Colts getting mixed results from rookie class

Jerry Hughes came to training camp carrying all the baggage of a
first-round pick.

He had the big contract, the high expectations, the pressure to
emerge as the best rookie in the Colts’ draft class.

Things haven’t exactly gone as planned for the pass-rushing
specialist from TCU, who is still trying to fit into the Colts
defense while his rookie classmates make a bigger impact.
Linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner have impressed coaches
with their ability to run and hit, and undrafted rookie Devin Moore
took the early lead to become the Colts’ return specialist with a
strong performance Thursday night against Buffalo.

Fortunately, the Colts have seen this script play out before
with defensive linemen.

”It happened to me when I was a rookie” Pro Bowl defensive end
Dwight Freeney said Monday. ”But you have to be ready because all
it takes is an injury and then you’re in there. I was basically a
third-down guy until the eighth or ninth game of the year (as a
rookie), and then there was an injury and I went in.”

He never looked back.

Freeney forced three fumbles and sacked Donovan McNabb once in
his first career start, the opening act to a career that has
included five Pro Bowl selections and the title of Colts’ all-time
sacks leader. Not bad for a guy who was considered a ”reach” in
the 2002 draft and who needed time to earn a starting job.

And Freeney isn’t the Colts’ only first-round pick who had
trouble early.

Future Pro Bowlers Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark caught fewer
than 30 passes as rookies. Anthony Gonzalez caught 37. Last year’s
top pick, Donald Brown, rushed for only 281 yards, and cornerback
Marlin Jackson had 39 tackles, one interception and one start in
his first NFL season, 2005. Peyton Manning even threw 28
interceptions in his first NFL season.

But the Colts have a reputation for finding talent – in the
draft and outside of it.

Last year’s rookie class included cornerback Jerraud Powers,
receiver Austin Collie and punter Pat McAfee – all of whom were
starting by season’s end. Two undrafted rookies, cornerback Jacob
Lacey and right guard Kyle DeVan, even started in the Super Bowl as
Indy’s top two draft picks, Brown and Fili Moala, struggled.

Coach Jim Caldwell believes pass-rushing ends have a tougher
time because they’re lining up against the biggest and strongest
tackles in the league. The adjustment, Caldwell and Freeney agree,
takes patience.

”He’s like most young guys, he’s learning, he’s feeling his way
a little bit,” Caldwell said when asked about Hughes’ development.
”It’s kind of like a pitcher who has a fastball and a curve ball
and then he has to find an offspeed pitch.”

The other guys haven’t made it look as difficult.

While Hughes has two tackles in two games, Conner, one of Indy’s
three seventh-round picks, started the preseason opener. Angerer
and Conner have also seen the most action at linebacker through the
first two weeks though they haven’t been flawless.

”I think the hardest part is learning all the checks and being
loud,” Angerer said. ”But if I’m going to make a mistake, I’d
rather make it going fast than going slow.”

The biggest surprises since camp opened have been Moore, a
running back who grew up in Indy; defensive lineman John Chick, who
spent the last three seasons in the Canadian Football League; and
tight end Brody Eldridge, a fifth-round pick who had 13 receptions
in four seasons at Oklahoma.

All have exceeded expectations, and Eldridge got a vote of
confidence from Indy’s offensive leader Sunday.

”I certainly didn’t know what to expect, and I don’t know what
Bill and the personnel guys expected,” Manning said. ”We can’t
have a guy who is one dimensional. It would be too obvious to bring
a guy in just to block in non-goal line situations, but he’s
continuing to develop in the passing game. My guess is that he
hasn’t had a lot of repetitions, so I think he’ll keep
improving.”

Hughes’ task is simply to keep progressing, which isn’t easy
when you’re locked in behind two Pro Bowl ends, Freeney and Robert
Mathis.

”It’s a little tougher situation for Jerry because you’ve got
me and Robert in front of him, so he’s got to get on the field
somehow,” Freeney said. ”There’s no rush because there’s no dire,
dire need there. But he’s going to learn the system, he’s going to
play Colts ball and whenever that happens, it happens.”