocks on him coming out of Wisconsin were his ability to catch the ball and hold onto it. Taylor has been tremendously efficient in the passing game (26 catches, 27 targets) and has put the ball on the ground only once in 161 touches. At Wisconsin he averaged one fumble per every 54 touches. If he can improve in those areas, there’s no reason to think he can’t improve in others. 

Julian Blackmon: 3rd round, 85th overall


Indianapolis Colts rookie Julian Blackmon discusses wanting defensive rookie of the year award.

Indianapolis Star

He’s a star, the biggest reason why it isn’t foolish to bring up the 2018 draft class. In fact, the Colts free safety is the 2020 class’s answer to Darius Leonard. Like the Colts superstar linebacker, Blackmon seems to have an uncanny nose for the ball and a knack for coming through in the biggest moments.

Blackmon’s game-clinching forced fumble in overtime against the Packers was only the latest example of his late-game heroics. He intercepted Bengals rookie phenom Joe Burrow to cap off the Colts’ win over Cincinnati. A couple of weeks earlier, he picked off Nick Foles with the then-undefeated Chicago Bears trying to mount a late comeback. 

In his debut against Minnesota, Blackmon didn’t intercept a pass but he caused an interception late in the first half by tipping a long ball right into Khari Willis’ hands. 

It’s not all flash, either. Blackmon has allowed only 53.3% of passes thrown his way to be completed. He has a 48.9 quarterback rating against. For reference, the man who played the position before Blackmon arrived in Indianapolis (Malik Hooker), had a 110.8 quarterback rating against. 

Blackmon is instinctive, aggressive, savvy and opportunistic. Those are the kinds of words people used to describe Leonard in his Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign. Blackmon is now aligning himself to score the same award. 

Jacob Eason: 4th round, 122nd overall

Quarterback Jacob Eason during Colts training camp, from their facility in Indianapolis, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. (Photo: Robert Scheer/The Indianapolis Star)

The Colts 2020 draft grade goes through the roof if Eason turns into a franchise quarterback down the road. But let’s acknowledge the odds of that are quite slim. The list of upper-echelon quarterbacks taken in the fourth round or lower is a very short one. 

Remember what Ballard said: “Let’s slow our roll a little bit in terms of tagging this guy as the next messiah walking into town. He was a fourth-round pick. We didn’t move up to the first pick of the draft.

“Jacob’s got talent. He’s got to work, and he’s got to earn it.’’

By all accounts from within the Colts, Eason is trying to earn it, doing everything a rookie third-stringer can to prove he should be part of the franchise’s future. He’s putting in the work, mentally in the quarterback room with Rivers and Jacoby Brissett, and physically on game days with position coach Marcus Brady putting him through an intense, one-hour workout. 

We still don’t know much about Eason, but how the Colts handle their offseason could tell us exactly how they feel about him. Assuming Rivers returns and Brissett does not, will he be entrusted as the backup? If yes, that probably means he’s making the progress he needs to be considered a contender to take the reins down the line. 

Danny Pinter: 5th round, 149th overall

Sparingly used as an offensive lineman in Colts heavy sets, that’s about all we’ve seen of the rookie center so far this season. He’s played 27 snaps on offense and eight on special teams. Earlier this season, with starter Ryan Kelly’s health in question, Pinter looked like he might play, allowing Reich to comment on his progress:

“From Day 1 here, he started taking center reps and obviously had good work this week. So we have a lot of confidence in Danny (Pinter). Mentally he is ready and physically he’ll be up to the task if he has to play.”

Robert Windsor: 6th round, 193rd overall

Another rookie who has barely seen the field. Faced with the tall task of carving out playing time amid a deep interior defensive line, Windsor cracked the active roster for the first time last week and played his first two snaps of the season. As with Pinter and Eason, we simply haven’t seen enough of Windsor in game action to make an educated call on his progress.

Isaiah Rodgers: 6th round, 211th overall

Rodgers remains a work in progress as a defensive back (40 snaps this season), but he’s already the Colts’ most electric kickoff returner and maybe already one of the best in the NFL. He is one of four kick returners to have scored a touchdown this season — a 101-yarder in defeat against Cleveland — and ranks third in the league behind Bears’ return man Cordarrelle Patterson (30.3) and Ravens rookie Devin Duvernay (30.5) in kick return average (29.8). 

The Colts have already sapped more value out of Rodgers than most teams can say about their sixth-round picks. 

Dezmon Patmon: 6th round, 212th overall

With early injuries up and down the wide receiver depth chart, it seemed as if Patmon would have a chance to make an impact this season. Instead, the Colts have decided to remain patient with a player they always knew would be more project than finished product when they drafted him.

Indianapolis is still trying to harness Patmon’s elite physical traits — a 6-4, 225-pounder who ran a 4.48 40-yard dash at the combine — and turn him into the complete NFL receiver. According to Reich, the process is continuing, but they like his trajectory. 

“He looks good, continues to work really hard in practice,” Reich said recently. “We feel very good about Dez and his development, and what he’s doing right now.”

The best sign that the Colts remain bullish on Patmon’s prospects is that they’ve kept him on the active roster for 11 weeks and counting. That’s the telltale sign they don’t want to risk him being poached off of their practice squad. If they’re being that protective of him, they must like what they see in practice.

Jordan Glasgow: 6th round, 213th overall

You might never see him play a defensive snap in a Colts uniform but Glasgow wasn’t brought to Indianapolis to play linebacker. He was brought here to star on special teams, which is exactly what he’s doing. With a blocked punt and five tackles (second on the team to George Odum, 11), like Rodgers, he’s making more of an impact on NFL games that most of his peers drafted in the sixth round.  

Undrafted contributors

Rodrigo Blankenship

Blankenship isn’t a perfect kicker, but he’s a darn good one. There’s pretty much no better way to respond to “chunking” a 50-yard field goal than by drilling the first game-winner of your career a coupleof  hours later. While few who know Blankenship’s resume doubted he could come through in the clutch — he did so plenty at Georgia — he’d never done it at the NFL level. He needed to prove it, and now he has. 

For the season, Blankenship is 23-of-26 on his field goals (88.4%) and 23-of-25 (92%) on extra points. Colts fans might like to see Blankenship improve on those numbers, as well as watch him hit his first 50-plus-yarder, but overall, he’s been a huge step up over what the team endured last season. A low bar, but Blankenship has cleared it with ease. 

DeMichael Harris

They don’t use the diminutive slot receiver often, but when they do, Harris delivers. The Southern Miss. product has been targeted nine times this season and caught all nine passes for 78 yards and three first downs. He’s also run the ball four times for 37 yards and three first downs. 

Essentially, when Harris touches the ball, good things happen. 

Noah Togiai

Togiai hasn’t been targeted in the passing game despite playing four games and 72 offensive snaps. However, he has been a capable run-blocker when called upon. He’s had some misses to be sure, but he’s far from a liability on the field. That’s not bad for a tight end the Colts snagged off of the waiver wire a week before the season.

Follow IndyStar Colts Insider Jim Ayello on Twitter: @jimayello.

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Wednesday November 2, 2022