Rookies rising to head of the class for surging Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS -- Nobody knew what to expect from the Indianapolis Colts' rookie class. It’s challenging enough for any rookie to step in a contribute right away with full offseason. So think about how hard it would be with no rookie camp, minicamp or any other offseason training program.

Based on the production so far, several players in the Colts' 2020 rookie class are making their mark on a team that’s sitting atop the AFC South and in position to get back to the playoffs.

Running back Jonathan Taylor, receiver Michael Pittman Jr., safety Julian Blackmon and kicker Rodrigo Blankenship have each carved out niches as starters. Fellow rookies Isaiah Rodgers and Jordan Glasgow have made an impact on special teams. That’s a lot of contributions, especially when you consider most teams are happy to have a couple rookies contribute in their first seasons.

“Their maturity,” coach Frank Reich said when asked about what impressed him. “The fact that you can step in without having an offseason as a rookie and going through OTAs and the whole ordeal, being able to step right up into training camp. Character is a big part of that, emotional intelligence/maturity is a big part of that, guys that it’s not too big for. I think all these guys are demonstrating those qualities.”

It’s only fitting that that Reich praised his rookies because Taylor, Pittman, Blackmon and Blankenship each played pivotal roles in the Colts’ come-from-behind victory over Green Bay on Sunday.

Taylor ignited the rushing the game in the second half and finished with 90 yards on 22 carries. Pittman had a touchdown and led the Colts in receiving. Blackmon forced the fumble to put the Colts in the position to win the game in overtime. And Blankenship, who has had to deal with the pressure of replacing future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri, made the game-winning kick to complete the 14-point comeback.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget about the rookies when the headliners are quarterback Philip Rivers, receiver T.Y. Hilton, linebacker Darius Leonard and defensive lineman DeForest Buckner.

“It's a heck of a rookie class,” Rivers said. “I think we have a cool mix of veterans and kind of the middle-of-career guys and then young guys.”

Taylor and Pittman, the first two players selected by the Colts in April, were expected to be key rotation players. They’re both starters for a couple of different reasons.

The Colts envisioned Taylor teaming with Marlon Mack to be known as 1 and 1A in the backfield, with Mack as the starter. But Mack’s season ended because of a torn Achilles in Week 1. Taylor has been inconsistent at times -- 518 rushing yards and four touchdowns -- but he’s the starter and will keep the job because of the belief the Colts rightfully have in him.

Pittman missed three games earlier this season with a calf injury. But his return to the lineup came at a good time because of the need for more playmakers at receiver. He’s led the team in receiving yards in each of the past two games and he’s only the fifth Colts rookie to have at least 55 yards receiving in three straight games.

Blackmon might be the surprise the group. It’s not because he isn’t talented, it more so that he’s producing at a high level less than a year after tearing his ACL in December 2019 while playing in the Pac-12 Championship for Utah. Like Taylor, Blackmon moved into the starting lineup when the starter -- Malik Hooker -- suffered a season-ending torn Achilles.

Blackmon, who has "Rookie Defensive Player of the Year" written on his playbook, has 26 tackles, six passes defended, two interceptions and that forced fumble against the Packers this season.

"We gotta start talking about him for Defensive Rookie of the Year,” Leonard said. “There's nobody doing what he's doing."

For as much as Blankenship enjoys playing with Legos, going to Ric Flair’s birthday parties and getting his T-shirt line recognized, he’s had a relatively smooth transition in replacing Vinatieri. Blankenship is 23-of-26 on field goals and 25-of-27 on extra points.

It won’t get any easier for these rookies in the stretch run with the Colts trying to remain in first place and locking down a playoff spot.

“Kind of the saying around here and really around the league is – the expectations for rookies really has risen over the years where rookies are expected to be able to come in and make an immediate impact at some level,” Reich said. “They don’t have to come in and be the superstar from Day 1, but be able to make an impact. Our guys are doing that and hopefully that will grow. You just want to come in and contribute and then find ways to continue to help the team.”