5 Colts best positioned for a breakout season

Colts

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts roster is littered with young, talented players who aim to establish themselves as stars.

Entering the 2019 season, the Colts had the seventh youngest roster in the league, per Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice Staff. While we won’t know where the team ranks this year until the 53-man roster is set, 11 of Indianapolis’ 22 projected starters are under age 25.

Youth is exciting because it holds the promise of more to come. The untapped potential within young players gives organizations and fans hope for the future and is the reason events like the Combine and NFL Draft have become increasingly popular.

To reach that potential, players need not only talent, but opportunity. Some — like Quenton Nelson & Darius Leonard — are ready to take advantage of their opportunities in year one and prove themselves difference makers as rookies. Others — like Kenny Moore & Marlon Mack — require time to sharpen their skills before they are awarded full time roles in which to shine.

Though there are many names to choose from, here are five Colts who are best positioned to enjoy a breakout season in 2020:

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – SEPTEMBER 22: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons throws the ball under pressure from Kemoko Turay #57 of the Indianapolis Colts during the second half at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Kemoko Turay – Defensive End – Age 24

Turay was well on his way to a breakout season in 2019 before a gruesome ankle fracture in Week 5. Through the first five weeks, Pro Football Focus (PFF) gave Turay a pass-rushing grade of 91.0, second highest among qualifying edge defenders, and his 22.9% pressure rate ranked second only to 49ers’ Pro Bowler Nick Bosa.

When asked about losing Turay last week, head coach Frank Reich said, “I mean, we lost a big piece. Kemoko has that rare ability. A couple things that make a good edge-rusher – obviously one is speed and get-off and instincts. That combination of speed, get-off and instincts – some guys have a natural feel to that and he’s got that. But the other big thing is bend. How can you bend around a corner? All of these guys can bend, right? All of these pass-rushers at this level can bend, but there is that extra 10 percent of bend, and Kemoko has that.”

The free agent departure of Jabaal Sheard creates an opening for Turay to start opposite Justin Houston. If you could guarantee me 16 games out of Turay, I would guarantee you double digit sacks, but that’s a mighty big “if.” Turay must prove he can remain on the field, and if he does, a breakout season will come.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – DECEMBER 22: Rock Ya-Sin #34 of the Indianapolis Colts against the Carolina Panthers at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 22, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Rock Ya-Sin – Cornerback – Age 24

Rock! The Colts’ first pick in the 2019 draft was not eased into professional football. Ya-Sin played more snaps than any other Colts defender, and as you could expect with a rookie, the results were up and down. But from Week 10 on, Ya-Sin seemed to find his footing with a 76.1 PFF coverage grade and a 67.7 passer rating allowed into his coverage, which ultimately earned him a spot on PFF’s All-Rookie Team.

After taking his lumps in year one, defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus believes the experience will pay major dividends for the corner moving forward.

“We were going to put those guys in and play because we knew that they were our future, they were going to be our future and they were going to be a big part of our success going forward,” said Eberflus. “So we knew that we were going to put them in there, and we couldn’t be afraid to put them in there right away so they can get that experience and playing time because we knew they were good enough. They just needed experience. Point and case – Rock Ya-Sin, Khari Willis, Bobby Okereke, Ben Banogu, Marvell Tell III or any of those guys that we put in there. We knew that at the end of this year, 2019, we wanted to have a young, but experienced defense and that is what we have now.”

Ya-Sin has his starting spot at outside cornerback locked down. With a year of valuable experience under his belt and another offseason of continued development, the Temple product should flourish in year two.

MADISON, WISCONSIN – NOVEMBER 03: Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers runs with the ball in the third quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Camp Randall Stadium on November 03, 2018 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Jonathan Taylor – Running Back – Age 21

Are rookies eligible for a breakout list? I don’t see why not. Taylor has the making of a stud, workhorse ‘back capable of carrying an offense. He casually racked up 6,174 rushing yards in three seasons at Wisconsin, good for sixth most in college football history. And there’s more to be excited about than just collegiate production. Taylor has rare physical gifts, which were on display at the NFL Combine. He ran a blazing 4.39 40-yard dash — fasted among 2020 Combine running backs — at a rocked up 226 pounds. The Colts thought so highly of Taylor that they traded up to secure the running back in April’s draft.

