INDIANAPOLIS – Parris Campbell has done everything within his control to avoid injuries in an NFL environment that is all too conducive to breaks, sprains, tears and general body trauma.
Nothing has worked. A spate of injuries has limited him to nine games and 24 receptions in two seasons.
Heading into year 3, he’s trying a different tactic: changing jersey numbers. Campbell wore No. 15 since the Indianapolis Colts selected him with the 59th overall pick in the 2019 draft, but has switched to No. 1.
Yes, there’s the perception that goes with the jersey.
“I think it looks fast on the field,’’ Campbell said with a smile during a Wednesday Zoom conference call.
But there was so much more to the jersey switch than simply looking faster.
It was time for a fresh start, perhaps the first year of the rest of Campbell’s NFL career.
“Yeah, that’s honestly what was the main reason for that,’’ he said. “I just needed something new. Definitely a new start.’’
The Colts were convinced Campbell would be a versatile, explosive addition to their offense. He clicked off a 4.31 40 at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium, the fastest among receivers and third-fastest overall.
Coach Frank Reich insisted the Ohio State standout was a prospect who “really jumped off the tape’’ during pre-draft evaluations.
“Just his explosiveness,’’ he said.
Added general manager Chris Ballard: “I know Frank got intoxicated with him just running around our turf during the Combine. He is an exciting player for us.’’
But the injuries.
Campbell’s rookie season was marred by – take a deep breath – a hamstring injury during training camp, hernia surgery in September, a fractured right hand week 9 at Pittsburgh and a season-ending fractured right foot week 14 against Tampa Bay. He was limited to seven games, 18 receptions, 127 yards and one touchdown.
Renewed optimism followed Campbell into year 2, but training camp was interrupted when he sustained a concussion during an automobile accident. Then, his season ended in a week 2 meeting against the Minnesota Vikings at Lucas Oil Stadium.
After an encouraging opener at Jacksonville – six receptions for 71 yards, four rushes for 34 yards – Campbell suffered damage to the medial collateral and posterior ligaments in his left knee. Lined up to the left of the formation, he went in motion to the right, took a handoff from Philip Rivers, cut upfield and was undercut by Vikings Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith.
Campbell immediately grabbed his knee.
“As soon as I took the hit I actually heard my knee pop,’’ he said. “I knew what it was right away.’’
Another season of unfulfilled promise.
“I think that’s a great word,’’ Campbell said. “Obviously it’s been things that’s out of my control. Some of these injuries are just freak injuries.
“It’s definitely been frustrating, but I’m also motivated.’’
Campbell gained medical clearance last week – “I’m 100% percent,’’ he said – and is participating in the Colts’ offseason workouts. He previously participated in some throwing sessions with quarterback Carson Wentz.
“Things have been going great,’’ he said. “It feels good to be back out there having fun. Everything’s good.’’
Campbell acknowledged the harsh reality of his profession: injuries happen.
“I don’t think you necessarily can avoid those things,’’ he said. “The biggest thing for me is going in this season and not thinking about those things. (If you do), I feel like you play timid, play nervous.
“So just go in there with a clear head.’’
Linebacker Bobby Okereke was part of the Colts’ 2019 draft class. There’s a special bond among draft classes, and he’s remained close to Campbell.
“I’m nothing but excited for Parris,’’ Okereke said. “To see his energy every day come in the building . . . he’s moving. When Parris is at his best he’s showcasing his speed, showcasing his playmaking ability.
“Nothing but respect for him to see all the adversity he’s gone through these past two years and to see where he’s at now. Just kept his head down, kept working hard, stayed true to him. Major props to him and excited for him in a big year 3.
“He looks good, and we’re all excited for him.’’
During the offseason, owner Jim Irsay repeatedly talked about the importance of adding playmakers to the Wentz-led offense.
“We certainly are looking for more dynamic players to give us greatness, dominance if you will,’’ he said. “Offensively we’re looking to get to just that point where we are a dominant football team both through the air and on the ground. We’re not that far away from being there.
“I think we’ll see what happens with players like Parris that come back and different players that can contribute.’’
The team’s anticipation for a full season of Parris Campbell is understandable. While the injuries are impossible to ignore, there nonetheless have been intriguing flashes.
As a rookie against the Steelers, he caught five passes for 53 yards, including a 27-yarder, and added three rushes for 27 yards, with a long of 22. Then, the broken right hand.
Campbell’s potential again was on display in the 2020 opener against the Jaguars only to be followed in week 2 with the season-ending knee injury.
“I had a lot of explosive plays that game,’’ he said of the Jacksonville outing. “That was a game where I felt like myself again coming off my rookie season, just dealing with all those things I had my rookie year.
“That’s just a piece of what I can do, for sure. Every time I step on the field, I’m stepping on the field to make plays for this team, doing what’s asked of me. But I definitely look at myself and consider myself a playmaker.’’
The Colts took steps to ensure they had a solid receivers room by re-signing four-time Pro Bowl selection T.Y. Hilton (a one-year, $8 million free-agent contract) and Zach Pascal (a one-year, $3.384 million deal as a restricted free agent).
But a healthy Parris Campbell might be the key. He’s a blend of size (6-0, 205 pounds) and speed. He’s known for excelling as a slot receiver, but has the ability to move outside.
Hilton has proven to be a sounding board and tutor to Campbell through the two difficult seasons. Hilton seemingly has made it a point to deal as much with Campbell’s mental approach as with his on-field work.
“We text each other constantly, every day,’’ Hilton said. “His head is all right. That’s the most important thing. His faith is good.
“My main thing for him is just go out there and be Parris. Don’t worry about the naysayers, what they say. They’re going to talk good about you or bad about you regardless who you (are).
“Just go out there and just play your game and you’ll be all right.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.