By Tom James
INDIANAPOLIS — When it comes to first-year players in the National Football League, performance is always a hit-and-miss proposition.
If an NFL team can find a productive player from even half of the team’s picks from a particular year, the draft is considered a good one. Most coaches and player personnel directors, however, insist that it usually takes more than one year in order to determine if a draft has been truly successful.
But when it comes to this year’s Indianapolis Colts draft class, it’s not hard to see the talent that the team has brought in. From running back Donald Brown, the Colts’ first-round pick, to offensive guard/tackle Jaimie Thomas, Indianapolis’ last draft selection, they’ve been impressive for the most part.
With the team playing the Buffalo Bills this afternoon in the Colts’ 2009 regular-season finale, it’s probably as good a time as any to assess the group.
• First, the hits: Cornerback Jerraud Powers (third round), wide receiver Austin Collie (fourth round), and punter/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee (seventh round). All three have been valuable additions to the Indianapolis roster this season and have made key plays throughout the year.
• The misses: Defensive tackle Terrance Taylor (fourth round). The former University of Michigan defensive lineman was released at the end of training camp. He has been with the Carolina Panthers and Detroit Lions since being released in September.
• The jury is still out: Brown (first round), defensive tackle Fili Moala (second round), quarterback Curtis Painter (sixth round) and Thomas (seventh round).
Brown is clearly the best of this bunch, but injuries this year have slowed his development. If he can remain healthy, and improve as a pass blocker, he has more than enough ability to be a quality running back in the league.
Moala has not progressed as quickly as some would have hoped, although he has gotten more playing time over the last month of the season. Painter just hasn’t played much and was put in a tough situation in last week’s loss to the New York Jets. Thomas, meanwhile, has shown just enough upside to warrant keeping him around on the Colts’ practice squad.
Clearly, the diamonds in this year’s draft -- at least so far -- have proven to be Powers, Collie and McAfee. Powers has taken over at right cornerback with veteran Marlin Jackson sidelined for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
While he is nursing a sore hamstring now and has been out for the past two games -- and will most likely not play today against Buffalo -- the rookie from Auburn is sixth on the team in tackles with 71, has one interception, broken up nine passes, has forced one fumble and recovered a fumble.
“I think [Powers] has a real unique quality because he is a guy that is mature beyond his years in every aspect. He is a very settled individual, very focused. He’s conscientious and obviously skilled physically. But a guy that is always thinking and always seems to be in the right place at the right time,” said Colts coach Jim Caldwell.
“He followed the classic example of an individual that keeps getting better week-in and week-out. He’s had a little bit of a setback here as of late [with the hamstring injury] but he’ll back. And we anticipate he’ll play even better than he’s played previously.”
As for Collie, all the former Brigham Young standout has done this year is haul in 59 passes for 661 yards and seven touchdown passes (most receptions and touchdown catches by a first-year receiver in the NFL this season).
He ranks third on the team in receiving behind veterans Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. And he is currently having the fourth-best season by a Colts rookie in terms of receptions (Bill Brooks had 65 in 1986, followed by Marvin Harrison’s 64 in 1996 and Edgerrin James’ 62 in 1999). That’s not bad company to be in.
“Collie has really come in and filled a void that we had, just in terms of someone being able to play and play effectively in the slot. It was a position we weren’t quite certain of how it would end up. We knew we would have a pretty good player there, but to have a rookie perform the way he has performed is pretty unique. I think that’s because of how he works at it, he studies, he loves it and he’s been able to adapt,” Caldwell said.
“He keeps getting better. I think early in the season whenever we talked about him I’d always add a little caveat, ‘But, he has to keep getting better.’ He’s continued to do so. He catches the ball. He’s been good in terms of his run support blocking. All around, he’s been a good, solid player, and he keeps getting better. That is key.”
Perhaps the rookie with the biggest shoes to fill, literally, was McAfee. He’s averaged 44.2 yards overall and 38 yards net on 58 punts this season. He has placed 20 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
But in replacing longtime (and fan favorite) Indianapolis punter Hunter Smith, the first-year player from West Virginia not only has had to punt but he’s also taken over Smith’s role as the team’s holder for placekickers Adam Vinatieri and Matt Stover
Considering that he had never been a holder while in college, the affable McAfee has done just fine in that role. He was taught the nuances of holding in training camp by Vinatieri and his studies in that category have been enhanced by the addition of Stover.
What’s been equally as impressive has been Collie’s performance handling kickoffs for Indianapolis. He has 21 touchbacks so far this year, helping to bolster the Colts’ kickoff coverage units overall improvement this season.
“McAfee has been tremendous. He’s handling two duties for us [punting and holding on field goals and extra points]. That is very difficult for a guy in his first year to do what he has been able to do. You look at our numbers in terms of kickoffs for example, our numbers are a lot different than they were previously. He’s had a lot of touchbacks. That certainly does indeed help our defense. It makes a team have to drive 80 yards to score. The more often you can do that, make them go the long haul, it’s going to help you get them stopped. He’s helped a tremendous amount there,” the Colts coach said.
“His punting has been very good, solid. He’s certainly made a lot of big plays, placing the ball inside the 20-yard line on numerous occasions. He’s a guy that doesn’t get nervous. He loves what he is doing, and he continues to get better week-in and week-out. I think that is key. Neither one of those guys [McAfee and Collie] or Powers hit the proverbial wall, the rookie wall as we oftentimes say. They continue to get better.”