“Anytime a unique talent starts to fall a little bit, at that point we’re like, ‘Man, we need to go get the player,’’’ general manager Chris Ballard said.

Before we hand the keys to Indianapolis’ rushing attack over to Taylor, Marlon Mack would like a word. The returning starter is coming off his first career 1,000 yard rushing season and is fighting for his paycheck as he enters a contract year. The coaching staff has described the running back duo as a “one-one punch,” suggesting the two will see a similar workload, with a little Nyheim Hines sprinkled in. With one of the league’s best offensive lines to run behind, the only obstacle to Taylor’s 2020 breakout campaign is volume.

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 16: Michael Pittman Jr. #6 of the USC Trojans catches a touchdown pass over Elijah Hicks #3 of the California Golden Bears during the second quarter of an NCAA football game at California Memorial Stadium on November 16, 2019 in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Michael Pittman Jr. – Wide Receiver – Age 22

While it’s not uncommon to see a rookie running back take the league by storm, wide receivers typically have a tougher time making an immediate impact, but it does happen. Last year we saw A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin and D.K. Metcalf all provide major contributions as rookies.

One thing those three shared was the opportunity to start, something Pittman Jr. has. The Colts have been searching for a complimentary receiver to T.Y. Hilton since Reggie Wayne retired, and the lack of a secondary option severely hampered the team when Hilton dealt with injuries in 2019. Indianapolis chose Pittman Jr. with their first pick (34 overall) in the 2020 draft because they believe he can be that guy.

“What we saw with Michael was he could win at all three levels. He was big, he’s strong to the ball, he competes, he got better every year in college. We think he’s got a chance to be a heckuva player,’’ Ballard said after the team drafted the 6’4”, 223-pound Pittman Jr.

Pittman used his talents to record 101 catches, 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final year at USC, but it’s what he does without that ball that could allow him to see major playing time in year one.

“Not only did he impress on his target tape – obviously 110 catches his senior year was very impressive, but it’s the other stuff he does. It’s the ‘Zach Pascal, Jack Doyle’ stuff he does – the toughness, the consistency. That was what was exciting. Obviously, a great phenomenal football player with the ball in his hands and when the ball is coming to him, but a lot of special qualities that he had that separated him from other wideouts that we evaluated when the ball wasn’t going to him,” said offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni.

Pittman Jr. has the skills to be a successful NFL wide receiver and a will have a substantial role in the offense, but a 2020 breakout will determined by two factors:

  • How quickly Pittman Jr. can sync up with quarterback Philip Rivers with limited offseason work.
  • How quickly the young receiver can adapt to tighter NFL coverage, specifically press.
Parris Campbell #15 of the Indianapolis Colts runs after the catch against the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 3, 2019 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Parris Campbell – Wide Receiver – Age 22

Excitement surrounded Campbell entering 2019 after the Colts drafted the 4.31 speedster with one of their second round picks. However, a litany of injuries that began in the summer and continued into the season derailed Cambell’s rookie year.

“He missed most of the offseason,” said Reich while speaking with local media last week. “We didn’t get to see him a ton in the offseason. But of course, we’ve all been around enough that I see things in Parris. I see really good wide receivers skills. Obviously, we all see the speed, but I think he has deceptive power, and I really think he has the footwork where he can play inside or out. To your point, he will play more in the slot this year, but you guys know how we do things. We will move him around.”

Before we go labeling Campbell as injury prone, let’s keep in mind that injuries were not a problem at Ohio State. Sirianni described Campbell’s ailments in 2019 as “freak injuries.” The second year wideout says he’s 100% healthy now and is taking a proactive approach to keeping it that way.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” Campbell told local media last week. “I’ve done a really, really good job of getting in a routine and taking care of my body – doing things that I wasn’t doing before.”

Beyond health, Campbell will need to prove he can take strides as a downfield receiver after being used mostly in the short-area passing game in college. Still, the former Buckeye is dangerous with the ball in his hands and should feast in the slot, where he can turn a quick pass into a 70-yard gain. Like Reich, Colts fans should be “super pumped” about Campbell’s upside.

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